Our Trip to Cannon Ball, ND
| North Dakota |
|The Element of Choice|
Thanksgiving wasn’t the same for any of us in 2016. Was the story of jolly pilgrims coming to these foreign shores finally catching up? Or maybe something more singular, like the indifference we had inherited towards injustice that wasn’t our own. All we knew was that the Spirit was unsettled in us, as if it were bursting to either affirm apathy or alert guardianship over a people.
The protests at Standing Rock Reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota had apexed. After many long months of resistance— being smoke bombed, shot at, and arrested, the people remaining were given a maxim, “Leave or you will be removed.” REMOVED. The trend of the powerful has never strayed far from its course. The reality is, if you are in its way, you stand very little chance. Native Americans have become all too accustomed to the certainty of this threat.
<Now, I want to make something notably clear: the protest at Standing Rock was in response to the Keystone XL Pipeline which would transport 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day. It was redirected right through the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and was guaranteed to burst and ruin the main water source for thousands. It sparked a movement to oppose and challenge the banks that back these projects to #defundDAPL. It should also be noted that the Keystone XL was initially set to go through Bismarck until, believe it or not, protested because of its proximity to their water source.>
A few of us began to contemplate going to join the protest and after a few weeks of conversation and prayer, we made the decision to trek to Standing Rock and stand beside our native brothers and sisters. If they were going to be removed, then we would be removed with them. This time we would not choose the way of passivity like so many of our European ancestors. I have to say, it was a strange consideration, fixed in the present with both choices that plague every generation: indifference or concern. I’ve come to see that maybe the dualistic voices commanding us aren’t as polarizing as the demon and angel, but rather have a more symbiotic relationship. Right never feels as heroic as you think and wrong doesn’t seem as preposterous. It’s a gamut of emotions only entrusting a convicted conscious and beating heart to choose. One of my favorite authors, Kent Nerburn says, “We become who we are at the expense of who we are not.” I believe this to be true in every scenario of life, even the most innocent of them.
It was the second night of our annual leadership retreat, December 3. Ten of us packed up and headed off into the dead of a cold, rainy night. We were heading to, quite literally, the great unknown. Some of us were leaving wives and children to go stand in nonviolent protest in order to proclaim with our very presence, “We stand with you.”
Humor is one of my favorite attributes in life. Dave Chappelle says that comedy is our last line of defense. As profound as that statement is, I have to believe him in the simple fact that comic relief is the only thing that can make a 30 hour car ride to go stand in negative degree temperatures and be arrested feel somewhat pleasant. It had to have been one of the most disorienting car rides of our entire lives. Switching between 3-6 hour shifts, we all had our chance to brave whatever road conditions we were facing. About 20 hours into our expedition, we read news that the Army Corps of Engineers had halted the pipeline and wouldn’t be coming to forcibly remove the protesters that stuck around. Relief seemed to instantly fill the car. We pulled onto the side of the interstate and celebrated this small victory together, thanking God for his mercy. Agitation took over quickly though. “They lie.” “They’re just saying that so people stop coming.” “We can’t trust these people in power.” Now we aren’t necessarily anarchists, but we do know and distrust the tendencies of people with absolute power.
So, we pulled back onto the frozen interstate as if we had just taken a college course on the broken promises of Native American history. It was a tacit agreement, no one expressed it, yet we all knew we had to keep going. Little did we know that we were embarking on one of the most intense experiences that we would probably ever share together.
We finally made it to a town called Fargo, about 3 hours due east of Standing Rock, to meet up with friends who flew in to join us before heading back onto the road. Finally, after an encounter with some army officers and a few dead ends, we made it to the camp right as the sun was peering over the beautiful Dakota plains.
“Where you from?”
“Damn! Welcome to Standing Rock.”
This is the interaction we had right before we pulled through a gallery of flags waving in the vicious winter winds of North Dakota. Each flag represented the 280 Native American tribes that have migrated across country to stand in unity together. Standing Rock had become the largest gathering of Native American tribes, perhaps since Little Big Horn. It’s a difficult thing to be on the right side of history, but in that moment, I was confident we were.
