Lessons from Fighting The Black Snake at Standing Rock

by Nick Jaina and Leslie Orihel

photo by Edward Curtis

“Wake up! Wake up!”

The voice came over a loudspeaker from a mile away. It was the voice of a Native man and it traveled over tents and tipis, over sacred fires, and across the Cannonball River to shake us awake as we lay bundled up in our tent.

I sat up, afraid that he was warning us that police were raiding the camps. I thought he was saying the word ‘Gestapo’ over and over, and I listened for the sound of people screaming. The cold air slapped my face, the only skin on my body that was exposed.

But this was just the normal wake-up call.

“Good morning, relatives! Wake up! It’s time to kill the Black Snake!”

The Black Snake is why everyone is camping in ever-colder temperatures on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. It is a reference to an old Lakota prophecy of an evil serpent that will crawl through the Great Plains. If it is allowed to win, the prophecy goes, we will have violated our bond with the earth too much, and the Black Snake will eat us all up, causing the end of the world.

Energy Transfer Partners, a corporation funded by many major banks, is building the Dakota Access Pipeline over a thousand mile stretch of the Midwest from North Dakota to a terminal in Illinois because of the recent domestic oil boom in the United States, a boom created in part by fracking techniques that have opened up new oil deposits. The pipeline is intended to get this oil to refineries cheaper than the usual method, by train.

DAPL workers are drilling on land that Sioux tribes claim belong to them due to a treaty with the United States from 1851. While the tribes are asking the United States government for help and receiving timid, measured responses, DAPL is moving forward with their pipeline, which is desecrating sacred sites and endangering the water supply that many people in the area use.

The people of Standing Rock have rallied around the slogan “Water Is Life.” It is important to remember that, when framed by the Lakota prophecy, these people are not just battling for clean water — they are battling to prevent the end of the world.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

I traveled to North Dakota with my friend Leslie, a nurse who lives in Boulder, Colorado. We went with the purpose of writing about what we saw, but wanted to contribute as much as we could while we were there. (The common Native term for white people like us, we learned, is “settler”.)

There are several camps clustered around the Cannonball River in Standing Rock. Oceti Sakowin is the main camp. Across the river is Rosebud, and then down a dirt road is Sacred Stone. I brought an ax with me, so the first day I just walked up to the wood pile in Sacred Stone Camp and started chopping wood. I asked one man if there was any system to the chopping and the stacking and he said no. He had probably just started chopping wood himself that same day. Within ten minutes I was down to my t-shirt and sweating, and people were driving up and asking me questions about where to put piles of coats as though I were an authority.

Meanwhile, Leslie went to the medic tent to learn how she could assist with medical treatment for people on the front lines who were being tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets. (Leslie’s words will be shared in italics.)

I attended multiple orientations — cultural awareness/sensitivity, direct action involvement/training, and volunteering with the medic-healer group. I had just left the medic tent where I had helped to organize a few supplies and duct-taped goggles to seal them from tear gas in direct actions. Mostly I felt like an extra body clogging up the efficiency of the place. Wondering what exactly I was there to do, I went to get a coffee at the main fire in Oceti Sakowin. The sun was setting. Famished and dehydrated from the busy day, I grabbed a small bottle of water out of a barrel and guzzled it down. A Native man approached me and asked where the water was. “In that barrel,” I smiled. He repeated his question with a sly look that implied that the water he was asking about wasn’t in a bottle.

His name was Harper. He was a local Dakota rancher who had come to deliver hay for the camp’s horses. He soon started telling me stories from his childhood.

When he was young, he never understood the idea of swimming pools. “I had the river,” he told me. “My mother would give me a bar of Ivory soap in the summer and send me there to get clean.” He laughed at swing sets and monkey bars. “Why would you need them? Look at all the trees. Endless climbing.”

Other children would brag about their bikes. “But we had horses,” he said. “Who needs a bike when you have a horse?”

I was touched that he was offering so much wisdom to a young woman he had just met. I was captivated in his museum of memories as he pulled stories off of shelves and from random drawers. The architecture of his narration was intentional, slow, non-linear, and his cadence distinct. His tales were familiar objects, carved and fitted for the palm of his hand.

