American Cloaca: At Standing Rock, Part 4

Turns out the Plains are cold in winter.


February 19, 2017

Our little group arrived at Veterans Stand for Standing Rock on December 2, after 22 hours on the road. Cell use was hampered by police countermeasures, so we had trouble finding our local contact and host, Cyrus, a Navajo vet who’d served with the 75th Rangers in Afghanistan. 

The Oceti Sakowin camp had grown organically on its floodplain, unplanned and on no grid, and the dirt roads tangled on themselves. A year earlier the field was for grazing livestock. When we arrived most of the current residents were long tucked into their tipis, tarpees, yurts, and tents, out of the 15-degree cold and deeper windchill. Matt and Dylan got out of the cars and walked in expanding circles through the tents, calling for Cyrus and emerging, now and again, ghastly white in the headlights. Obnoxious klieg lights were planted on the hills a thousand yards north, where the police were, but they didn’t even deepen the shadows in camp. 

I was relieved in one sense. I’d been prepared to have to walk from some distant parking area with my duffle on my back and backpack on my chest. There’d been no info on this (or much else) from VSFSR, no maps or directions. With the expected arrival of thousands, it seemed possible cars might have to be left elsewhere, on the reservation maybe, instead of in camp, which was on Army Corps of Engineers’ land. I wasn’t sure I’d make it if it turned out to be a couple of miles’ walk through drifts, glare ice, uneven fields, and barbed-wire fences. There’s a lot of land in North Dakota. Though I’m in decent shape and a hardhead to boot, I’d pulled a hamstring and hurt my hip the week before, and somewhere, I knew, was my latitude of finality. 

My duffle held clothes for wet and cold and wind, a sleeping bag and thermal pad, food, mess kit, gas mask, ear protection, first-aid kit, and other necessaries. We’d been told to be completely self-sufficient so as not to tax the natives’ resources, and I’d packed as if for actual deployment—maybe more so, because resupply seemed unlikely. My backpack was filled with enough electronics for a mobile communications lab. All told my gear weighed 80 pounds. One day, I’d thought as I humped it through the airport, I’ll travel as I’ve long promised myself—change of underwear and shirt, toothbrush, composition book, favorite pen, one paperback for reading—because once I start down the slippery slope of “carrying all I need,” I stop thinking of weight. In the airport I’d added the latest issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, themed “Disaster,” and two of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books as prod to enlightenment and acceptance. I figured the mix would cover whatever came next. 

Inside our two cars, crammed in around personal bags and Pelican cases for the Al-Jazeera stringers, were plastic bags with more food, cases of bottled water, and someone’s enormous nylon tent that I had doubts about from the start. We’d stopped a long time in the middle of the night at a Walmart in Minnesota for requested supplies for the camp and more shopping by the Al-Jazeera crew, who’d already made extended stops in Chicago at REI and Trader Joe’s. It was a relief now to be done flying and waiting and driving—to arrive, wherever that might be, and to be unburdened by things.

As usual Matt made a quick connection, even in the dark in an unfamiliar place. Cyrus’ friend Heather, a camp medic doing her all-night rounds, told us we were welcome to stay with her for the duration in an Oglala-Diné tipi. We backed the cars into spaces close among the tents, and she led us a few yards through invisible stakes and guy ropes to the large canvas tipi, which could sleep a dozen people. Inside it was pitch-black and cold. The top was open to the stars, up where the long poles came together, to let smoke out, but the huge cast-iron woodstove, stamped “US Army,” was unusable. At least inside there was merely a strong draft. When I stepped back out into the night the wind hit, and the temperature was 80 degrees colder than what I was used to at home. It felt like a sudden plunge into icy water, and I shook so hard it was like convulsions; I thought I might crack teeth in the clench. We got a minimum of things from the cars and returned.

The entrance to the tipi was three feet high and wide, and was covered with a canvas flap stiffened by a stick or tool handle. To get inside you had to move the flap out of the way, bend very low, and walk forward like a pheasant pecking seeds. As I bent low with my load, the door flap grabbed me and the duffel shifted. I fell onto my knees and fingers and crawled forward, swiping one hand at my back to free the entanglement and transmitting dismay to the whole tipi. 

