The plan was to take off the day before my 23rd birthday towards Arizona with a van full of friends to get away for a bit. A few weeks before our departure, my traveling companions and I began to see articles and videos of the pipeline protests happening in North Dakota trickle into our social media feeds. The oil pipeline was routed through Sioux treaty land & is set to be placed under the Missouri River. Not only does this pose a major risk to water contamination (as seen in Alabama), but it would destroy sacred native burial grounds as well. We decided to scrap the Arizona trip and re-route our journey north to bring donations, to stand in solidarity with our native brothers and sisters, and to try to understand what was really happening. We loaded up 2 conversion vans with blankets, first aid kit supplies, water, food, a bag of 35mm film & hit the road.
Rounding the bend in the road in rural North Dakota and seeing the hillside give way to a valley full of flags, scores of teepees, riders on horseback, modified buses and tents was a spectacle unlike anything I've seen before. We parked both our vans next to a 3rd van inhabited by a friend named Emily who was on assignment for NPR.
With no cell reception in the valley, everyone is forced into human interaction with their neighbors. It's amazing the quality of experience we miss out on when we only engage in a false reality. After walking down to the river to get our bearings and take note of where the facilities were (the food tent, medical tent, toilets, and multiple camps), Nick & I were invited to sit down around a fire with some others who had come to learn about sacred medicine. The dialogue remained between a nursing student in her late 20's and an elderly native women, and it was powerful.
"150 years later and the native people are still having to save the white man from himself."
We began to get a threshold understanding of how sacred water & the other elements are to these people, and how sacred it should be to all inhabitants of the planet we share. We also came into the subtle realization of 2 more things: we know far less than we could've imagined about the history of these people & our time spent here is going to involve a lot more listening than talking. That night we drank tea around the sacred fire that burns 24/7 as the elders gave announcements & then fell asleep in our vans to the sound of prayer songs and ceremony drums.
All newcomers are asked to go to the orientation meeting the morning after they arrive. We woke up to a thick blanket of fog & made our way to the dome tent where morning meetings are held. From there we followed along with 50 other new arrivals to a green army canvas tent to get a better understanding of what's going on & how to respond appropriately. The volunteer speakers helped us contextualize the significance of what was happening beyond stopping the pipeline itself. This is the first time in over a century that some of the tribes present have made peace for a common goal. On top of that, this is focal point for the future of human rights beyond race, gender and religion. A couple key points made were to first and foremost, honor the wishes of the elders. It's easy for millennials born into white privilege to have a romantic idea of heroism that they want to bring into a place like this, but such naive thinking has a high probability to cause more harm than good. Instead, be proactive about meeting people, volunteering your time and talent wherever you can, and allow your questions to be answered by observing and listening.
Throughout the day the group of us split up to serve in different places. Sam learned how to use the screen printer, I made patches for the protestors, Alec spent his afternoon making elk stew in the kitchen and Portugal & Nick helped carry stuff for the volunteer crew. Everyones individual contribution adds up to unify a single body of people working towards overpowering the corruption of the elite. We met people from Florida, California, New York, Washington, -all over. The constant focus on prayer and unity to combat such abrasive force brought about a powerful spirit of strength throughout the camp.
One of the highlights of the trip was when Boen, a 22 year old carpenter, train hopper & gooey duck fisherman, asked us to be there as he poured his mother's ashes into the river outside the encampment. Before he did this, he was told that he had to ask permission from the Elders, as "this action would be adding another soul for the native people to be responsible for." They honored his wish and gave him their blessing. We watched the stocky red headed boy take off his shoes & socks, trudge out through frigid mud into the river, and offer up his mothers ashes. Teary eyed, we all prayed together & celebrated her life with him as the setting sun turned the sky a soft purple. That boy had a heart of gold & his mother would be proud to know that he was using his skills for the benefit of those facing injustice.
The native people deserve the right to protect the land that was taken from them, -the same ground their ancestors are buried on, the same land that sustains them. The measures taken by the private security teams hired out by big bank backers (Wells Fargo, Citigroup & more) has violated legal bounds on an atrocious level, using rubber bullets, dogs & mace on men, women, teenagers defending their homeland. There is a real need for exposure, resources, and bodies at Standing Rock. If you feel the call to action as well, I urge you to go. Go with an open mind & heart. Leave your expectations at the door & be a part of what's happening. Everyone has a part to play. If you're tied down to a specific place right now, you can donate directly to: https://www.gofundme.com/sacredstonecamp.
Disclaimer: Photography is discouraged throughout the camp unless you have a media pass. To ascertain a pass you're required to have proof from an editor that you're on assignment, in which case I was lucky enough to have a friend with United State Magazine contact me on my way out about doing a piece. All photos follow the protocol established by the tribes & any photos that show faces were taken with consent.