A Standing Rock Story Part 2

“We [White people] have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.”

From Lisha Sterling

Photo by Tim Yakaitis.

“Gooooooood morning, Water Protectors! This is not a vacation! We’ve got work to do, relatives! It’s time to pray! Get your čanupa! Get your bible! Get your sacred items and come to the sacred fire!”

– Morning wake up call over the loud speakers near the sacred fire at Očeti Šakówiŋ.

For part 1 of this series, click here.

The night I rolled in to Standing Rock it was dark, and finding the right entrance to the camp where I wanted to go was confusing. It was all headlights and flashlights on a short strip of road, traffic coming up from the south, lots of  people and cars but everything else was dark. Really, really dark. So I drove past Očeti Šakówiŋ, past Sičangu (Rosebud), and all the way to the town of Cannon Ball, then through the town, out the other side and back up to Sacred Stone camp. I didn’t see much of anything that night. I think it must have been overcast, because I don’t even remember the stars. Or maybe it was clear, but I was so tired from the 2 day drive and overwhelmed by just having arrived that I didn’t really see the sky.

The next morning, after breakfast, I drove back out through Cannon Ball, over to highway 1806, and north towards the other camps. Just before I got to Sičangu I crested the hill, and in the clear sunlight the sight of thousands of people camped in tents and tipis was awe inspiring. There are no words that can express that feeling. Joy. Excitement. A thrill at the hope all those tents and tipis represented. These are just approximations. I wish that I could take that feeling that wells up in my heart even at the memory of it and place it inside your heart so that you could experience it, too.

That feeling never went away. Even in the coldest and harshest part of the winter, even in the most stressful days of battle, the view of the camp was exhilarating.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

You Are Not In The United States

One of the first lessons for anyone coming to camp who wasn’t Native was that Camp was not part of “America”. Camp was sovereign territory. Camp was on treaty land, run by the people of the Seven Council Fires, existing in the cultural ways of what the American government calls The Great Sioux Nation.

Each camp entrance had a security checkpoint. Signs by the entrance reminded people whose land they were entering and set out the clearest of ground rules:

No Weapons of Any Kind.

No Alcohol Or Drugs.

Not on you and not in you.

This Is A Peaceful Prayer Camp.

Each of the three camps were broken into smaller camps. I don’t know what the separate areas of Sacred Stone were called, or if they even had different names, but at Očeti there were camps with names like, “Oglala Camp,” “Southwest Camp,” “Red Warrior Camp,” “Cheyenne River Camp,” “Red Lightning,” and so on. The fact that life at camp was broken into these smaller camps was something utterly lost on most of the non-Natives who showed up.

Johnny Aseron would ask people in the morning meeting or at some other meeting throughout the day, “What camp are you in?” and the answer from non-Native vistors was almost always, “Oh, we’re not in a camp. We’re just in a tent by ourselves.” This was rarely the first experience of culture clash that people would experience, but it was one that embodied all the other clashes. “Go back to your tent,” Johnny would tell the visitors, “then look around you. Figure out who is near by. Introduce yourselves and ask what camp they are in. Get permission to be where you are, and then make yourselves useful to your camp.”

“White people think that they are all individuals! They don’t even know what it means to be in a community!” Johnny would fume. And he was right.

We come from cities and towns where we never see our neighbors any more, where we don’t even know the people in our own apartment building. We travel through life completely oblivious to the people next door unless they play their music too loudly in the middle of the night. We have no sense of shared identity with our neighbors, and no sense of shared purpose. We have no notion that our well-being is tied up with that of the people we live next to or share a building with. It is the ultimate in alienation. So much else flows from that.

People showed up from all over the country certain that they could do something to help the camps, but few took the time to stop and listen before they told everyone what their great idea was. As a result, a lot of duplication of efforts happened between September and December, a lot of projects went off half-cocked, and so many things were started and then abandoned when the people who started them decided to go home.

Even some of the people who did take the time to listen as well as talk managed to cause consternation when they treated the space like it was Burning Man rather than the sacred ground of the meeting place of the Seven Council Fires. There was an incident in which some non-Native women declared that they were going to run a prayer circle and discussion group at the sacred fire. They hushed the men who were tending the fire and scolded them for speaking over the women. They were oblivious to the fact that the sacred fire is the men’s prerogative, and that a women’s prayer circle there was completely out of place. Men are the fire keepers. Women are the keepers of the water.

This was not the only incident, possibly not even the most egregious one, that angered the Native community for its complete lack of respect for Lakota culture. But those who stayed for the long haul learned how to live in better harmony with the local culture. White people learned to cook buffalo instead of quinoa. White women learned to stay away from the sacred fire on our moon time. White men learned to let Native men set the boundaries and decide what steps to take next. Some of us left camp as honorary Lakota. Some found themselves connected with and adopted by the Nation from the land where they make their home.


Sacred Ground and A Place of Prayer

The land where the camps were is sacred ground. Lakota tradition teaches us that many medicine men have put sacred medicine into the land where Očeti Šakówiŋ was. There were also burials in several areas within the camps’ boundaries and to the North of them. It was no coincidence that the movement to protect the water gained so much momentum from this place. The prayers spoken there carry extra weight.

I had heard this before I ever arrived at Standing Rock. I knew it in my bones once I got there.

On the night that I arrived at Sacred Stone, I walked down to the Cannonball river and talked to the spirits of the land and the ancestors there. That first night the spirits were not impressed with me. They gave me something of a cold shoulder. They were doubtful about my intentions, I think, and not terribly trusting. I’m not sure exactly how it is that I gained their trust, but it didn’t take long at all.

