Service Record 2016 — Vol. III
Some America First for Our First Americans
There was the sound of fireworks bursting in the distance this evening. Sliding open a window didn’t reveal any additional indication as to its cause and a wanton impulse to strike out into the growing darkness quickly came to mind. After all, the reason for staging such a spectacle mattered little as long it was something, anything, worthy of celebration. Yet much like the impermanent flash of airborne pyrotechnics, the reckless sentiment to go out for the night faded against the enduring pressure to accomplish something, almost anything, that can meaningfully qualify as a positive change in the eyes of ordinary Americans. And while it was fashionable this week to analyze, scrutinize, and endlessly comment on the closing run of our Commander-in-Chief’s haphazard hundred, until past the point of vanity, I would offer that there’s more to gain by shining a light in the mirror and asking the hard questions where they count. For instance, asking what more have I done that’s worthy of celebration or condemnation.
For anyone fortunate enough to have completed the journey to Standing Rock by the evening of December 4th, a moment deserving of aerial fanfare was indeed witnessed. The surprise announcement that afternoon by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that a drilling permit would not be provided for further construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline was a rare victory. And despite the eventual reversal of that decision, for those who chose to risk livelihood and well-being in order to make their voices momentarily heard above the incessant drone of influence and money, it was an affirmation that freedom of speech is no less essential than the freedom to breathe. Water to the thirsty who had subsisted on little more than stubborn will since the spring of 2016.
I arrived to Oceti Sakowin that same morning, having driven through much of the night collecting esoteric wares to sustain the ongoing protest. That was the role I fell upon — coordinating the arrival of supplies and equipment donated or purchased by veterans and non-veterans alike. As with any good mobilization, the preceding weeks had generated a chaotic assortment of both functional and unnecessary materiel, all of it contributed in earnest and paid for by many generous souls who were impelled to send forward more than good spirits. Yet the many frustrations associated with moving and corralling so much physical stuff are minimal in comparison to that required to transport people. I didn’t know at the time, but I would not find an opportunity to assess and help organize any of the resources our contingent of veterans were bringing to bear for the camp.
The drive into Standing Rock was dim and tense. Less than reliable information from the previous evening had spread doubts of closed roadways, however, the icy conditions proved to be passable with care. Glances at the speedometer became more frequent after observing the first of many Federal Police vehicles operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs near the North Dakota border. And although this prudent habit provided no real assurance against harassment, at least using a roundabout avenue of approach from the south would bypass routes where unreasonable interaction with Morton County Sheriff’s Department could reasonably be assumed to occur. As the morning light reluctantly began to emerge it dawned on me again the apparent absurdity of traveling long distances to support those opposing construction of an oil pipeline. Myself and several thousand veterans were expending the very fossil fuel byproducts that were to be transported in crude form underneath the Missouri River. But thanks to several long years engaged in absurd military adventurism, brushing aside any inconsistent or inconvenient notions remains a well honed skill. Burning some gasoline in aid of those who aim to reduce overall fossil fuel use seems no more harebrained than expending some lives to reduce the bloodshed of violent conflict and war.
Lingering snow from the previous week was increasingly present as the landscape dipped towards the Cannonball River. The obtrusive light from Prairie Knights Casino & Resort had already beamed by ten miles earlier like a exotic glowing monument to modernity in the largely barren expanse. This outpost of services and infrastructure would nonetheless prove to be a vital resource over the next 72 hours, no matter how much protesters and other supporters were striving for self-sufficiency. Following the casino, at the fork where vehicle traffic from Bismarck was still able to rejoin Highway 1806 in order to outmaneuver the roadblock on the Backwater Bridge (AKA Cantapeta Creek Bridge), there was a lonely warning sign staged to deter motorists from continuing any farther north. The sign insisted that the road ahead was closed to all traffic. If sensible circumstances were still in effect there would have been nothing to more see and no need to continue onwards. But having monitored the excessive force being employed by one group of Americans against another just a few miles ahead, sensibility was clearly not a guiding force maintaining much legitimacy.
The diminutive Cannonball Pitstop was the last vestige of mundane civilization before winding down to the river and in range of Oceti Sakowin. A sacred fire had been lit there to represent the seven bands of the Lakota who have continued to populate our Great Plains since the time before we called this nation ours. The sheer number of structures and vehicles that populated the terrain was immediately inspiring, and yet disclosed little of the human activity that would soon emerge as the morning cold surrendered to sunlit day. I had received varying estimates of the numbers gathered but now was afforded the benefit of visual proof of how many had traveled at considerable personal expense of time, money, and risk to this far flung corner of North Dakota. Receiving the scene via the physical senses gave definition to the urgency I had heard among the voices who had committed their energies to helping everyone willing to reach that location. The individual reasons may have been numerous — crusaders for the weak against the strong, pilgrims seeking a foothold for a more wholesome existence, and every other wellspring of passion from the most admirable to the most ill-advised — the muster at Standing Rock was a broad assembly of what America often does best: making trouble.
Now that I had arrived, it was time to get to work.