As we drove up to the guard shack, someone shuffled up to our window, breathing visibly iced air through the hole in her (his?) hood that had been protectively tugged tightly around her (his?) face. It's hard to tell genders, nationalities or moods when you're walking or driving around the camps. People shuffle like hobbits from one spot to another in a bit of hurry and are almost literally buried in all manner of clothing, coats, shawls, face masks, hats, etc. as they attempt to stay warm in freezing temperatures and dangerous winds.
"Welcome to Standing Rock!!" said a cheery voice through the layers upon layers of cold weather clothing. "Is this your first time here?" She (her voice gave it away) gave us some helpful directions to our friends and relatives that we were looking for, offered some advice regarding the next day's meeting and then shuffled back to the warmth and golden glow of her fire, where several others seemed to be enjoying watching the wind bend the flames almost horizontal. As we shifted the truck into drive, I wondered how she could be so cheerful in these sorts of temperatures. She had clearly pulled "guard duty" in inhumane conditions, but sounded as though she was the gatekeeper to a summer music festival.
We pointed our truck and trailer down the hill and began sliding inch by inch to the valley floor where tipis, army tents and hay bale structures stood strong and defiant while collapsed Marmot and North Face winter tents had given up against the winds and lay under blocks of snow and ice. When our truck and trailer slid to a stop at an angle almost perpendicular to the direction I had pointed it, we were approached almost immediately again by a young person bearing "Security" tags. When he spoke through his layers, he also welcomed us, asked if we needed help and gave us cheerful directions through the maze of roads, camping trailers and various structures. Once again inching forward on the snow packed "roads" and after having received a hearty send off and "good luck" from Security, I again was struck by what appeared to be genuine happiness from these young people.
Once we had located our sleeping quarters, my 13 year old son and I decided to employ the shuffling technique we had witnessed by those still moving around camp and to take a look around. We learned quickly that one shuffles both because a full range of motion in 5 or 6 layers of winter gear is not possible and shuffling also minimizes the chance of slipping on the icy roads and paths throughout camp. So, we shuffled from structure to structure, introducing ourselves and trying to get a grasp of how an impromptu camp organizes itself when there are literally thousands of people from all over the world rushing to join in a movement. We shuffled past the Veterans' tent, the Medic's clinic, the Two Spirit, Oglala, Cheyenne River and Rosebud camps. And then up on the hill, we saw a bit of activity -- shuffling in and out of a warm-looking glowing hut. So, we, too, shuffled up to see what was housed in there. As we pushed through the blankets and hay bales that protect and cover each doorway, we entered into a long building with stall after stall of composting toilets. And, I sh#-* you not here: We were welcomed by a young man warming his hands by the wood burning stove, with a big grin on his face and a voice that cheerfully bellowed: "Welcome to Sitting Rock!!" Our friend proceeded to proudly educate us about the new building and the toilets that he was assigned to monitor for a three hour shift. He could have talked with us for hours about the pros and cons of the various hand sanitizers, strategies for keeping the structure clean and their plans for how to ultimately "leave the valley better than they found it", but mi cinski (my son) and I decided to excuse ourselves after about 20 minutes.
And we left the commodes wondering what world had we entered where everyone under such extreme circumstances seemed so happy. For those perhaps drawing their own false conclusions about the source of the cheeriness, it is very clearly a drug and alcohol free camp, the conditions are primitive at best, the daytime and night time temperatures are arctic, the food is ok but not fast, plentiful or gourmet. Sleeping conditions are either on the ground, a camping pad or foam mattress -- and almost always cramped with others sleeping, snoring or acting restless in their sleeping bags within the same cramped structures. And then there is the constant presence and threat of arrest during the "actions" for those who race out of camp to block any real, or perceived movement by the pipeline workers. What then was feeding the cheeriness of those who had welcomed us? Maybe it's a "Security" or latrine thing. Or maybe I had been lucky and run into the three most (only?) cheerful "protectors" at camp. And so, we headed back to our community tent to try and sleep.
One of the first things you learn about camp life in those conditions is that around 3:00 in the morning, interior temperatures of an army tent or tipi are almost exactly the same as exterior temperatures. And so, the ritual is for those who are not snoring to get up, load the various camp stoves with wood and coax them into producing heat again. I had only met my tent mates a few hours before but was again struck by how cheerful a community can wake up together in the middle of the night to pull their winter gear on, load up stoves and work them until they glow golden and throw out beautiful heat once again. Even as the tents and tipis themselves begin to drip water from the melting icicles, I was again struck by the sense of community, camraderie and shared sacrifice.
And so, after catching an hour or two more of sleep, much of the camp then gathers for a community meeting in the "dome" -- learning about the latest moves from DAPL, the strategies being discussed to thwart them and the calls to action for everything from toilet construction to kitchen help. This is a diverse community with people quite literally from all over the world and from extremely diverse backgrounds (a handyman from Massachusetts, a professional from Hawaii, an activist from San Francisco, a Native retired Veteran, a resident of Pine Ridge, a civil engineer working most recently in Ghana, etc. etc. And yet, the meeting was respectful, productive, prayerful and focused. We left the meeting having met some kind, smart, happy and beautiful people. And eventually we made the decision that it was time to go home.
I nearly had to carry my son into our truck on the day we left. He would move there tomorrow if allowed (he's not) and he struggled to not be resentful that "we had to leave". It was a 12 hour drive back home and much of the way, we talked about what is underneath the surface of those living in the Oceti Sakowin, Rosebud and Sacred Stone camps. There is a beautiful Spirit moving there and with the people (those at the "guard" shack, those supervising the latrines and nearly all others water protectors at the various camps).
I myself struggle with the long term sustainability of the movement at Standing Rock. And I don't even pretend to have the solution for how to move from a fossil fuel economy to renewable energy. Never mind how to resolve and reconcile our country's tragic history and conquest of Native People, the treaties that have been violated and the crushing legacy of poverty and trauma that our shared history has inherited.
What I do know though after visiting Standing Rock is that in the midst of all of that, there is a beautiful place, with beautiful people and a Sacred intention and promise that can guide and inform us all. We all used to live in those sorts of communities, tribes and societies. And it worked. If one steps outside the contentious battle over the actual pipeline and simply looks at the Standing Rock camps, they remind us that there is a way to live together in a close community without material wealth and modern conveniences.
My prayer is for the safety, comfort and peace of both those living in the camps as well as the pipeline workers and the police. I pray for strength and wisdom for all involved and for a good resolution to the impasse over the pipeline. And mostly my prayer is that the Spirit of the camps stays strong, cheerful and spreads far beyond the camps themselves.