Journey to Standing Rock – Check Your Ego, Expectations, and Plans at the Door

North Dakota, United States (TFC) – I regretted not having my computer and keyboard with me on this journey to Standing Rock. I knew that regardless of the notes I took and the promises I made myself to hold close to memory all of the things I wanted to share, much would be lost. Now, 5 days after returning home, that feeling is even stronger. I’ve meant to sit down and document the experience a hundred times since returning but haven’t done so until now for reasons unknown. I think part of the delay is feeling inadequate to the job along with the understanding that what I contributed to the effort is minuscule, in my mind almost insignificant and the juxtaposition of that feeling with the anticipation when we first started out is jolting. I have no idea where this narrative will go. I don’t plan to do very much editing and if it goes on and on and on and you choose to leave it behind, that’s okay! I can tell you I came home changed and challenged as if this is the culmination of 65 years of the journey so far. Here goes……

* If you plan to go to Standing Rock, be sure to check your ego and white self at the door when you leave your house. This is a hard lesson for many of us. It was humbling to say the least, to be in a community where my face and experience were part of a most noticeable minority; where my thoughts about what/how things should or should not go are absolutely meaningless and quite frankly, disdained by the native people who are on their own sacred land and IN CHARGE of every iota of planning, decision making and definition. I was reminded of the lessons I am still learning from Black Lives Matter – support does NOT mean leadership or decision making. Support means accepting that we are limited in our understanding and that often those whom we support have every right and reason to look at our faces and first see a historical enemy.

* The water protectors and those who are camping in their support are there in a spirit of prayer, not only for the land, water and all life associated with them, but for the people who are attacking them with rubber bullets, water cannons, LRAD sirens, tear gas, mace and most horribly, media complicity in keeping the truth from most of America. When deciding about whether or not to attend mandatory training for anyone contemplating participating in direct action, I decided not to for two reasons. The first reason was the selfish of the two. I have family and personal needs here at home that need my attention. I chose not to risk arrest that

Mni Wiconi! - Photo Credit - Debra Cohen

Mni Wiconi! – Photo Credit – Debra Cohen

might detain me for longer than I had planned to be away from home. The second reason is more complicated and one that I will sit with for a long time. It is expected that folks on the front line will come in the same spirit of prayer and positivity that is being lived by the Lakota and other indigenous people there. I had to admit that I was not yet in a place where I could promise to honor that space and my presence on the front line would not only be disrespectful but also jeopardize the spirit of my hosts’ intentions and beliefs. This was not the time to challenge what is culturally sacred. I hope to return early next year with an ability to abide. It would not only reinforce the protectors but would, I believe, make me a better person. But for now, it’s a process toward a goal.

* I could describe the beauty of the land we traveled through but I suggest you see it first hand, everything from mountains to flat lands. We stopped for lunch on our way out in a small town somewhere past Fargo. I was immediately hit with the fact that we are indeed many countries here in what we call America. It was obvious that my eastern, New England self was a visitor in a land of people whose daily lives resembled little, if any of my own. Little did I realize just how much more that would be evident when we arrived at Standing Rock.

If I felt a difference among white farmers at a Burger King restaurant, it was nothing compared to what was coming!

Day 1:
Arriving at Oceti Sakowin camp on Thursday morning was a visually thrilling experience. Before reaching the north gate where everyone enters, you can see the row of flags lining the entrance road. Flags are prominent throughout camp but this main entrance road, really a rutted dirt path tamped down by hundreds or perhaps thousands of vehicles, is an awe inspiring sight. To the right past the entrance is a big green donations tent where people are asked to leave supplies. The inside of the tent is filled to almost capacity and the man who

was there when I delivered some of what we had taken seemed to know exactly where everything should go. Bars of soap in the green bucket, tents in the pile over here and tarps in a pile over there. Order out of chaos. Directly next to the donations tent is the area for the sacred fire. Here is the place for ceremony, music, singing, announcements, gathering for the elders and a fire into which the prayers of the people are combined with sage and tobacco. Throughout camp, people were putting up shelters that include tents, tepees and in some cases, wooden structures. Other people were staying in trailers and cars. Most people were doing whatever was necessary to make their shelters as winter proof as possible because they are determined to stay until this injustice and environmental threat is over. I was a stranger, hearing languages I didn’t understand and seeing faces that certainly didn’t look like the residents in my town. Horses, the smell of wood fire and burning sage, road dust and more were a temporarily overwhelming feeling but a safe one none-the-less.