One thing that I do know is that prayers were answered for everyone at camp, and miracles were absolutely commonplace there. People would talk about it while sitting around a fire or standing in line at a kitchen. You need a thing. You pray for that thing. The thing shows up. Again and again and again. Need someone with a certain skill? Pray. Need a power inverter? Pray. Need to get in touch with someone but your phone doesn’t work at camp and neither does theirs? Pray.

In November I found myself at a laundromat in Mandan, about 50 minutes away once the checkpoint had turned into a roadblock and everyone had to drive around the long way between Standing Rock and the urban area to the north. There were no laundry facilities at camp, so nearly everyone went north to wash their clothes once every two weeks or maybe once a month. I met a White woman at the laundromat who was also staying at camp. She said that she really liked the environment at camp, but she was skeptical of the idea that prayer was going to do anything useful.

“You can’t stop a pipeline with prayer,” she told me.

“I don’t know if we will stop the pipeline, but you have to admit, prayer is doing something,” I pressed.

“No. I’m an atheist. I really don’t believe that prayer has any purpose.”

“But, wait, haven’t you noticed the weird things that happen? How things just magically seem to turn out just so? How people end up in the right place at just the right time? How things show up just when you need them?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” She admitted somewhat uncomfortably.

“Well, you don’t have to call that a miracle if you don’t want. You can put it into another cosmological framework if you choose. Call it a synchronicity. There are an awful lot of synchronicities happening. Where does that come from?”

She laughed, “Yeah, there sure are a lot of synchronicities. I have no idea where they come from.”

“Well, maybe you would think of it as some sort of as-yet-unexplained quantum phenomenon. Or maybe it’s just the Unknown. But that thing that makes the synchronicities come together, that’s what some of us call God.”

The Atheist White Lady agreed that it was possible to hold the idea that whether there was a God or not, something was certainly happening at camp. When I got back to camp, I shared that story, and from then on the term “Očeti Synchronicity” entered the collective lexicon of the folks I camped with.

The Ancestors Stood With Us

In early October I was standing between the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Media tent and the Water Protectors Legal Cooperative tent on top of Facebook Hill in Očeti Šakówiŋ. As I stood there smoking a cigarette and talking to one of the IEN volunteers, we saw a red car come speeding from the south on 1806 followed by a police car with it’s lights flashing. The car turned into the south entrance to camp and sped right past the guards. As soon as it entered camp it turned off its lights, but the police car continued in pursuit, lights still flashing. The red car disappeared into the camp, but the police car made it about ¾ of the way around the loop road through the south side of camp before it was surrounded by angry Water Protectors. People on the hill jumped into their cars and trucks and sped down towards the police car. Some of the vets who were camped north of Facebook Hill near the north entrance did the same.

From our perch atop the hill we could hear people yelling at the police officer inside his now stopped car. The situation was tense. There would be some yelling, and then silence, then yelling again.

I ran into the tents to inform people inside what was going on, and to tell my friend to get ready to grab his sleeping kid sprawled out in front of the wood stove and put them in my van. “If there are shots, we go. If more police show up we go. I’ll drive through the fence if we have to. We don’t want to be here if this gets ugly.” I went back outside and kept watch.

Eventually, the police car turned its flashing lights off and began to drive slowly around the rest of the loop road toward the north entrance. Another police car showed up and parked by the north entrance. I went inside to get my friends and go. We jumped in my van, and I drove straight for the south entrance. As we got there, more police cars were coming up 1806.

When we got to the south gate, one of the guards stepped up to stop me from leaving. “We’re on lock down,” he explained, “Someone just drove in to camp in a stolen car and there are police here.”

“It’s not us. We saw the whole thing from on top of the hill. I have a kid in the van. We need to get back to Sičangu. I need to keep the kid safe.” I told the guard. I don’t know why he let me through. They didn’t let anyone else out of camp. We were the only ones. But he let me go, and I pulled out of Očeti, drove south of the river onto undisputed Reservation territory and turned into the driveway of Sičangu camp.

“Sorry. No one in or out. We’re on lockdown.” The guard at Sičangu told me.

“I know. We were just at the Media tent. We have a kid in the van. I need to get ’em safely back to our camp.” The guard knew who we were, an advantage of living in the smaller camp at Rosebud. He nodded in ascent and let us through.

As we pulled into the back grove where we were camped, I gave my friend instructions, still functioning in emergency mode. “If they raid the camp tonight, come find me and the van. I’ll drive us out of here no matter what it takes. If you can’t get to the van, then run south towards the town. I’ll find you and pick you up.”

I need not have worried. When the police car had turned its lights off, the Akíčita (say: ah-KI-chi-tah, warriors) of Očeti Šakówiŋ had made an agreement with the police who happened to be a local Lakota from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The police would stay outside the camp while the Akíčita would search for the car thief and bring them to the police. They found the bad guys, a driver and two passengers. They also rescued a woman who got trapped in her tipi when the car had plowed into it. Miraculously, she only had minor injuries.

That night I had a dream that I was walking around the whole perimeter of Očeti Šakówiŋ camp with my brother who had died on December 25, 2015.

When I became aware that it was strange to be walking with my dead brother as if it were normal, he spoke up, “Phew! That was scary last night!!”

“Yeah it was.” We walked and the silence hung over us for a while.

“I’m so glad that you are here, though. If I were alive I’d be there with you.” He paused, “Well, I am here with you. Just not like that.”

