Report from Standing Rock


Helen Hudgens is a missionary kid raised among Aboriginal people in north Brazil. She is on the faculty of the North Park University School of Music in Chicago, where she co-directs the Gospel Choir. She is an Anabaptist living in intentional community and currently serves a Black Baptist church in Evanston. She is the proud mom of two young adults. This reflection was written on Dec. 1, 2016.

We took 20 North Park University students and 6 faculty/staff to Oceti Sakowin, Nov. 19 to 22. I stayed on to Nov. 26. Students braved the cold, jumped into volunteer roles sorting donations, helping in the kitchens and working in the medic areas.

Sunday night, Nov. 20, we were debriefing the day around a fire when a runner came through the camp, calling people to come forward to the bridge where police where “shooting people.” We had been told to not react too swiftly, that not all calls to action were vetted by camp leaders, so we waited. But we could see that half the camp was mobilizing toward the bridge north of camp, a road that has been blocked for 3 weeks by a massive police barrier and military vehicles. We could see clouds of smoke illuminated by floodlights and hear explosions. Soon, it was emergency vehicles coming back from that line to the medic area, with cries of “Injuries! Clear the road.” At that point I told the students: “Use good judgment. You don’t have to join this one. But if you want to, let’s go see how we can contribute.”

Most of us went to the medic area, where one car after another was unloading people completely soaked in freezing water, tear gas and pepper spray. The medics were performing admirably. It was great field medicine at work: a tent to decontaminate clothing and wash people down, warm clothes to change into, warm soup and tea – or, in some cases, an ambulance to take serious injuries to the hospital (the long way mind you, because the closest route was blocked). And there were serious injuries: lots of hypothermia, several cardiac arrests, rubber bullet contusions. One woman’s arm was so badly injured in an explosion that it almost had to be amputated. At some point, I decided I had to go up to the action and see what was happening. It was surreal. Unbelievable. 800 people on the bridge. Billowing sheets of water and tear gas backlit by floodlights. Military deployment behind razor wire that was at this point eerily covered in brilliant ice. A battle scene.

You’ve seen the pictures. I guess I just want to say that any reports that suggest that the water protectors on my side of that police line were being violent towards police is false. The water protectors were chanting, singing, shouting their slogans – Mni Wiconi! mostly – and moving forward into the line of fire in groups of twos and threes. Police were firing everything in their arsenal right at them at close range. Tear gas, concussion grenades, rubber bullets 3 inches long and 2 inches thick, fired from rifles. And then the water cannons, mounted on a military vehicle, not a fire truck. I stood just outside the 60 foot range of that thing but watched it aim and take down person after person. It was a lethal weapon in those temperatures. It was only by sheer luck (or divine protection) that no one died that night. It was clear to me that there was little command and control on the police side – no one to temper an almost adolescent joy in causing injury or death. It went on most of the night.

There is no excuse for this. There are only lies trying to cover egregious aggression by morally compromised, undisciplined law enforcement being paid to “serve and protect” the american fossil fuel industry. This is exactly the tactic being used in other countries (see Chevron and Ecuador). We’re finally seeing it here on home soil.

The camp was quiet and reeling from the trauma the next day. There is a rhythm to camp life that begins with morning prayers around the sacred fire in the center, every day before dawn. That did not happen Monday – probably because the leaders were either injured or attending to people who were injured. There was an open meeting held by the tribal elders at 4 p.m., one of many councils I was privileged to observe. There is room for people to speak, be heard, all held within a sacred space. The elders were not happy with the bridge action. One tribal member had taken an independent action, not approved by the elders, of trying to remove the two burned-out trucks the police had used to barricade the road (this after Morton County had failed on its promise to open the road). He had used his semi cab with a grappling hook and was successful in getting one truck off the road. That was when police massed at the line, and the camp mobilized in front of them, afraid that the police would come forward and raid the camp. For their part, the police were afraid the protectors were trying to push through the barricade. The elders summed it up this way: “This action was not grounded in prayer. That’s why people got hurt.”