Coming into camp through the north gate - Photo Credit - Debra Cohen

Coming into camp through the north gate – Photo Credit – Debra Cohen

It took a while to get our bearings in camp. When it was first erected there was an order to the layout but as more and more people arrived, setting up camp and claiming areas for relatives to stay together, the layout was likely to change somewhat on a weekly basis. The constants were the north entrance gate, the south exit gate and the hill that is referred to as Media Hill or Facebook hill because that is the only spot where you are likely to find phone connections. It provides a wonderful view of the entire camp below. The Cannon Ball River divides the camp on the south side from Rosebud camp which is actually on reservation land. Oceti Sakowin camp is on land claimed by the pipeline people but is really treaty land that should never have ended up in anyone’s hands but the Lakota people. That is why they are there now… to lay claim to what is theirs as well as to stop the pipeline from going under the river.

Standing Rock - Photo Credit - Debra Cohen

Standing Rock – Photo Credit – Debra Cohen

Before leaving home, I was connected via phone to Travis Harden, a native singer, teacher and protector who has been at camp for quite a while. I was connected to him by friends from another activist group and Travis and I agreed to meet at camp. How do you meet someone you’ve never seen in a camp filled with thousands of people? I found out. You say out loud to your friend that you hope you will find Travis and a stranger standing next to you asks, “You looking for Travis? His tent is right over there. I’ll take you over.” And that was the beginning of a week where one after the other, things fell together and I learned that anything I might have planned ahead of time was merely a passing thought. What was supposed to happen happened with regularity all week long and all for the greater good regardless of our plans.

We had some food items and asked about the best place to take them. It was suggested that we take them to a particular camp where a kitchen had been set up for the general community. Offering food led to our being invited to dinner and dinner led to our offer of showers at the hotel for our hosts. That first night, three young women accepted the offer and the shower story began. We were supposed to deliver food to that location because three women needed showers. It’s as simple as that.

Day 2
We tried to find Travis as we’d arranged to meet him at a certain time this afternoon and drive him to the hotel for a shower. The time came and went. No Travis… our first lesson in forgetting about plans and just letting things happen. We delivered more supplies to various places and saw the construction of yurts. Yurts are reportedly extremely warm and the healing and medical people need as many such areas as possible for helping those in need.

There was already a significant contingent of veterans, mostly native, living at camp. An announcement was made around 11:30 that the veterans were getting ready to march to the bridge where a confrontation with militarized police had taken place earlier in the week. They were marching to show solidarity with everything the camp stands for – protection of the water, protection of the land and protection of the people. Mni Wiconi. Water is Life. Everything is connected and if we don’t take care of our precious ones now we will have nothing to sustain us later. When I saw the procession begin up the hill I asked someone standing by if we were invited to walk with the veterans. I was respectfully but most directly told that we were invited to walk BEHIND the veterans. It was an example of the expectation that we are guests and will respect our place among natives, elders and others there with particular experience. I followed behind with hundreds of other people. The veterans walked with song and drums, flags and pride. I thought a lot about my father, as I always do when I engage in actions prompted by this country’s blindness and was aware, not for the first time, that this is no longer the country he fought for. It is no longer a country where those in power can expect those with marginalized power are going to accept those conditions.

Veterans' Day, the veterans at camp - Photo Credit - Debra Cohen

Veterans’ Day, the Veterans at Camp – Photo Credit – Debra Cohen

Later that day I was up on Media Hill and a young man was being interviewed by an independent reporter. Reporters were everywhere, interviewing natives and non-natives, long standing campers and new comers alike. This young man did a wonderful job of calmly and completely describing what had brought him there and why he supports the protectors. He told the reporter about the prayerful nature of the camp and how prayer was the driver of all actions, both in camp and with the police as well. He talked about the intention of the camp to come to everything from this spirit of prayer. I listened through to the end of the interview. And I began to think about prayer from a perspective that I’d never considered. I always thought of prayer as the asking of something from something outside of ourselves. I’m now beginning to understand prayer as a process of pulling up the deepest good from within ourselves and filling space with that good rather than with what limits our potential.