I looked at him and nodded, “Yeah, I know.”

The author’s brother, photo taken in 2005.

One day in October there was a 9am meeting unlike any other while I was at camp. It was in the army tent on Hunkpapa hill, before the days when morning meetings happened in the dome. Johnny Aseron was late, but some other elders came in to the tent and started the meeting off without him. As usual, sage was lit and passed around the circle of people gathered. An opening prayer was said, just like always. But instead of Johnny saying a few words and then going around the circle to hear from whoever wanted to speak, these elders stood at the focus of everyone’s attention.

One elder spoke of the terrible number of Water Protectors that had been arrested the day before. Another spoke of the people who had not stayed peaceful and had instead lit fires. There were agitators amongst the Water Protectors who said that peaceful protest was not enough. We needed to fight already, they said. This elder said that made no sense at all.

“Look at the power of the United States,” he said, “Do you think that we can defeat them? Of course not! If we use violence, they will come down on us with as much force as they need. They will not just arrest 40 people or a hundred people. They will come in here and kill us. We’ve lost enough of our people. We need to live and we need to fight smarter than that.”

I didn’t know it then, didn’t know who these men were, but I would find out later that these were men who had once been militants who had no compunction about using guns in their battles. They had aged since then, and wised up. They had watched revolutions in other countries and seen how they went down. They had contemplated their own history and realized that winning every battle was not enough to win the war. They had learned that violence was not going to give them the gains they wanted. Only prayer could do that.

One of the elders stood up to tell a story that I don’t think I will ever forget. “Back in the 80’s we were told to go to the Black Hills with our families to stop the mining. The elders told us then to go out and set up a camp. Build a sweat lodge and pray all day, every day. We wanted to fight, but they said, ‘No. This time you just go and pray.’ We did what the elders said. There were about 30 of us. My wife was there and my kids. Other families, too. We just prayed and went into sweat lodge every day. After we’d been there a while, one morning we wake up and we’re surrounded by White men on the hills overlooking the valley where we were camped. All these White men up there with their guns. Some of them were sheriff’s deputies, but there were also just guys from the area near there. They’d called up and said that anyone who had a gun should come down and stop us. So there they were, surrounding us. There was nothing we could do. They stood there with their guns pointed down at us, men, women and children. We thought for sure it was going to be a massacre. But no one shot a single bullet. We all stood there for a long time, until finally someone came to us to negotiate a deal, and then we left there.

“Well, you see, about ten years after that happened, I was telling the story at this place. You know, I’d travel and speak at places, and tell what happened there. And I told the story this one time, and after the whole thing was over, this one man comes up to me after to talk. It was a White man. He said, ‘I had to come here to tell you that I was one of those men up there with a gun pointed at you, and I’m sorry. I didn’t know back then, but I know now. I’m really sorry for what I did.’ and then he said, ‘but I have to tell you something, because you didn’t say anything about it in your story, and I don’t know if you even know. There’s a reason we didn’t shoot. When we looked down into that valley, we saw thousands of Indians and they were all armed. We all knew that if we shot, we’d all be dead. We didn’t see 30 people. We saw a valley full of Indians.’

“And so that’s how I know. Prayer works. The ancestors were with us that day. They stood with us, and those White men saw them.”

I feel pretty certain that the same thing happened at Standing Rock during the encampments. Not just once, but over and over again. The police were terrified of the Water Protectors. They told stories of Water Protectors with pipe bombs and tire irons and knives threatening them. None of those things ever happened. Some of that was surely just cops telling lies to justify their actions, but I heard cops talking with real fear in their voice on more than one occasion. Now, either they are such complete cowards that they make stuff up in their own heads – which considering the vast number of non-gun items that police have claimed were guns in the hands of Black men, we can’t ignore that possibility – or else, they really did see angry Native ancestors brandishing ghost weapons.

I know the ancestors were there. Against all logic, I met some of them. In the days of late November when I slept in my van outside the Cannon Ball Rec Center after working late into the night alongside the Media team, I saw ghosts who were as real and as solid to my mind as any living person. The wind seemed to blow them my way, and they gathered around the van. Some pressed their faces against the windows to look inside. Some followed me into dreams. I was able to describe people who had died many years before to relatives of theirs at camp and at the Cannon Ball Rec Center. I should perhaps mention that I do not usually see ghosts. This was not a type of magick or medicine in my repertoire before those nights.

One night after the snows started I climbed into bed at the back of my van and snow began to fall on my head, blowing through a gap between the back door and the frame where the seal had shrunk away from age and cold. I climbed out of the van and went back inside the room in the rec center where the Media team worked. I fumed in frustration and exhaustion, and sat with John Bigelow, head of the Media team, for a bit to vent about how things weren’t working right on this thing and that thing and I felt so isolated and alienated and unsure of myself. (We didn’t know it then, but TigerSwan had been using infiltrators to intentionally create division between White people and Natives, and I’d been hit by some really cruel words about my not belonging there.) John reassured me and told me to talk to the ancestors. They’d tell me how to handle it.

After our talk, I climbed under a table to sleep on the floor. As I closed my eyes I prayed that the ancestors would speak to me and give me guidance. Just as I was falling asleep, one member of the Media team stuck a pillow under my head, and another put a blanket over me. And then I was in another place and time.

