After the final AirBnb evening, I was off on the last leg of my outward journey, with a slip of scrawled directions from the NoDAPLSolidarity.org site in my hand and the little remaining space in my car stuffed with firewood for the camp. It was a glorious day for travel: the miles of rolling brown hills, studded with oases of cottonwoods and shrubbery, rolled past, with hawks and buzzards circling high overhead; the breeze through my open window was brisk and scented with the fragrance of water and living earth.
A long stretch on ND state road 1806 was the last bit…a stretch marked by a sudden eruption of weathered rock “badland” formations, private homes and rich river valley groves where the road parallels the Cannonball River. And then….came the signs for an “information point.” It was the roadblock I’d been expecting – originally erected by the Morton County sheriff’s department, then taken over by the ND National Guard, ostensibly to protect the drivers and pedestrians passing by the camps (censured by Amnesty International and protested by the water protectors, the block was finally removed on 10/18).
Feeling my palms sweating against the wheel, not knowing what to expect, I advanced slowly to the stop sign. Concrete barriers closed off the road to a single lane; guardsmen stood at the entrance and exit. One approached me: “Ma’am, have you come this way before?” I said I hadn’t; he nodded: “There are demonstrators up ahead; the speed limit drops a ways beforehand. Just go slowly and stay alert. Go on ahead.” He waved me through; the guardsman at the exit point nodded and smiled, and I was on my way with a sigh of relief.
Miles rolled past with no traffic or signs of habitation, and I was starting to wonder – where was the camp? Finally, a makeshift cluster of tents and shacks showed up, heralded by signs along the roadside fence: Mni Wiconi – NoDAPL – Water Is Life. I slowed, pulled over and waved; a stern young man waved back. “I’m looking for Oceti Sakowin,” I called to him, the name sounding Japanese as I guessed at the Lakota pronunciation. “I’m bringing donations.”
“Oceti Sakowin?” He was correcting my pronunciation; I noted the soft “sh” sound substituted for the C and S, the emphatic “ko” in Sakowin. “It’s a ways ahead, not far, you can’t miss it.” I nodded, thanked him, and went on.
Seeming miles more. NoDAPL signs festooned a fence beside a gated drive; surely that couldn’t be it. I looked ahead; no sign of anything. Was this it? I turned around and headed back to the cluster of shacks, pulled over and stopped as a truck paused on the other side of the street to check in. Snippets of banter floated back to me.
Going up to the elder in the driver’s seat, I asked with careful pronunciation, where Oceti Sakowin was. He twinkled at me: “I’ll guide you there, but it will cost you…hmmm, yes, a big juicy cheeseburger and fries.” I answered his smile with a laugh: “I have fruits and veggies and lots of clothes and blankets to donate. Will that do?” He reached out,clasped my hand briefly and said, “That’s for the people. Get in your car and I’ll lead you there.”
I thanked him, scurried to my car, turned around, and we set off. And there, just a short distance past the point where I’d stopped, was the full vista of the camp below us in a river valley. A sharp driveway opened onto a broad dirt avenue lined with the flags of the Native American nations supporting the pipeline resistance; the camp spread out widely on both sides with tipis, tents, and Army tents clustered together in loose circles. A large portable solar panel was positioned near the entrance by a cluster of Army tents, one of them labeled as the camp school. Nearby stood a tipi and a pristine row of Spot-a-pots.
My guide turned in; I followed; and at the makeshift security station by the entry, a young man stopped me, smiling as he noted the load of bags and firewood bundles in my car. “I’m a visitor, bringing donations,” I told him, and he directed me to the dropoff point.
Bumping along the rutted dirt road past campers, tipis, tents, that’s when it hit me – I am here, at Standing Rock. As I worked with several young men to disgorge the bags of donations from my car, the sounds washed over me: drumming… poet Lyla June Johnston reciting her work calling all nations to rise up…the rhythmic thwack-thump of a young man splitting wood… the drone of a surveillance helicopter overhead.
I looked around at the people walking past: most were Native American, many represented other heritages of the human family. All the reading, all the info-sharing I’ve done on Standing Rock doesn’t touch the reality, I thought. This is so much more than anything I had expected or imagined.