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By Rhonda Fabian
I didn’t think I would write about Standing Rock. So much has already been said. Yet my thoughts keep wandering back there, carried along on a raft of euphoria, sadness, mystery, and grace. This is what I remember.
Our delegation of activists and volunteers arrived a day or so after the worst violence to date at Standing Rock and the atmosphere in Oceti Sakowin, the largest of its several camps, was grim and subdued. All seven tribes of the Sioux Nation, had joined together at Oceti Sakowin and many hundreds came to support the indigenous-led protests.
It was cold and snow was on the radar. Two young women and a male elder had been critically injured. Hundreds were hospitalized after being drenched by water cannons in frigid temperatures, and from the impacts of rubber bullets the size of golf balls. Thanksgiving was on the horizon too, a ‘holiday’ no one was in the mood to talk about. Yet, ironically that’s what drew the media in. The timing was right. Post-election ennui. One could imagine the editorial meetings at the big papers and news outlets, “Hey what about Standing Rock? You know, Thanksgiving and all…” Young people came too, many on college break. Some felt a yearning to help and play a role in history; some came out of curiosity. There was going to be a concert.
My first pre-dawn visit to the Camp is etched in my memory. The inner-glow of tents and tipis and the shadows of people slowly stirring; morning campfires returning to life, sending bright embers high, in search of the sunrise. As the citizens of the sprawling makeshift settlement slowly made their way to the sacred fire-circle for morning prayers, it seemed to me a holy brew of humanity – locals, global nomads, artists and medics, journalists, shamans, activists young and old. Most wore festive chullos on their heads, bright scarves, and out of respect the women wore traditional ribbon skirts over their leggings and pants. It was easy to tell who the Sioux Water Protectors were. They wore heavy-duty work overalls, serious boots, and greatcoats or animal hides. If you smiled at them, they tended to look away. The warrior women were bundled up tight, – quiet, and always busy – tending fires, giving counsel. They were remote with the burden of responsibility and had no time for the likes of me.
The day arrived as a slow revelation of light, and the daily instructions from the loudspeaker began: be safe, be prayerful, be vigilant, be brave. The entire community headed to the river for the morning blessing of the waters.
When my friend Judy Wicks, local economy pioneer and lifelong activist first asked me to join a delegation to feed hundreds of water protectors at Standing Rock, a Wopila (thank-you) Feast coinciding with Thanksgiving, I wasn’t sure. But when a simultaneous call came from Plum Village, spiritual headquarters of my Buddhist Order and teacher Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, I made up my mind. ‘Earth Holding’ is an aspect of our practice – communing deeply with nature, working to protect the Earth, and helping children and others restore the relationship most vital to our humanity.
So I was happy to learn that other Buddhist delegations were planning journeys to Standing Rock including one organized by Thanissara Mary Weinberg, a respected Dharma Teacher, author and activist. I was glad to offer her my car and extra bed at the Indian-owned casino-hotel a couple miles from Camp.
When I arrived at the Bismark airport, it turned out we had another passenger. Dorothy Black Crow, an 81-year-old white woman, was sturdy as a wizened tree stump sprouting fountains of unruly gray hair – a very talkative tree stump! With no place to stay, and no plan to speak of, she had flown in from Oregon lugging an old purple suitcase and a worn canvas shopping bag that barely contained her ornate ceremonial drum. She waved an envelope at me filled with crumpled bills and coins – donations from her community she said, for the Water Protectors. Mni Wiconi! Water is Life!
Several hours later, forced by armed guards to backtrack 30 miles, courtesy Dakota Access Pipeline, and lost without GPS on moonless back roads, I tuned in and out of Dorothy’s running monologues from the back seat…”married into the Crow Nation…novelist…Harvard…darn cellphones …how much longer? …give me an old-fashioned map any day!” I was eager to arrive, to be free of driving responsibilities and the chatter!
Prairie Knight Casino Hotel on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was busy on a Tuesday night and the slot machines were a melodious racket that never ebbed. The casino floor was packed, mainly with local residents seeking distraction and tourists from a few far-flung cities.
