Guest Column by Liz Schindler
I recently returned from a short trip to join the water protectors at Standing Rock, North Dakota. For an overview of the situation at Standing Rock check out this article. The post below is a description of what life at camp looks like. For some of my main takeaways from my time there, check out my other post here.
I recently returned from a short trip to join the water protectors at Standing Rock, North Dakota. Traveling there I was afraid of arrest and battery, of broken bones and black eyes, of not being able to return home safely to my husband and child. I wrote my husband’s number on my arm in case I was too rattled or hurt after being arrested to remember it. And while I have returned home with no damage done to my body, my mind is forever changed by what I saw there.
We arrive at dawn, having driven through the night. We set up camp and take a nap to prepare ourselves for the day. When I awake, I’m immediately struck by the bustling atmosphere.
Camped at one of many crossroads, I have the perfect vantage point to see the life of the main camp, Two Spirits Camp. Functioning as a small city, there are porta-potties in front, dumpsters in back, food donations to the right, grandma’s kitchen to the left. I learn later there are four public kitchens in the camp, all run by volunteers using donated food. And they’re opening a new one this week.
From my tent I can see tepees, trailers, trucks, and all sizes of tents, as well as people chopping wood, building housing, stretching hides, hauling supplies and sorting through trash. Someone is practicing a trumpet, car alarms are going off, someone is calling their lost dog or searching for a friend, dogs are barking, horses whinnying. It sounds chaotic when I describe it, but it’s not. It’s a friendly bustling of noise. It speaks of hospitality. At night the sound of drums and singing fill the air as people keep working late into the night. It almost seems like the drums never stop, like they form the heartbeat of the camp.
There are donation piles, compost piles, recycling piles, pig scrap piles. There are dumpsters that people occasionally stop and rifle through, looking for anything that can be used to make tent walls or wind shelters, anything that can be reused, recycled or composted. You’d think nothing is wasted, but there are heaping piles of donated clothes that need to leave camp either in the trash or in people’s cars to donate to charities back home. Clothes that are too light for the harsh winter, gloves missing their match, clothes that no one would want to wear that are moldy, have holes, or gross stains. Why do we Americans always assume that the best way to help people in need is to send clothes that we don’t want?
This is what life at camp looks like: awake at dawn to share breakfast made by those who have been awake for hours. Go to the volunteer tent to find out where they have the most need that day. Then go and serve for as long as your body can take it. You might be in one of the kitchens chopping onions, in a donation center sorting supplies, or helping move the school that needs to reopen on Monday. The work never ends, so you have to listen to your body to know when to stop.
Take a break. Go to the sacred fire and listen to prophets speak words of conviction and forgiveness, songs that have been sung for centuries, and reminders of how to be a good guest. There will be occasional interruptions for announcements to ask people to move their cars, reminding those who were arrested last weekend to pick up their cars from impound, requests from people who need rides home or are searching for a friend. From this place you can clearly see the flags of hundreds of indigenous nations that line the main road into the camp. They are gifts that serve as reminders of those who stand in solidarity with the water protectors, even from afar.
Eventually it’s be time to eat again, and you go back to grandma’s kitchen for the best home-cooked Hopi meal you could ask for. You don’t feel worthy as Grandma Diane hugs you, even though she hugs everyone she encounters, listens to everyone share their story and blesses each meal with intention.
You volunteer more after lunch, or maybe witness a fire-lighting ceremony that dates back centuries, sacred embers cared for by generations. Or maybe you go to the front lines, which is called the water line, and witness the burned wreckage of military-grade vehicles that help form a barricade between the camp and the police. On the other side of the razor wire you count 55 police vehicles on the road and another 20 on the hills surrounding. They really want to be sure no one crosses the line. You hear from people who were arrested last weekend and learn that it was the police who lit their own vehicles on fire and tried to blame the water protectors. You learn that this barricade was built the day before you got to camp and are grateful for it as you look at the number on your arm and remember how afraid of the police you are.
Eventually you head up the hill for some brief cellphone reception. There you meet a Lakota man who tells you that when he first got to camp 2 ½ months ago there were only seven tepees. You try to count all of them, but keep losing track; the camp is so big now. There are certainly dozens and dozens of them. You see the arrival of runners from Arizona who have run the entire long journey. You witness the honking, whoops and hollers spread across the camp in celebration. Behind them a long line of cars goes over the hill and stretches to the horizon, filled with people who are arriving and people who are coming back with charged cellphone batteries and supplies.
Eventually you go back to camp and nap until dinner, your body too tired from the long drive and work to do anything more. Then you wait for dinner, build a fire and go to bed early, hearing the drumming continue long into the night. Once, you see a large falling star streak across the sky, and immediately the air is filled with thousands of whoops and cheers as people celebrate the sight.
You feel like you’re in another time, like in an old western or with the pioneers. Remind yourself that this way of life is still very much alive and part of our modern world. Tomorrow you’ll wake and do it all again, grateful for any time you get to share with these people. Grateful to bear witness to traditions dating back centuries. Grateful to support the work of the water protectors.