Here, in the middle of the Dakota plains, land races the sky in every direction. The fields of corn, soybeans, sunflowers, and wheat wander mile after mile, rolling off into the horizon. The flatlands are lush, heartened by a recent series of summer rain showers. I spent my childhood here, in a speck on a map in a flyover state, in a town tucked into a nook of the Missouri River. This is the landscape I see when I picture home. And each time I make the trek back, once I return inside Dakota borders, I always know I am not lost.
What I cannot anticipate when I make the journey home, however, is that the place I have always seen as secluded and familiar will erupt over the summer of 2016 into a political hotbed under a national spotlight. That thousands of people will flock to the river to protest for the Standing Rock Sioux’s water rights, shaking the concept I have of my home to the core.
On a particularly trying trip home that May, I spend the final leg of my drive back from my graduate program in Ohio to Pollock, South Dakota stuck in unexpected traffic. After three days trapped in a car with a disgruntled white cat, I sense an impending migraine.
“You have to come get me,” I tell my mother over the phone. My head feels as though it’s spinning and I push my sunglasses up.
“But you’re so close. Can’t you just take a break and power on home?” she asks.
“No. It’s too much. The sun’s too bright. Grab Junior and meet me in Selby.”
“Fine,” she says after a pause. “Let me find my keys and I’ll be there.”
As I wait, I roll the windows down and try to relax. I take off my shoes and inch my seat back. For a moment, the combination of lukewarm wind, rustling sweetgrass, and endless flat earth outside my Saturn is comforting—until the cat resumes rattling the door of her carrier.
Annoyed, I turn up the Aerosmith song on the radio and pop a few Tylenol. I wonder if my headache is from the stress of driving or because I’ll be staying the summer with my parents for the first time in years. I’m not sure I can ignore their small-town thinking like I did in high school, before college turned me into a closet Liberal (the kind of educated person they say is out-of-touch with reality). Nonetheless, I am relieved to see my parents’ Toyota waiting for me at Shorty’s Gas Station since they will take me the rest of the way home.
In many ways, Pollock is the quintessential rural town in its last stages of dying. There’s a three-aisle grocery store, two brick churches, and two bars. The school closed eight years ago and the town sold its Legion Hall last fall. The trees look rough due to a round of Dutch Elm disease ravaging the canopies above the streets. Even they long to escape.
When we stop for lunch at the local Fin and Feather a few days later, a waitress named Terri brings my parents and me senior lasagna specials and lingers to chat about whether the rain will bode well for crops. With a smirk on her face, Terri steps away before she returns with a piece of cheesecake for Junior—my six-foot-tall stepfather. Around us, men in Dickies jackets and plaid shirts sip coffee from their mugs, gripe over insurance prices, and scratch at white tufts of hair under their caps. Their wives, slinging rain jackets over chair-backs, invite themselves to our table. My mother’s blue eyes, echoes of mine, shine as the women swap the latest gossip. Her blonde bob bounces when she leans in to catch every word.
I glance at the red and black walls, the vinyl chairs, the repurposed canoe turned salad bar. Everything looks exactly as I left it. There’s a certain claustrophobic sense to a small town: like nothing ever changes, a world inside a bubble. Everyone is caught up in who puts out the cheap plastic carnations on graves or who fails to pick up their flowers from the cemetery after Memorial Day. These details of small-town life consume us to the point that we have no idea that protestors have begun to gather at Standing Rock Reservation 35 miles to the northwest.
We don’t know that Native Americans from various tribes and concerned citizens from all over the country arrive to defend land and water from U.S. oil interests. Incensed because the pipeline will cross sacred Sioux grounds and threaten the Missouri River’s ecosystem, tribal leaders and members form lines against bulldozers, backhoes, the oil company, and its workers. They gather to protect ancestral lands marked by cairns, stone prayer rings, and burial sites that the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 initially guaranteed to protect.
This area, an arid stretch of land spanning sections of North and South Dakota, is not on people’s radar on my side of the river. The Sioux spirit camp is in the part of Standing Rock called “the Rez” a slum of trailer homes and rusted-out cars and wandering dogs. Its repetitious landscape of brown grass, sparse trees, and murky river—apart from rare glimpses of buffalo on ranches—is nothing more in locals’ eyes than an excuse to sleep on the way to Bismarck.
But from the nearby reservations of Pine Ridge and Rosebud, members of the Lakota Sioux show up to support Standing Rock. A group from a Native American nation in Nebraska travels the Missouri in canoes to join the cause. A small congregation from Alaska brings with them a hundred pounds of salmon. Women from an Aztec tribe perform a dance in which they don elaborate feather headdresses and strike the ground in bare feet. On a different day, Sioux women perform the Jingle Dance, traditionally performed for healing, during a powwow. They swirl in circles and kick their boots. The metallic jingle beads sewn in rows on the skirts of purple, teal, and orange dresses ring out in the air.