I dreamed that I was at a meeting with a number of chiefs from the past and some other Native elders from the past and the present. We were in a long lodge. We sat on pillows at a long table that was close to the ground. I sat on the corner at one end of the table listening to the conversations going on. When it seemed appropriate, I took part in the conversation. After a bit, the people at the table broke into lots of smaller conversations. I had a deep conversation with two men that were sitting right by me on the long side of the table and a man who sat down at the short side of the table next to me for a bit and then got up to take care of something else. Towards the end of the conversation the man right next to me said, “We’ve wanted to talk to you for a while, but we didn’t know how to get a hold of you.” I felt so pleased, so I said the most obvious thing of all, “Just a moment. I’ll give you my mobile number.” And then I woke up.

Every time I think about that dream it makes me laugh. I offered a 140 year dead Lakota chief my mobile number. Oof! John got a good laugh at my foolish offer, too, but said that it was a good sign that they wanted to talk. I needed to spend more time learning how to listen to the ancestors.

Fixing equipment on the communications tower that brought Internet into Oceti Sakowin on a freezing winter day.
Photo by Scott Golder.

Experiencing Communalism

“I learned more about anti-capitalism in the short time we were there, than I had in decades of research. Theory vs practice.” – Karina B Hart

One of the things about camp that everyone noticed, whether they were there for a day or for months, whether they took the time to understand Lakota culture or not, was that none of the camps functioned like the outside world. No one worked for money at camp, but everyone worked. No one was homeless at camp. Everyone had food to eat. Everyone had clothes, batteries, cigarettes, matches, flashlights, and whatever other basic need they might have. Healthcare was free, and it included both Western medical care and an assortment of other modalities including herbal medicine, massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic care.

If you needed almost anything, you only had to go to the tents where donations were sorted and distributed. If you were hungry, there were kitchens located all around the camps. As winter approached, there was a construction team that worked literally 24 hours a day building temporary housing for those who needed it and insulated floors for those who had sturdy tents or tipis that just needed a little extra protection. (It gets so cold in North Dakota that the ground freezes solid and if your sleeping bag is directly on the ground you can freeze before you wake up, even inside a heated tipi.) There was another team whose sole job was to construct wood stoves out of 50 gallon drums. The solar team that worked with me provided and/or repaired power systems at major locations throughout Očeti Šakówiŋ and Sičangu camps, including at the medical facilities, the dome, the restrooms, and at some of the larger insulated army tents that held a lot of people.

There were people at camp who complained that they never got what they needed. I will be honest and say that I don’t understand what happened in those cases. I wish I did, because it is something that all of us who were leading teams around camp worked hard to avoid. It was important to all of us to make sure that no one was left behind, especially Native families and elders. The medical team even sent out teams of medics to visit every single tent, tipi, and structure in all the camps to check on people, find out what they needed, and make sure that those who were unable to get to the donation tents or the medical yurts for whatever reason got whatever it was they needed.

Nearly everyone worked in some way that benefited either their local sub-camp or the camp as a whole. Some people were unable to do outside work because they were caring for their children, for elders, or they themselves were handicapped in some way. There were rumors of some people who didn’t work at all, but I never came across those people. I have no idea if this was just a TigerSwan-spread rumor or what. The only people that I know of that came and didn’t work were some of the “tourists” who came to camp for a weekend or a week and figured that since they’d brought donations they didn’t need to take part in any of the work. They could have been a burden, but I think that their work ethic was less of a concern than their general lack of respect for Lakota culture. But, then again, even among the “tourists”, most showed up and pitched in wherever they could.

There was so much to do. In an off-grid community, chopping wood becomes a vital job. In the winter, after the porta-potties were gone and we all started using the composting toilets, we needed two people per shift to work in each toilet tent to keep the wood stove burning, the sawdust bins full, and the composting toilets from overflowing. Every kitchen needed assistants for food preparation and clean up. The donation tents needed people to sort through things, pack up surplus to go out to reservation residents, and help Water Protectors find the things they needed. Each of the three camps needed security at the gates and walking through the camp 24 hours a day. The sacred fires required trained men to tend the fire round the clock in every kind of weather. The medical camp needed all sorts of non-medical support in addition to the healthcare work. The technology team needed network engineers who could drive a snowmobile up to “hop hill” outside of camp to fix our connection to the Internet if the wind, snowpack, or mystery computer gremlins cut us off. We also needed people who could program radios so that medics and security personnel could keep in contact throughout the area. A few tent or tipi fires occurred, and when they did every available hand was needed to put out the fire and make sure that everyone stayed safe. There was a school at Sacred Stone and another school at Očeti, so we needed teachers.

There was no top-down hierarchy that planned and managed everything. Instead it was more like herding cats. There was a volunteer desk near the main sacred fire in Očeti where people could sign up with their skills or find out what needs there were around camp. There were daily meetings for the representatives of sub-camps and work groups to discuss the work of the day, what they offered to others, and the needs they needed filled. Not everyone trying to run a project showed up to those, and not every camp had representatives at the meetings each morning. We did the best we could to keep things running as smoothly as we could. There were failures in communication, and failures to accomplish some of the things we wanted to accomplish, but all in all we did amazingly well.

Miraculously, there was not one single death in camp throughout the bitterly cold winter, though there was one death ten miles south in the parking lot at the Prairie Knights Casino when a man was working on his car in the snow and electrocuted himself in a freak accident.

