Letters from Standing Rock

My name is Alyssa Mae. I’m a 22-year-old senior journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

I grew up in Yutan, Nebraska, a community of 1,200 mostly white people wedged between Wahoo and Omaha, a thoroughly rural enclave where I graduated in a senior class of 36 students.

In short, I’m a small-town Nebraskan girl.

My involvement in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline wasn’t anything I could have predicted. In fact, it fell into my lap rather unexpectedly.

NoDAPL first appeared in the form of Facebook posts, then rapidly and inadvertently weaved itself into nearly every aspect of my life. It was discussed in my classes. It sneaked its way into my conversations. It leaked into my personal life.

I couldn’t ignore it anymore. History was playing out right in front of my eyes, and I was doing nothing about it.

So I found a group of five like-minded environmentalists, and soon the date was set.

I was going to Standing Rock – a Sioux reservation in North Dakota where thousands had gathered to prevent an oil pipeline from being built beneath the reservation’s water supply and its sacred lands.

Sept. 30, 2016

Oceti Sakowin Camp, Oct. 1, 2016.

It’s 1 a.m. as we pull into the gates of Oceti Sakowin, the Council of Seven Fires. I stare up at the endless flags lining the edge of the huge, sprawling camp, their bright colors cracking and popping in the strong North Dakota winds. The idea that each of these flags represents a different Indian nation or group that has come to stand in solidarity with the “water protectors” seems amazing. There has to be more than 200.

Oceti Sakwoin is enormous. Larger than I ever imagined. A small city nestled in a valley of grassy hills. Tents, cars and tipis are everywhere, jumbled up and strewn about like the aftermath of a tornado.

I think that only 11 hours ago I was walking the campus sidewalks of Lincoln, Nebraska 604 miles south.

Suddenly, a beam of light splits the darkness, shining directly into our electric blue SUV. Two Native men peer inside, their breath visible in the late-October air.

“Are you new campers?”

We nod. In the silence, I hear my heart beating too loud. I hadn’t read anything about camp security. Do they just allow anyone in?

The Native man’s face crinkles into a smile. He extends his hand and introduces himself and the man beside him. They welcome us, asking our names and where we came from.

Sketch by Alyssa Mae.

They seem genuinely grateful, as though a bunch of random scruffy Nebraska college students are exactly who they needed to join their ranks. I look around at the four other students in the car, and I can see they look as perplexed as I am about the warm welcome.

They bless our car with the smoke from burning sage and enthusiastically wave us in, telling us to set up camp wherever we wish.

“Welcome home,” one of the men calls out.

Something shifts inside me, but I can’t pinpoint exactly what.

Home. What an odd idea for somewhere so foreign.

Oct. 1, 2016

Life in the camp is radically different than home.

It’s morning and I wake to the sound of horses neighing, a campfire crackling and the pounding of distant drums. I bundle up in three layers of jackets and escape from my tent only to realize we’ve been surrounded by horses. Five of them, only about 10 feet away, grazing lazily on the field of dry prairie grasses, their silhouettes highlighted by the golden light of the rising sun.

A horse grazes outside of our tent while the sun rises at Oceti Sakowin Camp, Oct. 1, 2016.

At first, it’s exhausting to try to get a feel for my new home. It’s chaotic and foreign and my senses are on overdrive.

I realize as I start work at the kitchen that this place seems to move like a high-functioning colony of ants. Volunteers unload truckloads of donations and distribute them throughout the camp. Cooks boil giant cast-iron caldrons of coffee over burning coals. Herbalists mix concoctions of hot pine needle tea. A group of young men lug donated plywood and set to work winterizing the camp.

Soon, I’m welcomed with open arms around the cooking fire. I’m invited to ride horseback around the surrounding hills by a friendly Native neighbor. But I still feel like an observer. It’s like I’m missing some key information that everyone else has been clued in on.

My friends and I help wash breakfast dishes at the Ogalala kitchen at Oceti Sakowin Camp, Oct. 1, 2016.
An indigenous tribe from Latin American dances for the water protectors as a sign of solidarity at Oceti Sakowin Camp, Oct. 1, 2016.

