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Ohitica and the Rez Dogs of Standing Rock

During the six months that I spent at Standing Rock, I learned about the life of the rez dogs and their relationship to the people they live with. It’s not the tidy house-dog life of city dog… Instead, the dogs of the reservation are their own people. They are relatives in their own right.

From Lisha Sterling

When I first arrived at the Water Protector camps in Standing Rock, I lived in the Sicangu camp on the south side of the Cannon Ball river, by highway 1806. My days were spent busy on Media Hill in the Indigenous Environmental Network’s media tent or talking to folks in the Legal tent, or else running back and forth between the different camps, the place we came to call “Hop Hill”, the Prairie Knights Casino, the town of Cannonball, and the town of Fort Yates. I’d often roll back into my home camp at 10 or 11 o’clock at night, exhausted. That didn’t leave much time for being social in a non-work atmosphere. But when I could, I’d sit by the sacred fire for a bit to listen to the elders talking.

One night, I rolled in late and parked my van near the kitchen tent. I could see that there were people inside, so I went in to join them. A large pot of chicken soup simmered on the fire. Two young men and one young woman were in there, talking and eating left over food from the evening’s dinner. They offered me some food, but I wasn’t hungry. I just wanted to listen in on the conversation.

After a little while, another young woman came into the kitchen. She had a baby sling across her body, and a couple of bottles in her hand. She asked if there were any measuring spoons in the kitchen. Her voice had a worried, nearly panicked tone to it, “I need to measure out a teaspoon of this medicine for the puppy!” She turned and we could see the limp German shepherd puppy in the baby sling, “He has worms really bad. The vet says he isn’t going to make it. She wanted to put him down, but I made her give me the medicine. But now I can’t find a measuring spoon!”

I noticed that one of the bottles in her hand was a prescription bottle and the other was an herbal tincture bottle, “You have something to measure with right there,” I told her. “One dropperful is ¼ teaspoon. Four dropperfuls is one dose of his medicine.”

She looked from me to the dog and then to the bottle in her hand, surprised, “Really?”

She put the bottles down and began to open them both. The other young woman jumped up to help her get the medicine measured and dropped into the dog’s mouth. The puppy barely moved.

The young woman with the puppy explained what her day had been like. She’d been at a friend’s house, and they had this puppy. It was the last of a litter but had never been picked by anyone who came by. It had started to get sick, and the family had just figured that it would probably die. She asked if she could have the dog. Her friend’s family said yes, and she immediately drove up to Bismarck to find a vet and see what she could do to help the dog. “But he hasn’t moved the whole time. He didn’t move when I picked him up. He won’t eat. He didn’t move when the doctor checked him. He’s just been like this all day.” By now she was at the edge of tears.

Now, let me take you on a tangent here for a moment to tell you that, under normal circumstances, it is said that you should never mix Lakhota medicine with any other kind of medicine. There have been some major exceptions made in terms of “Christian medicine” in the sense that these days even many čanupa (sacred pipe) carriers are also Christian, but on the whole the admonition not to mix Lakhota medicine with anything else still stands. However, we were in a different situation than usual. The elders and the holy people had specifically called on people of all nations and all religions to bring their prayers to Očeti Šakówiŋ camp. And with those prayers comes some of the other practices and medicine of those other nations. It was in that context that it seemed wholly appropriate for me to mention a bit of Jewish folklore to the young woman for the benefit of her puppy.

“In Jewish tradition, if someone is very sick and it looks like they are probably going to die, we sometimes change their name. It is said that changing their name can trick the angel of death. Other’s say that changing the name gives a person a new job to do in life. It’s common to rename a person in such a situation ‘Chaim’, which means ‘Life’, but sometimes the name is something else. It can be like a wish or a prayer for what you want in that person’s future.” I told her.

“I like that tradition. It sounds good. He doesn’t have a name yet.”

Just then, one of the wise old ladies of camp walked into the kitchen tent. She’d barely stepped inside when she was asked by the woman with the puppy, “What should I name my dog?”

Theresa Black Oak looked at the puppy, a bit confused, and asked why she was naming the puppy. So, we explained the situation to her. Then she looked closely at the dog for a moment and thought about it.

“Ohitica. His name should be Ohitica, which means Brave.” Theresa announced.

The young woman repeated the name, “Ohitica. You are Ohitica!” She told the puppy.

As this interaction was going on, one of the young men prepared a bowl with a little bit of the chicken soup in it. He suggested that she should try feeding the dog some of it. She took the puppy and put him on the ground in front of the bowl. He stood up a little wobbly at first, but then he was stable on his feet. He sniffed the bowl and began to drink the broth. Then he ate the pieces of chicken. He finished the whole bowl of soup, and then he began to run in circles and bounce around like a puppy does.

Everyone’s eyes were wide with surprise, not least of all the woman who had brought the puppy in.

“Wait, he didn’t move all day?” Someone said in surprise.

“Not at all,” She answered with wonder.

“Well, a little bit of medicine and a brand new name, makes good medicine!” I laughed, so relieved.

About a month later, I drove up to Media Hill to meet with someone at the Indigenous Environmental Network tent. As I arrived at the fence around the IEN area, there was a German shepherd puppy tied up next to the entrance. I bent down to say hello, “Oh my goodness! You are so cute! You look just like Ohitica, only you are much bigger than him!”

Just then, the woman who had walked into the kitchen with a tiny, sick puppy in a baby sling walked up. I saw her feet first, but when I look up and saw her face I nearly whooped in joy, “You ARE Ohitica!”

