Standing Rock: Observations

November 23, 2016

Sean A. Bear, 1st
Training Coordinator and Senior Research Consultant National American Indian and Alaska Native Addiction Technology Transfer Center 

My name is Sean A. Bear, 1st. I am a member of the Meskwaki Tribe in Iowa and the Training Coordinator and Senior Research Consultant at the National American Indian and Alaska Native Addiction Technology Transfer Center (National AI/AN ATTC) located in the University of Iowa College of Public Health, Department of Community and Behavioral Health.  After a training event in Fargo, North Dakota, Dr. Skinstad (Director, National AI/AN ATTC) and I decided that it was important for me to make a site visit to the Standing Rock site of the pipeline protests to evaluate if there was any need for assistance from our Center to the participants of the demonstration and their providers. 

Many of us see how trauma-informed care and mental health first aid play a role in healing. It is important to understand that many people have experienced trauma in the past that play a role in their beliefs. In addition, many American Indian/Alaskan Natives have lived in poverty conditions, which has normally been forgotten (or invisible) as many are in rural and frontier areas of America.  It must be mentioned that Natives bring a whole new need for trauma-informed care, information that is needed at the table, as they and their ancestors have experienced historical trauma for generations.  Much as those in Europe whose relatives suffered through the Holocaust, trauma can be passed on genetically from parent to child. Native Americans have experienced not only trauma, but circumstances that also hinder the healing that is needed for recovery.  So, as we move forward in developing programming and care, we must also remember to make decisions that will benefit all peoples instead of pushing others, like the American Indians and Alaskan Natives, out by not understanding what they and their ancestry have experienced. 

While at Standing Rock, I made several observations that I want to share with you. 

September 8, 2016

I had come from Fargo after a presentation, traveled through Mandan, SD, South N. Highway 6, onto 24 East to 1806, which was just a few miles from the Sacred Stone Camp. The drive was nice, but on Highway 6, while I was getting close to Highway 24, I noticed a large dark line across the land, stretching diagonally from the NW to the SE. At first, I hadn’t known what it was, but as I passed it, there were still markers near the roads, like they had just been thrown away and forgotten.

The Dakota Access Pipeline Project (DAPL) will run a 1,172 mile pipeline carrying crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The pipeline will travel across the sacred sites and traditional lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribes in North and South Dakota. It will also travel under the tribe's primary source of drinking water, the Missouri River. 
As I saw this dark line through the land, it reminded me of the railroad long ago, crossing Native lands for the first time as an Iron Horse. Metal brings war, I thought, as it makes sense. I began to feel sorry for Mother Earth and what people were doing to her. Oil has leaked in many places, I thought, polluting the lands of our descendants to come. Wow! I wondered what they would say to the builders, politicians, and leaders of the U.S., when that comes. They will surely be wondering why their ancestors didn’t think of them, like the Natives have done, but powerless to do something about it for centuries.

I could swear I smelled sickness in the air, so pungent and overwhelming. Must be what has happened in this area and what’s to come, I thought. The image of a black snake popped into my head, as I remembered a dream. The odd odor didn’t go away till I neared my destination, Standing Rock Tribe, and the people who were there to protect our Mother Earth, her children, and her blood, the river and waters. As I crested the hill on Highway 1806, I saw a spectacular view, which quickly made me think of the long history of Native American blood that was spilled, trying to protect the land from the conquering Europeans. How many camped peacefully along a river, then out of nowhere, a cavalry came over the hill with cold-hearted, godless intentions of killing, murdering, raping, gutting women, pulling babies from mother’s arms, but also from their wombs, and laying waste to all? Wow, what are these thoughts? Memories of the land, which will remain for many more years?

I quickly set my mind again to take in the site and memories to tell my children, grandchildren, and family. As I crossed the river bridge, I thought, this is like a large pow-wow grounds. I saw the first gate and tried to enter, but they told me to go through the other gate, so I turned around and went a bit further down the road. As I pulled in, I asked where I could park for the rest of the day. They pointed and said, right over there, but be careful, as some areas are muddy. I said thanks and went to park. I got out and heard the beautiful songs playing, and every once in a while, heard a speaker on the mic, stating for all to be careful near the trees and warning people to be careful near the river. I told myself, this is much like a pow-wow.

I began walking towards different flags blowing in the wind, which were attached atop a pole or campsite. I ran into an older man, making Medicine Wheels. I greeted him, in which he looked up, then smiled and answered me warmly. I asked him how long he’d been here; he said, for about a week and a half, but was there to support his daughter. I said, that’s nice, as this reminded me of ceremonies where family goes in support of prayer and such for the person participating in their fast and prayers. After a bit of talk, I wandered on to meet others and was in awe at how many different flags were flying. Real American flags, I thought. Oh, how so many have spilled blood in the name of peace and freedom for this country. The red stripes represent blood, I thought. The white represents purity, but what does the blue represent? In my culture, dark blue can represent things that are backward, or not right.