The man responsible for the truck action was in tears and apologized. For the next two days there was a deep reassessment of how to reground ourselves, especially among the non-native allies who were beginning to pour into the camp by the thousands for the Thanksgiving weekend. A reassertion that the ground is prayer and commitment to non-violence. A simple trust that the cause is just and that God is on the side of justice. Against overwhelming odds – that the Spirit of God is stronger. And that the officers on the other side of the line are humans also deserving of respect and love. Prayers for their well being. So remarkably like Jesus! Understanding that these officers are in a trance, blinded by an evil system in its last death grip trying to hang on to “the kingdom of this world.” Prayers that they – and the rest of us – would wake up and live into our birthright as the human family, the children of God.

I went to Standing Rock feeling heavy. I was alarmed and depressed by the election, unsettled by a vague threat thickening the air around me. “I’ve lost my joy,” I told my daughter the day before I left. Seven days camped at Oceti Sakowin completely changed my mood.

For one thing, it’s amazingly beautiful country. Wide open skies and plains. Coyotes howling their music at night. Pheasants jumping out of the tall grass as we drove passed. Stars flaming in the cold night air. Crystalline new moon setting just before dawn. Hoar frost, half an inch thick, covering grass and tree branches (and tables and chairs) overnight, and then glowing as though lit up from the inside as the first rays of sun crept out of the hills. Beauty like that has always been a balm to my soul.

After an intense weekend, I was relieved that the NPU students and staff were safe, not completely frostbitten, and set to return to Chicago on Monday and Tuesday. I had been invited to stay on, partnering with a delegation from Christian Peacemaker Teams (the group that had provided our students with non-violence training before we left). And so I was gifted with a few more days of an immersion into another sort of beauty that I want to try to capture.

The Sacred Rock camps are, next to the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps the most important contemporary experiment in community, democracy, and free speech in recent memory:  an incubator for the next phase of activism and movement work for the Trump era. Functioning like the Highlander Center in the Civil Rights movement, it is a place to educate, to conspire, to learn by trial and error how to resist oppression, to tell stories and share wisdom from struggles all over the continent. It happens informally, around fire circles and kitchens and in affinity camps that have sprung up inside the big camps: “Unions for Standing Rock,” “Black Lives Matter NYC,” “Two-Spirit Camp,” “Veterans for Peace,” “Public School Teachers,” etc., plus dozens of First Nations encampments. It also happens in daily training sessions and council circles. All newcomers to camp go through an orientation, and everyone must be trained before they participate in direct action.

The day I went for training, the place was packed beyond capacity. A young Latinx woman from California introduced herself. She works for a non-profit that does activism training for communities of color. “I’m here at the invitation of the tribal elders. There are many perspectives on what constitutes non-violent direct action. You need to know that we are respecting and staying in line with these directives the elders have given us:

• We are protectors not protestors
• We are peaceful and prayerful
• “ —– isms” have no place here
• We are non-violent
• We respect the locals
• We are proud to stand – no masks
• No weapons or what can be considered a weapon
• Property damage does not get us closer to our goal
• No children in potentially dangerous situations
• We keep each other accountable
• This is a ceremony. Act accordingly!”

The “No —isms” piece was evident all over camp. People were using the language of “settler colonialism” (see Patrick Wolfe, 2006 here) and its attempt to erase indigenous culture, language and spirituality, detaching people from their heritage land. We kept being reminded that this is not new – “We’ve been fighting colonialism for 500 years!” True, the DAPL pipeline was being read as the latest exemplar in a closet full of ugly colonial abuses. But more than that, the disrespecting, entitled reach for power-over and the purposeful cultivation of hatred that DAPL was literally carving into the soil on these lands was a poison that all of us were being called to reject. Within ourselves. In this understanding, everyone had come into contact with settler/colonialism in some way and had been hurt and infected. And hurt people act out by hurting others, often those closest to them. Call it racism, sexism, misogyny, patriarchy, hetero-normativism, ableism or classism. How do we decolonize ourselves?

