In April of last year, people from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota began to physically block Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), an oil company, from constructing a pipeline under a river that provides drinking water to the reservation and millions of people downstream. After the mostly white citizenry of Bismarck rejected the original path that would bring the pipeline close to their own water source, ETP made plans to drill on reservation land that has been so-called “disputed territory” between the U.S. government and the Lakota Sioux since the 1800s—land that was granted to the tribe by treaty.
Since the 2016 Presidential election, this situation has soured for the Sioux and their allies and, at the time of this writing, ETP had already begun to drill under the water. With my partner, Leo, and a caravan of a dozen activists from Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and NYC, I visited the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, built by protesters in November 2016.
About 45 minutes out from Standing Rock, our little caravan stopped for gas. I went into the station to pee and as I walked back out to the car, a man held the door open for me. Having experienced only super-friendly Midwesterners on the trip thus far, I was a little surprised when he answered my cheery “Thank you!” with a curt, silent nod, but I didn’t think much of it. But, as I crossed the lane to our car, I felt the eyes of another man, wearing flannel and a ball cap, staring at Leo and me. He began to curse at us. “You fuckin’ lowlifes. Get outta here, you longhaired hippies. No one needs you here.” We sensed the darkness in his tone and quickly got into the car and drove away.
As we got closer and closer to the camp, I began to visualize our little caravan as white blood cells rushing toward an infection, staving off bacteria along the way. Better yet, we were like the imaginal cells that transform a cocooned caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. At the beginning of metamorphosis, a few of the imaginal cells appear in the caterpillar’s body—they are treated as foreigners, intruders in the system, and the caterpillar cells begin to actually attack the butterfly cells. Yet, against all reason, the imaginal cells grow in number, urged on by some ancient knowing.
We arrived at Standing Rock on that chilly morning, the day that happened to be when most Americans would celebrate Thanksgiving. Though I felt certain of my calling to join the Water Protectors, I was still a bit nervous. A few days before our trip, the protesters had encountered a violent offense from law enforcement. Many were injured, some seriously. I had heard about constant drone surveillance and menacing planes zooming overhead and had seen photos of armed police officers keeping watch from a hill in the distance. I expected there to be danger and revolution in the air. Yet, when we drove into the camp, everyone seemed focused and calm.
The woman who greeted our car told us that this was a place of prayer and ceremony and that “we take care of each other here.” She asked no questions of us, all non-natives ourselves. I sensed that trust was given, not earned; everyone was held to high standards of integrity, hard work, and cooperation. Her directness and warmth helped ease my anxiety; thoughts of the angry man at the gas station began to fade. I immediately began to settle into the spirit of camp. I felt like I knew everyone I passed on the makeshift roads of camp. Folks smiled and acknowledged each other. I heard dogs barking. I saw children playing.
Much of my time was spent cleaning and organizing piles of donations, serving nourishing food, and building tipis and yurts to prepare for the brutal North Dakota winter. Eventually, I would find myself covered in bits of hay as I sewed together panels of burlap for insulation. Working toward justice is messy, maybe, but simple. Everywhere I looked, I saw people jumping up to help one another without hesitation.
One evening, Leo and I sat on the cold ground, patiently waiting for a can of soup to warm over a Sterno stove. Beyond our little campsite, I could see the menacing glare of floodlights shining upon Oceti Sakowin. Policemen, like clumps of black ants, weaved around armored vehicles. What was it like for them over there? Tears rose to my eyes as I thought of their hearts, tender as my own, beating beneath bulletproof vests. The same arms that hug children and wives were wrapped around lethal weapons.
What causes the cocooned caterpillar to resist its own beautiful, transformed future as a butterfly? Fear of flying too high or losing a grubby, slow-moving body for a form as light as air? Anger at not being able to chew leaves anymore and being relegated to a life of drinking sweet nectar from fragrant flowers? How scared those officers must have been to respond to prayerful, unarmed protesters with such violence and hatred! I felt an urge to reach out to the men and invite them into camp, wishing them to witness and experience the deep care with which everyone there treated each other. I imagined their surprise at being referred to as “brother” or “relative.”
The elders told us constantly, “You’re here to pray.” Pray? This used to be such a loaded word for me as someone who grew up and became disillusioned with the idea of asking an old white guy in the sky to wave his magic wand and give me what I want. But that’s not the kind of prayer the elders were talking about. Of course, the Sioux pray petitionary prayers, but they’re not one-sided demands or requests. Those prayers come from a deep understanding of relationship with Mother Earth and offerings are made to Her as appeals are made. Body, mind, and heart must be prepared beforehand.
I was instructed to always wear a skirt, the traditional sign of a woman in ceremony, as everything I did in camp, from cooking to sewing to carrying water, was part of our prayer. I came to know prayer as a dynamic embodiment, the place from which my whole life is meant to arise. The new world my heart knows is possible already exists. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen people, native and non-native alike, praying peace, equity, and reciprocity.
Praying, like justice, is simple, but simple does not mean easy. Living in this way is to live in relationship—it requires constant awareness and attentiveness to ourselves, each other, Spirit, and Mother Earth.
In Howard Zinn’s oft-quoted essay, The Optimism of Uncertainty, he says, “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises…We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”
Revolution may be made of mere moments, but they’re organized moments. I can’t tell you how many times since Election Day, 2016 that I’ve heard acquaintances and friends and family members ask, “What can we do?” In other words, as we face one of the most potentially dangerous presidencies in American history, what actions will truly be effective in making any waves of change? We are each being faced with the sense of inadequacy that comes with being one individual on a planet of seven billion people. But, together, our strengths multiply and complement each other’s weaknesses. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Justice looks like a stranger lending a hand to another stranger and sounds like a brown-skinned man calling a white-skinned woman “sister.” Justice is living as simply as possible, taking only what you truly need and then sharing that. Revolutionary change is the convergence of a few thousand people upon the tiniest speck of a point on a map, coming together to stand for justice. This becomes a collective prayer, embodying the qualities of a world we know is not only possible, but also true.
We are heard when we join our voices in a chorus of resistance. As Zinn teaches, we are more powerful when we live together “as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us.” At Standing Rock, I learned that revolution is people praying together, arm linked in arm, in an unbreakable and undeniable chain of justice and love.