This summer, I visited the site of the Wounded Knee massacre on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota on my family’s annual road trip. It seemed like history then. But like the world, I’ve watched in horror as the standoff over the Dakota Access Pipeline has continued to escalate in recent days. The response of the Morton County Sheriff’s office is becoming more and more Orwellian, coordinated and militarized: an assault with water cannons, concussion grenades, and rubber bullets, arrests, a blockade of needed supplies to the camp, and social media reports of illegal flyovers with cropdusters. Are we really prepared to witness another mass violence against Native peoples? Strider Benston, a man I admire who was injured at notorious peaceful civil rights protest in Selma, Alabama over fifty years ago believes this standoff is very much shaping up to be “this generation’s Selma.” What will you be telling your grandchildren and great-grandchildren in 50 years about your role during this time? My friend Carol Pranschke hopped in her car and traveled to the Standing Rock protest a few weeks ago with a friend. Her powerful, simple story reminds us of the peace and care at the heart of this protest. I’m honored to share her words here.
A Prayer Gathering: A story about visiting Standing Rock
I went to Standing Rock on November 7 and 8, bringing supplies and a desire to help by chopping vegetables. I was at the camp less than 36 hours.
Pray Listen Observe Help repeat: the mantra I, Song of Joy, came away with from Standing Rock, N.D.
My friend Shining Light’s mantra: Give more than you take.
A Native American youth leaned his arms on the frame of Shining Light’s driver’s side window and poked his head slightly in – we had just stopped at the entrance to the largest water protector camp, Oceti Sakowin – and, greeting us with a warm smile said “Hello, my aunties. May I give you each a kiss?” With that, he handed two Hershey kisses through the window. Shining Light looked at him and said “I would be very proud to be your Auntie.” We had driven 10 hours to get here, and like the greeting, the roads had been welcoming – not a single pothole, no gravel, nice shoulders, pronghorns munching here and there.
As they chatted about where we could drop off the food and winter-useful supplies we had in the car, I looked ahead and saw Flag Alley, an amazing number of colorful flags flying high atop poles on either side of the road that led into camp. The flags were from many Indian nations, also from other places and groups around the world.
The day was sunny with a brisk wind. This was Standing Rock: people arriving with supplies, others sitting, talking, some cooking. Some kids with a puppy, lots and lots of tents and tipis, a few winter-ready buildings in process of being built, piles of supplies (food and other) outside several tents. The Cannonball River wound around two sides of the camp far at the back and to the right. A Native American elder sat near the main supply tent with microphone in hand, watching over a nearby sacred fire (nothing goes in except sage, tobacco, firewood and prayers), giving helpful directions to new arrivals and adding a touch of warmth and humor throughout the day.
Within a couple of hours after dropping off supplies and parking the car, we found a large circle of people around a second sacred fire further back in camp, with a young man, perhaps 17 or 18 years old, of the International Indigenous Youth Council, saying all were welcome to this ceremony, and stepping the circle of about 400 people through the ceremony of preparing themselves for a silent prayer march. At first we joined in the circle, with me saying a quiet prayer about us needing to be in the right place. Shining Light nudged me, saying she wasn’t ready to commit to silence and a walk so early upon our arrival, and so we backed away and observed quietly. The silent group walked through camp up Flag Alley to the camp entrance, turned right and walked north to the police line and barriers on road 1806.
It was disconcerting yet peaceful. The long line of silent people walked 5-6 across, up to a barricade of police standing shoulder-to-shoulder in military gear with serious weaponry in their hands, and two more police officers standing on top of heavy vehicles just behind the line of police, again holding serious weaponry. I heard later that some of the youth leaders offered the police a bit of water as a blessing, and one policeman stepped out of line and accepted it. Four people on horses rode up to the back of the walkers, and then turned around and raced back down the road. The marchers turned also and walked silently back to camp.
A Native American man called up to where Shining Light and I sat on a hill overlooking the quiet scene, and said “Hey you two ladies sure are cute but we can’t have any stragglers. Come on back to camp with us.” I spoke quietly to Shining Light, “We drove 700 miles and I got called cute. Now I know the trip was worth it!”
Later, I helped in a kitchen tent by washing pans and chopping veggies for salads; Shining Light cut up fruit and attended the daily 2 p.m. nonviolent direct action training. The next day, we attended a 2-hour orientation and then drove to Bismarck to get copies made of handouts for the 9 a.m. orientations. This was not a trip filled with hardship, though while we traveled Shining Light shared many stories of hardship faced by Native Americans today. We may well have been there during one of the quietest two days in camp.
How did I end up in Standing Rock? This gathering after all is an unprecedented gathering of Indian nations; they are finding voice and brotherhood/sisterhood in the cause of clean water, and I am a 56-year-old white woman who would like to lose a little weight from around her middle. Perhaps the biggest three reasons I went are: (1) I like to pray, and I wondered, can’t people pray in peace in this country? (2) When I saw news accounts of Native Americans being arrested and having numbers written on their arms, that was an eerie reminder of Holocaust stories, and (3) The day after I had clarified for myself “I want to help. I want to go,” Shining Light spoke of her own concerns about what was happening, looked me in the eyes and said “Let’s Go!”
I’m glad I went. I’m still surprised that it worked out and that I’m now back. I’m grateful for all those who helped make it happen. I’m thankful for the prayers, supplies and well wishes that were sent with us.
I’m wondering if brownies (you know the grandma kind of chocolate only) would help the police put down their weapons for a moment. Yes, call me Naïve Yet Hopeful; I’m wondering what will stop the violence and why we aren’t using mediation and shared meals.
If you plan to go, I invite you to read more at www.ocetisakowincamp.org. The Native Americans know what they’re doing, and they cook up a good meal. The elders deserve our respect and we can follow their lead – and there’s a lot to learn. If they ever put out a call for brownies, I’m willing to return and bake ‘em up.
This is my truth, these are my words,
by Carol Pranschke