The entire geography of the Standing Rock Camp had changed with the flood of would-be protestors, their cars, vans, and buses coagulating with tipis and tents to make short work of any previous landmarks I had dedicated to memory. My cold weather gear had done just what it was supposed to. So well, in fact, that I was drenched in sweat from my idiot’s sojourn through snow and slush and mud.
Over and over I would run the perimeter of our side of Flag Row, working ever inward in a spiral or concentric circles or button-hooking down each and every road, looking for the subtle differences between our tent and those that surrounded it. My legs had started to ache from walking, each step more difficult than it should be, with spikes of pain shooting from my heavy feet to wrap around my legs and lower torso.
I thought of one tent that had people who were awake and might be able to help. One chance before I just burst into a random dwelling and went to sleep, maybe waking up bloody, but alive. Swallowing any dignity I had left, I walked to the sign-in station where we had originally arrived, which had become the makeshift Headquarters for the Veterans Standing for Standing Rock movement.
As I opened the tent flaps and ripped off my balaclava, a gust of balmy air hit my face while my eyes began adjusting to the red light gently illuminating the inside. Ice had frozen on the mask where I had been exhaling, leaving my nose and upper lip numb, save for a sharp pain. The same two women from earlier in the day were once again behind the table that had previously been littered with forms, pens, and envelopes. Now there were hand warmers, fruit, mismatching gloves lost to the journey and a stray pencil on top of a notepad, the fire from the wood-burning stove steadily radiating soft, warm promises of a peaceful slumber.
A man sat tending to the stove, shuffling around red coals with a stick torn from one of the logs sitting at the base. Two more stoves had been placed next to the thick metal poles that were holding up the heavy green canvas. The woman in the center, slightly thick, with pink hair tied into a ponytail, smiled with tight lips and lifted her head inquiringly.
I looked at her, crestfallen, and gestured outside.
“I promise I’m not an idiot,” I lied, trying to paint a picture of worth with a shitty palette. She continued to smile, nodding her head.
I scratched my head, thinking of the best response to avoid mocking. If they wound me up, I was too tired to hold back.
“Any landmarks to speak of?” She tilted her head slightly with the inquiry.
“Well, yeah. Sure.” I listed them, then described my tent. The man who was tending the stove looked up.
“I know exactly where you’re talking about.”
My heart jumped. I had to have walked past my tent a dozen times looking for it. Finally, some resolution.
“You go straight down Flag Row, keep going until you see the horse corral, turn left and it’ll be on your left.”
I looked at him warily, my legs already straining from walking in snow nonstop for hours.
“You sure about this? I don’t think my tent was that far away.”
“Definitely sure. Just take a left past the horse corral.”
I thank the three of them, then left, eager to take my medicine that prevented me from becoming… hard to manage. A soft breeze hit my face as I left, the gentle nudge more than enough to get to my bones. I zipped up my jacket to keep from my sweat being turned to ice, put on my balaclava, and heartily went forth to find my destination.
An hour later and I was back at the Headquarters tent, talking with the same man who had given me directions before. As my jaw began clenching and unclenching, the second woman chimed in, 5’6”, athletic, with short black hair, chimed in.
“I’m going that way. I’ll show you where it is.”
The two women conferred with one another, holding hands while whispering their care for each other. It was touching, so I tamped down my impatience and waited by the wood stove. After a couple of minutes, I was now being escorted. Once we arrived at the place where she thought my tent was, she realized it wasn’t there.
“I know, right?! Sneaky canvas bastard...”
I have to give her credit. She walked with me for another hour and a half, my ego preventing me from showing her the limp I had developed from walking for six straight hours. With frustration building as much in her as me, she finally came to the conclusion to which I was secretly begging.
“Well, let’s go back to Headquarters. You can look for it again tomorrow morning.”
I was going to get sleep. Granted, only a few hours, but by now… it was sleep.
The tent gave me another warm embrace as I walked past the pink-haired woman, shrugging my shoulders while she gave me a toothy smile. She was proud of her girlfriend as well, which you could see in the glances they would give each other.
