When I arrived at the Sacred Stone Camps, it was a day of transition. The non-native holiday visitors, many of whom people told me had come just to be seen or to say they had been there, had left. When I heard about people blaring music and sunbathing, I was glad I had gotten delayed. Most of the people I befriended were in it for the long haul, even staying through the winter. The truck in the foreground belonged to a wonderful vet I met, who is enrolled in a Native Studies program in South Dakota and is also studying addiction. He has a small amount of native blood, but as people repeatedly told me we are all indigenous when we live in harmony with the earth. I was proud to be included and welcomed by everyone I met there and my heart is with all these people who are leading the way in protecting our earth.
I bought a new tent to take to camp, since I was camping with my dog Takoda and I didn't think the two of us would fit in the small two-person hiking tent in my daughter's car that I was driving across country. It was the first time I'd tried to put up my tent and I was struggling a bit. Walter kindly stopped by and asked if I needed some help. He and a friend put it up for me. I thanked him profusely and chatted on as I sometimes do. Walter very kindly stopped me and said kindly, "Pay attention." I'm sure he meant so I would know how to do it next time, but it suddenly struck me that I should do a whole lot less talking and a whole lot more listening, because these people could teach me a lot.
Verona ended up telling me her story over the course of the five days I was there, because she said I listened. She told me so many people have their own preconceived idea of how they want her words to turn out. Verona said her tribe values listening and that she always told her three boys to listen, even to the other side, because you never know what you will learn. The Menominee Nation has a very healthy forest, she said, because Chief Oshkosh directed people to cut down trees as they headed towards sunrise and plant behind them as they went. Then they went back and planted behind themselves again. There was always a balance and so the forest was sustained. The Menominee cared for their waters too. The Wolf River is one of two Wisconsin Rivers designated as wild and scenic, and the Menominee River and its deep lakes converted to reservoirs have some of the cleanest water in the country. Verona was there to stand up for the rights of the environment and to ensure that her sons and future grandchildren would have the same opportunities to live in harmony with the natural world that she's had.
Verona is a cancer survivor and has some ongoing health issues, so she is not able to go to the front lines. However, her role is just as significant. She cooks for the security personnel and offers moral support. One of her sons was there when I arrived and he was a security person. Another of her sons came during the week and also helped out, while a third is in jail for a crime he committed five years earlier and was only recently incarcerated for. She said the system is to blame for so much of the troubles suffered by Indian youth. If one of her sons walks down the street alone, he may not be safe. (Though it is mostly Indian women who mysteriously disappear, I learned later that it has happened to young males as well.) If all of her sons walk together, they are considered a gang.
I thought I came just to stand with the tribes against the poisoning of our waters, but I soon discovered I was there to be educated on so many issues that I was never taught about at school, because the voices of Native Americans have been silenced, and their history erased or rewritten. What we have done to these people is too difficult for many to face, because it was genocide and it is still continuing. I thought I was going to stay for a day, but I ended up staying for five and would have stayed longer, if I could have. I wanted to see with my own eyes and listen to what my new friends had to say, as I knew how difficult it was for them to get their words out into the world at large. I will write a longer essay on what Verona taught me when I return home. What stuck with my most was her lack of anger, even though she and her family have been wronged. She said she "keeps her heart humble, soft, and on what is right." Verona plans to stay at camp for as long as possible, while still making trips to visit her son in prison who cannot be there.
I spent most of the first day sitting around the fire with Verona and meeting the people who orbited around her. So many people converged around her fire and differences in cultures melted away into shared visions for a healthier planet. The woman on the right, Robin Hamme, works tirelessly to oppose police brutality and spent a year traveling the country with Gabriel Black Elk. They were stalked the whole time and she continued to be followed until 30 days after she and Gabriel parted ways. Robin also has health issues and cannot be arrested, so she was also there to offer support and bear witness to what was happening. I learned so much from Robin and was so impressed by her dedication to standing up for those whose rights have been violated. Verona's security guard son is standing behind her, examining a gift she was given by someone who had to leave camp.