Oceti Sakowin camp stretched to both sides of the frozen Lake Oahe. Mess Hall tents were strewn about the camp to provide food, medical care, and brief sanctuary from the cold. Life in Oceti Sakowin was built on one principle: consider each other as you would your own family. This meant if someone was out of firewood, you helped them gather firewood; you didn’t take up the space in front of the furnace for too long; and, if you were walking by and saw snow on top of someone’s tent, you shook it off and asked how they were doing. Life here was simple, but meticulous. They intended to keep it that way.
We eventually found a place to set up camp for the next few days so we pulled our tank-like vehicle over and started to unload. We caught wind that elders of the camp were putting on an orientation for newcomers and that there would be a prayer ceremony just across the river. So, we all stopped what we were doing and headed that way.
We found that the camp was beautiful! The cleanest snow you would ever see and tipis as far as the eye could reach. This beauty comes at a price though, one we had only just begun to understand.
Some of our group went to the orientation while the rest of us went to the ceremony. The ceremony was something they did every morning, no matter how cold. It was an honest depiction of reverence and belief. Honestly, I think we were all a bit thrown off. Their women addressed us while the men listened with no need to reiterate. Their prayer had an unmatched desperation, unlike what we were used to. They then proceeded to lead us on a prayer walk down to the very life source being fought for: water. “Water is Life” was the mantra of the protest at Standing Rock and it’s important to understand why. Christendom has taught us that God is supreme and he alone deserves all our glory. While this is true, it lacks the nuance needed for tangible worship. Appreciation and protection of the things God has given us is in fact not idolization of that thing, but indeed worship to its provider.
We eventually made it back to our camp and realized that the weather was steadily getting worse. At that moment it became clear that our summer tents (yeah, I know) would do us no good to make it through the night, especially if we stayed out in the open along the river. We spotted a tree line and decided to pack up and set up camp behind the sheltering timber. By about 11am we were engulfed in a full blown North Dakota blizzard and it was here to stay.
Since preparing for militarized police was no longer a worry, our main goal became to sit and learn as much as we could from these brilliant people and now, also survival. Blizzards in Alabama prompt sledding and snowball fights while blizzards in North Dakota suggest finding shelter before dying of hypothermia and being buried under 12 feet of snow never to be found again. Candidly speaking, it was one of the more frightening moments of the trip. We were without shelter in the middle of one of the worse blizzards of the year. Thoughts of packing up and leaving before it was too late plagued our minds, but we knew we couldn’t. This was ours to endure and to learn a forgotten mark of any human: dependence.
Being a very communal people ourselves, the only thought of bearing a storm like this was linked to the help and care of others. We needed their assistance, and unfortunately for them, they needed ours. If you had shelter, your job became finding people who didn’t, and for those without shelter, your job became finding more people without shelter. What I’m saying is, there was no sense of abandonment among these people. Remember the principle of Oceti Sakowin? These people are family.
One of the men from our group went off to find help while the rest of us stayed back and tore down camp. About an hour went by until he finally returned, telling us that we potentially had a place to stay. As he was crying out for the Lord to see us and help us, a man came from out of nowhere and asked him for help, and in return, shelter.
Walking had never been such a laborious task. High knees, lean forward, and close your eyes; it was the only way to get anywhere. We eventually reached what’s precisely called a “yurt.”
The Lakota people have a saying, “We must live and make decisions with an eye on the seventh generation.” The way they have constructed shelter over the years was proof of this vow. About fifteen feet in diameter, bolted into the frozen ground by fifteen wires, double walled with the strongest of acrylics, and heated by a furnace, it could withstand any winter condition it faced and prolong the posterity of any people. A grizzly looking man, adorned by Carhart himself, stepped out of the yurt and waved us over. He was tasked with building a chimney for the furnace inside and confirmed, if we would help, it’d be ours for the night. The yurt belonged to one of the grandmothers of the camp, but her sister had just passed away and the blizzard was keeping her from making it back. This guy—we will call him Carhart—is a complete mystery, by the way. He was the only one who knew how to do the chimney, yet he would disappear for hours at a time leaving it to us to figure out. Carhart would occasionally turn up, giving a few pointers then disappear again. Building this chimney was not only a difficult task, but a very essential one. The air was so cold outside, that if we didn’t build the chimney at the right angle, height, and with enough strength, the air pressure on the outside would override the pressure inside and blow all the smoke back into the yurt, forcing us out into the storm. There is almost no margin for mistakes in a blizzard of that caliber and we knew it. Three grueling hours later, the chimney was set to the best of our ability. We had never experienced temperatures like this; all of our fingers and toes felt close to frostbite. We started a fire in the brand new barrel to burn the toxic paint off and headed to dinner. We couldn’t return to the yurt until it was all burned off, which is a 2-3 hour job.
