“We want everyone to move down to the river,” a woman shouted within the masses gathered up by the road. I’m sitting off to the side, writing in my notebook. I came all the way here, and got really self conscious when I arrived. I almost ran away, but instead decided to write.
Everyone around me begins to walk down to the water, and I get up and walk, too. I guess I’m committing myself to this now.
The Dakota Access Pipeline, in a nutshell, is a pipeline being built on the Missouri river that threatens to contaminate the water source and destroy people’s way of life along the river. There are massive protests happening right now in Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas. We stood today in solidarity with them, along the same river downstream.
“Protect our water” signs held by tribal leaders
“No DAPL” signs held by people in Bernie shirts.
“REZPECT our WATER” signs held by highschoolers from nearby reservations.
Ever since being in Barrow Alaska last summer, and after reading the Book, “Lakota Woman,” I’ve wanted to see Native American organizing in action. And I got the chance today.
There were so many kids there. I would say about half of the people there were under the age of 12. In mainstream society kids are not really involved in politics. But the vibe here, with people who had grow up on reservations, politics is a way of life.
“Tribal members shoulder to shoulder on the ridge of the cliff, everyone else down here on the rocks,” a woman shouts to us all.
I glance down the steep rocky cliff hesitantly with everyone else, and then we head on down.
A campaigner next to me is slipping and falling on the breaking rocks underfoot. I turn and share a solidarity smile, “You okay?”
“Not really. This doesn’t feel very safe.I feel TRIBAL,” he says.
I really wish he hadn’t said that.
I am embarrassed for him, and embarrassed to be talking to him. As he stumbles off down the cliff, I am frustrated that a comment like that would ever take place, and especially frustrated that it would take place at a Solidarity for Standing Rock peace protest.
I find a foothold, and a smooth-ish rock to sit on. I like this protest. My fears in coming here was that I wasn’t going to have the right things to say. That I wasn’t going to know what to do. That I was going to be out of place as a white person.
All of these fears prove to be unnecessary. The crowd is very diverse, probably half Native and half everyone else. And the leaders are telling us exactly what to do. There is no time for small talk, there is a definite agenda here, and I am merely a part of it.
I showed up. And I am one more body in the crowd saying that this presence, this subject, these people matter.
“DAPL Army Corps can go to hell,” the Natives lined up on the ridge of the cliff above us chant. They let out cheers and continue to chant again. We’re just getting started. It’s 11:30 am on the Missouri River. I sit back to listen. And pull my notebook out again. This time not to disappear into my thoughts, but to take notes.
There’s a tribal member in a canoe in the water with a Native American symbol covering an American flag. The man paddles the canoe against the current to stay next to the two boats that are anchored on the river bank at the bottom of our cliff. This is where the speakers and organizers are. On the water.
There’s a boy that’s throwing his dog a stick out into the water, and the dog dives out into the water past the boats, and swims sideways against the current, and arrives with the stick further down the bank. It’s exhausted.
The second time the boy throws the stick, a tribal member gets up on top of the boat and yells at the kid “think that dog has had enough. No more stick. He aint going to be able to do that a third time. I aint kidding.”
No more sticks are thrown into the coursing river.
The tribal members standing shoulder to shoulder along the ridge above us begin to sing along to a drum beat. It’s beautiful, and I listen and look out to the river. The rock beneath me is starting to become uncomfortable, but the atmosphere is just heating up. I feel like I’m in the middle of something really special and moving. I feel I’m beginning to learn how to be an ally- showing up, but letting people lead themselves and sitting back and listening to directions. This is solidarity. This is politics in action.
People are burning something- it’s sage I realize. Many people have their own sticks, and light them throughout the crowd. People are still sliding all over the rocks, but no one is opting out of the rocky seating arena. The harder it is for you to navigate over the rocks, the further down you are motivated to climb, it seems.
A man with long braids, blue jeans and a green button up gets up on top of one of the boats roof in the water. He is joined with another man in blue jeans and a yellow button up shirt. One man begins to speak and pray in another language that I’ve never heard before. He speaks for a good amount of time, and then he interprets for the rest of the crowd. He passes the megaphone to the other man.
“There was a time when only the women could gather water. They prayed before getting the water, and had to give the men special permission to get water on their own when they went on hunting trips alone. Those who carry the water are the women. The woman up here have given their blessings to the water. My nephews will now help us in praying for the water. Our first fight was in our mother’s womb, in water. The heartbeat within us in the womb- this is the drumbeat for the water.”
Six young men come down the cliff, and step onto the boat to create a drum circle.
They play and sing and pray for about an hour or so, in between the speaker adding words. Another man standing atop another boat’s roof holds the Standing Rock Sioux tribe flags in solidarity above the drum circle.
I’m so happy I didn’t wear my moccasins out today. I’m not quite sure why I thought it was okay to own moccasins in the first place. If I don’t feel comfortable wearing them to an event like this, that means they are probably not the most appropriate things for me to own in the first place.
Everyone is grabbing hands as they continue to make their way around the rocky cliff. Strangers are grabbing hands to steady one another. This in itself creates many radical and beautiful moments that belong in a movie.