It isn’t until the sun has set and I’m basking in the glow of the sacred fire with a plate of fry bread and buffalo meat that I get a glimpse of what it is.

The Natives shift from foot to foot, hopping up and down to each hit of the drum as a group of young men sing in unison. The dancers’ linked arms sway back and forth as they circle the elders sitting in the center wearing feathered headdresses.

And before long, I realize they’re giving me the answer I’ve been struggling with all day.

There’s a sense of community here unlike anything I’ve experienced. It’s this strange codependence. Outside of Oceti Sakowin, dependence often has negative implications.

But the people standing around me are dependent on one another, and they are perfectly okay with it. They trust each other. They trust that their neighbor has their best interest in mind. They trust that the cooks will serve them food, or the medics will heal their wounds – not because money is being exchanged, but because there’s an understanding between them: I’ll take care of you. You take care of me.

Nov. 22, 2016

Oceti Sakowin Camp, Nov. 24, 2016.

The stars are all gone in Standing Rock.

Bright white floodlights now encircle the camp, enormous lights positioned on top of the surrounding hills by the Bismarck police. The beautiful starry night sky has been washed away.

I lean forward against the steering wheel, squinting out at the massive camp, one of the many in a long line of cars. The camp is larger than it was last time with a many new structures, including a huge heated dome. Overhead, I can hear a helicopter circling the camp, but for some reason its lights are off. I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty positive that’s illegal.

We don’t have tents this time. It’s far too cold now. We’ve resorted to sleeping in the car. We pull into the parking area, bundled into our layers of coats and follow the echo of drumbeats and song to the sacred fire.

The mood of the camp is somber. The night before, hundreds of camp dwellers were soaked with water cannons in subzero temperatures, shot with rubber bullets and strafed with tear gas.

A woman steps to the microphone, speaking on behalf of her sister who was shot in the eye by a beanbag and needs medical treatment. She asks for donations so she can get her sister home to the hospital.

Sketch by Alyssa Mae.

A flurry of people comes forth, almost throwing money at the woman. She counts it: $210 – tossed out like pocket change to a complete stranger.

I stare at the woman as she thanks everyone, then slips into the crowd. They didn’t know her. She could have been making the whole thing up. Her sister was nowhere in sight.

I stop myself. This is what inhibits me from fully understanding this community. It’s my distrustful nature that alienates me. Oceti Sakowin runs on trust.

I take a deep breath, inhaling too much campfire smoke in the process. I have only just returned and already I feel I have so much to learn.

Nov. 23, 2016

Water protectors assemble to mourn the Thanksgiving Holiday on Nov. 24, 2016.

I can’t stop shivering. Despite glove warmers I’ve stuffed into my boots, I’m convinced my toes would shatter if I accidently hit them against the truck bed I’m climbing out of.

For the last five hours, I’ve been squashed into the back of a red Ford pickup in below-freezing temperatures with six others. We’ve been driving around Bismarck holding NoDAPL signs for the last few hours. I am exhausted from all of the hate and endless death threats. All I want to do now is retreat back to camp and curl into a ball by my favorite kitchen’s cooking fire.

“I’ll kill you all!”

“Go the f**k home!”

“Run them over!”

The voices still echo in my head, playing over and over in a constant loop. I can’t make sense of it. We were peaceful. We followed all traffic laws. Sure, we were calling attention to our cause, but isn’t that the point? Does disagreeing with someone justify a death threat?

Our driver has stopped at a local grocery mart to thaw our fingers and grab some coffee before we start the hour-long trek back to camp.

Photo by James Wooldridge.

Coffee in hand, I step away from the group to take advantage of the bathroom’s running water. I’m unaware that this 30-foot walk across grimy linoleum floors will illuminate how sheltered I’ve actually been.

I am a small white female from Nebraska. Without realizing it, I’ve been accustomed to being treated a certain way. People politely step out of my way. Passersby smile kindly. Doors get opened. Hats tipped.

Covered head to toe in grime, a NoDAPL sign pinned to my coat, I am now glared at and shoulder checked. A middle-aged couple intentionally steps in my path to block my way, forcing me to navigate around. A mother scowls disapprovingly, steering her child away as if I have the plague.