It got dark fairly early and with the disappearance of the sun comes a severe drop in temperatures. We went back to the hotel and as I got off the elevator on our floor, there was a man sitting, his computer plugged into the wall, looking intent on his work and very tired. I said hello in passing and he returned the greeting. When I was just a few steps past him he asked “Do you have a room, a shower?” I immediately said “Yes!” thinking he understood that was an invitation to use it. When he asked, “Can I take a shower there?” I told him that of course he could! Of all the times that we could have returned to the hotel, we chose that time, when Steven was sitting outside the elevator in need of a hot shower after days at camp. We were where we were supposed to be.

Day 3:
This day will be remembered as our Betty day. Diane knew that her friend was at camp providing legal representation for people who had been arrested and/or injured. Diane arranged a time to meet her to say hello and deliver some supplies to her. As it turned out, Betty was in much need of a break, a shower and some sleep in a real bed. She was also in need of making arrangements to cover her absence in case she returned home for a while so we hung together for much of the day, staying on hand should she choose to come for the shower and break she so needed. It took a while and left time to discover more of the camp and get a sense of what life is like there. During this afternoon, while waiting for these things to work themselves out, I saw the landing of a camera drone just feet from where I was standing. This one belonged to camp security and the drones are very useful in keeping track of the massing of police units. I also took tobacco to the elders at the sacred fire as a gift for their use in offerings and prayer. I was directed to a particular man who took my hand when I gave him the tobacco and thanked me for being there. I thanked him for allowing me to be there. It was one of many moments of silent eye contact that said so much more than words.

Betty decided she would come back to the hotel to shower and spend the night before heading back home the following day. This decision came late in the day and as we started heading out of camp, the moon began to appear. It was two nights before Full Moon would arrive but it seemed as beautiful and perfect a moon as we’d ever see; giant, lush in color and seemingly close enough to touch. I cannot ever expect to describe in words the beauty or sense of awe at the sight of its rising. I can only tell you that being in that space at that time with those people was a blessing that I hope never to forget.

Moon rise at Standing Rock - Photo Credit - Debra Cohen

Moon Rise at Standing Rock – Photo Credit – Debra Cohen

Earlier in the day Diane had met the young women with whom we’d had dinner on our first night and they said they were having a social with their family later that evening and we were invited to attend. As tired as we were, we decided we’d like to go so once we were rested and had Betty settled in for her healing time, we drove the 9 or so miles back to camp. We never did locate them but instead found ourselves drawn to the sacred fire site. While I was standing alone, concentrating on a hot chocolate that was warming my hands, I heard a voice at my left ear that said, “They stole if from us.” I turned around to see a man I’d not met before and thought he was talking about the land we were on and trying to protect. But then he reminded me of the Bernie button I had on that side of my ear muffs! We talked at length about Bernie and what we lost when he didn’t get the nomination. At the same time, Diane met people on the bench she chose to sit on some distance away. One of them was Precious, a young man working security who had his own story to tell. Did Precious need a shower? Why, yes! We were where we were supposed to be yet again. We drove to the south gate exit where he needed to pick up some supplies and there we met another young guy named Angry Pelican. Don’t ask me why he is called that. I haven’t the slightest idea. Did he need a shower? Why, yes he did! So we headed back to the hotel with two new shower hungry acquaintances. We pretty much figured out by this time that our main mission during our stay was to provide this much needed service. Sure, we helped out in other ways but this was to be the defining work of the week. Before hitching back to camp, Precious gifted both of us some stones he’d been holding. They are here at home with me now, on the window sill next to my sage and smudge shell.