All of this near utopia would not have been possible without the donations that flowed in from around the world. Some people would say that the need for donations proves that this sort of community life is impossible without people in the capitalist over-culture supporting it, but I would disagree strenuously. There was certainly a need for donations at the camps, but that need would have been far less if the camps had continued for a second or third year. If we could have grown our own food, we would not have needed food from outside. If we could have produced our our own clothing using traditional methods – whether Lakota or not – we would have needed fewer and fewer clothing donations over time. If we had stayed for more than a year we could also have begun to make things which could have been sold to people outside the camps so that the camp would have money available for those things which can’t be made from renewable and well-stewarted local resources. As it was, we had so many donations that we were able to ship truckloads of clothes and other items to communities on Native reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota and beyond.

The added bonus of all those surplus donations for camp is that children who had never had snow boots in their lives, despite living in a place where the temperature gets below -20F (-29C) and the snow can be several feet deep, got snow boots as well as warm gloves and jackets, toasty long underwear, and more. Some of the surplus warm weather gear from the summer and autumn was shipped onward to Water Protector camps in Florida. Other gear made its way to poor urban communities in places where it doesn’t get as cold as the Dakotas.

It’s true that the camps could not survive the first year without donations, and they probably would have continued to need some help in a second and third year, but those donations where investments in the better world that we would all like to build. They were transvestments of capital and other resources from the capitalist system into a gift-based system, and those transvestments did bring resources to more than just the camp community. Having now entered the gift economy, many of those donations will continue to circulate free of the capitalist system for a long time to come.

And that is one of the beautiful things about allying ourselves in the work of environmental protection and economic shift with indigenous communities like the Lakota. The Lakota have a rich tradition with the gift economy. The wopila is a cherished celebration of thanks in which a person, family, band, or tribe gives away as much as they possibly can. And so, the goodness keeps revolving, moving from hand to hand, staying put only when and where it is most needed.

Photo by Lisha Sterling.

A Place That Changed Lives

I was there for such a brief little spurt of time and I still feel the loss in such a profound way. It changed me even though I was only there for mere days….” – Elizabeth Schindler

Standing Rock was a life changing event for a great many people. For some it was the experience of living in the flow of a gift economy where work is something you do out of love and where receiving is as important as giving. For others it was how Lakota culture seeped into their consciousness after months of living in that land and with that amazing community. For some it only took a few days for the vision of tipis standing on the plain to etch something indelible on their soul. For others it was the long fight on the frontlines, face to face with militarized law enforcement and mercenaries who brought tactics back from wars in the Middle East to oppress people right here in North America that changed their view of the world and their place in it. Standing Rock also changed me in dramatic ways that I’m still just beginning to understand.

The first and most obvious change in me was faith, or maybe I should say “belief”. I was first trained as a healer when I was just nine years old. The first cancer patient I ever worked with is still alive 37 years after she was told that she would be dead in less than three months. They had given up on chemo therapy and were just concentrating on palliative care. And yet, even after many more years and many more patients where I saw “miraculous” things flow from the use of those core healing techniques I learned as a child, I used to say that I didn’t really believe in any of it. I would do the work as I was taught, and results would happen, so it was obviously a real thing, but I would say that I didn’t believe in it any more than I believe that the sun is going to come up in the morning. I just knew that it worked, but I couldn’t say with certainty why or how, and I was never fully certain – definitely not as certain as that the sun would come up – that any good at all would come of my attempts to heal someone. And prayer? We all know that sometimes the answer to prayer is “No.” So, how can you believe in prayer if you don’t know what the outcome will be?

I blame that lack of belief on the dominant culture of the West. These spiritual things don’t fit into the scientific narrative, and so saying that they are real is the height of foolishness. Worse still, to say that I believe in such things can damage my reputation as a technologist. How can someone “believe” in science and also believe in such unscientific things as prayer and energy healing?

Očeti changed that for me. I saw the power of prayer over and over again, but I realize that wasn’t what changed the way I feel about belief or the sense of certainty I have now that wasn’t there before. The real change was wrought because for six months I lived in a community where that belief was normal and accepted and perfectly reasonable.

Standing Rock also gave me hope for the chance that we might be able to live in a different way again. For years I have longed to be able to live in a way which reflects my cosmology of infinite interconnectedness and universal sentience. For a prolonged period at Standing Rock there were over 10,000 people, and for a short while there were as many as 20,000 people, who were living as if we are all connected and every animal, every plant, even the soil and the water are our relatives. Occasionally I meet a person who feels the way that I do and I am inspired for a moment, energized to live my Truth more fully. But that energy can get snuffed out by the demands of the dominant culture. Standing Rock changed that for me.

Colonialist culture says that there is one right way to do things, and anything else is unworthy of respect. Standing Rock said that there are many Nations, many ways to be in the world, many ways to pray, and they all are worthy of respect.

Settler culture says that when I move into a new land I can simply replicate the culture and way of life from my old land without consideration of the realities of the new place or the culture of the people who lived there before me. Standing Rock said that the land has memory and long standing cultures exist the way that they do for good reason and we must listen and pay close attention if we wish to live well.

Extractivist culture says that there is no value in the Earth except what we can take from it and no value in humans except what they can produce. Standing Rock said that there is value in every human even if all they can do is sit in the path of a bulldozer, that there is value in the oil that stays in the ground, that there is value in clean water even if it only nurtures weeds and fish that we will never eat.

Standing Rock gave me and many other people another culture to cling to, a new extended family, and the strength of knowing that we all still have the fire of Očeti Šakówiŋ with us wherever we go.

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling

Lisha Sterling is a crazy nomad woman who works on humanitarian technology, spending lots of time in low resource areas and disaster zones. She talks to plants, animals, gods and spirits. Some of them talk back.