In July, my mother decides I must reconnect with the land while I’m home. After breakfast on a Thursday morning, she announces we will take a drive behind her pastureland north of town. She wishes to physically show me our family history so I won’t forget where I come from. My mother believes that to know the land—which barbed fences mark which borders—is to know our lineage. In her mind, knowing the land is akin to knowing oneself. I assume I can learn such lessons later.
On our way to the pastures, we stop at the Family Dollar in Linton, North Dakota to pick up iced teas. We make our way up and down the under-stocked shelves, hoping for random deals, and my mother at last settles for marked-down tangerine nail polish. An outgoing woman in her sixties who never passes up small talk, she tells the clerks our plan for the day. The man behind the counter says it sounds good, so long as we don’t go across the river. He cautions, “The Natives are pitchin’ a fit, sittin’ and watchin’ bulldozers, just waitin’ for anyone to upturn a grave site.”
“They’re doing what now?” my mother asks.
“Screwin’ with the oil workers. Leave it to the Natives to get their panties in a twist. That pipeline’s bringin’ in good money!” As he says it, the clerk looks frustrated and overworked. Pipeline construction workers stop in the store daily for pop or bags of chips since the oil company keeps their machinery just outside town. The dollar store is receiving a big boost in business.
My mother has no plans to drive the large circular route that would take us across the bridge and near the camp. Instead, we follow the paved road out of town and speed past the pipeline’s dig sites as she points out each homestead’s history we pass. I feign interest in the white farmhouse she brings us to. The dilapidated, two-story structure once belonged to her grandparents. I humor her story of canning home-made strawberry jam in the kitchen with her grandmother, an old woman I never met. When she notices the rusting Quonsets and rampant weeds, she twists the magnetic bracelet she wears on her wrist.
“You never sell land,” my mother tells me. “Mortgage it. Pay it off again, but never, ever sell it. Once it’s gone, you’ll never get it back.”
After she backs out of the driveway, she drives us around the gravel backroads to hammer home her lesson. Our trip takes us past the old plateaus where my grandfather used to find arrowheads as a boy, small remnants to remind us our land was taken from the Sioux. Eventually, we end up near the cattle pens my paternal grandfather owned before a recession in the 1980s took his farm.
“Your grandpa was an amazing farmer,” my mother says. “He used to have three silos on his farm besides his cattle.”
“I wish I could have met him. And his horse Babe. All I get are stories.”
“You know,” she pauses, “next summer when you’re home again, we’ll come back. I’ll ask Shelden if we can stop in. You really should see their old place, too.”
The faint outline of the river lingers in the distance. Though I do not have a map, I realize we are close to Vander Vorste Bay, named after my grandfather Lloyd. It occurs to me that my family literally stamped our name on the water. It strikes me as a very colonial thing to do, to settle a place by marking it with your name.
In August, the pipeline’s semis clog highways around our farm. Scoopz, an ice cream parlor, struggles with the influx of pipeline workers in Linton. I hear complaints that the grocery store is understaffed and constantly low on milk. A local motel rented all its rooms to workers, leaving nowhere for fishermen to stay during the annual derby and fish fry.
The week before I return to Ohio, I get a haircut. The salon is empty, though, when I stroll in and take my spot. The stylist brings me an outdated People magazine featuring Will and Kate’s wedding, and I perform the gesture of flipping through its pages as we chat.
“Nobody wants to admit it . . . But everyone’s bent outta shape over that pipeline. All those livin’ on the east side of the highway don’t even wanna talk to those on the west,” she tells me.
“Really? I figured everybody was pretty jacked about it.”
“That’s just the thing,” she pauses to stab the air with her scissors, “only half the town’s getting the money and everyone wants coin. The pipeline’s only paying landowners on the west side of the road. I know this pair of brothers. They sit on opposite sides of the bar now ‘cause one’s farm is on the west and the other’s is on the east.”
“Well, do you know Keith or Mark Fjeldheim?” I ask. Even though she shakes her head and scissors no, I add, “They’re my step-father’s nephews who live over by Herreid. They’re gonna’ use their pipeline money to pay off their farms. Everyone there sees it as a godsend.”
“Yeah, folks should be happy when their neighbors get a hand up.”
I tell her that I understand why all the farmers want its help. When it comes to saying the pipeline will better everyone’s lives, I stop short. I think back to the clerk’s comment about Natives disrupting the project. If what he’s said is true, and Native American graves are being upturned, it will be their lives—not ours—left devastated.
Once I return to college in Ohio, I find myself truly noticing news on the Dakota Access Pipeline. I browse articles for familiar places and names out of the same need that I press my mother for hometown gossip during our evening talks. I’m troubled from being too far away to know first-hand what’s happening. When news breaks on Labor Day of arrests for taping attacks on protestors, it reminds me of how the unassuming lands on Standing Rock are simultaneously an unlikely place of conflict and entrenched in it. I read every bit of news I can find.
