The following article is the fifth in a five-part series about the movement at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The mobilization, of people and resources, which was spurred on by the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, began an unprecedented convergence of hundreds of Indigenous Tribes, and thousands upon thousands of people. The series, which was originally written as a single piece, offers the reflections of Brendan Clarke, who traveled to Standing Rock from November 19th through December 9th to join in the protection of water, sacred sites, and Indigenous sovereignty. As part of this journey, which was supported by and taken on behalf of many members of his community, Brendan served in many different roles at the camps, ranging from direct action to cleaning dishes and constructing insulated floors. He, along with the small group he traveled with, also created a long-term response fund, which they are currently stewarding. These stories are part of his give-away, his lessons learned, and his gratitude, for his time on the ground.
THE WAY HOME
In much the same way as I had a knowing that it was time to go to Standing Rock, so too did I have a knowing that it was time to leave. After nearly a day of packing, snow-clearing, and ice scraping, and preparing to go, the blizzard was still hammering away at the landscape, and showed few signs of slowing down. As the old saying goes: If you want to make god laugh, tell him your plans. God, whether gender-identified as a male or not, seemed to be laughing. After so many days of recognizing that perhaps the greatest privilege that I carried in this situation was simply the ability to leave, here were Jiordi and I, un-able to leave.
When finally, in the late afternoon, the snowfall slackened and the sun shone briefly and bleakly through the clouds, we had our opportunity. We did not want to drive at night, but we knew that the momentum of getting out of camp would help us on our way home. As we received help navigating the deep snowdrifts and hauling the trailer out of its resting place, we offered gratitude and other parting words. The last of my new relatives to whom I offered my gratitude and farewell for now, was the Cannonball River, with a pinch of tobacco, a few words of thanksgiving, and a smile on my face.
Jiordi and I rumbled our way on chains and icy roads all the way to the first emergency shelter, and soon thereafter to the second, at the casino. We slept there, along with hundreds of other waylaid travelers. Or, at least, we tried to sleep, when the lights went out and the drumming stopped just before midnight. Nevertheless, the warm dry place to be was appreciated, with outside temperatures so cold that our hands would go numb almost instantly upon taking off our gloves to open the doors, adjust the chains, or any other inconvenient necessity requiring manual dexterity.
The next morning, we were up before dawn, driving in a two-car caravan, heading south as quickly as we could. White-knuckled, we reached the town of McLaughlin, where we stopped for breakfast along with our accompanying van full of people, a few of whom were friends of Jiordi’s. As the waitress brought us menus, she let us know that there were places to stay in town, since the road to the south was un-plowed, and another storm was due to hit in five hours. Everyone at the table looked at each other, thanked her, finished their coffee, and got up to leave via the road to the west to beat the storm.
The rest of the drive through the Dakotas was vaguely reminiscent of the movie Twister. High winds pushed perpendicular to the roadway, creating a high-speed fog machine effect as far as the eye could see. Behind us, there was a cloudbank that stretched for the entire horizon. Everything was frozen. We managed, in the end, to beat out the storm.
Along the way through the vast expanses of land that make up this continent, we passed a huge copper smelting furnace in Utah, more than twice the height of the Washington Monument. We passed the Bonneville Salt Flats, where the world’s fastest land speed was clocked, and where rainwater puddles only inches deep stretch out for miles like some temporary lake made for a movie set. We passed headquarters for companies that have created superfund sites in other parts of the world. We passed pronghorn antelope, and a pair of bald eagles scavenging a meal from the side of the road. We passed creeks, rivers, plateaus, and red rock shining in sunlight on the shoulders of mountain ranges. The landscape, and the human civilization built upon it are too large to grasp. There is no way to make sense of it all, least of all from this high speed, straight-lined highway perspective through life. How do we come to know a place, and to care for and honor it, when the place itself is changing faster than living memory can keep up with? What lessons can we learn from the journey itself, which go beyond the lessons of the destination?
If to be a pilgrim means to travel to a sacred place, then from what I have seen of the Earth, it also means to leave behind a sacred place. Many pilgrimages are round trip; it is the journey that is sought, not so much the sacred places themselves. But at least for the pilgrims to Turtle Island, most carried a one-way ticket. What has happened to the sacred places left behind? Who is protecting the graves of my ancestors in Ireland, England, the Netherlands, China, and god knows where else. Who is praying by the waters of the Potomac River, or picking up macroinvertebrates in the rippling rocks of Little Falls Creek? As we traveled through the vast landscape of Turtle Island, I was left to ask, if in my ancestors’ leaving without return: did they leave behind only the sacred places, or did they leave behind the sacred altogether? If so, how do we return to the sacred? How do we return home to who we really are, when few if any of us still live in the places we are of?
One day after we left the camp, David Archambault, the Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, asked everyone to leave the camps. The reason, apparently, was to keep people from getting hurt in the harsh conditions, and also because the situation had found a next step in the legal system. And so, riding the truth of our own timing, we were left wondering, who remains? For those who left, how did they find their way home?
We pulled in to Jiordi’s parent’s driveway well into the witching hours after two- and-a-half very long days of driving, and went to sleep, firmly rooted in this Great Awakening.
