Editor’s Note: OLB invited writer, veteran and medic Jacob Thomas to reflect on his experience at Standing Rock in early December, 2016. He sent this manuscript en route from Tijuana, MX, where he is working to document deported veterans’ oral histories for the Library of Congress. For more information on this oral history project see the GoFundMe support page.
I was standing by the port-a-john, waiting, when a very young, hip-looking threesome approached me. They asked me where they should sleep. I looked around, not knowing what, if anything, I should say. I said something like, “Sleep where you can.”
“Yeah, but we don’t have sleeping bags.”
“Ground cover? Anything?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“Did you have any idea what North Dakota was like?” I asked, with that disappointed tone that I learned from my mother.
To be fair, I had been to North Dakota once, in the summertime, and I had no idea just how bad it was going to be in winter. In winter, during a blizzard. My research— a quick googling of temperatures— resulted in my learning that North Dakota is the coldest of the contiguous states. My climatological education would be furthered to learn that it is the wind that makes North Dakota so treacherous. It apparently starts in South Dakota, moves south, speeds up, and stops at nothing, picking up all the cold from both poles before it hits North Dakota. It will knock you over, that is no hyperbole.
These three kids had no idea.
It wasn’t five minutes after I told them to leave, that they would be a burden on the camp, and they shouldn’t have come if they weren’t self-sufficient, when Oceti Sakowin security came by and told them to shake tents until someone had room for one or all of them. He said, “We’re Sioux, we’ll put you up.”
That was my first night, December 2nd, at Oceti Sakowin, and only my first of many encounters with a relentlessly understanding and accepting culture. I’m not speaking of Native Americans, or even the Sioux Nation. I’m not speaking of environmentalists. I’m not even thinking about activists, or liberals, or any other subculture. I’m talking specifically about the people who were drawn to Standing Rock. They were all different types of people, yet similar in their motivation for change.
Over the last month, Oceti Sakowin and its people have been on my mind constantly. Standing Rock was a mind-blowing amalgam of all different types of people, from all cultures, economic statuses, religions, political ideologies, gender identities, and tribes. No two people there would have the same answer as to why they were there. Some folks I met lived there, born and raised on the Standing Rock Reservation. Some were there for Native American rights. I got to know AIM revivalists, Wounded Knee (’73) survivors, and their families. The environmental cohort was strong. But even then, there were factions of revolutionary environmentalists promoting property destruction and violent encounters with DAPL and police. There were also factions of peaceful green protestors, promoting things like divestment and commercial abstinence from non-green companies. I ran into folks who were against the government interfering with capitalism. There were anarchists. There were capitalists. There were people there who had no political or social ideologies at all, but were there to protect civilians peacefully protesting. That is only a start, because there is no possible way to describe it, but it speaks to the overwhelming nuance of the group at Oceti Sakowin. But it is important to acknowledge the nuance in order to weave a single narrative out of so many different voices.
My little thread of voice in this narrative rug began several months ago. I was considering driving out to Standing Rock as soon as I heard about it, in maybe September. I talked about going out there with my dreadlock-sporting musician friend. I was hesitant, for many reasons, but mostly because of an article I read which reported white people had moved into camp in throngs and turned it into another Burning Man-esque music festival. The last thing I wanted was to be another white guy who made something that wasn’t his, his. It wasn’t my fight. My own Native American blood is thin, my inner environmentalist is morally defeated, and my inner anarchist is too afraid of life without cable. I felt that if I went and started to protest on behalf of Native American rights, or anyone’s rights really, I would be commandeering a fight that wasn’t mine. My older sister sent me a link regarding Veterans Stand for Standing Rock and their crowd-sourced donation page. I found out that a local woman specifically asked for the help of veterans. I also learned Native Americans represent the largest percentage of any cultural group to serve in the military. I immediately started packing, all I needed was someone to ask me to come. I was activated by a mission, a call for help, and brothers and sisters in distress, as veterans are wont to be. I am aware my voice is stronger and louder than others’ because of my ethnicity, gender, and economic status, so I have been making a concerted effort to talk less. I talk less in hopes for someone else to start talking, but it took me awhile to get to this point where I can talk less but still act. A big part of that motivation to act without assuming the fight as my own was the rhetoric about protecting Native American’s right to peaceful protest, and protecting the Bill of Rights. Well, hell, I already took an oath to do that! That is my fight!
Although I didn’t truly align myself with any one group or cause represented at Standing Rock, I felt compelled to protect them and their right to be there. All these groups had their own motivations and they seemed to be just as compelled to be there to support their individual causes.