He told me of visions that led him to ride east to the town of Mankato, Minnesota, to visit the memorial to the thirty-eight Native men who were hung by the United States government in 1862 in the largest mass execution in this country’s history. It was there he found the name of one of his ancestors, Oyate Tawa. He taught me the name and I repeated it carefully.

We talked for almost an hour. At the end we embraced and I thanked him. I walked back to camp with a lighter gait. I felt strengthened by this new connection and what I had learned just by listening to stories around a fire.

……

The next day I was taking a break from chopping wood when someone asked if I would help raise a tipi.

We went to a little clearing where Julian, a Native man in overalls, was sitting in a chair. His face was sun-hardened and he looked tired.

He had us walk up the hill and grab seventeen long poles and bring them down. We lined them up next to each other with the bottoms even, so that we could see which ones were longer. We traced a circle with a piece of rope, cutting into the dirt with the stick to delineate what would be the base of the tipi. We had to set the poles outside of the circle, which made them stretch into the roadway a bit.

“Lift up the three shortest poles,” Julian said. “These two. And this one.”

We lifted up the poles and spread the bottoms on opposite sides of the circle, creating a three-legged support that would be the start of the tipi.

“At the inside of the circle!” Julian shouted. “Put your foot there to keep it steady.”

No one could do it right. We were all so nervous to be disrespectful that we kept bumbling.

“No!” he shouted.

One man let go of a pole in frustration and it dropped on the ground.

“Look, you don’t have to be here,” Julian said. “You can just leave.”

Regardless, the man stayed.

We got the poles up and lashed them with rope. Julian gave the end of the rope to one man and told him to walk around the circle and keep it tight.

“Okay, raise the next shortest pole and put it in the front.”

A couple of us did.

“The front! The front!” he shouted.

None of us could find the front of the circle.

We managed to put it in place and lean it on the other three.

“Now, come around the circle,” he shouted to the man holding the rope.

“THIS way!” he shouted when the man started walking the wrong way.

“Come on!”

This went on for each of the seventeen poles. We never did it right, or fast enough. It was fascinating to feel so incompetent. This Native man was telling a group of seven or eight white men what to do and none of us could get it. And collectively, without discussing it, we were all totally fine with his frustration. We deserved it.

We were halfway through putting up the poles when we heard a sickening crack, as the poles on the ground all shook. We looked up to see a woman in an SUV driving on top of the poles, breaking a couple of them. “STOP!” we all shouted, and she stopped her car, sitting right on top of the poles. She looked terrified. “Should I back up!” she asked. “NO!” we shouted.

Julian had had it. “Just go! Watch where you’re going! How did you not see those poles?” He was so dismayed.

Eventually we got all the poles in place. The rope man kept wrapping the rope around the top, always too slow, or going the wrong direction somehow.

Five of us gathered to put the bundle of canvas along the length of the last pole and hoist it up. It was heavy and took all of our strength and balance to get it up. I looked up at the top of the pole as it crossed the disk of the sun and I thought of the four men hoisting the flag at Iwo Jima, one of them a Native named Ira Hayes who died poor and drunk in a ditch. It was just a moment, all of us gathered as one, and then it was up and I lost my place in the group as everyone started wrapping the canvas around. I slipped out and went back to chopping wood.

Leslie had a similar moment of embarrassment.

I met Ollie at Rosebud Camp and rushed over to Oceti Sakowin to meet my Northern Arapahoe friends near the medic-healer tents. I was late and my ride was leaving soon and they weren’t there. A procession of a hundred women descended down Flag Road, which runs through the Main Camp and displays the emblems of many tribes. They called out, “Join us!” I hesitated, then replied, “I’m sorry, we’re waiting for someone!” At once I realized my mistake as my friend elbowed me and I noticed the pitcher of water being reverently held by an elder in the front of the group. It wasn’t an invitation that one could simply refuse.