I made my way towards a large campsite, and as I approached, I realized the people there were from Canada. I then began to scan around and see all the colors of man, black, white, yellow, and red, just like our Medicine Wheel. These people had so much more in common that one might think. If only more people would stop putting the wants of the few over the needs of the many.

I stopped by some young adults from California who had come in support of stopping the pipeline. They were not Native, so I spoke to them and let them know that I was happy to see them here. We are all brothers and sisters under one Creator, I thought, as I smiled to them. I then heard someone singing a Native song not too far away. One of the Californian companions expressed how beautiful the songs here sound. I nodded in agreement and asked if they sang a lot here. They all said, since we’ve been here, yes. We said our “see-you-laters.” We don’t have a word for “goodbye” in Indian country.

Thousands have joined the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native Americans in opposing the construction of the pipeline. 
I walked to where I heard the singing and found some horses were there. The horses just looked up while they were eating and came a bit closer. I said hello. I remember riding horses and breaking them as a young boy. My grandfather, racing across the sand near the river against a wild horse! Sand kicked up, mane swaying, hair swaying behind, foot and hoof digging in the sand, and the beating of two hearts, as they both cross the finish line, with the fast walking man ahead. What a sight it would have been! Stories told to me in my youth still wander in my memories. I turned, thinking how nice this place looks, the clouds, the sky, our standing brothers and sisters, the trees.

I began walking towards the main area, where the speaker was. As I walked closer and closer, I began wondering, “Where are all the Medicine Men?” I got to where the speaker was, with people gathered in a semi-circle around the speaker area. I looked at the cook shack, with women working on food. It smelled great. As I inhaled the smell of cooking food, my face turned, smelling the aromas. Then I spotted a Veteran from Michigan I knew. I walked up knowing he was Marine, and said, “There’s no beaches here, Marine!” He looked up, and said, “Hey, Bear!” We laughed, as so many Veterans make fun of each other’s military forces. I remembered lying on the ground after a bad land by parachute, as the division’s paratroopers were all over the sky.

Another two Veterans came closer, as we began telling short war stories, and making fun each other. Then laughter. We just smiled at each other, quietly shaking each other’s hands and telling our names. One said he wasn’t full Native, but I said that doesn’t matter. You know we didn’t have blood quantum and enrollment long ago. We are the only people required to have pedigrees. We laughed. We’re still brothers! We all agreed. We may be from different tribes, but we are all still related. Time has a strange way of making people forget that very important point. I’d asked, “Where are all the Medicine people?” They said that they had left. Many were here having ceremonies and prayers, but later left. They said the pipes are brought out each morning to pray, though.

I told them of the land I had seen where they had already gone through and the land lay upturned. They said, yes, the black snake is going through the land. I was astounded to hear that others called the pipeline the “black snake,” as that was what had popped in my head and what I’d seen in a dream. They mentioned that this land was once where Natives camped long ago. This is where ancestors were buried, along that whole ridge, pointing up above the river, then across this whole area. We mark those graves that are known, but the pipeline people don’t care. It’s not their relatives, and those in charge are all about money. I remembered a teaching I learned as a young boy. Artifacts should never be taken out of a burial site, unless the land falls apart on its own, like next to a river. It’s so disrespectful that people would do this to our ancestors. What would they think if we went and dug up theirs? Only then would they complain that “those savages” are disrespectful. Then though, I know I couldn’t do such a thing, as I have been taught so differently than our white brothers. Then one person said, long ago, after people were dying from blankets given to them with sickness on it, many were buried here. I remembered the tall heaps of buffalo skulls so high like a pyramid, after Gen. Philip H. Sheridan ordered Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s “scorched earth tactics” to “kill the buffalo and you kill the Indians,” and Colonel Kit Carson’s killing of the Navajo’s churro sheep and food sources, all in order to starve the Natives.

All Veterans were called to a meeting, in which we walked into an older military tent. All the Veterans gathered in a circle; then the oldest one said a prayer and we began introducing ourselves to the others. People of all colors were there again, as I thought, “Why couldn’t we all do this, all the time?” It’s as if no time had passed from my time in the military. “Brothers and sisters,” I thought.

