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Sioux Me: A White Man’s Tale

October 1, 2016

My hippie card has been revoked.

When you’re raised by flower children, camping isn’t second nature – it is your nature. A tent is a crib and the world is your playground. Throughout my childhood I was the person you could count on to drop everything for a hike into the woods or a trip to jump off a waterfall. I loved hearing the sounds of the night through the tent walls, the birds and the wind and the rain.

After moving away from home my travels ranged from Oregon to Ohio until four days before my thirtieth birthday, when I embarked on the next-level adventure of fatherhood. As every modern parent (who’s stayed present for their kids) knows, spontaneity gets replaced with responsibility and hiking turns into glamour camping – if it remains part of your life at all. So it went for me. I buried those pieces of myself and became a city person, a homeowner, a construction contractor… a productive member of society.

I told myself this was a necessary part of my spiritual path, like Siddhartha during his years as a merchant; as soon as my daughter was grown I would return to a more natural lifestyle. For something gnawed at my heart. Even as I found success I dreamt of moving to the country and returning to my childhood roots.

Then I read about the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s lawsuit against the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners. I read about the hundreds of Native American Tribes coming together to protect the country’s natural resources. I read about the prophecy of the Warriors of the Rainbow, humans of all colors uniting to heal our ailing culture; and I read about LaDonna Allard’s call for people – Native and non-Native – to come to North Dakota and stand in unity against the oil pipeline’s construction.

Brothers and Sisters, I heard that call as clearly as a church bell on a Sunday morning. If this was the beginning of a cultural revolution there was no way I wasn’t going to be a part of it. And so, just three months after back surgery for a herniated disc, I strapped my paddle board to the top of my truck’s canopy, loaded the bed with supplies donated by the good people of Portland, and drove 1300 miles to join LaDonna’s crew at Sacred Stone Camp.

I didn’t last 48 hours.

Sacred Stone’s central fire pit has been burning since April, when the Camp formed. There is a covered kitchen and a supply shed and several groupings of port-a-potties across the fields, which are dotted with tents and tipis and vehicles. Toward the river a sweat lodge is nestled in a small valley. Behind the kitchen, construction progresses on a root cellar for storing food over the winter.

For winter is coming with more certainty than A Game of Thrones. I arrived on the evening of the equinox, September 21st, wearing sunglasses and slippers and a t-shirt. A steady wind blew out of the east, off the water. By the time I’d parked and pitched my tent the sun had faded below the hills. I shrugged on a hoodie and warm socks and soon crawled into my bed, exhausted from the drive.

Sleep was fitful and fleeting. The tent flapped in the wind like a Hawaiian rainstorm. Drumming from the sweat lodge woke me more than once. Lights flashed across the fly as people came and went throughout the night. Meanwhile my brain worked overtime. I was here! This was it! For the first time in over a decade I’d done something spontaneous. I couldn’t wait for the morning, couldn’t wait to involve myself in the camp’s activities. I had so many great ideas to share.

The first person I met was Michael, the camp’s self-appointed handyman. He was basically Colorado’s version of myself, except he’d brought his five children with him – and lost his house when he decided to stay.

There was Greg, a Bernie delegate from Pittsburgh. We went on a drive to buy hay after being asked to take out the kitchen compost and realizing it wasn’t really composting. Greg was concerned about the Bernie effect happening here – or, more specifically, at Oceti Sakowin, the overflow camp, where the majority of the tribal elders were gathered. What would happen if they accepted a deal and the people rejected it?

I also met Amit, a woman from Israel. She greeted me at the supply tent when I arrived not knowing anyone or anything. It wasn’t until the next morning that I was able to ask whose land I was on and if I was welcome to be there. I was directed to Marty in the kitchen, who turned out to be LaDonna’s sister. She urged me to her and gave me a motherly hug and I immediately felt at peace. I was welcome. I was wanted. These two women had brought me into their families, for however short or long a time we had together. I would stand with them against a hurricane.

But as the day wore on, it became apparent that I didn’t know how to support them. There was nobody in charge beyond Marty’s watchful eye from the kitchen and those people who stepped into roles and didn’t step out of them. The ladies in the herbal first aid center. The people tirelessly sorting donations (for supplies did not stop flowing into camp, and though appreciated, required scrutiny; who donates a half-empty bottle of Vaseline?). Michael and his crew, winterizing. The security team at the front gate. LaDonna was in D.C. meeting with the United Nations and her absence may have had something to do with it, but I don’t think so. What I was seeing was a community at work.

If you noticed something that had to get done – and you knew how – you did it. The camp didn’t need my ideas, they needed actions. They needed firewood chopped and buildings erected and garbage cans emptied. They needed people to step up for no reason other than their mutual survival. And that was when it struck me: I did not know how to drop out of American culture.

I went to bed early, with a heavy heart. I’d done my share: hauled a load of garbage out and a pallet of cinder blocks in, spent $60 of my own cash allotment on the hay run, dragged logs about at the back of the property for security purposes, and designated a compost bucket beside the trash can after realizing food was getting thrown away. But ETP had allegedly purchased the land about which the Natives were protesting that very day. There were rumors of tension between the camps. And the wind was picking up; I’d had to upgrade my hoodie for a lined Carhartt jacket that afternoon. Rain was in the forecast. I was 1300 miles from home and every second that crept toward the negative fifty degree winter that was undeniably coming made that distance feel harder to travel.