To those of us suffering from sleep deprivation and lack of water, eating dinner in the warm mess hall tent (by warm I mean 20 degrees instead of -15 degrees) was an oasis. This was a beautiful time for all of us. Eating right beside the heroes we had read so much about, united. The stories we heard, the people we met, they were all gifts to us from God. This was our time to sit, ask questions, and finally, with our own ears and eyes understand a people that have for centuries been so misrepresented.
With stomachs full, we set back towards our home for the night only to find that our fire making abilities were rather subpar. The fire had never fully kindled, prohibiting it from getting hot enough to burn off the toxic paint, which left us with no option of warmth except the little heaters we bought at Walmart on the way up. Delirious and freezing, we stuffed ourselves into the security of our sleeping bags and huddled as close together as possible. The need for sleep overcame any fear of being smoked out or poisoned by the toxic gas.
“You’re on fire!”
Our furnace still had coals in it when we went to bed, so although it wasn’t producing heat, the furnace itself was still hot. Somehow our friend had shimmied under the furnace while asleep, causing her sleeping bag to catch fire. We immediately started hitting it to put out the fire before it caused any damage; only a big hole in the sleeping bag was to show. I still laugh a little when I think back at this night. Some of the people were so tired that our friend catching fire was news to them the following morning. Then we found that we all had news to hear the following morning. It all started with a woman none of us knew sleeping in the corner of the yurt.
This is the story the unknown woman told us:
Apparently one of the group members got very sick during the night and began vomiting. So an unsung hero—a guy from our group—left the yurt in the middle of the night to fetch a pan for our brother to throw up in. This was so he wouldn’t have to open the main hatch of the yurt and go into the blizzard every time he needed to throw up. When our friend reached the mess hall to get the pan, he noticed that it was full of people. Some were suffering from hypothermia and others were literally losing their minds due to the fumes of the toxic paint burning in their tents. Then all of a sudden, the main generator went out, making it completely dark. This dude, in the middle of a pitch black blizzard, goes out to the generator and repairs it in half an hour. He then proceeded to walk around the ENTIRE camp pulling people from their snow buried tents and transported them back to the mess hall for medical care. He did this the entire night, at one point even having to wrestle a man to the ground because he was hallucinating from the toxic fumes. Our friend who was sick, being so intuitive, decided to puke under the tarp he’s sleeping on when he realized the pan wasn’t coming.
I know, right? How embellished is this story, really? Well, we all went to grab breakfast at the mess hall tent the following morning, the pan-fetcher with us, who received the standing ovation of a king the moment we walk in. They literally started chanting this dude’s name. Not a single person died that night.
|The Unlikely Refuge|
Unsure of our next steps, we looked at the radar for guidance. We had about a six-hour window from the blizzard, so we decided it would be in all of our best interest (a few more people were getting sick) to try to leave. One big dilemma stood in our way. Because we used our vehicle as a source of heat and shelter throughout the day, we only had 38 miles left to the tank. We knew that there was a gas station about 10 miles down the road, but there had been speculation that it was out of gas due to the influx of visitors. Reluctantly, we took off with hope to find shelter in one of the surrounding cities.
The roads were more dangerous than the camp for one big reason: isolation. You slide off the highway and you’re stuck till the blizzard passes, no question about it. And that is not in the favor of twelve grown humans. Needless to say, this might have been the riskiest and most dangerous part of our journey.
We reached the gas station hopeful, only to find that the rumors were true. If there’s any moment of the trip that is worth looking back on and saying, “Ehhh maybe the wrong decision,” it’s this one. But, cliche as it may be, God had plans for us. With a little over 20 miles to the tank, we headed north away from the blizzard with plans to either make it to a city or stay at a neighbors along the way. The closest city was 40 miles. As a whole, we were a pretty optimistic bunch. The extra 20 miles to the tank that we needed seemed, well, doable. The idea of a friendly neighbor served as our motivation, so we took off.