I was given a red and grey sleeping bag and a cot that was right next to a stove that would be refilled sporadically throughout the night. It was around 1 in the morning when I thought to text Walid, remembering then that his phone didn’t work in camp. Poor reception. So I laid my head down on my balled-up ski jacket and my eyes slammed shut.
Thirty minutes of slumber the depths of which could swallow continents and I wake up to a woman panicking about the stove, exclaiming to the people in the cots around her that something needed to be done about the stove melting. After twenty minutes of convincing her that the steel stove wasn’t melting, angry to the point of wanting to laugh hysterically, I finally calmed down and went to back to sleep. Precious, infinite sleep, where all of the problems of the worl-
“Everybody get the fuck up!!! We’ve got a missing person!!!”
“Goddamnit,” I thought. “Walid panicked and now the whole camp is up because of me. The man’s gone and switched into “motherly” mode and I won’t hear the fucking end of it.” Then I looked at my phone. It was 3:30. Somewhere inside, a voice said “you deserve this.”
I put on my ski jacket and the digital combat fatigues I wore in the Marine Corps, along with my untied boots, and ran over to a guy who was FAR too excited for 3:30 in the morning.
“You might be talking about me, man. I got lost earlier and they let me crash here. I’m attached to the group from North Caro-”
“We gotta go! Now! Come with me!”
I gestured back at my gear.
“Sure. Just let me-”
“Let’s go! It’s right up here!” He pointed toward the rest of camp, then took off through the tent. I thought “Well, if it isn’t that far…” and took off after him. He burst into another tent, yelling “everybody get up! We have a missing person!” A minute later, after more frantic yelling, he burst out of the tent. I was freezing, with no cold weather gear for my head, hands, or legs. In a hurry to get back to the warmth of the tent, I tried to make him understand.
“Hey, brother. It might very well be me you’re looking for. You see, all these people showed up at once and-”
“Hold this!” He placed a long, metal flashlight into my bare hand.
Cold shot up my arm as I tucked the flashlight into my armpit, holding my hands in my jacket pocket so they wouldn’t become frostbitten. He clapped me on the back and said “We won’t know until we get to where we’re going. Let’s go!” With that, he darted off once more, taking large strides while speaking frantically into a walkie talkie.
Several hundred yards later and my body had become a twisted M.C. Escher print of hot and cold, the core of me like a furnace while my extremities were fighting for their lives. Ice had begun collecting on my shoelaces, so I tied them using fingers that now were more reminiscent of claws than anything human. By the time we arrived at the tent where the information on the missing person was kept, the sense of urgency toward self preservation was beginning to creep upon me. After exiting the tent, I ask the guy who we’re looking for.
“He was wearing all black.” So was I.
“He’s about 6 feet tall.” Me, too.
“He’s bipolar.” Check.
“And his name's George.”
Well, shit. Now this had become an official search and rescue for a man that had apparently walked off into the night to go "visit the lake." By then, we had amassed some ten people, all with flashlights, all ordered to disperse over thirty yard increments and walk over a field with snow two and a half feet high, yelling “George!” at the top of our lungs and generally staying vigilant. Which I was, because this wasn’t about me anymore. This was a bipolar guy who probably can’t control himself as well as I've learned to. These are my people, after all.
About twenty minutes later and I look up to find all of the search party had joined together on the far end of camp. I was alone, under a blanket of stars, with almost no cold weather gear on, snow up to my knees, looking over at a camp that had already twisted me about for hours.
I didn’t want to die this way, trapped out in the cold because I was too stubborn and stupid. So I decided to go back to the Headquarters tent, where everyone was still fast asleep. The woman with the short, black hair that had helped me before asked what was happening with the search. But when I answered, my syllables came out like toothpaste, my facial muscles held numbly taut by freezing winds and my own adamance.
Through slurring words, angry chuckles, and a rabid look in my eyes, I told them about Bipolar George and how I wish him the best, but… One of the women cursed me for a fool for not grabbing more cold weather gear, then pointed at my cot, where I was to rest while they collected more people for the search party and more firewood for everyone else. After thawing my face over the stove and putting on the rest of my cold weather clothing, I approached the woman with short black hair to see if she needed more help, but she told me they'd found Bipolar George, who had hurt his leg but was otherwise unscathed.