I walked over and they ignored my blunder as I held out my hands. I was gently scolded to fold down my glove, and the woman poured water into my palm and encouraged, “Drink.” I slurped the water and quickly returned to the tents feeling silly. As the group passed, Ollie laughed out loud at me. I felt dumb and humbled. This wasn’t my land, these weren’t my customs or traditions, yet again and again, despite my ignorance, I felt the soft pull into the fold of the sweet and earthly religion. I hadn’t expected the experience to feel like being in a foreign country, but I felt the cultural exchange was one of the most important gifts I was being given, one to be shared with my own relatives and friends after I had left Standing Rock.

There were many lessons. Some were familiar slogans: Protect the sacred. Water is Life. And others: Do not extract more than you give. Remember your ancestors and let them guide you. See that everything is your relative. In this way we bond with the earth and are bound to protect it.

Another morning, as we walked back from breakfast, a band of horses surged through the camp, about twenty of them, each one ridden by a Native man or woman. They were like a proud river sweeping through camp. As the last rider came by, he reached out his hand and gave me a high five. I chased after them and jumped onto the back of a four-wheeler with a photojournalist named LaFleur. We followed close behind while the riders crossed the plain along the delta, heading towards the Main Camp.

Edward Curtis was a photographer famous for his portrayals of Native Americans before the turn of the century. He would edit his photographs, eliminating modern elements like telephone lines to create an antique view of Native American life. In this moment of trailing behind the Native riders, I felt like I was in one of his photos, and what I saw was historical tradition integrated with a very real present. When we keep people within the diorama of a quaint and vanished history, we risk disenfranchising their continuing struggle for justice.

The four-wheeler dropped me off at Rosebud Camp, and I fell into step with a man who had come from Kansas City to be here for just one day. Terry was Lakota and he hadn’t been home in a long time. He showed me his shirt, “Native by Birth” on the front, “Warrior by Choice” on the back. Our conversation quickly became familiar and warm. We entered Oceti Sakowin, and every ten feet he was greeted and hugged by old friends. We walked to the back of the camp to a large prayer group that was organized in concentric circles. We stood on the periphery and listened, and Terry occasionally leaned toward me to explain different parts of the ceremony.

“You take tobacco with your left hand because it is close to the heart, and afterward we throw it upon the fire to honor our ancestors. Do you see the man with the headdress of eagle feathers? He is the chief because he was given all of the sacred feathers by members of the tribe as a demonstration of their collective trust in him to be their leader.”

At the end of the prayer circle everyone from the outer circles walked around the inner circles, shaking hands with each other. I was hesitant to participate. It was mostly Native people there and I wasn’t sure if I was welcome, but Terry gently grabbed my arm and said, “WE are going to go shake hands with everyone.” I was met with many sincere smiles and many of the elders thanked me for coming to pray.

……

Back at the wood pile, I was splitting logs with a gas-powered vice that pushed the wood into a stationary ax blade. I am usually frustrated at the levels of bureaucracy you have to pass through to do any job, but at Standing Rock no one minded that I was operating heavy machinery. I figured out how to use it and made sure to not stick my head in the vice. If this were a normal construction job I was hired for, the company would have made me watch a fifteen-minute video on “The Gas-Powered Wood Splitter and You” and I would have taken a written test on the correct way to interact with it.

Circling in the sky overhead, always, was a surveillance plane. I couldn’t get a straight answer as to exactly what it was doing, but almost every hour that we were at camp, this little plane was circling above. At night it would turn its lights out, which seemed dangerous and illegal. During the day it would just keep circling around. The effect was like a fly that keeps buzzing around your head. Most of the time you can put it out of your thoughts, but then in certain moments you notice it again and you snap. Several times I heard people randomly yell at the plane. “Why don’t you just land already?!”

Maybe part of the reason for the plane was some sort of psychological warfare. It seemed petty and wasteful. I thought about the pilot in the plane, on the most boring flight route possible, always circling counterclockwise, all the fluid in his body leaning into the left side of his ear canals and blood vessels. Did he listen to an audiobook all the while? Did he listen to music? How did he feel about his assignment?