“If I look back over the last hundred years it seems to me that we have lost more than we have gained, that what we have lost was valuable, and that what we have gained is trifling, for what we have lost was old and what we have gained is merely new.” –Edwin Muir, The Story and the Fable
It is no great exaggeration to say that since my return, I have been writing for hours most days, grappling with and trying to make sense of what happened. What follows, as a final section for now, are some fragile tendrils of lessons learned and ways forward.
First, there is beauty amidst the devastation. As we recognize the consequences and compromises of the modern way of life, it is nearly impossible to avoid a depth of grief that few, if any, are well-equipped to dance with. When I look around, at the broader context, and what we continue to do, the direction of our political system, and its history, I can fall easily into despair. And yet, alongside all of this, kindness, forgiveness, and beauty are woven into the seams of the fabric of relationship. People are waking up. The louder the chaos gets, the deeper the solidarity grows. I am heartened by what I have experienced, both at the camps, and in the weaving together of support even before going. As a Hopi elder said, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” And, we must continue to live and share good stories, and feed the wolf we seek to support.
Second, we are in the time of bridge-building. The old system is not quite finished, and the new systems are not quite in place. How we choose to move, to create, and to build, is a part of the foundation for what will underlay the bridges themselves, and what is possible on the other side. It is not only a matter of what we do, but how we do it. As I once heard Gloria Steinem say, “If we want love, joy, music, and poetry after the revolution, we must have love, joy, music, and poetry during the revolution.” And, as Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” In short, the bridges we are building will likely be ones that few if any of us have ever seen before, and we will have to build them together, allowing for emergence.
And finally, the path of relationship is one that I choose to follow and place my faith in. It is the relationship, inherent and inherited to those around me, those who came before me, and those who will come after, that will serve as a guide in these times. How I think, speak, and act matters. Everything is connected, and we are part of the earth, so may our way of life honor this.
A FEW THOUGHTS FOR THE WAY FORWARD
The following are like the tracks of an animal. They are already drying out, already filling in with bits of sand and dust from the wind scraping its back against the earth. Do not latch onto them, but let them open up the possibility of a trail that leads into deeper and deeper relationship with everything. These are things I am constantly working on myself, so I share them humbly.
Divest. So long as we continue to unconsciously fuel extractive capitalism, the movement for another way of being will be stifled by our own doing.
Educate yourself and others, about the history and legacy of human relations on this continent. Learn about the original inhabitants of the place you live. Understand the timeline of abuses, resistance, and change. Learn about the ones who stood up to oppression, and how they did so, and what they have been protecting.
Accept the possibility that we are each here for a reason. Figure out what yours is.
Get to know your neighbors, human and otherwise. When we know our neighbors, we offer one another a greater sense of security as we move toward the unknown.
Slow down faster.
Reestablish the commons. Whether it is your front yard, or your regional water source, resist privatization.
Practice gratitude. This is a form of prayer.
Live consensus. In relationships, the “No” rules. Find your yes, and find your no, and let us declare and stand by our collective “No” to the ongoing destruction of land, lives, and water, even if the single “No” is through the tired body and voice of a young Native leader who has just run thousands of miles to the White House to deliver the message.
Do the bucket work of decolonization at home. This is the unglamorous, day in and day out reckoning with privilege, responsibility, power, ancestry, and more. Get rid of militarized language and metaphors. Check projections and stereotypes at the door. Put yourself in situations with people who look, think, or act differently, and seek an understanding of why. Make eye contact. You get the idea, and if, when, and where you don’t, because sometimes you won’t, be willing to make mistakes and own up to the consequences.
“Reexamine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.” –Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Use privilege to redistribute power. Decentralize power, energy, money, and more. This is almost certainly not a comfortable process.
Create hastily-formed response groups ahead of time. Know who to call, where to gather, and what to have on hand as “the way things usually go” becomes destabilized.
Court the power of stories. Listen to others. Share yours. Relish in the good stories, and have the courage to face the tragic ones.
Forgive. Models or restorative justice, such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation process hold more hope for deep healing than do systems of blame, punishment, isolation, and trying to move on without acknowledging what has happened. This commitment begins with each individual, and applies to all our relations.
Let go of the riverbanks, as the Hopi elders advise. Trust the ride. We cannot think our way out of this one, nor can we solve the problem with the same tools that created it. To take it a step further, the earth is not a problem for us to fix. The earth is our mother. We are all born of her, and will die unto her. We will suckle what nourishment we can from her great generosity for all of our lives, even when we can stand on our own two feet. Walk softly, for we walk on the face of our mother.
Original Artwork by Chip Romer: Each piece in the series is accompanied by original drawings by Chip Romer, the Executive Director of Credo High School in Rohnert Park, where Brendan currently teaches. In the fall, when Brendan shared with the administration that he planned to go to Standing Rock, he assumed that he would have to quit his job. Instead, they asked him to go as an ambassador for the school. The drawings are part of a series that Chip began while Brendan was at Standing Rock. They are a mediation, a reflection, and a prayer. The series is called, “Pictures of Resistance.” They are being shown publicly here for the first time, alongside Brendan’s writing.
Header image via Dark Sevier