I helped collect more wood, then upon their insistence, I went back to my bunk to get some rest before morning slapped me across the face. I got two and a half more hours of sleep before it was time to find my tent, my pack, my medication, and Walid. I was still exhausted, but the dawn had brought with it a second wind, both figuratively and literally.
I grabbed what little I had brought with me and, leaving the red and gray sleeping bag on the cot, thanked the two women and left for my goal. I was wondering what was going on in Walid’s head while all of this was happening. He wasn’t a man I took for calm in these circumstances. Making the trek through the muddy twists and turns and who was standing in the center of the road but Walid Hakim. A flood of relief and I waved to him, both of us walking up to one another to consolidate the night’s experiences.
It turns out that, after climbing the hill and texting me twice, he relaxed and, knowing I would take care of myself, waited until the next morning to look for me. No crazy panic that woke the world. Just appropriate steps. He had done more than his due diligence and it was great to see him.
We walked back to the tent, where my phone vibrated from Walid’s texts. I rolled my eyes, then grabbed the rest of my gear and got the rundown of the day. Everyone was moving toward Headquarters for the mass exodus out of camp, trudging through winds that had begun carrying fat snowflakes that would land on the ground, only to be scooped back up by another passing gust and blown directly into the exact places you didn’t want snowflakes.
Walid and I were of two minds when it came to whether or not we’d leave. I, mournfully, had concluded that it would be more of a problem for me to be stuck here for an indefinite time than it would be to explain myself to those who had helped fund the expedition.
There was no plan of egress. No structure set up by those that had promised us that we would be taken care of. Wes Clark Jr., specifically. By that time, this steaming pile of human water-trash was about to leave the hotel where he was staying so that he could get on his flight out of town. He told everyone the operation was shutting down and that we should all leave. And here’s the kicker. It’s every man for himself. Good luck and fuck you. It would take me a couple of days to see the irony in this. Thousands of veterans arriving at a Native American reservation to protest, only to get fucked over by greedy, rich, white men.
Regardless, we had to leave. Walid would say a sentence here, a phrase there, protesting one bit at a time, playing off of the sense of duty we both felt inherently. With each question posed, I had to reaffirm the disgusting place in which I had found myself, running away rather than staying to fight. It turned my stomach, but the decision was made. I have a feeling that if he truly understood where I was coming from, he wouldn’t have been arguing. If he knew I felt like a worthless scumbag for having to leave, he would have backed off. But I didn’t make him stop arguing. I think I secretly wanted him to say something that would convince me to stay. But that couldn’t happen. I saw everyone running around in a panic, trying to piece together a plan that would allow them to leave. Then Walid saw an opportunity.
We had been told that there would be a march later that day. One show of support before those who were left started looking for their own means of exit from the camp. It was three hours away, but we’d get our chance to walk the front lines at least once before we went back to our homes, our heavy hearts in our hands. In an enduring moment of weakness that mocked my better judgment, Walid and I decided to stay for just a few more hours, our passionate thirst for righteousness getting a thimble’s worth of satiation.
We had a couple of hours to burn, so he and I again walked through the camp, first getting coffee, then food, then arriving at a tent that gave an orientation to those that were first arriving. We had missed this the day before, as we had arrived at noon, hours after the class was normally given. They went through the list of things everyone should know while on the reservation. No alcohol or drugs. Where to find parking, housing, and food. How to treat the elders, as well as one another. And as important as any of these, no violence whatsoever. This was a camp of prayer. Treat it with solemnity.
I walked out to grab some more coffee and smoke a cigarette. When I returned, there was a long-haired dog that was tethered to a post just outside the tent. I walked up to him, let him sniff me, then rubbed all over him quickly with the hand warmers, hoping that the friction would add some heat to this poor creature whose owner should be beaten with reeds. Then, after about five minutes of this, that same owner popped out, wherein I, along with an indigenous man standing next to me, berated him about looking after his dog. He argued that he couldn’t take the dog inside the tent, as it was a prayer tent, but that didn’t satisfy anyone.
“Take him to your tent,” the Native American said.