Surviving in the Dakota wilderness requires knowledge, skill, and determination; it’s no place for a tropical-born kid recovering from back surgery and a chest cold. But if this mere hint of adversity scared me off, what chance was there for white America? How could I call for a return to nature if I couldn’t live by those standards myself?

The next morning I got up early and went straight to the kitchen. I explained to Marty that I was part of a Story Theater group in Portland, and that I might have the opportunity to tell a story during their special refugee edition coming up in December.

One of the women immediately turned to me. “We’re not refugees,” she said vehemently. “This is our land. We haven’t gone anywhere. You’re the refugees.”

My hopes came crashing down. But Marty gave me an interview anyway; she’d studied theater in college and understood the power of story.

Her family was broken up by the welfare services when she was a child. She drank whiskey from the age of twelve to nineteen. She ran away to find her mother. She rode with the rodeo crew. I could’ve listened to her stories all day, but the rain had started and my clothes were wet and she had to get back into the kitchen. And in any case, hers is not my story to tell. I cannot speak for any of the Native Americans I met. My tiny slice of experience at Sacred Stone Camp was just that, and in no way represents the full scope of their purpose in being there.

I realized this midway through the interview, when I theorized that white Americans might need to be tricked into doing the right thing. Marty cut me off. “That’s not our job. It’s their job. They’re gonna have to understand, they’re gonna have to get some education in them, they’re gonna have to change their ways. Not us. Not us: them.”

Some hours later the rain started in earnest. I packed up my tent and drove away without saying goodbye, disappointed at my failure to make it at the camp and simultaneously grateful I hadn’t gotten stuck there.

Not a single person asked about my paddle board. It wasn’t that kind of a party.

It took an extra day to get back to Portland, driving through a rainstorm and heavy wind and traffic. On the second morning frost clung to my truck. Flooding is expected across the Midwest.

If anyone can camp through the Dakota winter, it’s the Native Americans. They are displaying a grit and a grace and a purpose few – if any – white people have equaled. Their culture has been attacked and suppressed for hundreds of years but it’s still strong. Of course it has issues; so would we under similar circumstances. But I don’t think we’d show up to unite around a cause that would ultimately benefit our oppressors as much as ourselves.

The closer I got to Portland, the more my thoughts turned to my own people. Marty was right: the best way white Americans can help is by working on ourselves. Signing petitions and sending (quality) donations are helpful, but the bigger work needs us to be involved in a way this generation has yet to demonstrate, and for no reason other than it’s the right thing to do. We are the people who need to change. We’re living a privilege we haven’t earned and taking it for granted, and if we don’t stand up for the unprivileged we’re going to lose it too.

So what can we do? What practical, concrete steps can we take that will improve our culture?

I think about the way Amit greeted me. I was alone in a crowd of people, shy and uncertain, and she made eye contact and smiled. Even though it wasn’t technically her camp or her people, she made me feel welcome simply by acknowledging me.

I think about Michael, a converted Muslim, breaking his back to make sure his brothers and sisters have somewhere to shelter before winter hits.

But mostly I think about Marty, working tirelessly in the kitchen. She doesn’t get welfare checks. She doesn’t get casino money. She’s had more than ample opportunity to give up on herself – and her people. Or mine. But she’s still there, doing her part to make the world a better place for all of us.

We can follow their example. We can learn how to live in a community again. Meet our neighbors, get involved in our children’s school, study the politicians running at a local level. Smile at strangers. Give things away. Find out where our vital resources are coming from. Ask questions before making judgments, especially online. And speaking of technology, the best thing we can do for our health is to put down our devices, turn off the TV, and go outside. Work through the feelings of boredom and emptiness until you find some positive way to connect with the world. Do this every day for the rest of your life.

So Sioux Me, if you don’t agree. I know how uncomfortable the thought of change is. I know how much easier it is to look for inconsistencies in an argument – and dismiss it – than consider the broad strokes of the issue itself. I don’t have all the answers. Life is more complex than any tweet or meme can express. There will always be disagreements between – and within – groups of people, because that’s a human dynamic, as incurable as a zombie virus. But what the community at Sacred Stone Camp taught me was that we don’t need to wait for anyone to tell us to do the right thing. We can just go out and make it happen.


From → True Stories

  1. Dear Bo, I beg to differ: Your hippie card, were there such a thing, would have been validated, not revoked. This is as clear as the last sentence of your article: We can just go out and make it happen. You did that. You’ve been doing it all your life. Your are a lifetime hippie card carrier, whether you carry one or not, and whether you like it or not. You live outside all boxes and are capable of wise decisions and intuitive magic. You know how to let it happen and also, to make it happen. Keep it up!

  2. niels mandoe permalink

    Well written Bo. Good thoughts! I’m glad you did it. Thanks! Niels.


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  1. An Excuse To Do Nothing | Call Me Thoreau

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