Day 4:
When we arrived at camp this morning the wind was getting strong, a sign of what is coming as winter sets in. There was a healing ceremony happening at the sacred fire, the circumstances of which I will not share but I will say that it was an example of people’s

Winona, the remarkable woman who is feeding the protectors 3 meals a day - Photo Credit - Debra Cohen

Winona, the remarkable woman who is feeding the protectors 3 meals a day – Photo Credit – Debra Cohen

capacity to forgive rarely seen in my usual experience. Hearing about what brought people together in sacred circle, both those wronged and those who had committed a cruel wrong against them and then seeing them come together in resolution was quite something to witness. It was another piece of the picture of Oceti Sakowin camp, a place of not only prayer but peace. I thought about my own culture and experience and wondered if I would have the same capacity to forgive. Would I be able to move from my fist in the air self to becoming one capable of putting bitterness aside. I hope so but I don’t have an answer quite yet. The ceremony ended with an apology given and accepted, forgiveness, sage and prayer. More to think about………

I had a chance to offer some help at one of the several kitchens at camp. Winona’s kitchen has been serving three meals a day to anyone who stops by. Her kitchen is protected from the rain and wind by tarps and while most of the cooking is done under this cover, the storage of food supplies, cooking supplies and firewood along with the washing, rinsing and drying of dishes was all exposed to the elements. An important reminder of how everything is relative to other conditions was realized when the pan of water I was using to wash dishes became far darker than any water I would have otherwise considered continuing with at home. What would have been discarded in the comfort of a warm house with running water was instead used with appreciation that any water was available at all. It was a reminder of how far removed most of us are from the very basic needs and accommodations of living. It was also a reminder that physical comfort is relative. While not yet cold because the sun hadn’t set yet, temperatures and wind made for cold hands in dish water. It was mind over matter and remembering that we are fighting for water so that there will be plenty of clean, decent water for everyone allowed me to continue in comparative comfort.

Volunteers at Winona's kitchen - Photo Credit - Debra Cohen

Volunteers at Winona’s kitchen – Photo Credit – Debra Cohen

We met several more people that afternoon. Debi is a therapist who was working with people in need of psychological healing. Did Debi need a shower? Why, yes she did! Norman is a friend from here in CT whom I’d met at various events here but didn’t yet know well. I knew which camp he was staying at and sought him out to say hello as a friend from home. We ran into Travis again and he finally got the shower he wanted that evening! I saw Steven again, in the same chair as when we met the first time. As I got off the elevator he said, “Hello Shower Woman!” and I’ve decided that is a name I would proudly go by. Realizing that we’d be needing more towels as more people came to shower, I went into the hallway to look for some and met Jade who was standing and talking to folks about being so tired and needing to get warm. Did Jade need a shower? Why, yes! And the mission grew….

You know that feeling you get when the last day of vacation arrives and you don’t want to think about returning home? That was very much a part of my last day at Standing Rock and it turned out to be a most significant day as lessons go. Our plan was to leave the hotel and drive to camp fairly early in the morning but we were moving slowly and not accomplishing that as expected. My phone rang and it was someone named Rudy (not sure of the spelling) who said he’d gotten my name from Norman and was wondering if we could offer a shower. Why, yes we could! He then asked if he could bring an elder with him. Of course! And was it possible for the elder to stay in our room for the night before heading back home the next day. Yes, without question, yes! Moments later there was a knock at the door and we greeted Rudy, the elder in question and several other people, all hoping for the wonders of a shower. C’mon in and welcome! By the time everyone was unhurriedly finished, it was well into the afternoon. Our day had not placed us in camp to help out in a kitchen or sorting out donations. It had put us, once again, where we were supposed to be for the people who showed up at our door.