Inside, someone played a weak flashlight beam over a jumble of sleeping bags, cut wood, food, clothes, gas masks, and unused lanterns, faster than my eyes could follow. Several people had been living there and left their clutter, much of it valuable in this situation, the way farmers keep the hulks of every machine and implement they’ve ever owned because they cost good money and you never know. We began to clear our own spaces. I set my small new LED flashlight upright on the useless woodstove, and the upper half of the tipi glowed. Things be damned, but that flashlight was like a bright child that had done something clever, and I couldn't have been prouder. 

The very first things I needed were packed stupidly at the bottom of my duffle. Everything else had to come out, fast. First, long johns, clothes pulled back on over them, then the Carhartt Men’s R33 Extremes Arctic Zip Front Bib Overall—Quilt Lined—I’d ordered online. Pulling it on over my clothes, it was so stiff with insulation and protective fabric that it was like trying to pull on a Gumby suit while lying down in a closet filled with other people. I could hardly bend my knees to stand up, but I managed it and fell back out through the door. The overalls are the best thing I ever bought myself, and from that moment I was never cold.

Heather walked us up to the sacred fire near the camp entrance and told us how to walk a circle around it and drop sage in and pray, if we wished. She pointed out the white boards to arrange rides, and the coffee stand and speakers’ booth, and then we headed over to the veterans’ tent, which looked to be an old army GP Medium with other structures added to the back of it. The Al-Jazeera crew wanted to start taping, but Heather explained they needed a press pass, which would have to be arranged the next morning. Security was tight, she explained; water protectors were afraid of collaborators and agent provocateurs from the pipeline company. The crew insisted though until she said ok, clearly caught in competing roles as our host and as former security herself for the camp. 

While she was in the vets’ tent, the couple started shooting video outside, and suddenly a young native guy was yelling at them. I would become familiar with him over two visits and by social media. He served as security at times for the camp too and was known to all. His head was shaved up into a high and tight, and he wore earrings, a bone choker, and sometimes a gorget. Three or four eagle feathers hung from the back of his head, which he never covered, and he always seemed underdressed. He looked very fierce, despite a round face, and made boyish boasts about women. Later he would announce he was leaving the Mormon Church, in order to decolonize his mind. But this night he was angry and began to decry the video crew, who didn’t know what to say to his demands to see their press pass. I called softly for Heather. When she came out, the young native guy looked at me like I’d betrayed him and denied angrily that he’d said anything.

Inside the vets’ tent was a roaring woodstove, a tiny soup kitchen, and a few lawn chairs among shelves of supplies. We were greeted warmly and offered coffee and tea and soup. The news crew came in and tried to tape again, but an older native man got upset and yelled there must never be filming inside tents, which were off-limits, and an older white vet responded and said he was in charge, said yes there would be filming. Things started to get loud, and the crew said they didn't need to shoot video tonight anyway. 

It was impossible for us to find the tipi alone that first night, in the dark and confusion, and we were all struck at the same time with the feeling that this could be life-threatening. Heather helped us find our way. One of the Al-Jazeera crew couldn’t get her new Therma-a-Rest pad to inflate and said it wouldn’t matter. Her partner was already wrapped up in his mummy bag. Matt climbed into his body bag from Afghanistan. Dylan and Tommy had army cold-weather bags. Heather had a very nice North Face bag she’d picked from dozens donated to the camp from all over the country. I couldn’t face grappling with my stiff overalls in a port-a-potty, and I couldn’t pee on the ground by someone’s tent. Knowing it would lead to problems before daylight I went ahead and stripped down, an exercise in trust in my somewhat substandard sleeping bag, and climbed in. Exhaustion is the best pillow, as they say.

Heather lit a burner head screwed on a propane tank not meant to be used indoors. There were reports of carbon monoxide poisonings in the camp that weekend, but our tipi was so drafty that wasn’t a problem, and it took the edge off until we fell asleep. An hour before dawn, after the propane had burned out, the rebellious door flap blew open and stayed open, and the prairie wind swirled around inside the tipi at will.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top