The cold has a way of seeping all the way into your bone marrow. Any exposed skin immediately starts to ache, and is numb in fifteen seconds. Slick tracks of ice make it difficult to walk without cleats. At night, the floodlights on the hills from the construction operation block out the stars and defeat the need for headlamps. Despite the harsh climate and the intense situation, I often have the thought that the Standing Rock resistance encampment is the most beautiful place in the world.
I feel it when I stand atop “Facebook Hill” and look out across the sprawl of Oceti Sakowin, the main camp north of the Cannonball River. I feel it when the sun sets and the sky and hills turn to fire and the river a rose-tinted mirror. I feel it in the heartbeat of the drum thumping at the sacred fire, reverberating through Oceti and across the river to where I’m sleeping in the Rosebud Camp. I feel it in the laughter of the children sledding down the hill and the horses galloping through the hodge-podge of teepees and army tents and RVs.
This place is beautiful because of what has been created here. Community. Prayer. Resistance. Resilience. There are no strangers in Standing Rock, only brothers and sisters, and we refer to each other as such. Time works differently here. You can set out with a task and get “off track,” only to realize that it was meant to be. Meetings begin not at a specified time, but when everyone who needs to be there has arrived. Genuine, heartfelt prayers to the Great Creator are answered. The food is warm and cooked with love and intention. Meals are shared in community. People stop to take deep breaths, sage is burned to clear and cleanse spaces, and every action we take is a prayer, a tiny ceremony.
December 4th was a strange day. In the midst of all our activity, our work, dances, music, and prayer, the news came that the Army Corps of Engineers had denied the easement Dakota Access needed to drill under the river. Most of us stopped what we were doing. We ran to our friends, embraced, cried. We walked aimlessly toward the blockaded bridge, unsure of where to go and what to do with this new current of energy. What did it mean? What came next? We didn’t know.
Our phones rang and buzzed in our pockets, flooded with phone calls and texts from friends and family, congratulating us and asking us where we were going next, assuming that Standing Rock was over. We had won, right?
Despite the confusing media stories that the rest of the world was reading, it was quite clear to those of us in camp that it wasn’t over. The construction floodlights still came on that night. The fire keepers continued to tend the sacred fire. The silhouettes of bulldozers and backhoes still crouched atop the hills on the horizon. We received word that they were going to continue construction, because their consequences for violating the law were not rubber bullets or tear gas or concussion grenades. It was a fine that amounted to trivial pocket change for their corporation. The police withdrew instead of turning their focus onto the company that was now violating the law. Because that’s how this country works.
Fast forward to today, December 11th. The true North Dakota winter is beginning to set in. The native leadership has asked as many people as possible to leave — only those who are truly prepared with subzero gear and are capable of being self sufficient may stay. They have asked for no new arrivals. Oceti Sakowin, once the tenth largest “city” in North Dakota, now has the feel of a ghost town. There are perhaps only a few hundred people remaining between all the camps.
The remaining water protectors will continue to bear witness to whatever further illegal actions Dakota Access carries out. The fight is not over at Standing Rock. It is not limited to the boundaries of camp. The resistance continues across the United States and across the world. DAPL is simply one head of the hydra-like Black Snake.
What was created at Standing Rock must spread to other places. My friend Alex, who came all the way across the world from Australia to be a part of this fight, said it best.
“It is the revival of the sacred, the spiritual, and it is nothing like anything we have known in our white, Western, colonial world. I don’t know if it will save the world — no one does, it’s not about knowing. It’s about trust. It’s about prayer. It’s about humility, patience, respect, and love. Most importantly, it’s about listening. Every step is prayer, every action, every breath. Being present in every moment — truly there, with consciousness and openness and intent. This is the way life must be, if we are to have harmony in and with the world.”