There’s something up ahead blocking the highway. Look: Lights. Glowing like a football stadium. Military checkpoint.
“Hi, officer. We’re off to, uh, Fort Yates. That’s it. What’s all this for?”
Stupid question. He knows why we’re here, why my housemate Harrison and I are pulling up at 1 a.m. outside Bismarck, North Dakota, with a truck full of supplies.
“Oh, up ahead 20 miles we’ll find a protest?” I say. Officer peers into my truck.
“Supplies,” he murmurs to the soldier on his left. Won’t look me in the eyes though I’ve tried twice. Hard when he’s gripping a semiautomatic. “Move on through. Careful up ahead.”
Seventeen hours from Missoula, Montana. Jesus, I thought Google Maps said 11. Stopping in Belgrade, Bozeman, and Billings to pick up donations slowed our pace. Such giving, though. Such selflessness. I needed those people, those boxes of warm clothes, those incontinence diapers offered for the elders. I needed those eight boxes of granola and that 20-pound bucket of pickles. I needed them to remember what people are capable of.
Twenty miles south, Standing Rock’s Main Camp. Three native men guard the entrance.
“You drunk?” one of them asks, flashlight in my face. “Your eyes look red. No drugs or alcohol? You camping?”
“Yes to camping, no to alcohol. Just tired,” I say. Guard waves me forward and readjusts the red bandana to shield his face. Harrison adjusts his cap, scratches his beard. The night is warm and inky. Tropical, almost. Teepees and tent-tarps cluster around fire rings that texture the evening with burnt cedar.
Last noise before sleep: snapping flags. Hundreds of tribal flags line the camp’s entrance. More than 300 tribes have rejected Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners’ North Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,200-mile tube that will move a half million barrels of Bakken oil per day from North Dakota to Illinois. Earlier, they recast the pipeline’s route from its original crossing of the Missouri River near Bismarck, to within a half-mile of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation. Here it would burrow under the Missouri, digging up burial sites, cutting through sacred lands, and endangering critical water sources along the way.
In the morning I wander up the nearest hill for a better look at the encampment. Way more people than I imagined. Must be 5,000. I see teepees. I see school buses. I see horse corrals and canvas longhouses and a basketball hoop. Three kids play horse and I’m glad we said yes to that donated basketball.
Revolution or none, kids still have to play.
These plains, this river, this powerful confluence of water and warriors—where the Cannonball meets the Missouri. Where do I start? How can I help? Do people need to know who I am, what affiliation I have? I’m not here simply because I feel bad for the indigenous plight and here’s some warm clothes and canned soup and tough-it-out and peace and solidarity and goodbye. It’s larger than that. Sure, my truck was full of food and foul weather gear but don’t forget: I brought my hands, my body, and my mind.
So get to work.
“Stupid car,” the native boy says from his horse’s saddle, kicking my truck as he passes. A girl laughs as she holds his waist, her braid tapering at the lower back.
Two horses: four pre-teens, a pair straddling each. They had galloped over as we drove through the mud to unload supplies for the main camp. And now I’m pinned. Sandwiched. Bookended. A horse on each side now, front and back. They’re just playing with me, right? I’m the good guy, the guy who brought stuff, who came from a state away in support. That makes me good, right?
After the impasse, something catches their eye and the two horses canter north. My heart races at a trot’s pace long after they’ve gone.
The medical tent looks transplanted from Operation Desert Storm: sand-colored canvas staked 50 times to ward off the wind’s torque. It’s dark inside. Plastic bins pile several feet high. Two cots partitioned by bed sheets. We drop supplies and the Doc on duty immediately hands me a hand-drawn map to help her find emergency blankets. Pinned above the door, two words:
“You have a car?” Doc asks. “We need someone to run to the ER. Have a guy with a broken arm. Was building a pallet wall to remove his tent from the wind and it fell and snapped a bone. He’ll need x-rays but IHS—Indian Health Services—might not deliver. Better to have a patient advocate. Helps that you’re white.”
“I’m a registered nurse,” says Harrison. “Trauma. Seattle. Three years.” We go.
Driving south to Fort Yates, John sits shotgun. His face is kind, his voice gentle. Upper lip stubble charts the several weeks he’d been out at Standing Rock. Sores pus at his elbow.
“I’m Chippewa but used to live ‘round here. Meth addict, was doing it and dealing it for a decade. Locked up ten years for meth—just got out. Movin’ on, though. I’m past it now, two months clean. Camp providing me with substance-free living.”
John points to land his family once owned; a casino stands there now. We pass a gas station. Roof blown off. Insulation scattered across the road. Red, white, and blue paint chipping from its walls. Spirit Gasoline.
The waiting room blares Made-For-TV weight loss commercials. White woman in yoga pants, white man with impressive abs. First, I turn it down; then I turn it off. Sterile room. Smells like the inside of a plastic bottle after it’s been in the sun too long.
John gets called into the ER and Harrison joins him. Fifteen minutes. Thirty. Forty-five when they finally surface. Harrison, agitated. John, tired.
“Worst medical care I’ve ever seen,” says Harrison. “Wouldn’t believe him, wouldn’t give him an x-ray until I demanded she order one. Sure enough—fracture. Inaccurate prescription information, too. Never seen anything like it.”
Less talking on the way back. Just windows down and wind and slanted grass and a sparkle from the great Missouri.
Back at the medical tent, we share our experience. Doc doesn’t flinch.
“Tribal members are coming here to the camp for care,” she says. “They say it’s much better treatment than IHS. Rule of thumb on the reservation? Don’t get sick after June ‘cause you ain’t receiving any care all summer anyways.”
“You must be furious,” I say.
“I passed pissed a long time ago.” She swings her hair, adjusts eyeglasses. We step outside. Doc lights a cigarette, squats, and says, “Welcome to Indian Country.”
“Who’s the patient here?”
Rupa Marya, M.D. swivels from the front seat to test her colleagues, iPhone filming.
“Society,” one of the students responds. “Sick society is our patient.” Laughter.
Bouncing along in the backseat of a van, we’re part of a mile-and-a-half-long caravan heading towards the pipeline. Billie Holiday on the radio—“All of Me.” Red crosses taped to the windows. We’d caught a ride with the medical team: four practitioners from San Francisco, a young, diverse group providing support for the protectors.
A direct action is planned on the pipeline today: to conduct prayer and show the world that this fight is far from over, despite the recent Department of Justice ruling and media suggesting construction had been indefinitely halted.
Discussion in the van ranges from land reciprocity—when we’re dislocated from our soil, then there must be some microbial dissonance at play, right?— to collectively defecating on the pipeline as a means of diversifying tactics—cops would have absolutely no idea how to respond, right? Someone uses the term intersectionality and I’m embarrassed to not know the meaning (overlapping social identities and related systems of oppression.)
Outside: Grassland prairie. Fields of wilting sunflowers. Alfalfa. Horses cluster together in a pasture to break wind and stay together. Stay together when the storm comes.
We finally reach the pipeline. Smaller than I imagined. I expected it to be schoolbus thick, something I could walk through. Color: mint green, fungal green. Everywhere I find sections of pipe stacked, staged, ready. An orange helicopter circles, then an airplane.
“Stay together, come closer!” Yells a native man dressed in camo. Hundreds march toward the pipeline. “Gotta keep the Black Snake busy!”
The wind howls and tries to wrench the placard I’m holding. I escape to the sunflower fields and repeatedly stab the sign with my knife for the wind to flow through.
Feels like a murder scene.
The protectors stop several times to conduct ceremony along the pipeline. Native women plant willow boughs and offer prayers. Young men sit on the machinery. Drums. Chants. Hollering. Private guards arrive but human chains block them from interrupting the sacred.
Heart thumping. This is real. This is real. This is happening. This is beautiful.
This isn’t some abstract climate justice meme or water rights case study. I’m here, now, touching this cold device, this transit vein whose form unpacks so much: linear shortsightedness, systemic racism, desacralizing for profit. I’m here and nothing can be more real—this soil, these microbes, and this prayer I try squeezing between my teeth and into the wind:
Stay together. Come closer. Storm’s coming.
“Here, take this knife,” the meal coordinator tells me. “Dull as shit but that’s all we got. There’s at least 400 people to feed tonight and we’re way behind schedule. Thank you.”
I stand with two men—Navajo from Arizona, Mexican from California. We peel and quarter potatoes, then lob them into a Jacuzzi-sized cauldron hanging above a fire. Tents surround us with flailing tarps and conflicting smells—sage and cedar then mud and dish soap and browning venison. Everywhere there are bags of flour, coffee, canned goods. Everyone is giving and working.
I’m moved to onions now and working next to a young woman—Tearra—eloquent and graceful in her chop. She’s an artist, itinerant, musician, Afro-Cuban dancer. She doesn’t know when she’ll ever leave Standing Rock.
“Haven’t shed a tear yet!” She’s referring to the onions. “Must be the wind.”
From potatoes I join the onions and from the onions the dishes. Scalding soapy suds everywhere and bleach on my pants—doesn’t matter—and next to me, two large women scrub plates and laugh; they’d been here since the beginning. I wash with fury and still feel out of place, a visitor. I try washing my hands of this self-consciousness and just serve. Just serve. A man passes me carrying firewood to the main fire pit and I drop everything to help.
It’s dark now. Loudspeaker fills the night with a teenager’s voice, song from her family’s land. People circle close to the fire and wait for food. Stay humble. Stay together. Come closer. We keep stacking wood. Logs cut into my forearms and draw blood and I don’t care.
More wood. More fire. More blood. More real.
Food is ready. Corn. Venison. Stew. Pasta. Tons of food; more than we’ll ever dish. A line forms but we first prepare plates for the elders. I’m asked to deliver them but don’t know who qualifies as elderly and that confusion saddens me. I invite a young Sioux girl to help me and we give out plates while two men perform a dance, both dressed in ceremonial blues and whites and spinning in circles and stomping to a drumbeat. All I see are flames and blue and spinning and hundreds of hungry faces cold and listening together.
Stay together. Come closer. Storm’s coming
I clean up after the feast and walk back to my tent, flattened by the day’s wind. Teepees nearby hadn’t budged. The stars burn just above my forehead, not far.
I run into John, Chippewa man from the ER.
“How are you?” I ask.
“Fine. I think. Finished building my pallet wall today!” He laughs, shakes my hand with his good arm, and melts into the night.
Tired. Soaked. Bleeding. I drift from the drums and the dance and the fire. The last image I see is of an elderly woman in a traditional white dress, fireside. Her wrinkles run deep, kin to the encircling dark. Two young girls help the elder. One fixes a bell to her ankle. She’s elegant, her feet set firmly to the soil, to her home. The fire rages.
She’s not smiling. She’s not protesting. She’s preparing to dance.
All photographs by Nicholas Triolo.