Up until the point that we crossed the threshold of the entryway to the Cannonball Recreation Center, I had had an only tertiary interaction with the Native American population. Wandering around Sacred Stone Camp had given me an insight into the aesthetics of their cultures, the sense of organic nature that fueled their animistic perspective soaking into me like sunlight, leaving the cold climate feeling surreal, impotent in the midst of such warmth.
But that could very well be the projection of what I had come to expect. Beyond the short conversation that morning with the Native American couple, I hadn’t so much as scratched the surface of what it meant to be who they were, where they were. So my excitement was palpable when I entered the solace of the basketball court, the echoing room teeming with people setting up cots, getting food, and planning their next adventure into the realm of justified protest.
Though this may seem contrary to my want for social exchange, I instinctively walked toward one of the far bleachers, the solitude and wariness of my nature sneakily seeking separation from the rest and supplying me with a slightly higher vantage point to view my environment. As soon as I’d put my gear down, I realized I was where they unpacked and sorted mail that was being sent to them. From there, I was pointed to an area on the periphery of the grid of the cots that were covering three quarters of the court.
For some unknown reason, I preferred a cushioned mat to one of the cots, placing the belongings I could bring with me into a pile at the foot of it, looking up, and hearing a choir of angels.
They had locker rooms. That meant indoor restrooms.
Without getting into too much detail, I hate public restrooms. Maybe something about the very real potential of getting someone else’s waste on me without any place to take a shower. Regardless, the end result can often prove… disconcerting.
But this place… this Shangri-La of food, shelter, and hygiene… even had showers.
It didn’t take the span of a penny dropping before the guilt crashed like a tsunami against the promontory of my joy, threatening to eat away its foundation even as the circumstance overwhelmed me. But our mission had taken the form of a harsh ultimatum, summed up succinctly by the simplicity of “every man for himself” and driven home by the frequency of its use. We needed to get home before we were stricken of the opportunity.
Between the entrances to the male and female locker rooms was a sign-up sheet with boxes to list who you were, where you were going, when you could leave, and your phone number. My hopes held together by spiderwebs and prayer, I filled in the appropriate spaces and walked back to my sleeping space, where I found this:
I've always loved animals. Ever since I was a child, they've represented honesty in its most raw form. So when I found this wonderful ball of fur, scabby, limping, and grizzled, I curled up right next to him, making sure I wasn't imposing, and began scratching and petting at random, reading his body language to find where he wanted my attention the most.
After around twenty minutes of a slow, steady build up of stray fur, I wandered over to the alcove by the front door, which people had turned into a makeshift smoking station. It was in that small space, roughly seven feet by seven feet, where I had my most illuminating conversations. Marlboros, Camels, and Newports. No American Spirits on the reservation.
We had been welcomed as guests, our shared goals unifying us in a way only hardship can, and through that medium, the locals opened like the crinkled petals of a morning glory. I'd arrived at a discussion involving the media and how they'd been treating the water-protectors.
Apparently, several reporters would stand in the way of marches, trying to get the best shot while blatantly getting in the way. One of the indigenous people recalled how they'd told a reporter to leave, as they were blocking the path that elders were going to be taking, only to have the reporter turn to them with bottled vitriol, and yell "Fuck off, you stupid, red nigger! If you touch me, I'll have you arrested!"
Sacred ground. No one was touching anyone. But the point hovered aloft in the air, polluting the pure singularity of purpose intrinsic to the act of prayer. And that wasn't all.
"I recorded them dropping gas on us, but as soon as I had the video, it was erased!" This I heard from a woman of mixed descent, overweight and missing teeth, but to talk to her you'd think she was paid to look pretty. A crackerjack of a thing, if you're from the south. In fact, let's call her Crackerjack for future reference.
Then a man chimed in, an African American in his mid-thirties, slightly stained teeth, muscular build, and clever eyes. I'm pretty sure his name was Josh. He'd been to his fair share of protests as well and was shaking his head.
"No shit. I saw the same."
Three others had confirmed the story. Granted, all of them might have been exaggerating the truth, sure, but here's the thing: Maybe not.
Is it really that much of a jump from what the local police and contractors were already doing? Hosing down masses of people in the middle of freezing cold temperatures, intentionally aiming for elderly and children when shooting beanbag rounds and rubber bullets, implementing a sound cannon that, according to the manufacturer, can cause permanent hearing loss and/or vertigo, so... Why not drop gas? Just because that would be terrible? Since when has that ever mattered to socioeconomic politics?
Instead, why not have faith in our observations of the actions of people, rather than what they're telling us?
Here's why. The idea that our government isn't of, by, and for the people is so terrible that we don't want to think about it. We don't want to know that we're wantonly allowing the abuse of our own citizenry on such a scale. If we were, then America would cease to be the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, everything that our parents and teachers taught us.
