Coming Home: A Story from Standing Rock
Oceti Sakowin Camp December, 2016
"Welcome home!" The young man greets me as I stop and check in at the entrance to the Oceti Sakowin camp. Home? Here? I'm thinking: didn't I just leave home two days and 1500 miles ago to come by bus and rental car to this place of prayer to protect water and peacefully protest the Dakota Access Pipeline? But in my heart I know that what the young man says is true. I have come home.
Could it be that my heart remembers this land? Gently rolling prairie that stretches to distant horizons in every direction. And wind -- unceasing, unrelenting wind. I recall the days I spent at the Rosebud reservation near here decades ago as an advisor with the youth group from the Swarthmore Presbyterian Church. We called it "work camp," but Father Noah Brokenleg had other ideas. "Here's what you do when you're out here," he said: "Find your small but important place in creation and find beauty in the commonplace." So that was our "work camp." Few activities were ever scheduled; we learned a new sense of time; we went on long walks and played in the open landscape until it grew inside us -- somewhere deep inside us. It's still there, deep inside me. Home.
The young man at the entrance asks if I have brought anything shameful with me -- any alcohol, drugs, or weapons. All I have is a tiny vial of water from Dayspring Creek for a little ceremonial exchange here at the banks of the Cannonball River. Mni Wiconi they say here; water is life. With others here at Dayspring I've been a water protector for decades. Here at this camp I join these other water protectors -- thousands of them -- from hundreds of different tribes, alongside indigenous ones from overseas, and non-natives of many colors. Teepees, tents, and vans stretch out before me in all directions. We all have come here to honor the sacredness of water, and to protect the water from the danger of oil pipelines by making one big prayer. Joined in prayer, we have come home.
Along US12 between Mobridge and McLaughin, SD
Later on I find myself shuttling some native young people to the tribe's casino resort nearby for showers and shopping at the little store. A 19 year old girl who has been here for over three months tells me she was arrested back in October. She was part of a group in a prayer circle beneath a teepee frame at the pipeline construction site. It was beautiful until the police came, until the one subduing her put one knee on the back of her neck and the other knee in the small of her back, and now she has a herniated disk. It's keeping her from returning to learn construction work with her grandfather back in Wyoming.
As we stop to take some others back to the camp with us, she gets out to help an older woman walking with a cane get into the resort and then into her room. While waiting for her to return, I remember a picture of a prayer teepee I had earlier found online and put in my journal. I get out my journal, find the image, and when she returns, I hand her the journal. Holding my journal she looks at the image, points to a figure at prayer, and says, "That's me in the gray sweatshirt." A warmth rises in my chest like an ember glowing hot from a gust of wind: mystery has dreamed this moment into being.
She plans to stay in the camp through the winter, maybe continuing to help direct traffic at the exit gate. "It's my home now," she says. I ask her name. "It's Little Wind," she says. And, "yes," she says; she is from the Wind River Range in Wyoming.
Outside on this December late afternoon the wind is not little. It's still blowing at 25 mph on average with higher gusts, as it has for the last two days. Wild and fierce and thoroughly chilling. The temperature hovers near zero.
We say that we have come to protect the water, and we have. Important work. But something else is happening here. When we protect, defend, and restore creation, something of our own humanity is restored. It's reciprocal. Like me, an elder taking kids from the camp to the resort and back, giving gratitude and encouragement to the young for what they are doing here. Like Little Wind jumping out to help an older lady all the way to her room. Our humanity is being restored.
And that wind, you know. It's a spiritual thing, a spiritual force to be reckoned with. It blows day and night; it never stops. It tells me things. Go to where the wild wind blows. Bring the ember glowing deep inside you. Be a true elder.
As we enter into a new and altogether scary time in our country, I take heart in the spaciousness of this prairie land. I take heart in all those who are still finding their small but important place in creation. I take heart in those who are still finding beauty in the commonplace. And I take heart in all those who welcome us home.
Jim Hall, December 2016
Early one warm, "Indian summer" day in late September I set out to return to the river. In my mind I see the steep valley, hear the waterfall, know just the rock where I will sit letting the splashing water caress my feet. We are already married, this river and I, and I long to return to my love.