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31 thoughts on “A Standing Rock Story Part 2

  1. “‘White people think that they are all individuals! They don’t even know what it means to be in a community!’ Johnny would fume. And he was right.” All people of the same color think the same way? Do all blacks? All red, all brown, all yellow? Identity politics are what’s tearing us apart. We are not ants, bees or termites, each a clone of his or her neighbor. We have to come into community as individuals, treating one another with the love and respect due a vessel that carries a spark of the divine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A few things to understand:
      The first is that “White people” was the shorthand description for people who had settler culture privilege and who were oblivious to the need to assimilate into Native culture while in a Native camp. And yes, White people in this context IS a cultural group.

      The second thing to understand is that the treaties quite literally set the dichotomy between Native Americans and the United States as “Indians” versus “White men”. Go read the treaty of 1846. This is not just a matter of identity politics in this context. It is about the treaty definitions of who is and isn’t in the treaty and therefore the respective nations.

      Another thing to remember, as mentioned both in this post and in part 1, TigerSwan was actively using infiltrators to widen divisions between natives and non-natives. Go check out the links to the Intercept articles and document dump to learn more about how they did that.

      Tiger Swan wasn’t the cause of Johnny Aseron’s frustration with the folks who showed up in October and November with massive cases of settler privilege and obvliviousness to either their own culture or that of the nation where they were visiting, however. Those folks gave him plenty to get frustrated with.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for pointing out those details. Clearly your grasp of the history of the region, and of the Standing Rock Demonstration, is superior to my own. I’m only suggesting is that referring to people by their skin color is not helpful. Nor are terms, such as settler privilege, which imply people carry some kind of inherent baggage or guilt. Presuppositions and labels undermine friendship and community. In my experience as an interfaith minister and educator, I’ve found that things go more smoothly when one assumes that people are doing their best and that mistakes are honest mistakes. Seems to me most folks are just sort of fumbling in the dark trying to find their way, trying to understand the world and trying to do what they believe is right. We all fail, and that’s how we learn. Thanks again for you insights.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes. It’s one of of those weaponized terms that people on all sides of the political spectrum use to win arguments, like “virtue signaling,” “entitlement,” “white privilege,” and “1%.” These terms, like Orwellian Newspeak, allow us to avoid actually communicating on a deeper level and stand in the way of reconciliation.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Well, maybe we dont want reconciliation. We want revolution. We can’t ask oppressors “pelase sir, stop opressing me.” “decolonization is Always a violent phenomenon.” if you think these terms are only about wining arguments you clearly dont know what it is like to be a person of color and to have your Live threatened on a daily basis. This is so much not about winning arguments that many just stopped talking, because they have better things to do than talk to people who don’t want to linsten.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. If violent revolution is what you aim at then that’s what you’ll achieve. But if you want reconciliation you can usually get there if you try. Taylor Branch, in his book “Parting the Waters,” tells what happened after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home was bombed in 1956.
        “King walked out onto the front porch. Holding up his hand for silence, he tried to still the anger by speaking with an exaggerated peacefulness in his voice. Everything was all right, he said. ‘Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky. Don’t get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by.'”

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Interesting you bring up Dr. King. He was assassinated and black people are still treated terribly. Jesus is no reference to me, where I come from people die by the sword whithout ever even thinking of living by one. Everyday. By all means go spread the message of love and peace, I won’t stop you. But don’t expect it to work on me or on most people in the word who are born at war.


      6. Here’s the problem Mirna – where and when does your anger and hatred stop? When will your war be over? How do you determine who is deserving of violence? I have done nothing to you but suggest an alternate view, and yet your frustration and anger toward me are clear. Am I deserving of blame or vengeance?

        Liked by 1 person

      7. We have different perspectives on violence, my friend. Like how some people think that eating dolphins is violent, but pigs not. You don’t see the violence in your own rhetoric.


      8. No, I don’t. What violence? In fact, what rhetoric? I only suggested two things — that name calling, in-words, and partisan catchphrases might be counterproductive and that violence begets violence. I could be wrong, but my impression is that you are an angry person projecting that anger and resentment onto me and the world around you. But if you’re not ready to hear that I will only make it worse by pushing, so I’ll just go. But I want you to know, very very sincerely, that I care about you and that I am here for you when you’re ready to talk. I am an interfaith minister and a martial arts master with over 30 years experience helping people manifest the best versions of themselves. Email me any time at first.elder@cabalfang.com.


      9. I’m not angry at you- we just don’t agree on something: I’m not a pacifist. And that’s fine, we don’t have to agree. You’re not gonna convince me and you absolutely should not try and save me. I’m a product of hundreds of years of violence and I live in violence right now. I hope one day you realize that you trying to save me (with the rhetoric of peace) is a perpetuation of this violence.


    2. How would you expect an indigenous people to react when foreigners come to indigenous camps on indigenous land subject to indigenous customs and laws, and have the foreigners flout all of those and choose to do as they please, not showing as much respect to the people who live there as they would have if they had come to a national park? They had not enough respect for the community they were entering, and here you sit, blathering on about how we should treat with respect those who do not themselves have any!


      1. “It is natural that one cannot understand deep and hidden things. Those things that are easily understood are rather shallow.” ~Yamamoto Tsunetomo, “Hidden Leaves” (1716). It is not a fine discernment or deep insight that people are sometimes rude and inconsiderate; nor is it a subtle or elegant strategy to respond in kind. I generally prefer the approach of Dr. King (see quote above) that we should respond with love to the extent that we are able.