The lobby, meanwhile, was a crash zone – people sprawled everywhere – some were weary warriors from the camps, hoping for a shower or taking shifts to catch some sleep. Assorted journalists tapped and surfed on laptops if they were lucky enough to catch a sporadic wave of wifi. YouTubers, bleary-eyed, were attempting to broadcast live updates and cursed skillfully when they were knocked off the air. Dorothy Black Crow was there too, sitting quietly, like a child waiting in a busy office.
Others were partying, oblivious or disinterested in what was unfolding on national news just down the road. Young women wobbling giddily in high heels were pulling all-nighters, laughing. Their boyfriends were passed out, money depleted. Amid raised voices, the hotel desk staff were patient, impartial, repeating the same phrases again and again, ‘yes, completely sold out. No I’m sorry the wifi is unpredictable – try the second floor near a window; 3am is best’ – and so on.
Thanissara and I checked in and I’m sorry to say we ditched Dorothy, eager for some quiet. Despite the luxury of a warm comfortable bed, I would barely sleep the next four days. The Casino became my learning lab – local activists, lawyers, bloggers, celebrities, mothers, and residents both in-favor and opposed to the protests. I’d wander the Casino in the glitzy perpetual evening, trying to sort out what I felt, and in the pre-dawn I’d shift gears and wander the Camp.
I quickly realized that the fossil fuel industry, the most powerful economic and political force in the world, is militarized in this country and its elites hold little regard for the safety and welfare of people, families, communities, or the Earth. This realization saddened me deeply, and combined with the divisiveness of the recent Presidential election, I felt something in me tighten up and have been in a kind of high-alert state ever since. It’s akin to how I felt as a young girl homeless on the streets, realizing that a situation I might have trusted, had in fact turned menacing, and that instead of finding safety, I suddenly had to use all my wits to inch my way out of danger. At 58 I didn’t know I had any innocence left to lose – yet it was still hard for me to accept that our own law enforcement would knowingly harm defenseless children and the elderly.
A lawyer working on behalf of the Water Protectors explained to me that when a peaceful protest creates a work stoppage, the insurance companies do not pay for the losses. Only when the Governor of a State declares ‘a riot’, he said, does the insurance kick-in. The State then qualifies for all kinds of emergency assistance – swat gear, telecommunications technologies, private security teams and so on. The Dakota Access Pipeline, (Energy Transfer Partners), also had its own highly militarized security team. And when you bring all these weapons, people and technologies together, you are bound to escalate the situation.
The day before the Wopila Feast, it was my responsibility to organize the teams needed to chop enough vegetables for a dinner event that had grown to 2000+ guests. Judy Wicks and the other organizers had accepted an invitation to merge food preparations with the Standing Rock Community School, about 10 miles down the road. Dorothy Black Crow collared me in the lobby and asked to ride along. “I want to go where you go,” she said.
The Head Chef in our delegation, Jeremy Stanton from Massachusetts, took inventory of the mountains of produce, turkeys, pies and other food donations and offered to take on the whole job with his team. The school leaders gladly handed over the keys to the kitchen. There was no red tape, no bureaucracy or sense of ‘turf’, just warmth, gratitude and relief. All the administrators and teachers of Standing Rock Community School were helpful, composed, smart and collaborative. More than anything else, I hoped we would do right by them. This was their event and it was important to maintain an atmosphere of loving kindness, gratitude and respect.
“I’m your second body”, I told Chef Jeremy in a moment of heady optimism. “Just tell me what you need.” He took me at my word and ordered 800 pounds of potatoes, diced; 20 crates of squash, cut, peeled, seeded, sliced, rinsed, seasoned, baked and consolidated onto trays; bushels of onions chopped; a hill of carrots julienned, and so on. He meanwhile had 200 turkeys to deal with and a hundred other details.
There wasn’t time to be daunted. Volunteers were arriving by the hour, and local women with children in tow waited expectantly for instructions from an outsider in Buddhist attire. There weren’t enough knives or cutting boards. The produce had to be washed. And in the back of my mind, a nagging worry: would people from the Camp even come? I had spoken about the Wopila Feast to a few of the entrenched. “No disrespect”, they said, “but we are staying in Camp.”