We were told the history of how this camp came to be, as the leader had been there from the start. He said that every morning the Veterans and pipe carriers bring their pipes to the gathering place outside, with smudging of sage to smoking and prayer. Yet, security people said they had pipe bombs, and were lighting the fuses. Maybe security had heard the word “pipe” and had jumped to the conclusion that there were pipe bombs. “How ridiculous,” I thought, “The sacred pipes are much more like our phones to God, that the Creator hears us even stronger with these.” Would they say the same if a Catholic priest was walking up to them carrying a thurible of sage, swinging back and forth, looking like a medieval flail, or a smoking bomb? Of course not! Then why would they say such things of our holy or sacred items?

I remembered a teaching I learned as a young boy. Artifacts should never be taken out of a burial site...It's so disrespectful that people would do this to our ancestors.  What would they think if we went and dug up theirs? 
He went on and told of and elderly woman who was approached while she was guarding a gravesite, and thrown to the ground, as the security said she was interfering. Wow! When things like this happen to those who have harmed her and their families, karma will likely not even come to their minds. I thought and thought how I’d feel if someone did that to my grandmother. He told us how the security dogs were. A young girl had been bitten in the face by a security dog. She had just returned from the doctor that evening and was speaking. “Dogs cannot be used as a deadly weapon to attack people,” I added, “Check the state’s laws.” It was explained that as the security sprayed people with pepper spray, the wind picked up and blew it back at the security and dogs, making the dogs bite their masters. The Creator and Mother Earth are helping, I thought. 

He then told us of long ago when people were given blankets with sickness on them; people here got sick, and this spot is where many were brought. There are ancestors buried all along the hills and around this area. Long ago, a tribal man had asked a person to document this, as one day, it would be needed. A local person has that record, and we are prepared to show it. They dug up remains, but what they did with it afterward, we don’t know. Probably thrown back into the ground with the pipeline, we guess. We are marking these spots and do not want our ancestors’ remains disturbed, just as they wouldn’t want theirs. This reminded me of colonial-era germ warfare. To think that Hitler learned his tactics from early colonial European-Americans' tactics against Native Americans. 

Our people watched as the pipeline people put poison in and around the holes of the prairie dogs. There is an area of trees near, where the eagles come each year. Those prairie dogs are part of their natural food source, and we found many eagles that were very ill after eating the poisoned prairie dogs. They couldn’t fly, and some were near dead. We gathered them up and found a veterinarian who could help them. Some were held at a zoo till they were better, and we released them the other day. Now, we are seeing the local buffalo over there grazing. This is our national bird being poisoned by Americans. We Natives consider them sacred. But even these other relatives are our sacred relatives, as all life is sacred.

“They don’t seem to care who they hurt,” he continued, “The real leaders are far away, so they don’t care. The state judges and political people won’t listen, as we are told that they all have a stake in this pipeline and don’t want it stopped. The politicians have never taken our concerns seriously, and it is the same today. Our ancestors have died protecting this country, and if needed, we will do the same. If needed, we will put ourselves in front of those machines and let the world see.” I recalled the horrible smell. "Oh, that smell!" Could it really be from back then as the ancestors were sickened, and it still remains? "The sickness of greed, used against our people,” I thought. Peter Tosh wrote, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.” This reminds me of a paradox that has come to mind lately. Everyone wants to be rich, yet Christ said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

As we left the tent, we walked out to people dancing, much like a pow-wow. A group from Washington state was singing, while people were dancing, yet many were not dressed in their fancy regalia. I thought, “How nice, as this is how our ancestors would have done this instead of in fancy outfits for spectators.” Just then a Veteran brother came up and said how he loved the feeling he had experienced since he arrived. He said that he had never known how seriously the Natives took spirituality and practiced it in everything we did. He was not Native, but as he spoke I couldn’t tell. He seemed to have found this inner spirit waiting to be uplifted from the darker thoughts, feelings, and emotions one may carry after being discharged from the military.

In the end, we parted, and as I walked to my car, I stopped, looked up into the stars and began to pray for the people. When I was finishing, a man was standing beside me and then began to speak to me. He introduced me to an elder woman, who did not look her age. She spoke of how she grew up here, as she and her family had been there since the beginning of the protests. She said that many of the surrounding farmers came by in support of the natives here. They had said that even though they did not have the courage to stand against the pipeline, they were happy we were. They apologized at how we and our ancestors were treated and recognized that this was really our lands. They said that they would be praying for us all. This was so great to hear, as I thought about people of the past who did not share the same compassion for our people, like some did long ago. “How sad it is, that more people had not and still don’t feel that way.”

As I drove away, I still kept praying, and as I passed over the hill, looking into the mirror, I felt as if I was leaving friends and family behind. This felt so much like when I left the military and different people in my life. As I sit here ending this, I say a prayer, as I do at each night. “Till we meet again.”

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