“I will after this orientation,” the guy said, then immediately popped back inside the warm prayer tent. The indigenous man through his arms up, then took off his jacket and tenderly laid it across the dog. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t thought of that first. But it was a beautiful moment.
After we were done with the orientation, we walked back to the Headquarters tent, where we had staged our bags. The snow had begun to fall harder and faster, wearing away the distance we could see. Once we arrived, shields were being passed around made from halves of cylindrical plastic storage bins and rope. By the front entrance, there was a man standing on a pile of snow covered wood, dressed in black ski gear and a band around his arm brandishing a red cross.
Because of his training, he was one of the volunteers that had chimed in to be a medic, and from there had become one of the chief medical officers in charge. But given the mass disorder, that didn’t mean much. Only that his confusion was slightly less than ours. Still, he gave us a rundown of what to expect for the march. From there, he took more medical volunteers and then got off the pile of would used as a stage in order to allow for the next speaker.
This was a Native American man who had spent time in Vietnam, who was there representing his tribe. He, along with another Native American veteran, repeatedly reinforced that there be no weapons whatsoever, no armor, no shields, no gas masks, just us. That those things represented aggression, which was in opposition to the ideals in which the camp was aspired. They continued reinforcing it until everyone agreed. All I did was zip up my jacket further, as no one could see my armor. Better to err on the side of caution, after all.
After a few more rallying cries, we all joined together in an energetic ambling toward nobility and the bridge over which the indigenous people were going to be praying. Lumbering through brown ice and calls of encouragement, we walked up Flag Row, took a right, and continued walking, past hills sloping down and sporadic press, some strong enough to stand in the snow, others too cold to leave their cans. Every camera we passed got film of Walid walking over to them and stating loudly “We are not armed! We come in peace!”
Every. One. And every so often, when he said “We come in peace!” I would yell “Nanu! Nanu!” in my best Mork from Ork impression, fingers separated like I was about to bless them with a “Live long and prosper,” because fuck it. We were about to start getting shot with all kinds of nasty and, God knows, I didn’t feel like being normal for it.
The blizzard had begun and all around us turned from Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota to white. Just white. White and our own company of mixed ethnicities, religions, cultures, and flags.
Strangely, I remember feeling a sense of isolation, while Walid had begun a conversation with three people that happened to be around him. One of them, a skinny kid in his early 20s with an unshakable sense of contempt, tried to convince me that drinking colloidal gold water would let me live forever while simultaneously A) recognizing that I thought he was full of shit and B) thinking that, at the same time, I wasn’t a cause worth convincing. Each bottle cost him $50 a pop and, according to the Mayo Clinic, is not simply ineffective, but can prove hazardous. I mark that under “you gotta go to college to be that fucking stupid.” But I've been young before and didn't envy him the lessons he'd have to learn. Walid kept talking to him while I went about my way.
At one point I was struck by a woman whose icy visage epitomized exactly how cold we were. this is also the photograph I used to thumbnail this post, but here it is without text on it:
She was from California and had been on the reservation for a couple of months. Even she wasn’t expecting this kind of weather.
In the midst of our conversation, singing arose, mixing with the sound of drums beating and flags flapping in the ever-strengthening gusts of wind. My blood rose as I imagined the sound cannon washing over us, or the water they would spray over us, mixing with snow and freezing into shards that would pelt and drench us. But there weren’t any cops in sight. Chants would begin, then taper off, begin, then taper off. Any second now, the police would storm up and off we’d go on our carnival of violence and peaceful resolve.
After roughly 45 minutes, the singing had subsided and we all began wandering back. I turned to Walid, who saw the disappointment, clapped me on the back and said “there’s always next time.” We didn’t speak on the way back to Headquarters. But once there, we went about finding a means to leave. The snow was really coming down, but I understood that the people that live here are used to these conditions. They know exactly how to handle this kind of situation.
“All the roads are closed! Find a place to stay and bunker down!”
I looked up to the heavens and tried to swear, but a snowflake floated past my glasses and landed in my eye, eliciting more of an unintelligible grunt than any actual words. Apparently, even one of the buses that left earlier slid off of the road and the passengers wound up walking back. We were stuck. And there I was, claustrophobic and stuck. Deep breaths...