      2. Love unreciprocated is as fruit left hanging on the branch until it rots. You speak as a patroniser – that the wronged must never be angry nor express their disappointment that they have been wronged in their own house. It is a very shallow reading of the man you quote that leads you to this conclusion – he is saying that responding to random violence with random violence is wrong, but he never advocated that the wronged do nothing but love nor deny seeking to change their circumstance. If you will tell angry people not to shoot their neighbours you are hardly a saint, but if you advocate that the wronged should simply let wrong lie to not rankle your neighbour’s senses, or that we should not recognise that our neighbour is different from ourself and that difference needs respect, and that respect needs to be learned, then you are a fool.


    1. First off, I’m sorry that I didn’t have the chance to respond to this earlier in the week. When I first read your comment I was on my phone and didn’t want to send you a typo-filled response.

      Please do not be ashamed that you didn’t do more to help! First off, there were so many things that people did that weren’t “on the ground” efforts, and they were all needed. If you shared information about what was happening in Standing Rock, if you retweeted or reshared posts, articles and livefeeds, if you did anything at all to keep the Water Protectors in front of people then you helped out. Immensely.

      Some people have a habit of maligning “keyboard warriors”, but that is not just rude, it’s actually counterproductive to the efforts of the people who were and are physically on the ground. Let me give you an example: How many Water Protector camps do you know about right now? Did you know that there are camps in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Michigan, and Washington. (Just off the top of my head. I’m sure I’m missing some) Did you know that there was a camp on the ground AT STANDING ROCK until August 2017? (Yes, there was one camp on Reservation land that couldn’t get kicked out because it was registered as the National Embassy of the Cheyenne River Sioux to the Standing Rock Sioux. UN representatives showed up. Consular officials from at least two other UN member nations came for visits while they were there.) If you didn’t know these things, or any aspect of it, that’s because what little reporting is getting out about these is not getting the re-shares, re-blogs, and re-tweets that the big camps at Standing Rock got. There are some people who think that the lower levels of coverage are helpful in some of these cases. I strongly disagree, based on the basic precepts of how non-violent conflict actually works. In general, non-violent conflict works through the attention and public pressure that go along with the actions. I’ll write a whole post about that soon.

      Whatever your circumstance, whoever and wherever you are, please know that the work that you do to inform yourself about the non-violent battles and to SHARE that information is a legitimate and vital part of the fight.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you. DAPL is why I put together the little group Peoples United Front, to keep people informed and let them know they are not alone. We organize small local protests. thanks again I think the fight is for everyone to join as they are able also.


  2. I think the reason that white people don’t know what it means to be in a community and see ourselves more as individuals, is because for generations, western society has aggressively pushed the idea that everyone needs to be a self-centered individual, despite the repercussions to the whole. We’re indoctrinated to believe that we must do everything on our own, and if we need to ask for help, then we have completely failed. We need to relearn that we are not fully individuals, but are a part of a larger whole, a society, a world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “…western society has aggressively pushed the idea that everyone needs to be a self-centered individual”

      I disagree. If anything, western society has aggressively pushed the idea that everyone is a cog in the machinery of global capitalism and that “the Individual” only has an abstract numerical value insofar as it serves the imperatives of mass industrial production and consumption. Contrary to its pretenses, there is nothing ‘individualistic’ about this whatsoever. Both the so-called ‘Left’ and the so-called ‘Right’ agree on the false premise that “the Individual is king” in the capitalist marketplace. What both sides fail to mention, however, is that the sort of ‘Individual’ they’re talking about is one that has been stripped of all content and specificity. Their only point of disagreement whether this stripped-down abstraction of an Individual should be venerated or denigrated. Those who set up a false opposition between “the Individual” and “the Community” are simply playing one abstraction off of another in a zero-sum game where everybody loses.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I agree but for one thing – that it is hardly a zero-sum game when those who leverage power use these abstractions to their own benefit in stripping the public of choice.


      2. I agree that “the individual is king” is a false premise used to manipulate and control the masses. This idea has given those in the lower classes a false sense of hope, that they too can strike it rich. It has become quite the problem. The biggest problem is that most people in the west have bought into this illusion, and this has created a society of very self-centered egoist. The acolytes of western civilization seem to see themselves as living in a vacuum and their attitudes and actions have no affect on the world around them, when the opposite is true. This system is starting to turn against the capitalist, as the cogs see themselves as individuals and delude themselves as great venture capitalist and leave the machine causing it to break down. We need to realize that we are more than just individual entities out for ourselves, and that we are all unique parts of the living organism of the universe.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes. Yes. A million times, yes!

      This whole “every man, woman, and child for themselves” thing goes hand in hand with moving all forms of labor (productive and reproductive) into the money economy. Moving everything into the money economy means that the people with money have all the power. The more that we see ourselves as community and extended family, the more we will do for each other outside of the money economy. If we value the things that we do for each other outside the money economy, we begin to realize that money isn’t the only source of value.

      Dealing with the traumas that have brought us to this point is not going to be easy. There’s a lot of spiritual work that needs to be done. There is a lot of emotional processing that needs to happen. There is a lot of re-dreaming of cultural norms that give us useful and healthy boundaries to go along with that more healthy spectrum of family/clan/community relationships. That’s the part that scares a lot of people off. It ain’t easy! But I believe that it is worth it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “…and this has created a society of very self-centered egoist.”