Despite, or maybe in spite, all these disparate ideologies, Standing Rock worked. There were reports of 12,000 people at camp on December 5th . I have no idea if that’s accurate, it would be near impossible determine how many people were there… it was a lot. Rumors said there were 600 indigenous tribes present, that it was the largest meeting of Native Americans ever. Rumors said every continent was represented. Rumors even said that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was there, but I can’t personally verify that. There were two things that held that many different people together. The mission and the wind.
There was one clear mission, set forth by elders and reservation leaders: have the Army Corps of Engineers re-evaluate their decision regarding construction of the pipeline under Lake Oahe.
I was asked to march with the elders during their prayer ceremony on the bridge because I was a medic in the Army. As far as I could tell, there were no media or non-natives on the bridge during the prayer. It was a beautiful and incredibly impactful thing to witness. There were three of us medics on the bridge with the elders and medicine women and Akitchita, and several hundred Native Americans on the road behind them. In the middle of the elders was a Contrary. A Contrary is a type of inherited social position in the tribe, a teacher and warrior, who does everything backwards. They would ride into battle on their horses backwards. You greet them with your back to them. You kick dirt on them or throw cigarettes at them when you walk by them. Their role is to make people think about what has become status quo in society. The Contrary and I had a cup of tea after the prayer ceremony while we warmed ourselves. With his greyed cheeks from the cold and frost lining his lashes, he smiled and said, “In my other life, I sell furniture.” I’m proud to say he told me I’d make a good Contrary. The Akitchita were on horseback. The Akitchita are appointed protectors of the Sioux people for a specific duration of time. Based on ones’ abilities and the needs of the times, someone is nominated and appointed as Akitchita until they are no longer needed. The women smudged us and the elders prayed in celebration of their long awaited accomplishment. It was a moment I will never forget. And then my feet froze solid.
Once the blizzard started, and it came up quickly and without forgiveness, it became a struggle for survival. I’m not indulging in exaggeration. It was 20 below with 45 MPH winds. If you were standing outside, you were likely to get knocked down and dragged a bit across the frozen ground. There were throngs of people at Oceti Sakowin who were not prepared at all for the extreme weather, for one reason or another. The medics did all we could for as many as we could. Our duties as medics mostly came down to just calming people and keeping them warm. There was one hairy moment when a tent started on fire and we had to get everyone out, and then find the 30 or so new lodging before they got cold.
But again, it worked. No one died. Everyone came together and came out alive and most were feeling good after the blizzard was over. When survival is on line, and there is a true danger, people come together and get things done. They make it happen. And they will continue to make it happen. The blizzard was a physical threat, but I feel it is a great analogy to any other threat, be it social, like infringement on human rights, or economic, like the widening class gap.
Since I left Oceti Sakowin in mid December, I’ve been asked by many people, of all political leanings, about Standing Rock. I try not to bring it up or talk about it unless asked, and then all I do is address that specific question or comment as briefly as possible. Because I learned that no matter what I say, my point is lost.
With people who lean right, the conversation is about the supposed permanence of fossil fuel infrastructure and capitalist society. I try to bring up that there were a great many political ideologies represented at the protests, including Libertarian and New Republicanism. Many protestors were blue collar heroes, trying not to become forgotten in an ever-progressing technological world that seems to be leaving them behind. My part of the conversation always lands on deaf ears, because for conservatives who weren’t there, it looked like a bunch of wild idealists trying to dismantle capitalism portrayed in their little corner of the media.
With people who lean left, the conversation derails into conspiratorial terrain pretty quickly. I was at a party right after I came back home, and I was asked if I was at Standing Rock. I said, “Yes,” and then I listened to a ten minute tirade about chemical weapons being used on Native Americans and it being the onset of another genocide. I said that that was not true, and I was promptly corrected, being that this person happened to read something on social media about it. I was going to ask if she wanted to hear about it from someone who was actually there a week prior, but I didn’t. She didn’t want to know what it was like, she wanted to hear her conclusions re-enforced. This has happened several times, in several different conversations, so I stopped talking about it. Talking about my personal experiences won’t change anyone’s mind about their own individual conclusions.
While I’m wanting to shove my experience down peoples’ throats, cram all I learned into a box and force it on to people, I don’t. That is a lesson I learned from my military service. People truly want to believe whatever they already believe. If they want to believe that all soldiers are mindless child killers, they’re going to continue believing that. If they want to believe that all soldiers are heroes, they’re going to believe that. Whatever we were, and whatever we are now as veterans, whatever we do in our other lives, we can talk less, and act more. We can act by letting other people talk, and protecting their right to talk. When we act, we should chose our battles wisely. We should assess, determine the threat, and develop a clear mission. And we should come prepared.