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Martin Luther King, Jr. once said. “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

This country has always prioritized white male comfort over everyone else’s basic safety. White men can walk through the world without being pinged with the constant reminder of what color our skin is and how that color gives some a lower status. This condition is institutional. I grew up thinking racism was just shouting bad words at people who look different than you, and if that wasn’t happening then racism was disappearing. But it’s so much deeper than that. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a seminal piece in The Atlantic detailing all the ways racism has been entrenched in the housing industry, in every facet of life. Imagine if the whole world around you conspired to deprive you of rights, not through overt acts but just by the fabric of society, and on top of that they were gaslighting you by denying it was happening — you would go more than a little crazy.

It wasn’t until I was in Standing Rock for a few days that I started to hear the most brutal of stories regarding confrontations with the police. These stories included reports of elders being arrested, pulled from sweat lodges while they were unclothed, then being labeled with numbers and put into cages. I learned that the kind of “non-lethal weaponry” being used by the military and police forces is very ill-defined. A horse had been killed in one of the actions by rubber bullets. One of the few camp physicians described the risk of pulmonary embolism, a potentially fatal blood clot in the lungs, within 48 hours of being struck in the chest by a rubber bullet. Another medic told me her firsthand account of gross police negligence: “After we [medics] were pulled out of a moving vehicle, it continued to roll towards [the other medic]. He successfully struggled to get out of the way of the car and was charged with resisting arrest.” I was given goggles and trained how to flush people’s eyes after mace exposure.

……

It was in the shadow of these horrific accounts that I heard there would be a forgiveness march in Mandan, a town an hour north of Standing Rock. I was surprised that after a week particularly high in abuses by the police, a march had been organized with the intention to forgive the police and reestablish the humanity between sides.

I got a ride to the march in the back of a truck with two filmmakers. After driving an hour, we all gathered in a city park and organized into a large circle. As participants were smudged with sage, a woman named Lila spoke eloquently to a crowd of almost five hundred people. “We have come here to forgive the police who have hurt and jailed our water protectors.” She described the unhealed wounds of those with European heritage, who suffer from a history of burning their women. “The perpetuation of cruelty is what happens when you do not address and work to resolve the wounds of the past,” she explained. Her voice carried clear and true out to every person in the circle. We then marched to the county jail where many had been detained following direct actions. Along the way we were silent. At one point in our march we looked over and saw that we were walking alongside a railroad track, and every car on the train was an oil car, trundling along with us. The Black Snake is everywhere.

I was at the Mandan march, too. When we got to the jail, the crowd of people encircled the whole block and held hands while facing the building. I stood there in this small North Dakota town, staring at the bricks of this jail. After a few minutes and someone taught us a simple song to sing over and over. “Open up and let the love come in.”

As we dropped hands and gathered back in front of the jail, we passed several local police officers. People from our group went up and asked if they could hug the officers. Some of them refused, and some of them allowed it. One of the officers looked everyone in the eyes and said, “Be safe,” and shook our hands as we walked by. I wiped away tears at the realization that humanity is so close by.

That night back at camp I went for a walk and got lost between Sacred Stone and Rosebud. I took a wrong turn through a hedge at the end of camp and ended up on a hillside where the only thing I could see was the glowing eyes of horses nearby. I couldn’t see the camps. I couldn’t see the floodlights blazing over the pipeline construction. Only hundreds of miles of cascading hills cast in a gray scale until achieving total darkness at the horizon.

It always takes a minute to admit that you’re lost. At first you think your disorientation can be easily remedied. Then, as your successive attempts fail, you become increasingly careless with your choice of direction (because you have less and less of an idea of where to go) until you finally reach the point where you must admit to yourself that you’re lost. Then you pause and come up with a plan.

The sky and the land stretched out around me, vast and empty. The only predator to be afraid of tonight is DAPL, I thought. I heard the engine of the plane that had been circling above Standing Rock. I stopped and looked up and saw a dark form cross the sky. I decided to walk up to the highest point I could see.

I reached the crest of the hill. The lights of the camps were like fireflies and DAPL’s harsh fluorescence like flashbulbs repeating in the darkness of eyelids, a dedication to different deities meeting among the deltas of the converging rivers. I felt like a ghost as the wind encircled me and I looked across the panorama before me. This was the frontline of it all, where the slogan I had seen on signs — “Protecting the Sacred” — became more real than ever.

