February 21, 2017

Standing Rock - Oceti Sakowin


Words & photos shot on 35mm film by Amanda Leigh Smith Edited by Kevin Howes
Oceti Sakowin Camp. (November 26, 2016)

The two weeks that I spent at Standing Rock changed my life. Three months have passed now and it is still difficult to put my complete experience into words. I can only imagine how challenging it would be for those who were there longer and were much more invested than I was, emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually. I empathize with the leaders, the locals, and the organizers. Faced with PTSD after returning home, I also felt a layer of guilt for those emotions, fully aware of my privilege that I got to return to a safe place, free of the violence I had just witnessed. Seeing police brutality first hand was something new to me, but for most First Nation and people of color, this is daily life, and has been for hundreds of years. That level of interconnectedness, activism and community was also something new to me, and again a level of privilege for being able to experience it.

My intention for going to Standing Rock was to be present in solidarity and to photograph what was happening as well as some minor reporting. I was one of thousands who traveled from all over the world to stand with Standing Rock in a collective effort to block the 1,172-mile 500,000-barrel-a-day oil pipeline from completing its journey under the Missouri River. Through prayer and direct action, we pledged to protect the water for Dakota Natives and some 17 million other Americans, and to prevent the desecration of traditional Native sites and land. Representatives of almost 300 North American tribes planted flags at camp, and Standing Rock became a global symbol of Indigenous rights and the fight over climate change, a truly historic event.

There are many stories of people I wish I could tell and wish that I knew more about, but I can only speak to my personal experience, what I observed and what it meant to me. I left camp just as I was beginning to scratch the surface of who was there and why. There are so many questions and concerns that I have, but because my visit was so short, I do not have enough information or involvement to expand on these reflections. I hope that over time, as others share their experience, more information and stories will be brought to light regarding: camp security, the casino, medics, lawyers, arrestees, cooks, maintenance crews, and garbage crews, the school, library, youth, donations, volunteers, and camp leaders.

When I look back and try to visualize Oceti Sakowin, the main Dakota Access Pipeline resistance camp, I see a massive ball of light and energy filled with thousands of layers and people. With a shared purpose, each layer or person followed a different path, intersecting with others while on their circular journey. Each layer and person accomplished a different objective, but all were equally important pieces to the greater puzzle. From the cooks to the medics, the lawyers to the arrestees, the janitors at the casino to the folks delivering propane and firewood to camp, the elders performing morning prayers to the folks servicing the port-a-potties, the construction crews building winter shelters for Water Protectors to the people back home sending money and donations to camp, everyone was connected by a shared goal. A goal that surpassed our own selfish desires, but reached far into a new emotional, spiritual, and psychological territory for most people; A place that I’ve gone to before in my mind, but have never been able to exercise through practice, especially with thousands of other people around. THIS. This is what is so hard to explain. The energy, the psychic power of camp that could somehow manifest anything you needed at the drop of a hat, the incredible resilience, hope, faith, and love in humanity, Mother Earth and the Creator. That through prayer, mindfulness and intention you could transcend into something better, stronger, more intuitive and connected to the universe.

I remember my heart racing as we pulled into the camp gates. The sun was shining as cars lined up along Highway 1806 and we pulled our 24-foot trailer through the south security gate and found a place to set up. There were many people there, but still lots of space for the choosing. We set up near other friends from Oregon, not far from the big white dome where morning meetings were held everyday. Cell service was blocked at camp except for media hill, a small mound overlooking the grounds. I texted my family to notify them of our safe arrival, and checked in at the media tent to submit my credentials and get a press pass. I looked out across the scene, soaking up the surreal and intense image of it all. You could feel the powerful energy of camp and the magnitude of what was happening like a tidal wave knocking you down. Sometimes this energy filled me with panic as if I were drowning, and other times it filled me up so full of love and carried me so high I thought I would never come back down to earth. Arriving with an incredible sense of urgency, I left with an incredible sense of intention. The structure of prayer and ceremony requires one to slow down, not panic and move with mindfulness, something that I want to carry over into my personal life and work. In a society so obsessed with urgency and instant gratification, patience and purpose could do us all a lot of good.

However, all social movements, no matter how pure their intentions, are never completely benevolent. They all include some levels of violence, drugs, sexism, hypocrisy, mismanagement and corruption. For a long while I felt like it would be a disservice to share that side of Standing Rock, mainly because I do not personally have enough diligent reporting to substantiate those claims, but it’s unreasonable to assume that a true social movement could exist without those things because these movements don't exist inside a vacuum, immune to the issues of the world. But just because this movement isn’t without flaws, it does not reduce the overwhelming value it has provided to us all. No one shows up perfect to a revolution. Each participant brought their own personal and emotional baggage, intentions and expectations. However, the breadth of people who showed up to support continues to move me. THOUSANDS of people from all walks of life, backgrounds, nationalities, ages, and identities came to support the Sioux Nation, in rural North Dakota and across the world, which is beyond incredible.

