Planning a trip to Standing Rock can make a person wonder. Will I be a help or a burden to this makeshift village of mostly poor people in the middle of the prairie? Do I have what it takes to create proper shelter in dangerously cold conditions? What is best to bring—for myself, for the camp? Am I willing to get arrested, and can I deal with that, willing or not?
You may consider yourself an ally to Native people in their cause of protecting the environment from dirty fuel destruction. You may reflect on the irony that most of us still rely on oil and gas to warm and transport ourselves. You may be tempted to make connections between the Oceti Sakowin (Lakota/Dakota/Nakota) struggle and other civil rights issues.
Resist the temptation. Indigenous people are tired of having their issues co-opted by other groups. This is not Occupy II. It is not Greenpeace, Black Lives Matter, ACT UP, PETA or the PLO. Although those are equally valid causes, Standing Rock has one message that must not be diluted: Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is best not to dwell on any preconceived framework. If you are vegan, keep it to yourself and bring your own food. If you are some sort of healer, don’t assume that your herbs, bodywork or crystals are the answer (Native people are competent in their own healing traditions). Drop all of your expectations of the role you will play and the kind of information you will receive. Indigenous ways are different than what most non-Indian Americans experience and expect, no matter how much you’ve read.
You are about to enter a new culture. Here is how to respect it: Be patient, be observant. Do not assume “someone” is in charge and will greet you and tell you what to do. At first, the social environment may appear opaque. However, asking too many questions can be offensive. The idea that everyone is automatically entitled to information is a colonial concept that infringes upon intellectual property, yes. But it’s also exhausting for water protectors to have to answer the same questions over and over.
The Native way is to wait. Quietly, find the center, soften your gaze, and listen in a diffuse manner. Begin to open your mind to the idea that the ground below your feet is alive. Step respectfully in that conversation. Feel the wind on your face, the water you drink and the fire that warms you as all sentient. Engage with gratitude. Yes, there is a center at Oceti Sakowin. It is the sacred fire circle near the main entrance to camp. After you drive pass the checkpoint and let Security know you are carrying no drugs, alcohol, or firearms, ask them where it’s okay to park, and to camp. Then drive down the main road lined with hundreds of flags from Indigenous and other nations.
The sacred fire will be on your right. You can’t miss it. There is an MC at the microphone by the fire, in front of the elders’ lodge. You can hear his voice all over camp. The central fire burns 24 hours a day, maintained by initiated fire keepers. They are the ones who will tell you how to approach the fire, which way to walk around it. Observe how people pray there, the sage, cedar, tobacco and other medicines they offer to the fire. Hang back and watch. Let the elders be first to sit in the chairs around the fire.
Watch the elders. Listen to them. See if they need anything: coffee, a blanket. Follow their lead on how to behave when a ceremony occurs. Take no pictures without asking. Take no pictures of children or of people praying. You should visit the media tent on Media Hill to learn all of the rules about pictures. If you plan to do direct action, you must first take non-violence training at Red Warrior camp. Look around. There are signs posted with training times.
Listen to the MC. At first you may think he is up there to tell jokes. But he is the information touch point for the camp. If someone needs help or wants to give information, they tell him and he announces it. Behind him sit some of the elders who make decisions for the camp. Do not approach them directly. Wait for the MC to pause if you have donations for the elders. Tobacco is appreciated, as are any items of particular value, such as heaters, propane,walkie-talkies, solar chargers, things like that. They will make sure these items are distributed appropriately. For other donations, there is a large donation tent near the kitchen and meal tents, south of the sacred fire. At the present time, they are only accepting heavy winter clothing, sub-zero sleeping bags and other winter gear. Items at this location are sorted and up for grabs by anyone in the camp. The volunteers will direct you as to where to bring food donations, as the kitchen workers have their own evolving pantry systems.
About meals: there are no set times to eat. You may find that time is a more flexible concept than you are used to. (This is true for meetings too. When is the meeting? “Soon” or “Later.”) Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available when they are ready. Coffee and tea water tend to be available all day by the sacred fire. By the way, coffee is a good donation. The most important thing to know is that there is an order in which people are served. Elders first, then children, then everyone else. Be aware of this when you are on the food line and allow these people to go ahead of you.
If “how to help” seems vague, this is because the situation at camp is ever-changing. It is most important that you be as self-sufficient and open-minded as possible. If you are fit to be on the front lines or doing direct action, do so. If this is not an option, there are many ways to serve the camp: wash dishes, chop wood, give rides, clean up the grounds, build shelters, go on prayer walks… Just ask someone who is involved in these activities.
However, it is not helpful to offer advice to the water protectors. The response is likely to be: “How long are you here?” The protectors are besieged with advice from well-meaning allies who are leaving tomorrow or next week. If you receive permission to implement some sort of improvement at camp, the best thing is to make it happen yourself, as long as you respect the land, other people and any instructions given by your hosts.
Always respect the space you are in. Water protection at Standing Rock is foremost a state of prayer. It is not a protest or a festival, but a ceremony. There is no way to describe the aliveness and camaraderie of this intense energy, deep humor and abundant creativity in the moment of Now, except to experience it.
If you cannot travel and want to support the camp, here are some reliable websites:
Sacred Stone Camp supply list: http://sacredstonecamp.org/
Indigenous Environmental Network: http://www.ienearth.
Honor the Earth: http://www.honorearth.
–Shannon Rothenberger Flynn, an Ojibwe author (Native American Almanac) and educator from Grand Forks, North Dakota, who now lives in upstate New York.
[10/15/16] Direct Action Principles sign at Oceti Sakowin camp, by Shannon Rothenberger Flynn (Ojibwe)