I rode shotgun across the American west with reformed heroin distributers fresh off the biweekly breakfast with young sons presently under foster care (“on track to get him back by Christmas!”); farmer couples jonesing to a back alley the next town over where a restaurant leaves its food scraps (“gotta go quick, fore’ that sonovabitch Roger gets to it”); asphalt pavers on a wind-turbine road project (“them miners out there, they fuck Indian girls and get all the overtime”); industrial-air-conditioner-maintenance-plan salesmen whose rifles ride shotgun, just in case a righteous buck appears on the route to their son’s university (“I swear I’m not a serial killer. Ha!!!! Ha!!!!!”… “I’ll take ya ten miles farther f’you spot me some antlers!”); forest firewomen with some weed and the totality of their personal possessions, rumbling the old van to a buddy’s show in yonder Bozeman, then a musician’s collaborative event a thousand miles further down the way, happily free of these punk ass, all-male 21-year-olds and their allegedly garbage music (“get that ‘fuck nigger bitch’ shit out of here”); bearded men who apologize at their scratchy labored attempts at speaking, but the good news is that as of two days ago the leukemia is officially in remission; pickup trucks of bulky American Indian men, bound to the largest gathering of indigenous peoples in a century, to join in solidarity and prayer.
Soon after the latter lift I was returning from the “front lines.” Walking back to the forward camp – rosebud, sacred ground – and the mist, which had laid heavy and low before the rolling yellow North Dakota plains did battle with the midday sun. A native woman on a red four-wheeler caught up with me and offered a ride to the camp. I hopped on the back. Hard throttle. Engine roar. My dangling feet flailed with the g’s and I hurriedly tamed them. I was aware (and was pleased) that I was being seen with this woman. She conferred a certain legitimacy on my confused presence. I locked into a thoughtful pensive squint, channeling the macho reporter archetype.
We passed the former road block (the new one was farther up the road); hay bales and wood and tire detritus on either roadside. A couple of twenty-something Lakota boys guided their horses to the wired fence line, behind which the earth had been cleared and flattened and repurposed in preparation for the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would link crude from the Bakken Oil fields to the broader oil pipe network in Illinois to be refined. White pickup trucks, private security for Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the pipeline, formed a line atop the distant hill. Two orange dune buggies spied from closer still. A native man borrowed my telephoto lens for a closer look. The boys on the horses yelled out to them: “hey motherfuckers, we’re gonna die for your kids.”
That morning, just before the arrival of the ubiquitous Jesse Jackson, tribal leaders met with authorities on North Dakota State Route Highway 1806, just north of the frontline, where protestors had set up a roadblock.
Some reporters were permitted to observe the exchange. I had sheepishly offered “Mangoprism” to obtain my media credential. LA Times. Mother Jones. Mangoprism. Dream Team.
Two police officers filmed the meeting. Two black Iraq war surplus IED resistant M-Raps loomed through the fog.
Cass County sheriff Paul Laney of Fargo was clear and firm: he wanted the roadblock cleared and the private land vacated.
“We don’t want this,” he said. “We don’t want confrontation. I think it’s awesome that you guys are taking a stand in what you believe in. You can do it in the court of public opinion. You can do it in in the media.”
“We’ll lose all those places,” said the elder.
“You don’t know that. You don’t know that.”
“We’ve lost this land to your government.”
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, who some likened to a “modern-day Bull Connor” stood relatively silent through the majority of the exchange. Protestors had taken umbrage with his characterizations in the press of the mostly peaceful demonstrations as “riots” (in fact protest leadership, however disorganized, by most accounts worked studiously to maintain the peace).
Kirchmeier’s remarks rendered him illegitimate in the eyes of the protestors, and so Sheriff Laney of Fargo headed the talks. He frequently invoked his oath to “uphold the laws of the state of North Dakota.” He detailed the manner of ways in which he respected the culture and familial ties of the Natives. He vehemently denied any personal connection to the oil companies (“no one owns me!”).
The sheriff misunderstood one elder’s point that the pipeline was rerouted to its present and problematic path only after the people of Bismarck revolted against the original proposal, which had the pipeline upstream from their water supply. Laney, who perhaps thought the elder was referencing one of the heinous government treaty violations of the past (as opposed to the heinous environmental racism of the present) cut him off: “I’m sorry, I wasn’t alive back then.”
The elder said, “We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve been pushed up again the wall.”
“So is this about water and oil, or is this about 140 years?”
“This is about everything. All of it. We’ve had enough. We’ve, had, enough.”
Back on the four-wheeler. Rosebud approached. Drums and chants. The refrain: this is not protest but prayer. They lined the road. They watched the pickup trucks on the crest of the hill. They watched the circling helicopter. A white man tracked the chopper with his middle finger. A native woman stomped back and forth soft and slow, eyes closed, chanting a song. A fire crackled by the entrance to camp, tended by a few white dread locked security guys. Older white couples worked their stoves. Teepees sprung up amongst the tents and vans (a Lakota reporter I came up with told me that when she leaves the reservation, people always ask “do you guys really live in teepees?” She flashed a smile: “And now I can say ‘yes,’ because we actually do!”).
I told the woman driving the four-wheeler that here was good. No response. I told her again more loudly. Did she just accelerate? We passed the camp. Another mile to the main camp. Open country between. I told her to stop; she cut me off: “who are you?” The wind muffed. The motor rumbled.
“Andrew.” She drove on.
“Why are you here?”