Photo by James Wooldridge.

At first I’m just disturbed. I stare in the mirror of the restroom. I splash water on my soot-covered face. I pace around. And then the meaning of what I’ve just witnessed falls on me like a heavy weight.

I’ve believed that the kindness I receive from strangers is the result of the kindness I give out. I smile. They smile. I open a door. They open a door. I politely ask to pass through. They politely move out of my way. But at this moment, I feel that belief begin to change into something much darker.

Am I treated kindly because I am the majority? Because I am privileged? Because I am white? NoDAPL is a Native American issue. Always has been. Always will be. This sign pinned to my back now makes me the minority, or at least associates me with them.

I feel kind of sick. How many of my day-to-day interactions are influenced by my appearance? How many more fake smiles will I get? How many doors will be opened because of the color of my skin?

***

We’re all dancing around the sacred fire, our hands intertwined. Not just the Natives, but everyone. Young or old. Black, white, Native, Hispanic, Asian. Our swaying shadows all look the same.

I feel a tap on my shoulder, so I turn around, breaking away from the circle. A Native man, a warrior wearing black war paint under his eyes and skeleton-painted gloves, meets my gaze.

He’d been with us earlier, stuffed into the back of the truck bed holding picket signs. He was the quietest of the group, and I’m surprised he recognizes me.

A native water protector rides in the back of a truck bed on the way to a direct action on Nov. 23, 2016. Photo by James Wooldridge.

“Thank you, sister,” he says, pulling me into an embrace.

I haven’t been here long. I haven’t done anything radical to help these people. I’m nobody.

But with that tiny gesture, I know something has fundamentally changed.

I will never forget that hug.

Nov. 24, 2016

Most years, my Thanksgivings have been unnervingly predictable. I watch the Thanksgiving Parade. I sit at a dining room table with my family, gorging myself on cranberry sauce, stuffing and biscuits. I give my little cousins piggyback rides around the house, and explain to my prying aunts that “Yes, I am still single.”

This year, it’s a little different: I find myself staring at the legal number scrawled across my forearm in black permanent marker. If I get arrested, this is my ticket out of jail.

Arrested on Thanksgiving. Wow – didn’t see that one coming.

I stare at the surreal scene around me: gas masks and goggles passed around, earplugs handed out, Natives and Non-Natives beginning to pray and sing, holding signs and burning sage.

A water protector carries a makeshift shield to protect himself from the police water cannons on Nov., 24, 2016. Photo by James Wooldridge.

The Bismarck Police stare down at us from the top of Turtle Island, a sacred hill across the Cannonball River. They’re ordering us to disperse under threat of more water cannons and arrests.

But the protectors aren’t going anywhere. Thanksgiving is not a time to celebrate and the elders wish to pray peacefully on the sacred grounds of Turtle Island.

I’m terrified. I have never been in trouble in my life. Now I’m standing up against police dressed in riot gear and armed with riot shields and submachine guns. I force myself into photojournalism mode, the only mode I know that will sufficiently unfreeze me from my spot on the ground. I start taking photos.

Water protectors cross the Cannonball River in canoes on Nov. 24, 2016.

I watch as the protectors build a makeshift bridge from wood and Styrofoam to cross the Cannonball River. I photograph the Red Warriors, the leaders of the direct actions, crossing the river in canoes with mirrored shields. I observe as hundreds of people pour across the bridge, smudged, blessed, with cedar in their shoes.

There are so many people with so many emotions. I keep waiting for something or someone to cross the line from peaceful protests to riots. But as soon as someone begins to raise their voice, they are reminded to be peaceful. Anyone who starts to act disrespectful or agitated is sent away.

At the end of the demonstration, the elders call everyone back across the river for a prayer circle. I’m not sure what the record is for history’s largest prayer circle, but this has to be contender. More than a thousand people join hands, stretching across the inlet of land.

Hand in hand with a complete stranger, I feel the tension begin to fade. I am so overcome with relief that tears slide down my face.

I want to thank everyone. I want to walk around and shake the hand of every single person in this prayer circle.