Before every new task, we made a circle with the women, children and men who were there to help. We held hands. Each person spoke their name and an aspiration, a prayer. Strength, family, forgiveness, peace, love, unity…water. We spoke about spiritual nourishment, solidarity. Some people were holding strong emotions and could not speak at all.
Everyone worked steadily, mindfully. Whatever was needed was found. People came and left. Celebrities arrived and I failed to recognize them. Dorothy Black Crow was always around. She smiled and offered wide-eyed encouragement any time I paused to check in with her. Sioux children followed me back and forth, “What’s next? what’s next?” They were so sweet. No attitude, no boredom, no electronic devices.
Much later, back in my room and tired, I listened as Thanissara filled me in on her day at the Camp. She had taken the Orientation and all the trainings about being at the the front line. It seemed very likely that ‘actions’ would take place on Thanksgiving Day, but this was never announced until dawn on the day of the action itself. There were infiltrators, she heard, and they passed information to the armed military. They also caused trouble, acting as rabble rousers, throwing rocks and taunting the police, escalating the conflict.
Thanissara was impressed with the high levels of organization and training at the Camp and the grounded spiritual presence and prayerfulness. Still, weekend visitors were streaming in. Many did not attend the trainings and their camping gear was inadequate. Some did not think to bring food and water. She worried that things might go badly the next day. Meanwhile, her team from Buddhist Peace Fellowship had arrived. Together they erected a dome tent for Buddhist practice and for sleeping up to fifteen people at night. We meditated together briefly and I found myself thinking about Dorothy and wondering if she was OK.
Sleepless, I wandered the Casino, starting conversation with anyone who landed near me. I routinely ran into a writer for the LA Times. He filled me in on the day’s press conference in Bismark where an official was asked, “Do you think it was really necessary to turn water cannons on people in freezing temperatures?” The official replied, “It worked, didn’t it? We will use any tools at our disposal to restore order.”
Well before the next dawn, Thanissara and I headed to Camp. It was snowing as we trudged to the top of ‘Facebook Hill’ – so named because it was occasionally possible to get cell service there. Predictably, the media tent was here too. Thanissara pointed out the Buddhist peace dome in the distance and as I gazed out at the vastness of Oceti Sakowin I was suddenly filled with a piercing tenderness and sense of awe. It was pristine; any sounds damped by the falling snow. In the quietude, flags of 300 Indian tribes rested like sleeping dove’s wings. For a moment all the world was a diamond stillness. Thousands lay in slumber, or just waking. Over the next rise, the Cannonball River was still veiled in darkness, but her lithe restless presence could be felt. She was moving, gliding along the landscape, perpetually preparing to wed the Missouri – their serpentine courtship a constant for all these hundreds of years. And these good people, whatever their particular reasons, were here to be their witness, to protect them, to stand in this one place on the Earth, to say ‘it is enough. We, the people have had enough. Mother Earth has had enough.”
Soon, a truck engine rumbled and a muffled loudspeaker called the Water Protectors to wakefulness, to action –to meet at the North Gate, to dress warm, to be ready in fifteen minutes time.
Thanissara stayed on, but it was Thanksgiving Day and I was expected at the School. Hopefully my duties would be lighter, but no. “I think we need 500 more pounds of potatoes”, Chef mused by way of greeting me, “and just as much squash as yesterday.” My jaw must have dropped because he smiled. He would spend the day in the ‘outdoor kitchen’ roasting 40 more turkeys on pedal-powered spits, over a trench of hot coals in the snow. All day I was two steps behind myself. Hundreds were there to help and somehow a rhythm emerged – gathering a new team, circling, praying, trying to find them what they needed, gathering a new team..on and on. Thanissara came by and I don’t even remember – although she says I gave her something to do. And Dorothy was there too, plugging along in my wake. She often wanted to chat about something, but I was too busy. I wondered how this octogenarian chatterbox had become part of my responsibility too!
