January 11–Today my mother (85) and my daughter (22) and I drove down to the encampment on the north bank of the Cannonball River. It was an astonishingly beautiful day on the northern Great Plains: cold, but clear, with an azure sky that contrasted perfectly with the snow. We took the long way around thanks to the road closure.
What follows is not meant to be a political statement. Like everyone I am aware that there are allegations of trespass, intimidation, property damage, drug use, etc. And, of course, there are allegations of intimidation of protestors by law enforcement authorities, incendiary rhetoric issued by ambitious politicians, the use of attack dogs on people observing their first amendment rights, etc. As with all encampments (from Boy Scouts to Woodstock, from Alcatraz to Kent State, from the State Fair to the campgrounds at Yosemite) the vast majority of participants are good and decent individuals, but inevitably there are scattered incidents of irresponsibility and wrongdoing, even crime. That is not my point. Nor am I wishing (here) to comment on the purposes, the validity, or the philosophical foundations of the protest movement. My point (here) is to provide a candid picture of a brief visit to the camp in the middle of winter, when the majority of campmates have temporarily or permanently departed. Those who would seek to politicize the simple observations of a curious and respectful family of three are mistaking our set of impressions for a some sort of un-nuanced political endorsement.
I do find it interesting that there are people who a: have never visited the camp, nor will; b: refuse to read books that might shed light on the historical background to this crisis; c: rush to judgement, condemnation, and deliberate distortion of the known facts on the ground; d: automatically take an anti-Indian position on this and other questions–but for all of those deliberate refusals to bring an open mind to hard cultural and political questions, sally forth without a shred of self-doubt as if they speak for the entire white community or the responsible white community. I know that my decades of hard reading about questions of this sort, and living in the midst of crisis after issue after controversy in which there is no simple or absolute truth to be had, I am essentially filled with ambivalence, doubt, skepticism, and uncertainty. But I try to keep my mind open, and I can guarantee that I am not done learning. William Butler Yeats had it right: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
After that painful preface, our observations at the encampment:
The camp was serene. A friendly young man greeted us at the gate. We took a few canisters of coffee and a bin of tobacco as a gesture of friendship and respect. This was the suggestion of one of my closest friends, someone who knows these things. He said he would make sure the gifts were put into the right hands.
We did not stay long. My mother and daughter had miles to go before they slept. We went to the camp because my daughter asked me to take her there. Mother was reluctant. She has mixed feelings about the protest movement.
When we left my daughter thanked me for taking her there with such depth and humility that I fell in love with her all over again; and my mother thanked us for taking her there. She said she has a new feeling about the protest movement after seeing the camp.
For the past six months I have been spending almost all of my discretionary time reading books by and about American Indians of the Great Plains. These range from Fergus Bordewich’s Killing the White Man’s Indian to Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, to the Autobiography of Wooden Leg, to a heartbreaking account of the flight of the Nez Perce by Kent Nerburn. Several times I have read about winter encampments in the years before white dispossession shattered the cultural unity of the Lakota, the Cheyenne, the Mandan, the Hidatsa, the Assiniboine, the Shoshone, the Crow, the Nez Perce….
What we saw today was not very different from the winter camps of the pre-crisis era: quiet, smoke rising slowly from lodges, including tipis; people moving fire wood; people telling stories; horses and dogs moving slowly around the camp; a beautiful silent Great Plains river making its serpentine way to the mighty Missouri; laughter; children playing in the snow.
I will go back, ready to take on whatever basic work the camp leaders might wish from a perfect stranger. Our visit will mark my daughter’s intellectual, political, and spiritual life, and it will change the way she uses her soul’s energy as she moves into full adulthood.
I urge every North Dakotan to visit the camp, for a longer period than we were able to give it today. I don’t think we can possibly know what to make of the Standing Rock protest unless we go see it with our own eyes, and evaluate it from experience and not from what passes in non-Indian circles far and safely away.
I regret not having gone down to the encampment sooner, but I have felt a shyness about just showing up there with so little immediate stake in the community. But we were not made to feel like strangers. We were made to feel welcome, and there was a peacefulness in the camp that moved all three of us–such three different people at different phases of their lives–so profoundly.