Everything that our soldiers and Marines were fed so that they would die for it. Everything that makes us patriotic would have to be questioned in detail. Who has time for that when you have to keep up with all the evolving trends of the day? Who has time when we're searching desperately for work? Who has the money to get educated, only to wind up with tens of thousands in debt? It's hard-pressing to even attempt said questioning, especially by the masses.
Instead, we'd rather be incorporated into an unnatural, mechanical system that proves a mockery to our organic nature and the human principles with which our condition for spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual growth is founded. It implies that this particular brand of America might not be worth fighting for. And the thought of that is so terrifying that "patriots," people who claim to love their country made of a multitude of cultures, often don't have the courage to even question said patriotism. Instead, they run to their guns and, to their immense, intentional relief, the conversation stops. Their ignorance is won. So much for growth.
I continued listening, afraid that the little amount of time I'd spent at the camp would take away from the validity of my opinion. They weren't simply talking about stories they'd heard. They were talking about events that had happened to them. My blood began to boil as they spoke, each story more twisted than the last, humanity put on the chopping block in the name of social divide. But eventually, the conversations turned to happier times, the laughter of a slow burning shock turning into genuine joy.
I felt honored to be around it, though once again, I wasn't a part of it. I wanted to bombard them with questions about their lives, what they thought of the longevity of the movement, what it meant to them personally, as part of both individual and integrated cultures. But Walid and I had been told at Sacred Stone Camp that the act of asking the indigenous people questions that could be considered invasive was a symptom of entitlement.
Instead, all I could do was ask about the dog that had graced my gear earlier.
"Who? Old Dog? That's a rez-dog. He doesn't have an owner. Comes and goes as he pleases. There's a couple of others running around, too. They're safe enough. But if one bites another, he has to stay outside."
"That makes sense. Does it happen much?"
"Just with Old Dog."
I smiled and nodded, thinking about how Old Dog had found good company.
After a while, I decided to grab some food and return to my gear and with any luck, that mangy four-legged bastard.
The food was being prepared by a chef who had traveled to the protest to help as best he could, which meant he specialized in fixing delicious food with whatever ingredients were sent to him.
The meals were all over the place, from authentic Native American dishes plump with buffalo meat to spaghetti, sandwiches, and many other random foods I'd never have thought to combine together. I can't recall ever eating as much and still being hungry. It's as though my body had finally realized what it had gone through and demanded replacement calories on the hurry-up.
With stomach taut, I ambled back to my sleeping spot, smiling with a full heart when I looked down to where I'd be dreaming in just a couple of hours.
I was building my own little pack, one wayward mutt at a time, a bastard father to his bastard children and loving it.
After dishing out some dog-lovin', I looked over to Walid, who was speaking to a middle-aged man with a white ponytail, glasses, and a demeanor that spoke of having been through far worse; not arrogant, but generous. There were smiles, though the sort that come with shaking heads and furrowed eyebrows.
Virgil had also come from South Carolina, another lost soul left to drift in the tornado of bullshit that had become Veterans Standing for Standing Rock. He had found himself useful in the kitchen and had been helping make all the food we'd been shoving into our faces.
Turns out he had done more than his fair share overseas while working with the Army, allotting what time he could to writing in his blog about cooking in war zones. Since his return, he has also begun his own series on his time in Standing Rock, a very in-depth and educated account of not only his time there, but of the events that led up to and proceeded his time there. It's good stuff.
You can find his work here.
Anyway, he and Walid had been discussing the debacle we'd lived through and how rides out of town were on very low supply. He had another man that had brought him, a Marine, but he was off on his own adventures and there was no telling when he'd be back, let alone that there would be room for us when he did.
Still, a glimmer of hope is infinitely more than nothing.
In the meantime, we spoke of random things, movies, books, places we've been, the usual when you're locked into company for an indefinite amount of time. Just enough time to keep it interesting without projectile vomiting personal hardship.
Another man had joined us, Adam, mid-thirties, mustache ripped from the mouth of a 70s buddy-cop movie, a writer from California that seriously studied the craft of screenwriting. While we were talking, a two year old girl that was the spitting image of a brown treasure troll, entirely unsupervised and more sure of herself than I ever will be, sidled up in curiosity.
As Adam and I spoke about our own projects and what information we'd gathered while at camp, the little girl stared at us like a cat stalking prey, the last vestiges of a long-chewed lollipop holding fast to her sticky fingers.
"So yeah, I've been writing this last script for about six months now. Gonna put it down for a month or two before revisions though."
"I feel you. I always give a little buffer before AAAHHH-!!!"
It took a second for me to process what had happened, the sticky imprint of her tiny fingers leaving child-residue across my cheek. That cute little jerkface slapped me! Still sitting cross-legged, I lunged at her with my arms out, fingers crossed that this show of size would intimidate the little creature and scare it off into someone else's conversation.
And she screamed, the entirety of the basketball court looking over to see me moving back to my seated position, eyes looking left and right like I'd farted in an elevator, thinking "If I move slow enough, they won't see me..."