“To see what was happen-“
“Why are you making trouble?”
“What?” We drove faster still. A turn nearly threw me from the vehicle. I tightened my grip.
“Why are you making trouble?”
My stomach grew queasy. The plains rolled on for miles into the west.
You heard some casual apocalyptic battle rhetoric around the encampments (last stand, front lines, oh man some of these women ready to die, get every able-bodied man you can to help dig out the Penske truck, no surrender, no retreat). I’d probed, not a little skeptically, for inauthenticity, for make-believe in these voices. Hard to know. Maybe not mine to question.
She said she said she was told I intimidated people in the camp. She said she was told I wore a mask.
I laughed. Exhale. We cruised to a stop and she turned to see me. Probably in her forties. A gentle smile. I told her who I am. She said there was a troublemaker reported that matched my description. Her manner softened. She took my hand. She gave me her name. I pointed out that there were a number of skinny tallish white boys about. She laughed, told me to be safe, and turned around, and returned me to the forward camp.
Marisol de La Cadena, a UC Davis anthropologist, has written of a rising tide of indigenous politics in which the rights of “earth-beings,” mountains, rivers, “Pachamama,” are invoked at levels so mainstream as the Ecuadorian constitution (much, she notes, to the chagrin of even relatively progressive leaders like Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, who deemed “infantile” the coalition that spawned such language). The implications of this trend conflict irreconcilably with a political hegemony that makes an ontological distinction between human and nature, with an extractivist global economy that the environmental reporter Naomi Klein describes as “the opposite of stewardship… The reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own – turning living, complex ecosystems into ‘natural resources,’ …. The reduction of human beings into labor to be brutally extracted… or, alternatively, into social burdens, problems to be locked away in prisons, or reservations.”
Enter North Dakota shale oil boom, brought to you by unconventional, highly unstable and little-understood new horizontal drilling practices like Hydraulic Fracturing, undertaken at ludicrous speed at a mass scale by a multibillion dollar industry with an enormous lobbying infrastructure and a well-documented history of corruption and intimidation-tactics, all in a small government red-state with, reads a 2014 New York Times report, a “slender regulatory system built on neighborly trust, verbal warnings and second chances.”
Enter a truly despicable history of land-grabs and forced assimilation by the ever-encroaching American Government, all in a Dakota region once signed almost in its entirety over to local tribes. The Sioux Nation. Its borders eroded and eroded and eroded again as new technology or amoral greed located new justification to penetrate and extract.
And so enter the Sioux Nation, and its vestige, Standing Rock, the land of rolling plains and buffalo. The land of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee. Of flooding, courtesy of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, of compulsory boarding school attendance, courtesy of the United States Department of the Interior. They say their blood connects them to the land. It connects them to past. It connects them to future. They cannot leave.
I left Standing Rock in the van of a recent graduate of the University of Minneapolis, who characterized his time at the protests as perhaps the most meaningful week of his life. Anachronistically good vibes, a culture of sharing and neighborly love, of gentle spirituality and prayer. He helped build a teepee. He made new friends. He had some groovy stuff to say about nonlinear dynamics, a broad frontier-field of mathematics in which cause and effect break down – the local humid thunderstorms of the distant future would be precisely computationally foreseeable (in the Newtonian mode) but for the weird and little-understood characteristic of non-linearity between the variables of causation (dig it).
I was reminded of the two-row wampum belt on display at the National American Indian Museum in Washington D.C. It was as a treaty gift, beaded in white, streaked across by parallel blue lines, representing the spirit of the agreements, meaning “we are traveling on the river of life together, side by side. One side isn’t going to get ahead of the other; people in the ship aren’t going to try to steer the canoe; people on the canoe aren’t going to try to steer the ship.”
I was also reminded of the dark Lakota man who stood a distance from the forward camp. The auctioneer speaks in the spirit of the auction; this Lakota spoke in the spirit of the plains. The wind shook the yellow grass at our feet.
He told me his name. I told him mine. He began his story, but then something caught his attention. His eyes brightened and a smile bloomed like the sun bursting forth beyond the lining of the passing cloud, and he gazed out to the ridge at my back, and said some words long, slow, in his native tongue.
I turned to look. On the ridge beyond the teepees in the foreground were four brown silhouettes. They were still. “The buffalo,” said the man, translating. “They have come to see.”
The day after I left Standing Rock, a phalanx of police officers, sourced from a coalition of regional departments, cleared the forward camp, one person at a time. Of those who refused to leave willfully, over one hundred were taken into custody for all manner of alleged offenses from trespassing to, in one case, attempted murder. Remarkably there were no reported major injuries.
It was the expected outcome of the failed talks on the highway the previous day. And in truth, there was nothing to be said. The sheriff has no jurisdiction in matters of philosophy. If they weren’t to go there, they were to be no more than actors, playing a part.
And so the blockade would continue until unspeaking force alone broke it. And so my plans were dashed. I’d intended to go to Bismarck that morning to continue my journey, but there were to be no rides on northbound State Route Highway 1806. I had to reroute.
After the parties shook hands, ending the meeting, (“Good afternoon, gentlemen”) one of the elders told sheriff Laney, “You guys have the force,” to which Sheriff Laney nodded and responded matter-of-factly: “we do.” Then the elder said to the Sheriff, “But we hold the moral high ground.”
The mist remained heavy. Earthmovers hummed unseen beyond the hill. Sheriff Laney put his hands on his hips. “I don’t know that you do. I don’t know that you do.”