Later that night I walked up to the sacred fire in our camp. An elder was shaking a rattle and singing, accompanied by a young man playing a hand drum. Again, I didn’t understand the words but I understood the sentiment. It was lovely, sorrowful; he missed somebody. When he was finished, he told the group gathered around the fire that his religion and connection with the Great Spirit had helped him survive twenty-one years of wrongful imprisonment.

“These songs remind me of my relatives that I’ve lost, because they taught me these songs and when I sing I am closer to them. When I got out of prison, people told me I was ‘institutionalized’ but I told them ‘Nah, I’m Native.’”

“Native means you don’t despair, you pray,” he explained. I thought about what this meant for Standing Rock, what it would mean whatever the outcome of the movement was. The elder then explained all the pieces of the rattle he held in his hand. “The stones within the rattle represent the earth — the place where our elders reside…. You never know what piece of earth you’re touching that once was a relative. This is why we have to respect the earth, our mother.”

As I walked away from the fire I looked up at Star Nation and thought about the people who I had lost in life, how much I missed them, and how being in a place imbued with ancestral ties encouraged their memory to stay lit within me, like another star.

……

On our last day at camp, Leslie and I met with the Youth Council for a ceremony and a silent march. We spent an hour standing in a big circle, again about four or five hundred of us, as the young Native men and women of the Youth Council talked over megaphones about wanting to have a silent march to express their desire for peace and respect. The circle stretched so big that you couldn’t see the face of the person on the opposite side of you. Two women went around the circle with a can of burning cedar, and encouraged everyone to douse themselves with the smoke to purify the spirits around them. “Sage welcomes good and bad spirits,” she said. “But cedar brings only the good spirits. Sometimes that’s preferable.”

A while after they came by, two women arrived with a bag of tobacco, and they asked everyone to put a bit of it in their left hand. We held this tight in our hands as we started to line up to march.

We walked silently up the hill and out of camp. I lost sight of Leslie at some point. Her cream-colored wool coat caught my eye a few times, but ultimately there was no need to stay close together. As we passed the main fire where the man on the loudspeaker gave his announcements, he called out, “Passing by us now is the Youth Council silent march. This is something they organized and we’re very proud of them. So let’s be quiet and observe the power of silence.”

We walked up to Highway 1806 and headed towards the bridge that marked the border between the Native camps and the militarized police forces. As we descended down to the bridge, I got a glimpse of the valley beyond. Scrambling into place were dozens of SUVs. Police in riot gear were positioned at a barrier on the far side of the bridge. Just off the road was a burned-out car. I felt my knees wobble a little bit as I saw the full force of this militarized police state assembling into an intimidating formation, but then I calmed myself by thinking, “Fine, they can mow us all down, they can burn the bridge. What would that prove? What would they win?”

We stopped at the beginning of the bridge and four of the young men went up ahead to talk to the police. They brought with them a bottle of water that had been blessed. They offered it to the police. All but one of them refused to take it, but one man took a splash of it and seemed to be moved by the gesture. The young men told the police that we had come to silently pray on the bridge, and that we didn’t want to provoke any violence. The police understood and the young men waved us ahead. We all walked onto the bridge and sat down in silence. I started crying at the power of all of us assembled to just sit there. I thought of all the time I had spent in large crowds at concerts, sporting events, festivals, and how I always yearned for silence. It can be so strong simply to sit there.

A conflict, any conflict between people, can become dangerous when the participants forget that they are human and the people on the other side are human. Armies and police states know this and work to de-emphasize any reminders of humanity. The riot gear that cops strap on isn’t just to physically protect them from injury, but also to remove them from their environment. Their armor tells the opposition that they are not accessible as humans. They are an unfeeling force to quell dissent.

Every influence in our world tells us that we are a big brain floating in our skulls, and that is all we are. That we can think our way out of any problem, of our current situation, that we can even think our way out of the problem of death. It puts us in conflict with our environment, because we believe that we are not a part of nature, that we have no relationship to the natural environment around us.