But the baby girl was far too smart for that. As everyone's attention drifted away, Adam and I began speaking further. And she stared. And we spoke. And she walked a little bit closer. And we kept talking until whack! This time she hit me with the gnawed, slobbered, green-tinged lollipop, her eyes lighting up in tandem with my own.
I couldn't help myself.
Two more times of this and I shrugged off the scowling eyes of those that were around me and eventually shooed the little girl away. I was exhausted, after all. I'd had 17 hours of sleep in 5 days. I left room for Old Dog, pulled a blanket over me, used my jacket as a pillow, had time for this one photo...
...then fell. The fuck. To sleep.
It was a proper sleep, deep and all-encompassing, where whatever dreams of trials and tribulations, victories or defeats that marred or encouraged me were long forgotten when my eyes opened the next morning. It was the sort of sleep from which you could question ever waking.
It was wonderful. So for the entire morning, I kept waiting for something horrible to happen.
My body and mind were healing from the previous days and I felt my energy returning, but somehow my soul felt as though it were lagging behind. A tinny voice, nagging at the back of my mind, would not stop reminding me that I should have been doing more. I should have learned more. Experienced more.
Instead, I'd woken up to hot food in a warm gym that boasted showers while others were sitting in the freezing cold, waiting patiently to prove themselves over and over and over.
Was this it? Was this the culmination of my trip? One giant, expensive, time-guzzling, life-threatening disappointment? Where instead of sharing in cultures and the human experience, the only thing I gleaned was "shit happens" and a burgeoning pneumonia?!
Breakfast tasted like breakfast tastes when you've fallen short. Ash and vinegar. The sort that eats away at you if you don't tend to it with a cigarette.
I walked past the list of people looking for rides to wherever, only to roll my eyes with the closure of what I expected. Still nothing.
So back I went to the alcove separating the gym from the wind and snow outside. Crackerjack and Josh from the night before had both greeted me wholeheartedly. Another man stood in the corner, a lanky Native American whose visage looked as though it were grown from oak, with long, wiry black hair under a well worn fedora, mirrored sunglasses hiding what I imagined were twin black holes. Then Crackerjack chimed in.
"Hey! Dog-Man! What's up?"
I smiled and nodded, lighting up and leaning against one of the doors that wouldn't stay shut on its own.
"Hey, darlin'. You good?"
She smiled and responded "another day in paradise!"
She didn't know it, but that felt like a kick to the gut. It reminded me of Kabul, where I had to guard the front door of the embassy back in 2002. "Another day in paradise!" was the recurring phrase and through the length of my stay, I went through different stages with it. It helped pass the time at first, then got annoying, then very annoying, then infuriating, then absolutely hilarious, then pack to a smoldering fury that, apparently, has not fully subsided. So I smiled at her, laughed, said "Right?!" then let it slide.
Wait, I didn't. I didn't let it slide. In fact, I couldn't stop myself. Maybe it was that my body had just rested, or that my mind needed more. Maybe it was the anger of my past mixing with the present. I don't know exactly why, but I went on a five minute rant about my whole experience while at Standing Rock. I'm sure you can imagine what a "firecane" is if you've never heard of or seen one. That's what I felt like I'd become, wielding an elemental force with the abandon of a new god.
Through clenched teeth and wild eyes, I talked about how much I wanted to believe in Good and Right. How much I wanted to believe my time in the military was a fluke of bad luck and not the standard. How much anger and pain I felt for those that had been protesting for months, only to have their victory co-opted by veterans and specifically, Wesley Clark Jr.. How so many of those veterans felt the same as I did, betrayed and left to fend for ourselves. How the Energy Transfer Partners were going to win because Americans care more about their own money and comfort than they do the world and the people with which they share it. How I have so much faith in my faith, in spite of the evidence elsewise. And for some reason, this came out to: How no matter what I do, I wind up hurting the wrong people.
The man in the corner, who I'd assumed had taken root, seemed to loom toward me rather than move his feet. He looked at me through those mirrored sunglasses, my reflection distorted to ridiculous proportions, and spoke to me with a voice so deep that my bones shook.
"You've been to some hard places."
The shock of him speaking swept my words away and I was left to listen, the importance of this somehow reinforced by his lack of contractions.
"I, too, have come from some hard places. You are a warrior, like me. Like all of the men here. And the burden you feel is one that will illicit Sacred Tears. Do you know this?"
I nodded, all too familiar.
"These are a prayer to the Great Spirit. Warriors cry them, too."
I was still struck dumb. He moved closer.
"I feel your pain. We suffer together. I left my home, my family, to come fight for this land, this water, and these people. But I, too, have had to sacrifice."
He grabbed me by my shoulder and I instinctively felt like fighting him. Like hitting every joint and nerve cluster, ripping muscle and sinew, to run into the snow and wind and hell and get the fuck away from where this was going. He must have sensed this because he grabbed my other shoulder, his grip like talons.
And a tear ran down his face from behind his mirrored sunglasses.
"I miss my baby girl."
I thought of the little brown treasure troll that had playfully slapped me the night before.
Then he embraced me and we both wept like children.