Thank you for the great lesson you are teaching me.

Nov. 28, 2016

I am so restless.

I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in class. I don’t want to be at work.

The protectors in Standing Rock are putting their lives on the line for my right for clean water, and I’m stuck at a tiny uncomfortable desk learning the difference between a protein and a carb.

After feeling so connected to the community and cause, my interactions with regular society now seem so empty. Nothing seems as real. Did the color of my hoodie or the amount of my makeup ever really matter? Has small talk always been this difficult?

I left part of my identity up in Standing Rock, and I’m frightened I won’t get it back until the last battle has been fought.

Dec. 4, 2016

The "Horse Nation" water protectors of Oceti Sakowin, Nov. 24, 2016.

Veterans pour in by the thousands. They can’t build shelter fast enough.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that the water protectors must leave the area by December 5, Oceti Sakowin erupted into mass chaos. Reporters and news agencies are everywhere, donations are being dropped off faster than volunteers can sort through them and the line of cars waiting to enter the camp stretches out of sight.

I watch my mother, trying to gauge her reaction as she tries to sort through the endless piles of bagged clothing. There’s something familiar about the lost look in her eyes. I bet that’s how I looked when I first saw Oceti Sakowin.

My mother asked if she could go up with me to Standing Rock for her birthday. I was ecstatic. Most of my friends were hesitant to tell their parents about the mass arrests and water cannons.

Sketch by Alyssa Mae.

But mom was different. Every time I’d come back, she’d want to hear every detail. She always wished she could have been there, but her photography business got in the way.

Now I catch her eye and give her a reassuring smile. She’s handling the chaos better than I did. She’s a natural leader, and even though she’s new to the camp, people are looking to her for direction.

I wish I had more time with her here. I wish she could experience everything that I have. I want her to see this place like I do. But there’s so many people, it is not the same camp.

We only have a few hours before we start the drive home. Tomorrow the camp is supposed to be cleared out, but that’s not happening.

Whatever tomorrow brings, it’ll change the future of this camp forever.

And I’m sad I won’t be a part of it.

Dec. 5, 2016

My mother is my rock.

I use her remarkable intuition as my moral compass, guiding me through whatever tough spots I find myself in. It’s part of the reason I was so eager to take her to Standing Rock. I wanted to see if maybe I was missing something. I was dealing with something so controversial and foreign to me. It would be easy to get lost in my own enthusiasm.

Turns out I was right.

On our way home, as the sun’s warm light begins to fade into darkness, my mom points out something I think I‘ve always instinctively felt, but never really consciously recognized.

Sketch by Alyssa Mae.

She says we come from a society that’s missing a lot of connections. We’ve lost our connection to the earth. We’ve lost our connections to our culture. We’ve lost our connection to each other.

We are so caught up in technology, consumerism and status, we forget the importance of these connections.

We forget until someone reminds us of what we are missing.

But the Native Americans have clung to their connections. Even after we’ve tried to forcedly remove them from their land, their culture and themselves, they’ve held strong.

Standing Rock is one of the few times in history that Native Americans have allowed so many outsiders a glimpse into their world. One of the few times we are able to watch their traditional dances and listen to their prayers and songs. That we are able to experience their love for people instead of things. That we are able to work together in a community that lives with the earth instead of against it.

And it’s waking us up to connections we’ve lost.

But my mother also says it’s important to recognize the difference between learning from Native Americans and trying to be Native Americans.

We are so starved for these connections that it’s tempting to try to cling to their cultures and beliefs like they are our own. But they aren’t.

They belong to the Native Americans. We can’t take them.

What we can do, instead, is fix our own culture. We can use the language we’ve learned in Oceti Sakowin and adopt it into our own. We can relearn our own priorities, get back in touch with out own communities and reconnect with our own roots.

As a visitor to Standing Rock, I have been given a gift. I have been blessed with the opportunity to reopen the eyes of the people around me. Now it’s up to me to choose what I want to do with this knowledge.

I can’t wait to get started.

A native elder prays as the water protectors gather to mourn the Thanksgiving Holiday on Nov. 24, 2016.