Then we heard a rumor that the Camp was being evacuated! Something about an impending raid. During an hour or so of uncertainty, as we tried to get news and in the midst of everything, a forlorn young woman with a kid’s dinosaur backpack was crying. She had lost her friends in the confusion and the tent they brought was too small and she nearly froze the night before and… Sitting her down it came out that she had not eaten anything in a long time. After getting her some yellow squash and bread we talked about her plan. “I’m going to come back here in the spring to stay”, she vowed through chewing. “I want to make a difference.” There was a desperation about this girl. I tried to assign someone to keep an eye on her, but she vanished. The Camp was not evacuated.
I needn’t have worried about people showing up. There were 750 in the first wave alone. After a blessing on the food and a talk by elder Jesse Taken Alive, women, children and the infirm came forward to eat first, and then the able-bodied men. The quantity of food was staggering. The actress Jane Fonda arrived to help serve. She raised a lot of money for Standing Rock and I’m told she donated 2700 pounds of dressed bison meat for the winter. People came and came and came. The lines moved swiftly, and blessedly the food runners and the kitchen kept up with the heavy demand.
After a while, I noticed Jane Fonda still serving and I suggested she stop and go eat something herself. “Are you firing me?” she asked, in mock disbelief. I felt embarrassed. This was ‘Hanoi Jane’, an icon of the Viet Nam anti-war movement! Who made me the boss!? It became a kind of running joke and a few people teased me about it. Yet somehow, I had developed a personal intimacy with every tray of mashed potatoes, squash, stuffing, greens and carrots. They were beautiful to me – like art. Everything was hot, prepared with love, and by all accounts, delicious. It was all that mattered at that moment. I hardly ate anything, or don’t remember, which must seem crazy, but I was not hungry.
Jane Fonda came back twice with special requests. I took her to the kitchen to meet Chef Jeremy and see if he could help her. The next time she asked if she could take a car full of food for 50 people to the small camp. I was so busy! When I got to the kitchen I remember saying, “I’m sorry to ask but Jane Fonda wants food for 50 people!” A lovely young woman who worked for Chef smiled calmly and said “Oh here, I just packed up this food for the Media Tent – take it.” I bowed to her in amazed gratitude.
The rest is a blur. I had long ago lost track of our delegation leader Judy Wicks and the school administrators. At some point, after everyone was served I realized I could barely walk anymore and slipped out the back door, unseen. I drove alone to the Casino and limped to my room, desperately craving sleep. No one was there, but inexplicably all the hotel alarms were blaring and a strobe light was flashing in the room. I wondered if we were under some sort of attack. After a long time it stopped. The silence was blissful. I must have drifted off but still I heard the soft knock at the door. It was Dorothy Black Crow. She needed a place to sleep. For some reason I began to cry. “I’m so tired” I told her..”my feet hurt and I can hardly stand up”… She fussed over me, fetching some aspirin and patting my head. She crawled in the bed with me. All was peace for five minutes. And then, Dorothy Black Crow profoundly began snoring.
I climb out of bed and make my way to the bar. I’m wearing sleeping clothes but do not care. I buy a round for an Indian woman, her husband and their friend – complete strangers.
She tells me she does not really agree with the protests. None of this is anything new to her. Indians on the rez have always been mistreated and betrayed. The shutting down of the bridge adds 40 minutes to her daily commute and now, when she goes food shopping in Bismark, she faces increasing hostility from whites. Yesterday, someone called her an Indian bitch. Drinking is a big problem in her culture, she claims, and even in the camps, despite what they say. She rolls her eyes toward her husband who is deeply inebriated. He has his arm slung around a young Navajo man who has come to see what all the fuss is about at Standing Rock. He’s not staying at the Camp and says he will have his own casino some day. The older man is thumping him on the chest, “See this!” he demands of me, “this is a real Indian man. This is a real man. Do you even get it?” I don’t.
Some of the kitchen staff show up and react with shock when they see me sitting at the bar. “We thought you were a nun!” Yeah, well. I buy them a round too.