While the cry at camp was “What are we here for?” – “TO STOP THE PIPELINE!” it was clear that we were being asked to work for that goal “in a good way.” I heard that line over and over from indigenous people: in personal testimonies, “I’m standing here, talking to you now, and I’m coming in a good way,” or in prayer: “Creator, please help us show up here in a good way,” or as admonishment, “Get it together people! This is not a good way!” I was fascinated with what this “way” looked like, how it was being practiced. Here are some observations:

1. Everything is bathed in prayer. This is what moved me the most and, along with the no drugs or alcohol pillar, may be behind the distinction frequently made by our trainers: “This is not Burning Man or Occupy or Rainbow!” Prayer was the first and last activity. Before dawn, a deep-throated emcee rouses people through a booming loudspeaker: “Get up, Oceti! Wake up, Red Warriors! Wake up, Rosebud! We have work to do. You’re here for a reason! Wake up Christians! Dust off those Bibles and polish those crosses! This is not a vacation! Time to pray!”

Morning prayer convenes around a continuously tended sacred fire. Sage and cedar are burned. Songs are sung, and prayers are spoken or chanted in Lakota and English. Someone offers an exhortation. The women then lead a water blessing ceremony and take the gathering in a procession to the river’s edge, where personal prayers and songs are offered. Prayer is also THE medium of non-violent direct action. I participated in 3 of these over the course of 3 days. Every one had the goal of moving to and holding a symbolically significant public or contested indigenous space by means of a large circle of people,and then praying and holding ceremony on that space.

2. I saw a very spontaneous, large collective (on Nov. 24 the camp passed 15,000!), being held collaboratively with balance and equilibrium. All allies are welcome, and yet we are guests. There are multiple circles of conversation and decision-making. Sometimes, the circles are restricted to tribal elders, but mostly they are completely open. Many voices and perspectives are given the floor. Every action is debriefed. People are validated, encouraged, honored. People showing up with different gifts are given room. A man from Ojai, CA, who puts on “French toast events for 500” showed up on Thanksgiving Saturday and promptly was given access to “Grandma’s Kitchen.” (Grandma herself, a Piute elder from the Owens River Valley, CA, has been feeding 400 to 500 people per meal for a month now – always smiling, always ready to give a hug.)

3. People are encouraged to be independent and resourceful, not depending on the camp’s resources AND they are living communally. Free clothing in one tent; free food in another; free basic medic care; a winterizing construction team willing to put a wood floor in your tent. “Take care of yourself first. You’re no good to the camp if you hurting your own body in some way.” (A ban on alcohol, drugs and possession of weapons is strictly maintained.) “Take care of your family and friends next.” There are counseling tents; a tent for massage, another for acupuncture. People routinely talk about PTSD and ways to cope.

4. The needs and concerns of women and children receive great attention. A “grandmother’s circle” is held every day. Older ones admonish the younger ones about all kinds of things: “No women and children sleeping in their cars!” or, “You must wear a skirt in ceremony!” and then giving the reason why: “The skirt is your tepee. It channels the power of mother earth from her skin upward to your heart and then up through your head to Grandfather sky. It empowers you.” (That was enough to get me wearing mine!) The younger ones are encouraged to raise concerns: “I think we need to ask the men to gather and talk amongst themselves about domestic abuse and rape culture.”

5. There is space for laughter and song, storytelling and dancing. Oh – and lots of drumming!

I’m not sure which one of these worked its healing potion into my world-weary bones that week. I know that the last morning, as I stood in a prayer circle by that frozen river, I did a full body check-in. I felt lighter. Something had shifted. I went back internally to a couple of wounded places that have resisted healing for a long time. Even those were peaceful that morning. Maybe it was the sweet scent of cedar in the air. Maybe it was a balm rising from the hard mud flat beneath me through my ceremonial skirt. “Thank you, Jesus” was on my lips. Thank you Great Spirit, flowing across this land.