Walking along the old rutted gravel road I find the place where the path to the waterfall begins. Through the open woods I go, fallen leaves crackling beneath my feet until I begin to descend into the steep-walled valley. I pause, sensing that something is not quite right. Listening intently I hear nothing -- no falling water splashing on rocks below -- not a single note of river song. Curious now, uneasy, I pick up my pace on the narrow path, then drop down the steep slope hanging on tree by tree, till I reach the rocky bed of the river.
The riverbed is dry; not a drop of water is there. A few feet up the riverbed I see a flat place with a puddle a foot or two wide, an inch of water covering its silty bottom. Ten feet below me, between two huge boulders is a smaller puddle. The rest -- rocks, gravel, sand -- is bone dry. Dead branches, sticks and leaves are packed in here and there among the rocks, remnants of some earlier day when the river surged with life.
Tears from my eyes fall to the dry riverbed, and I cry out -- The river is gone, it's all gone! Am I too late? Have I waited too long to come back? Having returned to the river, I am suddenly filled with longing for the river to return to me. "Come back, please, come back," I cry, but the river is not coming back. Not now, maybe not ever.
I wonder, what's happening further upstream? Words from a wise rabbi at a Watershed Conference I once attended come to mind. She said," We work way upstream; we work at the level of soul." I will go upstream.
Scrambling back up the steep slope I reach the path and head out of the valley. Back on the gravel road, I walk uphill , onto another road, then onto a path that takes me down a steep grade and back to the river, now but a creek, where the path crosses a shallow ford. I have never been able to cross this ford without getting my feet wet -- until today. Today I stand on rocks that are dry, and I bend over, look down and listen. I hear nothing, but notice a tiny trickle of water flowing down between the rocks.
Filled with anticipation, I make my way upstream along the creek, through briars and over fallen logs, until I see a small pool of open water, just big enough to step in. Taking off my shoes and socks, I put one foot after the other into the clear, cold water. The flaky gravel feels rough against my feet as they sink down a little, and the water begins to cover some of my toes. I take a deep breath and sigh. The river is still here.
Bending over I examine the neighborhood around my feet. The flakes of gravel are light tan and shinny. At one edge of the gravel pool dark green strands of algae float downstream from a rock to which they are attached. Some slime is caught in the algae and in an effort to clean it up, I brush it off with a stick. The blob of slime floats out into the little pool of water toward my feet. I see something in it that looks like a leg. And then another. Frog legs. It's a dead frog at an advanced stage of decomposition. A brief wave of nausea passes through me. I have never seen this before. What is happening to this river?
I have returned to the river only to find it dry beyond belief downstream, and now I find this decomposing dead frog! Is it all dry and dead and dying?
My eye catches a flash of movement at another edge of the gravel pool, just by a submerged stick. It's a crayfish, less than an inch long, translucent, darting in and out from under the stick, paying no attention to the remnant of frog or to my feet. Nearby I see a small piece of stick resting on the gravel. I poke at it with my stick ,and it moves. A baby minnow. Right here in this dying river filled with death, there is yet a spark of life. I wonder if it is the prayers of little crayfish and baby minnow that are somehow keeping this river alive, crying out like me for the river's return.
It is growing late in the afternoon, but I have time to travel just a little further upstream. With a thread of renewed hope, I crawl over fallen trees, skirt huge boulders, and pick my way carefully through patches of greenbriar. From time to time I stop and listen, hear nothing, and move on. As the valley narrows appreciably, steep rock walls on either side now closing in on me, I stop again and listen. And then I hear a soft, barely perceptible sound, a low gurgle from deep beneath the rocks. And then a second sound, a tenor tremolo from somewhere hidden, just upstream. I pause for a long moment listening to the soft, unwavering song, sweet and pure. The river flows still, sings its heartsong into my heart.
I know there is more to discover further upstream. What is here right now is enough for today, as the late afternoon light begins to fade. On another day I will go further upstream. Maybe I will find the place where the water seeps forth from deep below ground, bubbles forth into this world from another deeper world. Maybe I will find the place way upstream at the level of soul of which the Rabbi spoke.
On the day on which I find that place, I will draw some of that water to my heart. I will return to my people with its story. I will tell them about the water of life that still flows from deep within the earth, beyond our knowing. And I will tell them that however desperate things seem to us, little crayfish and baby minnow are praying, and that will be enough.
Jim Hall, September 2015