And so he was, and that healthy young dog left Standing Rock a few days later to a new home far away.

Dakota and her puppies say,

Image by Kelly Kai Botak all rights reserved

In February 2017, amidst all the other indignities of the expulsion of the Water Protectors from the camps at Standing Rock, we had to see news reports about how the good people of Bismarck, North Dakota had to go down and rescue dogs that had been left behind by “protesters”. It was true that the people who came down from animal rescue agencies found dogs in and around the town of Cannonball, but it was absolute privileged, self-righteous, colonialist White ignorance to believe that these were dogs left behind by the Water Protectors. Like so much else that was reported by the White press in North Dakota about the camps and the people in them, the prejudice and refusal to acknowledge the people and culture of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was at the root of problems invented for the sake of the pro-pipeline narrative. Those “abandoned” dogs were, in fact, rez dogs who were moved off their rightful home just as their Native human companions had been before them.

During the six months that I spent at Standing Rock, I learned about the life of the rez dogs and their relationship to the people they live with. It’s not the tidy house-dog life of city dog who gets adopted into a quaint idea of a “forever home”. Instead, the dogs of the reservation are their own people. They are relatives in their own right.

Most of those dogs go inside when they want to and stay outside when they want to. Some never go inside at all, even in the coldest part of the winter. Some dogs have more than one family, and they travel between houses when they feel like it, spending a day or a week with one set of humans before visiting their other set of humans. Other dogs prefer to roam around most of the time in little packs, though they’ll show up on their family’s lawn when it’s time to eat.

In the autumn there were several litters of new puppies born in the vicinity of the Water Protector camps. When the puppies were old enough to be weaned, several families walked around the camps with their surplus puppies to see if anyone wanted one. Every puppy that came through camp in that way got adopted and went home with a new Water Protector family.

In the depths of the winter when the Cannonball recreation center became both the Očeti Šakówiŋ Camp Media headquarters and the Standing Rock emergency shelter, there were a number of local dogs who decided that all the bustle of the rec center was their preferred place to be. We let the dogs come and go for a while, and even fed them if they looked hungry, but then some of the elders of the tribe made it known that they didn’t want the dogs in there. “They have homes. If you feed them they won’t go back to their families and then we’ll have a pack of dogs who think that the Rec Center is their new home.”

So, we kept the rez dogs out of the Rec Center, and most of them went back to their normal routines. Most, but not all.

One big, fluffy white dog who was probably about four or five years old curled up outside the front door of the rec center for days. If you didn’t happen to come out when he got up to go find food elsewhere, and if you didn’t notice that he never had more than a few hours of snow over top of him, you might be forgiven for thinking he’d just frozen in place there.

A very sweet and gentle health care worker stood in the Rec Center in tears because she was afraid for this wonderful dog. I reminded her that this dog had obviously lived through other North Dakota winters. He knew how to survive out here. This was his home. He had long fur, so he probably wasn’t nearly as cold as she thought, and he knew how to snuggle into his own little shelter in the snow bank. I also showed her the signs that he had been moving around and wasn’t just frozen to the spot. She calmed down, but she was still concerned. A few days later she tracked down the family of that dog. He was fine.

Another large golden retriever mix kept insisting on coming into the Rec Center, long after he’d been officially kicked out. In January, his family showed up at the center when they’d heard that their dog was over there. We discovered the dog’s real name was Cinnamon, and that his family had thought he’d died since they hadn’t seen him in two weeks.

“Did you try to look for him?” someone asked.

“No. He’s old. If he felt he needed to go find a place away from here to die, that’s his right. If he was well, we knew he’d come home eventually.”

The folks running the Emergency Center insisted that the family needed to take Cinnamon home. They did, but two days later he was back at the Rec Center. This went back and forth a few times.

Another Water Protector who was getting ready to go home spoke with the family and asked to adopt their dog. They agreed. Cinnamon went off to a new city with a new name and a whole new human family.

In reality, quite a few rez dogs adopted humans from among the non-local Water Protector population. But many rez dogs stayed on the rez where they had always lived. Their lives are not the lives of city dogs, but that doesn’t mean that they are bad lives. They are just different lives.

And yes, many dogs came to Standing Rock with Water Protectors, too, but none of them was left behind. Once the population of the camps grew in late October, even the dogs who had previously been able to run free in the camps were required to stay on leash or in a tent or structure at all times. Any dog seen wandering without a human in camp would be taken to the sacred fire where an announcement would be made that the dog had gotten loose. If the dog’s owner did not agree to keep it under control, the camp security said that they would take the dog away and send it to a new home or an animal shelter. As far as I know, no dog was taken from its humans in that way. Instead, camp dwellers kept their dogs well under control, leashed or in their makeshift homes. And when they left camp, their dogs went with them.

After the camps were cleared, a bunch of White people who were full of their own certainties about the world went down to the reservation in search of the abandoned dogs that they “knew” Water Protectors would leave behind. Perhaps law enforcement had something to do with it. Maybe the many sheriff’s deputies and federal agents from across the country had seen the rez dogs in Cannonball and told people about them. Either way, they assumed that these dogs were homeless, and that irresponsible, dirty hippies and Indians who had spent as much as nine months living in tents through every kind of weather the prairie can dish out had just left without them. No one bothered to ask the people in the houses on the reservation about the dogs wandering around the area in packs or by themselves whose dogs these were. The White people “knew” and so they took the dogs to shelters and made a big deal about showing how righteous their cause was.

The difference between reality at Standing Rock and the ideas that White settler culture in Bismarck imagines is as stark today as it was a hundred fifty years ago.


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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