Our previous tent, the one that I found so elusive, was being turned into an organic latrine, so we needed to find another place. Walid and I walked back into the Headquarters tent, which by then was being evacuated by those that had resided there the night before. So, in the resulting chaos, I found the cot that had the red and grey sleeping bag and put my pack on it, thus claiming. Walid took the cot next to mine and we now had a place where we could store our gear and actually find it later. As I was changing out my soaking clothes, three people began handing out cards with the correct dialogue to have if you’re arrested and phone numbers for lawyers waiting for you to call them if needed.
There were also two others roaming around, a man and woman from an adjacent camp who were looking for recruits to take more aggressive action against the Energy Transfer Partners. Walid was immediately hooked, speaking with one woman for a solid twenty minutes before returning to me with enthusiasm.
“I say we join that camp! They have food and shelter for us and we can get our hands dirty! That’s right up my alley!”
This was developing into a serious problem. It seemed that, no matter how much I expressed the necessity to leave, Walid just couldn’t understand it. He was there to fight the oppressors. And our conversations started sounding as though I wasn’t, which quickly started pissing me off. The situation was slowly evolving to become more and more frustrating, realizing that I would have to continually explain why we needed to leave as well as make sure he didn’t get caught up in something that would sabotage us both from doing just that. His enthusiasm to help is part of his charm, but I had responsibilities back home.
Throughout the rest of the day, we wandered the camp, trying to keep warm while soaking up as much culture as we could. By nightfall, I was thoroughly excited to get some proper sleep. I was somnambulant, wandering from place to place without speaking, tired, but trying to get the most out of the predicament as I could. The tent was still relatively cold, with frost accumulating on the inside of the roof, so every few minutes, that same frost would shake free to tumble down and onto the poor souls below. It was literally snowing inside our tent, with no sign of it getting better. -20 degree wind chill and it would only get colder from there.
Walid and I spoke with our bunk mates for a little bit while we tried to get the stoves burning. Once again, each person was from an entirely different part of the country, except for two people. A man with a thick country accent and his aunt, who is in her mid-60s. It became apparent that she was a handful, as she kept asking him for favors, including several trips to their truck to get her the medicine she needed for the chronic pain she had in her legs. I questioned what had brought her here, but certainly not out loud. She was the sort with a fiery attitude, kind and clever, but wary. I liked her, but was too tired to be patient. She was sweet enough, though.
At one point, someone turned on their phone to check their messages, when someone else mentioned how the police or private security could be messing with our phones. As though on cue, the man’s phone started dying, the battery visibly reducing to nothing over the span of of minute or two. It could have been the cold, but it could have been something else entirely. The overall feeling of helplessness against the might of the American government was palpable. We knew they were wrong and we knew they were stronger. We also knew that they were more interested in money than decency. And, as debilitating, we knew that on a fundamental, human level, “they” were also “we.”
By the time the stove was as hot as it would get, I decided to undress and turn in, the wind cracking the side of our tent like a whip, but I was warm. I could deal with noise. As everyone was sleeping, the stoves would go out and I would wake up to refuel ours, shocked at the ferocity with which the wind was beating against us, angry, impatient wind that was looking to put us in our cosmic place. It reminded me of thunder during hurricanes, with noise of such tenacity that it forced to to recognize how small it is to be human. Mortal. I would wake in pangs of panic at its worst, having to remind myself to be calm. Everything would be alright. That happened three times. And all three times, I used a mantra to lull me back to sleep.
And then there was shouting.
“WAKE UP! WAKE UP! EVERYONE GET THE FUCK UP!!!”
I sat upright, opening the sleeping back and jumping to my pack to dig out my glasses. The cold struck deep, all of my clothes hung by a large pole that was now shaking uncontrollably. As soon as I put on my glasses, they immediately began to fog up. I wiped them clean, then took in what was going on around me.
The tent was heated by three stoves churning out high volumes of fire, the floor scattered with our wet gear, the thin canvas our only respite from temperatures and wind that would riddle us with frostbite in a matter of minutes. But we didn't have minutes.
As the tent began collapsing on top of us, we had seconds.