Mountains of donated supplies poured into camp constantly, the kitchens seemed to always be cooking something, the medic tents bustling, and construction was at an all time high as people weatherized their structures in preparation for the harsh winter that would soon come. Direct Action trainings happened every day and there was always a lawyer present for legal assistance. Everyone had their ears to the ground listening for who needed what, and if you needed something, from a supportive hug to firewood to a hot meal, it would usually only be a matter of minutes before it showed up in front of you. This intuitive energy and way of existing often felt like unexplainable magic. I can only dream of how beautiful the world would be if more of us operated our daily lives with such intention to help and provide for others, strangers and friends. Families gathered around campfires laughing or sharing songs, children played basketball or lacrosse in the dusty ground, and horses wandered free with grace and power along the riverbanks. The air was filled with the constant sound of drumming, chanting and flags flapping in the cold wind. I woke up and fell asleep every night to this Indigenous heartbeat. After my return home, I mourned this sound intensely. It had become a part of my spirit.

The lessons the world learned because of the still continuing struggle at Standing Rock are priceless, and the inspiration it has provided us with is immeasurable. “It’s ironic that after a history of facing genocidal policies, North America’s original peoples are leading a struggle on behalf of us all. They’re objecting to economic and political agendas that fail to elevate the sacred as one of our most important values so our constructs and institutions (economy, market and corporations) respect the natural systems we depend on…Nothing is more sacred than that which provides life and health: clean air, safe water, healthy soil, photosynthesis,” - David Suzuki (Yukon News February 3, 2017).
The fight for Native sovereignty and climate justice is far from over, but only beginning. No matter the outcome of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the key is what we can learn from Standing Rock. Standing Rock ignited a fire of revolution throughout the world and brought together thousands of people to stand against and help to eliminate corporate greed, colonialism and white supremacy. We have so much to gain from the successes and failures of this movement, lessons and values that we can apply to our individual lives as well as our communities.

During camp orientation I was given a sheet of paper with “The Seven Lakota Values”: Prayer. Respect. Compassion. Honesty. Generosity. Humility. Wisdom, and how they apply to Oceti Sakowin. Below are some of those values, as well as personal observations I made after leaving camp.
·      If this not your home territory, remember that you are a guest. If you recently arrived, please withhold from sharing your ideas right off the bat. Chances are, your idea has already come up and been addressed.
·      Give more than you take, including time and space. Listen, step back and step up. If you see someone that needs something, help them. We are accountable for the things we do, and for the things we don’t do. Withhold from offering ideas that you cannot commit to working on. Be present in a state of humility and grace. As part of our Oceti Sakowin family, you understand the reason why you came. Do not cultivate fear or doubt - it works against our cause. Remember why are here: to stop the pipeline as ceremonial camp.
·      Your strength is executed with a balance of gentleness and fierceness, and it is sustained by a sense of responsibility. Our right to exist comes with responsibilities to everything else in creation, to our ancestors and to the seven generations to come.
·      The land is not a resource. It is an entity that you have a relationship with and respect. Mother Earth is sacred.
·      Our enemies are also our relatives. They are our brothers and our sisters. We have to forgive them, hold out our hand and invite them back to the circle. Stand against them, but with an open heart, open mind, and with love. Hatred serves no one.
·      You serve best when you remain grounded, radically peaceful and spiritually strong. To do this you must prioritize self-care and self-love.
·      Look within yourself and think about where you belong in the formation. Not everyone is a leader, a warrior, and that is ok. Realize that no one shows up perfect to a revolution - including you. If you find yourself spending more time condemning the ideas of others than you are lifting others up, then you are not healing or building anything. Everyone has something to offer, even those you think are wrong.

I cannot express enough my gratitude for the people who joined me in our journey to Standing Rock: Cate, Claire, Jesse and Jeshua. Your love, support, kindness, laughter, strength and honesty will forever be cherished. I’m so grateful for those who I met at camp, who let me take their photo, who shared their stories, who shared their wisdom and time. I’m so grateful to those who worked so hard at the casino supporting everyone who came through providing us a safe and warm refuge from camp. I’m so grateful to the locals who will have to deal with the costs of this long after everyone leaves. I’m grateful to the water, who gives us life, but who is severely taken for granted. I’m grateful to our ancestors and the work they put in to provide for the life I live, and for the children who carry the incredible burden of dealing with the consequences of our collective actions. I so deeply yearn that over time this movement will change our societal and personal values, communities, education, religions, economy, food systems, and government. We have so much to learn, but this crisis is also our opportunity.

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