Little girls to the left of me are throwing rocks down the cliff. They look around to see if anyone saw it was them, and I catch their eye, giving them a harsh look.
A water ranger flies past- eyeing the protest. He waves shyly as he’s almost past, as an afterthought. The ripples rock the boats in the water below as the boys continue to play the drum circle. Swaying back and forth.
“Our environment is strong. It is we that are not strong. We need to all come together. The separation and segregation is what is making us weak. We can no longer live off the land, live off other people. We have to learn to live with the land again.
“Thank you to the organizers, and whoever put the solidarity flag up on the bridge.
“Our ancestors had a song that made them a relative to all of creation. I hear a lot about the great civilizations of the Romans, of the ancient Greeks, of ancient Egypt. I ask, where are these civilizations now? Their civilizations have disappeared. Who remain across the world? The tribalists. The tribalists have made it through the ages of time.
“Water is the only thing that stays alive after humans consume it.
The speaker shakes a water bottle in the air, not drinking it. We are all thirsty, out in the sun getting burnt, and talking about water, water, water. I want water.
“The language we are all born with: action. Let’s bring back humility for the sake of what it means to be a real human being.
A flute player in the background as the speaker continues.
“I hear a lot about ISIS. What about terrorism in our own country. Terrorism on this river when, not if, the pipeline breaks, we are in trouble.
The speaker asks us all to stand.
“Go four days without water. Maybe then we could overcome our fear and learn to stand.
“Where are our politicians respect for our future generations? For our children and their children? For our homeland as a tribal people. For our treaties, for our rights. For equality.”
“I have nothing to live for anymore. I’m tired of terrorism. My home in the Lakotas is going to be poisoned.
“There were wars over spices, then it was lumber, then it was gold, now oil. One day, your children may have to go to war for water.
“There was a story. The story was that the land will one day shake us up to wake us up. And if we still don’t wake up, our water will be poison. Only those who fight for it will have water. That earthquake yesterday morning, you all felt it in Kansas City. It’s here. Let’s wake up.
“Let’s not discredit one another. Let’s work together. I was just informed that three villages of homeless people reside across the river from where we are standing.
The speaker turns to face across the river with his megaphone, and yells loudly.
“You are not homeless. You are not homeless. You have a great piece of land there.”
The speaker turns back around, and announces that he is thinking of running for president in the future, as the US needs a native leader for the first time in history.
“And as leader, I will give the country back to the true leaders, which are the women. We need peace not war. Education not discrimination.
“Alright. How many of you would like to take a big walk as a family? Always nice to take a walk on a Sunday as a family…”
And with that, everyone begins to climb the cliff again, and we are on the river front trail.
I admit, there was a part of me that wanted to run off. It was 2 pm, and I had been out in the sun since 11 without knowing that I was walking into an all day thing.
I tried to leave, but realized I would have to walk past all the leaders at the front of the organizing protest line. So I hung back. Waited for for the protest to start, and joined the people for another hour and half of walking, chanting, walking, chanting. We walked the whole river front trail, and young radicals behind me were complaining.
“We could take the streets with this many people! Why are we going on a scenic walk on a trail?”
I think it was all part of a brilliant plan, because the more we walked and chanted about water, the more I desired water. I thought water was probably the best thing in the world to be able to receive. If only this protest would be over and I could run back to my apartment and grab a drink.
But we had more. We walked through river market on the side streets (probably some legal shit that we were playing nice by). We would have caused quite a commotion if we could have walked through the busy bustling River Market this afternoon.
We walked all the way to The Paseo highway bridge, and walked up onto the highway. And then we crossed over the Missouri river together.
There was a beautiful Native woman leading chants walking next to me- purple outfit, moccasins and beads in her dark hair. She has a voice that’s heard and chanted back by most of the protest line. She unscrews the top of her water bottle after every 10th chant or so, and takes a quick drink before carrying on the next chant without missing a beat.
I’m wearing my usual black tank top, with my tattoos showing. I have a tattoo of the New Mexico state symbol, the Zia, which I added a few things to so it was more meaningful for me. By definition, this is classic cultural appropriation. But I didn’t know about cultural appropriation (taking another’s culture and making it your own) until after I got the tattoo. Regardless, I don’t regret the tattoo that much, as it is history and it is still meaningful to me. The only time I feel ashamed is when strangers at a Native led protest come up to me and ask me about it.
Which is of course what happened.
As I should feel uncomfortable. I’m the one who put it on my body, I’m the one who should now answer for it.
The guy who asked me about it was not a Native, but an Illinoisan who was on his way to start a new life in Argentina because apparently you don’t need a Visa to work there.
I skirted around the questions about my tattoo, and pretended to be really into the march. I admit that after that I was considering other tattoo designs I could add on to make my zia tattoo a little less obvious.
As we were walking, people around me were talking about blocking the highway with our bodies. It was the general vibe in the protest crowd, everyone was thinking we might do it. But we didn’t in the end, or at least not while I was with the group. I left around 3:30 or so, on our second walk through River Market.
Back at the apartment I drank a full water bottle. Admired my solid and unexpected sun burns from the day. And vowed to do more things like this on a whim by myself and write about it.