Arriving back at camp later than planned, we found a few last supplies in the car and I set off to share them. I decided to first deliver some socks and a blanket and while there chose to also leave my own hat. It had become a little too large for me as the elastic stretched. It was my favorite hat and it could be repaired but the thought of leaving it there for someone else to use was a delicious feeling, as my mom would say. A young woman was busy sorting and organizing donations and after some small talk about finding the right place for everything, I

Standing Rock - Photo Credit - Debra Cohen

Standing Rock – Photo Credit – Debra Cohen

said I wanted to leave my hat and why. That got us to talking more and when we were obviously at the end of our conversation we each started at the very same moment, and with the same words, to say how glad we were to have met each other. She said I must be from the same part of the country as her because we sounded so much alike. I said I was from CT and she said she was too. “My name is Debra. Are you…..?” “Yes! I’m Laura!” What followed was the sight of two grown women hugging and jumping up and down at the same time. Laura and I know several of the same wonderful people back home, activists for Bernie and other fine causes. We were each hoping to meet each other but that seemed to get lost in the course of the week. But here we were all because I stopped to leave a favorite hat and we had a conversation. We were where we were supposed to be because my plan to be at camp early that morning was undone by a phone call from someone I’d never met, because I decided to stop at that donation spot first rather than last. Because…. I asked Laura if she wanted a shower. Why, yes, she most certainly did! She traveled back to the hotel with us that night and stood under warm water for the first time in too long followed by sharing dinner in the hotel restaurant.

Another stop that afternoon was to leave behind three posters on which folks in Hartford had written their hopes, concerns and messages for the people at Standing Rock. I delivered them to the right person to get them to the right destination. After explaining what they were, he told me that they would be stored with many other items to be displayed at a future memorial that the people hope will be built to Standing Rock. It was another silent eye contact moment, one of thanks in both directions, communication between two people separated by culture and experience until that moment.

After dinner on our last night in camp, we drove Laura back to her camp site. Another reason for returning was that I wanted to breathe in one more night’s worth of Oceti Sakowin’s night time air. It was an effort to breathe in some of the prayer, intention and sacred essence of the camp so deeply that it would remain in my core forever. I believe it will in the form of a new conception of prayer and as true a sense of community and mission as I have ever experienced. Driving back from camp for the last time, out of nowhere, seemingly inches away from the driver’s side of the car, there appeared a deer. I managed to swerve and missed it by a hair and it was gone. I might have, on other occasions just thought it a lucky thing to have missed a deer that was crossing the road. On this occasion I am not so sure. It was there, unmoving, as if waiting for me, reminding me to expect the unexpected, that when I think I am in control I am most likely not. The image of that deer will stay with me as surely as what I breathed in from the night’s air.

Oceti Sakowin Camp - Photo Credit - Debra Cohen

Oceti Sakowin Camp – Photo Credit – Debra Cohen

Once we were on the road headed home, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Rudy on our last day in the hotel room. After we had all introduced ourselves and folks settled in for showers and a rest, he asked me what tribe I belong to. I’d never been asked that question and it took me by surprise. Even more of a surprise was my inability to answer and I simply said, “I don’t know.” It was a dark moment, not having an immediate answer for what to Rudy was a very simple question. It was then that I realized that we had made 18 showers available to people who are protecting the water in recognition that water is life. I knew at that moment that as soon as I got home to CT I would take out my mother’s chai, symbol of life and the number 18 to my Jewish family. I put it on the same chain on which I wear my Goddess figure, symbol of my Pagan family. Take that to mean whatever it might to you. It changed my sense of belonging and “tribe” in a profound way.

Standing Rock - Photo Credit - Debra Cohen

Standing Rock – Photo Credit – Debra Cohen

I’ve finally finished this account 6 days after I began. In the days since I got back, I’ve been happy to be home with family and friends but I’ve also thought about going back and wondered when that might happen. In the last 24 hours, another chance has presented itself. Sarah, my friend with crisis intervention experience, has asked me to join her in Standing Rock to help support the veterans who are expected to arrive there on Dec. 4th and face the militarized police forces on behalf of the Lakota and other people who have been defending the land for so very long. My next trip to
Standing Rock begins in just 5 more days with a much more focused intent along with expectations of facing winter conditions that moved in only after Diane and I had already left. What we experienced was Spring compared to what Sarah and I might find when we get there. I am going with faith that we will be okay. I will travel with the belief that when we get there we will be called to be where we’re supposed to be. I’ll arrive with a growing appreciation of prayer and a willingness to let it happen. I’m looking forward to hearing the words that greeted us one morning when we drove into camp… “welcome home.”

Mni Wiconi ~ Water is Life


This report prepared by Debra Cohen for The Fifth Column.