As Charlie Chaplin said in his dramatic speech in the film The Great Dictator, “More than machinery, we need humanity.”

After a few minutes we got up and cleared a path for the leaders to walk through with their prayer stick. We fell in place behind them and marched back to the camp. We circled up again and waited in line to walk up to the fire and throw the tobacco we each held in our hands into the flame. It was a wonderful way to commit everyone to the totality of the ceremony. I wouldn’t have felt good about walking away with the tobacco still in my hand, tossing it into a garbage can somewhere. The circle felt better completed.

There is a wisdom that you can’t find on Wikipedia, that you can’t ask Google to fill you in on. It is shared around fires by men who ramble on and on. It is not a conversation, it is a public utility, a stream of words that you can choose to receive any time you want. Some cultures honor their elders as repositories of wisdom. Other cultures only see their elders as jokes, useless demographics that have lived past their purpose.

“I can’t believe the generosity here,” Leslie said to me as we walked away from the ceremony. “They don’t ask for your credentials or anything. Strangers are welcomed onto the land and into the culture. It’s so peaceful and respectful and beautiful.”

“I didn’t expect it to be so based around prayer,” I said. “It’s like this whole gathering is one big ceremony. When we were on the bridge I thought about how different it would be if we were in a situation where everyone was Christian or something, and we were being asked to pray. I think it would feel uncomfortable for most people.”

“Yeah, but the religions here are all stuff that we already know. It’s all based on nature, and things that we’ve always felt our whole lives. It’s inspiring to be able to participate in it every day.”

“I wish there was a way to bring that back to our regular lives,” I said. “That ritual and sacredness. But, I mean, I wouldn’t feel right about literally bringing these same elements back.”

“No,” Leslie said. “Maybe just starting with silence helps. I always want there to be more silence. All the time.”

“Yeah, me too.”

The next morning, Election Day, I dropped Leslie off at the Bismarck Airport. For the next eighteen hours I drove across the wide expanse of Montana thinking about my time at the camp. I looked at my phone intermittently, but at first didn’t have more than a slight anxiousness about the outcome of the election. Mostly, like everyone, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

As night fell, the news started to come in. All through my Twitter feed states were being called for Trump, and they were all the states I had just driven through. It’s like I was on a game board and someone was slapping down big red states on me as I scurried away. Wyoming! SLAM! South Dakota! SLAM! North Dakota! SLAM! Montana! SLAM!

I thought I could make it all the way to Portland, but I couldn’t do it. All day I hoped I would make it to a bar where my friends were hanging out, get there right before last call, tell them how far I had driven and how much I had learned. We would all laugh and hug and celebrate the first woman president.

Instead I stopped in a parking lot in Arlington, Oregon, at one in the morning and texted my friend, “Not going to make it tonight. I could handle the tiredness, but not the sadness.”

The best advice I heard at Standing Rock was from an elder with a soft voice who got on the microphone around the main sacred fire one night.

“I hear people talking about this being good vs. evil and it makes me sad,” he said. “This is about wisdom vs. ignorance. We are not trying to destroy them, we are trying to educate them.”

There will be so many more battles to fight over the next few years. I used to be sympathetic to progressive causes but too lazy to join the action. I‘d find a cheap excuse, like not liking the music that soundtracked the rallies or the aesthetics of the slogans. That’s no longer acceptable. In a world where the Black Snake is threatening to swallow us all, there are no more excuses. Create your own music. Create your own slogans. There is a great machine that is stoked by ignorant men that will eat you alive if you let it. But there is still a great deal of wisdom being spoken by the quiet ones. Go stand with them. If there is wood that needs to be chopped, step up and chop it. If you see a pathway to starting something bigger, be the one to pitch the first tent, be the one to stand on the front lines in the freezing cold.

As I went to sleep in my car on Election Night, wrapped up in blankets, I thought about the Native man shouting over the loudspeaker every morning at Standing Rock. “Wake up!” he shouts over and over again. The loudspeaker gives his voice the power of hundreds of people. He is shouting with the pain of centuries. His voice carries for miles, but will anyone believe him? Will we wake up?