Last year at this time, I was one of many non-Native allies who traveled to Standing Rock to join the Lakota People in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Going there, I understood that I was a visitor on others’ land, a guest of the Lakota people.
The first time I went, in early September, I brought my nine-year-old daughter with me. We stopped at Walmart, and packed our truck with supplies to donate — sleeping bags and blankets, big bags of carrots, apples, and oatmeal. It was 90 degrees when we left Chicago but colder on the prairie. It rained heavily that first night, and by morning our tent was wind-bent and floating in mud. We stepped out of it and were immediately welcomed by a young Lakota man from the Rosebud reservation named Wambli Ska. We talked for a bit. He looked down at our sundresses and at my daughter’s feet in flip flops, and said, “Come on, let’s get you some warm clothes.”
I had been to the neighboring Pine Ridge reservation several times to interview Lakota people for a book I was writing. There are roughly 5.2 million Native people in our country, and they are among our nation’s most systematically disadvantaged. Native Americans were only made U.S. citizens in 1924 and are still contending with reduced rights, substandard medical care, food deserts, and isolation on reservations. One in four Native people live in poverty, and more than 43 percent of the people of the Standing Rock reservation live below the poverty line.
So to receive from people that I’d wanted to help was humbling in the oldest sense of the word — as in to become more human, of the humus, of the earth. We allies were not there to help, it turned out, as much as we were there to heal — the false superiority, separations, and hierarchies that had divided us for years. The Native people were experiencing a healing in coming together at Standing Rock, with more than 500 federally recognized tribes camping alongside one another, and non-Natives like us were experiencing the healing of being generously invited into their circles.
Wambli Ska led us to the clothing tent, where women were sorting through truckloads of donations from around the country, and then to the food tent, where volunteers were ladling up warm coffee and bowls of oatmeal for thousands of people. Everywhere we went, I dropped off what I’d brought to give, but I was aware that I was receiving more than I was giving. The Native people were inducting us into a way of living that was not transactional, like that of our dominant culture, but communal.
“It’s the Giveaway,” Wambli Ska said, “You give before you receive and then everyone has enough.” In Native cultures, the Chief is not the person who has amassed the most wealth and power, but the very opposite: the person who is humble and generous enough to give the most away. This humility was always misunderstood by Europeans, and they always took advantage of it, beginning with that very first Thanksgiving feast.
By the time I returned to the Oceti encampment at Standing Rock in mid-November 2016, it had become a beacon for more than 25,000 visitors. Black Lives Matter activists were there, Bernie Sanders supporters, Young Socialists, Christian youth groups, and the Two-Spirit Camp of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, who had traditionally held a shamanic role in Native cultures and were finding a community of support among one another. The place was filled with young people who wanted to learn from the Native people, and who were insistent on creating a world more ecologically sustainable, communal, and meaningful than the consumer one they’d grown up in.
Even under increasing stress — law enforcement shooting protestors with rubber bullets and spraying them with freezing water, floodlights bathing the camp in false light all night, helicopters that flew very low over the camp so no one could get uninterrupted sleep — the people of Standing Rock continued to embody the spirit of the Giveaway. I could see that the Native elders were becoming depleted from hosting so many non-Natives, and that the balance was off in the camps, with visitors beginning to hoard supplies, break into factions and misunderstand the meaning of the circle. Still, all day, every day, those in the Oceti camp welcomed the newcomers regardless of their offerings or backgrounds. “Wopila,” they said. “Thank you for being here.” They understood that the non-Native’s presence was helping their issue to be seen not just as a “battle of Indians” out on the prairie, but as an emblematic intersection of social justice and earth justice, with implications for all.
From the standpoint of policy, the NO DAPL movement was a failure, because President Trump resumed construction on the pipeline after he took office. From the standpoint of humanity, however, it was a success, because everyone who visited the encampment appeared to be changed. We experienced a more honest and original form of democracy there, in which worth was not determined by the money in your bank account but by the strength of your heart. We also experienced a fuller notion of time, in which we could acknowledge and begin to heal injustice of the past, and in doing so, envision a better future for our earth and our offspring.
This Thanksgiving, as our children don paper Pilgrim hats and feathered headbands, I hope we will tell a truer story of Thanksgiving. We can acknowledge the genocide that took place after that romanticized meal at Plymouth, centuries in which unarmed Native people were gunned down en masse, contained on reservations and kidnapped into boarding schools, so that “Americans” could take their land and its resources. We can celebrate the many Native Americans who survive now — to write poems, teach courses, run businesses, raise children, pray and work for the health of the earth. We can give thanks for the fact that we Europeans only survived on this continent because the Native people welcomed us, fed us, taught us how to gather medicines, and stay warm.
“Wopila,” we can say. “Thank you for being here.”