Watching the miles trickle down was torturous and the lack of options we kept facing was catching up to us. It does something to the heart having to constantly make decisions under the pressures of life or death…at least, that’s what it felt like to us.
Two long, very careful hours later, we miraculously made it to a little city called Mandan. I still get chills as I write that word. It might’ve well had said heaven for the twelve of us: people, snow plows, food, and most of all, gas. We filled the tank, got some snacks, then drove 6 miles east to a city named Bismark to eat dinner and possibly stay till the storm passed.
About a month earlier, the governor of North Dakota instructed the citizens to not take in any “protestors.” We were a little nervous what the effect of this instruction would mean for us—clearly not from this frozen terrain. Videos had surfaced of extreme hatred towards these protestors, one of the worst being in the very city we were in. True enough, every hotel we called was surprisingly “out of room.” Bismark had no room for us so our only option was to drive. As we drove, we called every church we could find online to see if we could stay at their building. Not a single answer. Who takes in the sojourner? The stranger? The needy? We were completely out of options and couldn’t drive anymore, it was too dangerous.
At last, on a long empty road, we saw the lit up letters of a motel and pulled in. Knowing very well this might be our last option of shelter, we slowly approached the worker and ask for a place to stay. Glancing back and forth, eyes deep and full of conviction, she turns to us and says, “I’m really sorry, but we have no room.” “But ma’a—.” “I’m sorry.”
She knew she had room, but she’s not a free woman. She must do what her governor says. Silent, hopeless and option-less, we walk back to our vehicle; there’s no sense in defending ourselves. It didn’t matter that many of us were sick or cold; in the eyes of confined humans, we were just water protectors.
“Hey wait! There’s a guy named Flash that owns a bar just a few miles down the road. He’s a pretty rough dude and I’m not saying he will take you in, but he’s been known to do it.”
We pulled off the highway into the parking lot of a truck stop bar called Flash’s Place. Two of us got out to go talk to Flash to see if he would help us. I’ll never forget what he told us. With sincerity and freedom to choose in his eyes, he said, “Listen, we close at 2am so you’re welcome to stay until then. After 2 I’m not sure, but I promise I will help you. I’m not just going to leave you guys in weather like this.”
Our advocate didn’t come in the most likely form: hotel, motel, or churches. Our advocate was an old, gray headed bar owner. He didn’t agree with protestors and didn’t believe in the fight natives were standing up for. In fact, he told us he wanted the pipeline to be built, but that was how he felt and should have nothing to do with how it affects the way he treats those in juxtaposition. This man had his ideals, but like a liberated man, his ideals didn’t come between compassion for another. At one point, we even witnessed him threaten some customers who were cursing and yelling, “Build the pipeline!” at a lesbian couple who had also found their way from camp to Flash’s place.
Why is this man not joining in the parade?? Why is he silencing men who are proclaiming the very thing he himself agrees with? Flash knew something. He knew that no ideal, no belief or bias should be used as a weapon. He knew of the treasure gained when you lay down even your deepest of convictions to care not only for your comrades, but your enemies as well.
We bought as many drinks as we could afford that evening to show our gratitude to this unlikely defender. Flash took in almost twenty protestors that night.
We humbly offered our regards to Flash the next morning and headed south. We had a long ways to go, but daylight and the previous events had lightened the path for us. After two days, a lingering stomach bug and much puking, we were finally home with much to tell. Sure, the journey and experience was a story in and of itself—one I’ve tried my best to tell here. But, it was what intertwined itself in the narrative that was most important. I’ll leave it to you to find.
It’s distressing how people can be depicted with no first hand recon. It’s a reprimand for all of us, for we’ve all done it. The people gathered at Standing Rock were illustrated to the general public as armed and dangerous brutes who had no respect for authority and the country in which they lived. Far from the truth, they stood for all of us. They understood that no good thing has ever gone uncontested, including their very lives. Pushed to some of the harshest environments North America has to offer, consistently lied to and stolen from, beaten down by depression and misery, and given the rations of the wealthiest country in the world. The countenance of natives is the beating heart of the very ground we walk. Their anecdotes, their wisdom, their love, are all gifts of which we don’t deserve. But still, they gave them to us and have yet to lose hope on the Creators path. I will leave you with the words of a Shoshone elder, “Do not begrudge the white man his presence on this land. Though he doesn’t know it yet, he has come here to learn from us.”