The gift was made by a student and the paper it was wrapped in was equally important. It was wrapped in a newspaper tribute to Carl Baines, a Cherokee corn farmer who spent years isolating Native American corn varieties to save a lost heritage. The words to one of his poems, "The Human Stalk of Corn," was included in the newspaper:
Rod was another security person at camp. He worked tirelessly, 60 hours per more per week and never complained and always had a kind look in his eyes. He did not have a proper tent and I worried about him when the rains came and with the onset of winter looming. When I left, I told people to make sure he got my tent, since he was working as he always was.
Ann was a lovely and gentle woman from Pine Ridge. She loved my dog Takoda and always stopped by to say hello to us when she was walking from her campsite to the central area where meals were served, performances were staged, and information was shared. Her kindness was always apparent, though early on she told me her son and been shot in hunting season, though it was not hunting season.
Takoda made so many friends at camp that one day during the end of my stay when I was walking around with Grady Two Horses, he said, "I think everyone in camp knows your dog."
This is Grady Two Horses, one of the most special people I met at camp. A Sioux elder from Fort Yates, he never let his fire go out just like he never let the fire in his heart go out for protecting water and all the elements. He was incredibly kind and welcoming and I felt safe camping near him. Grady thanked me repeatedly for being there and showing the world they are not savages. He brought me cedar and sage to protect me from harmful spirits and I felt as watched over as his fire. Though Grady was very unassuming and spoke quietly, I learned that his Great Grandfather was Ed Two Horses, a very important chief. Grady never knew about this growing up, because they kept this information secret for fear of retribution. One day Grady was invited to a ceremony and received a plaque, a medal, and a flag with 49 stars, since that is how many states there were at the time his grandfather was alive.
One day Grady walked around with me and we were able to tour some areas of camp I wouldn't have normally been allowed to go as long as I promised not to photograph or write about these areas. All I can tell you is that everywhere I went, I met kind and respectful people. I never witnessed any violence. Every day when I woke up, I heard announcements telling people to act nonviolently and make their relatives proud. The elders were there to ensure that the values passed down through generations were upheld. They were there in support of the people on the front lines and as counsel. People were also there to experience the powerful energy and unity that was being expressed here.
Grady also took me to see this map and told me I could sign it too. It shows everyone who was there in support of Standing Rock and in opposition to the pipeline that threatens to poison the Missouri River and poison 20 percent of the nation's water supply. During my five days there, more and more people and tribes poured into camp every day. More and more flags went up and I knew I was experiencing a great moment in history, a moment when people were coming together, forgetting their differences, and standing up for the rights of each other and the environment against greed and the takeover of our society by corporations.
Martina was a lovely, exuberant, vibrant spirit from Canada I spent part of a morning talking to. She was so excited she ran back to her car to get her flag and pose with it. She is proud of her people and also a great activist traveling all over Canada. When she heard about Standing Rock, she could not stay away. She is committed to the issue of disappearing Native women and men as well. She helped a family find their missing son, who was a student and eventually discovered dead in a river. Despite the atrocities she works so hard to prevent from continuing to occur, she has a beaming smile and twinkle in her eye. When we parted ways we hugged each other and I told her I loved her. She finds her way into your heart pretty quickly.
I am not sure who this man was. I talked with him a bit, as he repeatedly ran back up the mountain to soar again. All the people camping around me loved seeing this sight. It was a moment of levity and greatly appreciated.
Chant and her husband are from Minneapolis. They brought a truck full of donations and their grandchildren to experience history. I met her because she came by my tent and asked if I needed anything. I'd brought a down sleeping bag for myself, but only one small blanket for Takoda. It was getting colder each night and Chant said I should stop by her truck and get a blanket for my dog. I felt a bit guilty about taking supplies, but she said I could leave it when I went and that he needed it. We talked for awhile and I got a glimpse of her intelligence and thoughtfulness. She is a researcher from Minneapolis and understood the issues of bringing so many people together. It is the only way to stop this takeover, but whenever you bring a lot of people together there are always infiltrators. I encountered a couple my first day, so I knew she was right. Chant and so many wise people are supporting this movement and helping it to move forward nonviolently. I met several Tribal Council members as well and am totally convinced that this movement is being led with the utmost integrity. They are setting an example for the rest of the world, which is no doubt why the media was slow to cover this. They actually might be the start of real change. That is my hope and my prayers are with them for the duration. I hope to return sometime, and will continue to offer support from a far. Thank you for all you are doing my friends.