I needed to go to Cannon Ball, N.D., and see firsthand the Dakota Access pipeline protest site in the heart of Indian Country, a stone’s throw north of Standing Rock Reservation.
When reports Saturday depicted a confrontation between the protestors, who are really protectors, and security personnel armed with dogs and Mace, it was clear I had to go.
Seven of us traveled in two vehicles from Fargo to the Sacred Stones Camp early Sunday morning, arriving there just before 11 a.m. Three are members of the Fargo Native American Commission: Chairman Clinton Alexander, Lenore King, me, as well as Human Relations Commission liaison Tee RedRoad. While en route, at least in my car, the conversation was primarily about Native American issues: stories told, concerns voiced, disappointments lamented.
It was not clear what we were going to find. Rumbling around in my mind were the conflicting stories presented via mainstream and social media. The two versions did not add up.
Some claimed the Dakota Access Pipeline protest is no more than a front for those who unyieldingly oppose oil development. Others asserted it’s about water and the Missouri River not being at risk of contamination, if the pipeline were to leak.
Upon completion, the pipeline would be a conduit for more than half a million barrels of Bakken crude a day. Other pipelines such as the Keystone XL and recently Sandpiper in Minnesota did not survive the public vetting process. Would this happen once again? What would that mean for the tribes and for North Dakota?
Social media videos, pictures and reports showed glimpses of protectors rushing to the front line Saturday to stop bulldozers and payloaders from ripping into sacred sites — and even burial grounds. Court filings Friday identified these exact cultural historic sites and called for protection.
Those sites were dug up and desecrated, according to Native Americans. Official public reports said only that Native Americans perpetrated attacks on pipeline workers, trespassed on private property and attacked those workers.
The heavy construction equipment came from as far as 20 miles away early Saturday. Protectors were stunned and surprised. It was a holiday weekend. Work was not under way at that particular site. A federal court case was coming down the pike by Sept. 9.
Getting to Sacred Stones Camp near Cannon Ball was not difficult, though it did involve taking an alternate route. State Highway 1806, heading south from Mandan along the Missouri River, was closed to southbound traffic as per a state of emergency declared by Gov. Jack Dalrymple.
A rainbow hung over the sky southeast of Bismarck-Mandan: the high bluff land along the Missouri is breathtaking and nothing less than spectacular. You easily get the sense you are going into a region considered powerful and sacred by Native Americans and their ancestors, despite the relatively simple existence and poverty in the small Standing Rock Reservation towns of Solen and Cannon Ball.
The main campground became visible from the highway. It resembled a small city, hundreds and hundreds of tents. Conversations stopped; we fell silent.
The roadway into the Sacred Stones Camp was lined with dozens of tribal flags from across the Northern Hemisphere, and at least one from South America; and inside, license plates from practically every state in the nation, as well as Canada.
In light of outside reports of illegal activity and unruly behavior by the protectors, it was reassuring to see quite the opposite. The people — all the people of all walks of life, races and religions — were peaceful. The atmosphere was mournful, solemn, prayerful and heartfelt: families, children, elders, all as one.
A community gathering spot near the main entrance was the center of activities, announcements, prayer songs and speeches. I was one of the speakers, albeit briefly that day, along with Clinton Alexander. Standing Rock Councilman Robert Taken Alive received the Fargo Native American proclamation after which a powerful and moving Sitting Bull prayer song acknowledged our presence.
Dakota Access workers and equipment had done the unthinkable. Graves had been destroyed, sacred grounds desecrated, ancestors’ spirits disturbed. A ceremony was necessary.
Pretty much a focus of everybody Sunday, the trek to what was left of burial grounds and sacred sites had to begin and could not be postponed.
Preparatory guidance was given: Carry sage and cedar; get smudged before and especially after; no cameras, videos or recordings of the sacred ceremony. The wind was blowing hard, nonstop.
There’s nothing more fundamental to Native American cultures than the connection to ancestors — and the protection of their spirits and final resting places. Saturday’s atrocity, regardless of who was to blame, was blasphemous. Nothing mattered more than attending to that grave circumstance.
Hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand, walked the highway toward that site north of Sacred Stones Camp. A gathering was convened along the way where every person could get smudged and would be given cedar and sage. Tobacco was also an essential for afterward.
A banner emblazoned “Defend the Sacred” led the march. Upon arrival near the sacred grounds, the people en masse left the roadway and walked up the hillside to where the ceremony would take place. Spiritual leaders instructed all to form large circles around the center and called other spiritual leaders, shamans, medicine people and Round Dance leaders to gather in the center.
At the onset, we were told this gathering of the many nations and tribes was the largest of its kind since Little Big Horn. History was in the making, yet spiritual work needed to be done
The experience is difficult to describe, especially coming from the perspective of an outsider.
It was humbling: We were grateful to be trusted outsiders, bearing witness to solemn ritual uniquely theirs. I knew I would never forget it, that it would be an indelible part of my life’s journey.
Several prayer songs ensued. Gestures and signals from leaders gave me only hints of what was unfolding in that inner circle. Intensities rose higher and higher. The mood was solemn and moving, serious and with intention.
After many such prayer songs, the mood changed. A low-key, solemn chant began, remorseful but soothing. Leaders and all turned and offered song and prayer to each of the four directions. It’s just plain hard to describe, except that the feeling I had was one of immense sadness and grief, yet resolve at the same time.
The ceremony concluded, many lines formed to make an exit from that sacred place. Each person was smudged, enveloped in sage smoke, the head, the heart, the body, the back side and even the feet. It was important that no spirits cling and accompany anyone. Relief was in the air, delicate and necessary work accomplished. The work of the Creator, veneration and appeasement of watchful ancestors, proud and powerful.
We walked back to our car, not much to be said. The winds had calmed for the first time that day.