I close the bar down and then hang out in the lobby with the rest of the day’s wreckage. My friend from the LA Times is there. He always looks showered and rested. We chat but I have no idea what he is saying. Standing to go, I catch sight of myself in the lobby mirror. I barely recognize this woman with silver hair in her Buddhist pajamas. An ancient woman is snoring in my bed. An ancient story is being played out at Standing Rock. I will be ancient history someday too. In fact, I am feeling ancient right now. The hallway is empty on the way to my room, but just at that moment someone rounds the corner. It is Jane Fonda. Like a dream, she opens her tanned, slender arms and I stumble into them.
Four hours later, I open my eyes and Dorothy is gone. Thanissara and I bundle up for one more visit to the Camp. We are late for the morning prayers. There seem to be twice as many people now – maybe more. There’s talk that the Veterans are coming – maybe 2000. I wonder briefly how they will be fed.
Thanissara nudges me and points toward the fire. In the smoky grey light of unfolding day, there is Dorothy Black Crow, sitting with the Elders in the Sacred Circle. Her face is composed and serious, side-lit by fireglow. She has her drum. There is something about her that transcends time and place. I can’t name this special thing about her. Yet I suddenly realize this ‘thing’ is the whole point.
We are each of us composed of such celestial grace. We are immaculate, radiant beings – from the smallest of life forms and even those which may not seem ‘alive’ – rocks and rivers – to the most complex. The grandeur of elephants and mountains; the hive mind of bees, the howl of wolves – we dwell in the miraculous and the nameless. Yet, we can’t even see our own brilliance and the blinding beauty of others because we are trapped in the caves of our ignorance and unknowing. To wake up and step into the soul-drenching light of our Interbeing is why we are here. All along I had hoped to meet an Elder, or connect with some deeper wisdom, and all along Dorothy was right there, with me the whole time.
In Buddhism we say that every opinion, or ‘view’ is incomplete and subject to error. It’s these errors that cause us to suffer. As soon as we say “them” and “us”, we have made an error and we suffer. There are no enemies, just flawed views and unskillful actions. The energy of hatred, the energy of anger, and despair, even indifference – these are what we must overcome together.
In the Buddhist Peace Fellowship dome, a group of us sit in silence, breathing. Thanissara has led with a brief Dharma talk. I do not wish to leave this place, yet I understand now that this place is everywhere. The front lines of Standing Rock are everywhere and standing up everywhere is what we must do now. Everywhere we see injustice. Everywhere Mother Earth is being desecrated.
We drove Dorothy back to Bismark, and Thanissara paid in advance for her hotel room and a cab to the airport the next day. We left her there, with her drum. I barely said goodbye. We had our own planes to catch.
When I got home, I googled Dorothy Black Crow. It is true she went to Harvard. It is true she is a novelist and I am reading her novel, The Handless Maiden, right now. It is true she started a well-known commune and married a Black Crow leader. She was also brutally attacked and left for dead once. It took a long time for her to trust again, to trust strangers like me.
I know that the big story at Standing Rock is the political struggle going on, and we must support the effort there, no matter what happens. Maybe a permanent eco-village can be built, dedicated to the principles of prayerful nonviolent direct action, the way the Elders teach it. I am in awe of the water protectors and the community of Standing Rock and deeply grateful to Judy Wicks, Jeremy Stanton, and the many activists, celebrities and volunteers who heeded their conscience and showed up in solidarity, not to mention raising tens of thousands of dollars. I would go back there if asked, even though there is plenty to do right here where I live in Rose Valley.
Yet, my memories are not filled with these things. My memories of Standing Rock are filled with everyday faces: a school superintendent, a college kid with a dinosaur backpack, a stranger at the bar, a journalist, a Dharma teacher, a warrior with averted eyes, a celebrity, and a plucky 81-year-old wisdom mother, who reminded me to check my assumptions and never underestimate or diminish another being at any time, under any circumstances. Not even for a moment.
all photos, R. Fabian, except this one of Dorothy: