Truth, Prayer & Knowing: What I learned at Standing Rock

The world is watching in horror at what is unfolding at Standing Rock. But what is the truth of what’s happening on the ground?

Sitting here watching the sun set over Bondi Beach, it’s hard to fathom that only a couple of weeks ago I was watching the sun set over very different waters — those of the Cannonball River in North Dakota, the site of a now infamous pipeline that’s threatening the waters that flow through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

I remember my last day at the frontlines vividly. It was the day that made the most headlines. It was the day the actress Shailene Woodley was arrested. It was also Columbus Day, now known as Indigenous Peoples Day — and this day was marked by lifting an injunction that was halting construction of a pipeline that threatens the future of the local indigenous peoples. The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $32 billion project that would see nearly half a million gallons of oil pumped beneath the sacred waters of the Sioux Indian Reservation each and every day.

Since departing from North Dakota, I’ve remained in daily — sometimes hourly — contact with my friends there. The news that has been emerging from Standing Rock is, to say the least, disturbing. Since the injunction was lifted, things have escalated quickly. Tensions are rising at the frontlines. Since Saturday alone over 300 people have been arrested, among them journalists and filmmakers. As news broke of the riot tactics being used on the frontlines through Facebook live feeds, the world finally started paying attention to what is happening in this small Indian Reservation in the depths of North Dakota.

These feeds have shown militarised police and the national guard moving in on peaceful protestors. They’ve shown elders and young people alike, standing in peace, being indiscriminately pepper sprayed, they’ve shown long range sound cannons being deployed to disperse the crowds. Extreme and aggressive riot tactics are being used against a peaceful crowd. There are consistent reports of police intimidation and brutality, of elders being pulled from sacred sweat lodges, of people being shot with rubber bullets, of horses being shot and killed from under young “warriors”. The Morton County Sheriff’s office even proudly posted images of arrested water protectors tied up and hooded. To clarify, “hooding” is classified as torture under United States law. Unsurprisingly, the post has since been removed. The police, an entity that exists to protect the people, are now standing firmly against them, in the name of a corporation. In the words of the Standing Rock Sioux Chairman, Dave Archambault III, as he spoke in front of the UN this week, it appears that “war is being waged on our sovereign nation”. The United Nations and Amnesty International USA have since announced they are sending representatives to the frontlines to ensure the protection of people’s human rights.

In the past week a lot of noise has been made about what’s happening at Standing Rock, and rightly so. But there is also confusion about what is going on there. Since I returned to Sydney last week, everyone I speak to has the same question — they want to know what’s really happening. They want to know the truth.

The thing about truth is that it’s particularly hard to establish when information is controlled. During my time at Standing Rock, many journalists I spoke to had been arrested — some getting pulled up on outdated minor parking and traffic offences — anything to stop them filming. Since I left, things have escalated even further. Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! was arrested (and later acquitted) for reporting at Standing Rock. Another filmmaker Deia Schlosberg, is facing forty-five years for filming at the pipeline. Forty-five years. For filming. For trying to tell the truth. To put that into context, Edward Snowden tweeted the other day that he is facing 40 years. It’s pretty hard for the truth to get out, when journalists and filmmakers are arrested en masse and have their footage confiscated. If it weren’t for Facebook Live, little or no accurate information would be getting out to the general public. The world simply wouldn’t know what’s happening.

There are many variations of the truth out there, in the media and online. The people in power, the corporations behind DAPL and the police would have you believe that the situation at Standing Rock is, in the words of the Morton County Sheriff “not peaceful or lawful”. No doubt you will continue to hear and see stories from the frontlines. Because that’s where the chaos lies. And we humans love to lap up drama, we revel in confrontation, we are hardwired to seek out the extreme. But there is another side to the story of Standing Rock, a much deeper story, one that happens beyond the chaos of the frontlines. Today, I want to share with you my story, my truth. The truth of what I saw, heard and learned during my time at Standing Rock.

I first heard about the DAPL pipeline while I was staying in New York in August. As someone who is innately curious about these things, and who is deeply passionate about human rights and environmental sustainability, I wanted to know more. A month or so later, during a moment of solitude and contemplation deep in the Badlands of South Dakota on a road trip with friends, I heard the call to go to North Dakota. Weeks later, through a series unlikely events and travel calamities, I somehow found myself standing, wildly unprepared for the bitter cold, with a small backpack in tow and a broken guitar in hand (thanks United Airlines), at Bismark Airport in North Dakota waiting on a ride to Standing Rock.

I got picked up by Kei, a beautifully warm young woman who had left her successful cafe business months ago to join the camp at Standing Rock because “some things are more important”, and Heskas, a local Sioux man. I travel a lot, and its a novelty to get picked up at airports by friends let alone people I’ve never met. Yet these two strangers greeted me with the warmth, love and excitement of old friends. As we drove across the first barricade and entered the Reservation, Heskas declared “you’re now officially a guest of the Lakota people. Welcome” he beamed at me as we waved at the police officers on the road.

The first thing you notice upon arrival are the flags. Hundreds of flags from different Nations fly high over the tipi-laden fields. This is significant for many reasons — never before have this many tribes gathered together with one common cause, yet there is another reason this is so significant. And that is because of the prophecy of the black snake. There’s a long standing prophecy amongst the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota peoples. It talks of a black snake, the zuzeka sape, crossing the lands and bringing with it devastation and destruction, destroying the drinking waters for generations to come. That this black snake would cause the world as they know it to come to an end. Earlier this year, the members of the Sioux Tribe at Standing Rock found out that the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) would be crossing the waters of the Missouri & Cannonball Rivers, threatening their drinking waters and destroying sacred sites. This pipeline is their black snake.

The really interesting thing about this prophecy is that it also speaks of all tribes and nations coming together. It speaks of the Eagle people and the Condor people, the people of the North and South, of all peoples, coming together in unity to defeat the black snake. When you see the flags, you see this prophecy unfolding in front of your eyes. At this point, over 300 tribes and nations are represented at Standing Rock. A movement like this has not been seen before amongst indigenous nations. You can’t help but feel like this is a monumental moment in history when you stand on the land there.

As we drove into camp, we came to a crawl — we were passing the sacred fire, and there was a ceremony underway — I was soon to learn that this was not unusual. For it turns out that the entire camp is a ceremony, this entire action is a ceremony. Alcohol and drugs are banned, and new arrivals are reminded that this is a place of prayer as they are welcomed at the sacred fire. As someone who hasn’t grown up in indigenous culture, this might be difficult to understand. We have a great propensity to separate everything from ourselves, including prayer. There’s a time for that sort of thing. There’s a place for it.

I’ll be the first to admit that when I used to hear the word prayer, my eyes would roll. I would hear “prayer” and all I could see was religious dogma. I grew up in a suffocatingly Irish Catholic environment, forced to say rosaries after dinner and to fast on Fridays, with no real understanding of why. I went to an all girls convent school, and my experiences with prayer and religion left me reeling with shame for years, to the point where I became an athiest. Until one day a few years ago where I very suddenly, and very surprisingly woke up, and in an instant everything changed. Yet here, amongst the rolling fields, with tribes from all Nations gathered, I see that everything is a prayer. People slip so easily in and out of prayer, one minute they’re sharing a joke, the next they are singing to Tunkashila — the Grandfather. Prayer is an innately natural thing to all of the indigenous people I see and meet. Prayer is not separate to life here. Because life itself is the prayer.

As you wander the camps, Mni Wiconi is plastered everywhere. It’s shouted from cars, it’s sprayed on t-shirts, it’s said in prayer. Water is life. Simple words with a very big message. I speak to a young man, Benjamin Conrad of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, he says that “water is our first medicine….water is life….water is everything…I am 65% water”, he also says that water has the capacity to heal over all else.

From personal experience I tend to agree. A few years ago when I faced my own mortality as a result of a long and painful illness, the waters here at Bondi Beach helped me recover. And as a surfer I’ve seen the power of the water to transform people’s moods, their lives and their mental health. I’ve been humbled more times than I care to remember by the power of the ocean, yet I’m always reminded of her fragility every time I paddle into yet another piece of plastic. Whether we like it or not, the inconvenient truth is that we are all connected to the waters, we all need water to survive.

What inspired me so much during my time in North Dakota was the people I met. One of whom was Tasha, a young army veteran and a Standing Rock Sioux member. She served for the United States for many years. And she has had her fair share of personal struggles too. In the past year she lost her father, her husband and a child. Yet she stood in front of me strong, heartfelt, at peace, and full of knowing that she was in the right place, doing the right thing. She left her life of comfort and material possessions to live at camp. Her family told her she was crazy. But she said to me, “this is about more than me and my struggles. It’s about more than Standing Rock. When we stand here at Standing Rock, we’re standing with Syria, we’re standing with Palestine, we’re doing this for all oppressed peoples and all lands. A struggle with any of our peoples is a struggle for all peoples, a struggle for any land is a struggle for all land.”

Tasha’s sense of peace, her sense of unity with other peoples, was not singular. For the thing that you feel and experience whilst living at camp is that there is no sense of anger, no sense of hate. No talk of us versus them. It’s an innately calm and peaceful place. In fact, the feeling at the camp is of joy, happiness and unity. A few days into my stay I had a conversation with an elder, Wonase “They Chase The Buffalo”. He spoke to me of the power of love and prayer. We spoke of people feeling helpless watching what is happening unfold from the comfort of their homes. He said the biggest thing we can do is send our prayers “the power of the prayer is felt through the earth, when we walk through the camps here, those that can’t be with us, we can feel their prayers, they vibrate through the lands and they vibrate through our bodies”. When speaking of the DAPL workers he said his message to them was simple: “We are not against you, we love you”. He cried as he spoke these words, because this is their deepest truth. The prayer they are holding at Standing Rock is for all people, not just the Sioux Tribe. It is for all waters. All life. The people at Standing Rock know that DAPL workers aren’t to blame — they’ve just forgotten that they too are dependant on water for life.

There’s a Lakota saying, “if you take a man away from Nature, his heart hardens” — as someone who has worked in social and environmental change for some time, and who used to work in the corporate world, this is something that I’ve contemplated often. Our comfortable lives in cities, filled with the conveniences of trash collection, running water, and food that’s all nicely packaged, means that we have become disconnected from Nature. Disconnected from who we are, where we are from, and how we rely on Nature to thrive. We have forgotten.

One bitterly cold night around the sacred fire, a grandmother, Geraldine — a direct descendant of Crazy Horse — shared stories from her life. When speaking of the struggles people at camp were facing, she said with a conviction I rarely hear “if you know who you are, and you know where you’re from, nothing and nobody can stop you”. The native peoples at Standing Rock know who they are. They know that they are intricately linked with all of Nature. They just know, in the deepest sense of the word. It is us, living our lives of convenience, who have forgotten. We feed our greed, but forget to feed our souls. But the time has come for us to remember. To remember that we too are of this earth, that we too are reliant on her for our future, that we too can have a deeper connection to Nature, we just have to start listening. Or as the Lakota elders would say, we just need to sing. Because that is how we remember the old ways.

“if you know who you are, and you know where you’re from, nothing and nobody can stop you”

At camp the elders often talked about us needing to learn the old ways, that to survive we need to return to these ways. Our obsession with technological advancement means that even speaking of “old ways” conjures up images of basic living and a life of scarcity, devoid of comfort. Yet a return to the old ways does not mean we all have to surrender our comforts and go live off the land, it simply means we need to embrace ways of living that don’t cause destruction to our earth and to our future generations. It means that we need to look to the future through the eyes and the hearts of our ancestors, and consider the impact our decisions will have on the earth and on those that are yet to be born.

This is the truth of what’s happening at Standing Rock. It’s a place of remembering. It is a walking, living, breathing prayer. It is a prayer for the earth, a prayer for the waters, a prayer for all life.

In the morning I would wake to the call to join the frontlines and raise the Chanupa pipe — a sacred gift to the Lakota people from the White Buffalo Calf Woman, a way of praying to Creation and connecting with Wakan Tanka — The Great Mystery. As the sun rose and hundreds of people sent their prayers up in smoke, we were told to “look to the rising sun warriors, take courage…as the sky turns to blue your courage will grow”. And off to the frontlines we would go, blessed on our way by the burning of massive bundles of sage and cedar.

Throughout the day tribes of different nations would gather at the frontlines to sing and dance their prayers into the land, and each night as the sun set over the still waters of the river and the sky turned pink, I would listen to the sound of drums and singing as people made their way into sweat lodges to listen to guidance from Great Spirit and to deepen their prayers for the earth.

When we speak of truth, whether you believe what I’ve said or not as truth is irrelevant. Because beyond my truth, beyond the truth of the mainstream media, beyond it all, is a deeper truth, so plain and simple that we forget it almost every day in the busy-ness of our lives. And the simple truth is this: that we as a race cannot survive, if we have no water. That we cannot thrive, if our earth doesn’t thrive. That our children will suffer if we don’t protect our waters now.

That said, it’s very easy to get caught up in all the negativity when you’re watching what is happening at Standing Rock, but there’s also so much joy and beauty there. Jusy the other day a herd of hundreds of wild buffalo stampeded across the front lines, just as tensions were rising. The crowd of water protectors were visibly elated — and the militarized police couldn’t understand why. You see, to the Lakota people the buffalo are especially sacred, they are seen as a gift from Great Spirit, for they are bringers of abundance, food, shelter and protection. At dawn as we filled and raised the chanupa pipes, we also prayed to the Buffalo Nation, the Tatanka Oyate. According to tradition, when the Buffalo appear it’s a sign that Great Spirit is listening to our prayers. The buffalo is also a sign of prophecy. So at this moment, when the people of Standing Rock were facing militarized police intimidation, almost certain arrest and the real possibility of getting injured with pepper spray and rubber bullets, all that was heard was joy and celebration.

For the buffalo was a sign from Great Spirit that the deep prayer for the earth that is being held at Standing Rock has been heard. This was a sign that here, in the midst of chaos, not only is the world watching what is happening at Standing Rock, some would say, that all of Creation is watching too.

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And send your prayers….Aho!