    Only to the limited extent that “self-centered egoism” can be channeled toward commodity consumption – which is, in my estimation, a stunted and flattened version of individual desire and its creative potential. The problem with capitalism isn’t that it makes people too selfish, but that it doesn’t make them selfish enough; or, to be more accurate, that it dupes them into believing that ‘individuality’ can be purchased in the marketplace like any other commodity. Here’s a commercial for the 2016 Kia Optima narrated by Christopher Walken that perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about:

    The message here isn’t simply “buy our product because it’s reliable and well-made,” but “buy our product if you want to be an individual and stand out from the crowd.” How exactly a hunk of metal and rubber mass-produced in an automated factory can make you into a unique individual is anyone’s guess, but that’s basically what they’re getting at here. The marketing of individuality in such a blatant and ham-handed fashion is symptomatic of a particular iteration of global capitalism that didn’t begin to emerge until the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Even during the 1950s when Western culture was finally starting to settle into the post-WWII version of ‘normality’ and the new global socioeconomic order that went along with it, advertising still tended to focus more on the practical applications of a product rather that than some ethereal sense of identity that it may provide to the consumer.

    In any case, what I’m getting at here is that the capitalist appeal to the primacy of “the Individual” is nothing more than a marketing strategy designed to sell products while, at the same time, containing individual desire within manageable limits that do not pose a fundamental threat to the global socioeconomic order. In stead of asking “how can people learn to be less selfish,” I would suggest that it’s time to start asking, “how can the notion of ‘Selfhood’ be fundamentally reimagined outside the logic of commodity exchange and become a basis for deep interpersonal connection?” Any notion of ‘community’ that does not begin from this question is not one that is worthy of the name.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In programming there are three virtues, as espoused by the late Larry Wall in Programming Perl. These are: Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris. At first glance these all seem like terrible “virtues”, but as one reads through Larry Wall’s writing he shows how “bad programming” is nearly always a case of false versions of these three virtues. You think that you are being lazy by writing code in a certain way, but it causes you way more work down the line later. False laziness. etc.

      At first when I saw your comment about “not selfish enough”, I balked, but then I realized that you could be right in the same sense that Larry Wall’s three virtues of a programmer seem bad at first, but can lead to interesting insights when you look into the end results of actions that at first look as if they fit those “virtues”.

      It is “false selfishness” when you do things that seem to benefit you, but in fact hurt you. Hording all the money in the food in the house may seem selfish, but when everyone else in the house dies or leaves and you have no one to help you when you come down with the flu or Parkinsons disease or the galluping plague, well then you see that your selfishness defeated your long term goals entirely. (OK, yeah, that was a corny example. It would be false selfishness to sue me over it, though!)


  4. Llygoden Fawr wrote: “I agree but for one thing – that it is hardly a zero-sum game when those who leverage power use these abstractions to their own benefit in stripping the public of choice.”

    If you want to include leftist “community organizers” who use abstractions to leverage political power and maintain ideological purity within the ranks of their own “social movements” then, sure, I’ll go along with that. And let’s not overlook the fact that the notion of “the Public,” like that of “the Masses,” is an example of one such abstraction.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “There was an incident in which some non-Native women declared that they were going to run a prayer circle and discussion group at the sacred fire. They hushed the men who were tending the fire and scolded them for speaking over the women. They were oblivious to the fact that the sacred fire is the men’s prerogative, and that a women’s prayer circle there was completely out of place. Men are the fire keepers. Women are the keepers of the water.”

    I’m far too ignorant and am perfectly aware that I’m bringing many of my own cultural biases (both consciously and unconsciously) over to this discussion, so I’m hoping someone can direct me to sources that can better educate me:

    I’m totally against colonizers entering into indigenous spaces and disrespecting their cultural traditions, as the women described here did. However, as leftists, are we able to be critical of practices among colonized peoples that seem to enforce or stem from unjust hierarchies? Is there a place for being skeptical of sexual discrimination in all its forms, while still respecting that it’s not my place as a white man to openly flout a host-culture’s gender norms?


    1. Point of Order: some of us don’t consider ourselves “leftists,” so any response that I might give to your question would have to be considered in that light.


    2. This is a difficult subject, because the notion of sexual discrimination is culturally bound just like so much else. We’re not talking about gender-based violence here. We should absolutely stand against that, no matter which culture we are talking about. But the notion that having gender-based roles for labor or spiritual spaces is a bad thing is a culturally based idea that should not be enforced on other cultures.

      The question of whether such gender roles are a problem is really about whether or not those roles constitute oppression of any gender. Is the work of both/all the genders equally valued? Are there circumstances in which a gender role may be subverted, changed, or overcome by an individual (or group of individuals) for the good of themselves and/or the community? Is the gender-role differentiation a source of violence — whether physical, emotional, or other? These are questions that are best asked and answered from WITHIN the culture, because anyone coming from the outside is bound to project their own biases onto the situation and not have full understanding of the internal dynamics involved.

      In the case of Lakota culture, I saw the Lakota women fighting very hard to maintain and honor their rights as keepers of the Water and insisting that men needed to pull their weight in terms of keeping the Fire. On the other hand, there was push between men and women as to the role of women as Warriors. Under what circumstances have women been warriors in the past? Is it right for women to be Spirit Riders (on horseback)? What should women’s role be in maintaining the security of camp? There were female Akicita (warriors) at camp, and there were female Spirit Riders. They did not have an easy time of it, since there was not consensus about the legitimacy of their roles in those spaces. But that fight was theirs to wage within their culture, and they were doing so just fine without non-Lakota intervention.

      In those cases where there was controversy over gender roles I believe that it was the job of non-Lakota like myself to provide support and solidarity but NOT intervention.

      Liked by 1 person

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