Some reports say construction workers took advantage of the holiday to run bulldozers across a contested site, and upset protestors jumped barbed-wired fences. Security guards in protective vests sprayed orange cans of mace in protestors’ faces and unleashed guard dogs on unprotected limbs. Workers fled the scene in a caravan of pickup trucks after they noticed journalists filming them. In one report, a young man from Crow Creek, South Dakota sits atop a horse and tells a journalist people must open their eyes. He says directly to the camera: “We are caretakers. The water is for everyone.” He speaks directly to me.
That evening, I turn the volume down on my television when I call home. Knowing my mother will be on the other end, I take my dinner dishes to my sink and toss a dirty Kleenex in the garbage. I’m nervous to ask her about how serious the protests are growing and surprised when she tells me a different story than those I hear in the media.
“The protestors? They’re nothing but bullies! Getting paid to cause a scene. They’re damaging equipment on somebody else’s dime and stirring up trouble.”
“What do you mean they’re getting paid? Mom, that can’t be true. The news hasn’t said anything about it.”
“Honey, it doesn’t even matter. The news is making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s almost over anyway. Once Trump’s in office, he’ll shut ‘em down.”
“If he wins. You mean if,” I counter. Politics, however, is not something I wish to talk about with my life-long Republican mother. “Tell me something good, Mom. How’s your friend Lana? You said her husband had heart surgery.”
My attempt to shift the conversation works. She goes down a different trail of topics, how Jim can sit up now in his hospitable bed, and how she needs to make a lemon cake tonight for church. I am instantly relieved. Raised not to openly defy one’s parents, I often opt for silence, and the conflicting viewpoints are too much for me to make sense of over the phone. The only thing I know for sure is that the land and people on both sides of the river are more alike than anyone wants to acknowledge.
In the news images I see, heavy clouds hang over both the west and east sides. I spy ridges of sandy-brown plateaus in the back on one picture, and a quick but sharp pain erupts in my chest. Yes, my family’s farm near the Missouri River is distant enough that I should not miss it. But, like the Sioux say, creation and existence do not follow linear thinking or time frames. Instead, the “Great Mysterious” or “Great Spirit” shapes everything—including the heart. The Lakota phrase Mni Wiconi says water is the sacred source and substance of life. And, even though I am 1,098 miles away, I admit their belief could be right.
Alone in my cramped apartment at night, I find it harder and harder to fall asleep, to block out the constant city noise outside my blinds, to quiet a desire for still black nights. I worry about the river, or if Scoopz can afford to buy Verna’s old craft store, and over how many cans of beans sit on the shelf of the communal kitchen in the spirit camp. Mostly, I worry about whether I’m part of the unfolding story back home or removed from it. I discover the route for the Dakota Access Pipeline will span 1,172 miles from North Dakota to Illinois, and I trace the line on my computer screen. Each time I look upon the route, it pulls me home.
Two, sometimes three times a day, I find myself fixated on the landscape trapped in the background of protest videos, oblivious to the city beyond my apartment. The short videos filmed on Standing Rock spread across social media, and they contain a connection to the land absent in the concrete, asphalt, and brick outside my window. Even though the same skies hover over Cincinnati and my four-story apartment complex as the Dakota prairies, I feel divided. Sights of flatlands filled with brittle brown grass and brush cause me to ache for home. The sloped Missouri river bottom is probably full of mud and its waters freezing—yet I cannot buck an odd desire to collect smooth, gray pebbles at the boat docks to keep in my pockets.
For the most part, the videos I click on chronicle the continuous arrival of protestors and the unwelcoming conditions they face. Still, one brings the attention back to the river itself. A young Native American woman in a chambray blouse and beaded choker recounts a nightmare in which the elders and children of her tribe cannot find drinking water. Each water pump pulls up black buckets of oil despite their deep thirst. The oil-contaminated waters of her dream have no place in the river both of us know. Oil does not belong beside its fish and patches of algae. It does not fit with my memories of summer days spent swimming at its banks, a child cleared of any history deeper than the silt beneath her toes.
In the spirit camp, little children race to the water to slosh grime from their skin. They need it to combat hot, late-September air. My mind maintains the camp is festive. A communal kitchen, run by a woman named Nantinki Young, provides meals on paper plates topped with beans, veggies, and fruit. Men bring horses with feathers braided into their manes and beaded blankets draped across their backs. Choruses of chanting people echo through the air. An unofficial treatise operates within these borders: the protestors are one people. All lines between traditionally opposed tribes and groups no longer matter. The people wield a collection of tribal flags—a myriad of colors—in their hands; their signs proclaim one shared message: “Water is Sacred.”
For my family, holding on to one’s land is a sacred act, a mindset so close to Sioux beliefs that one might think my parents would empathize with their cause. Junior’s farm is generational and has remained in his family from his ancestors’ homestead. This physical representation of his lineage is his source of pride at age seventy-two. In 1991, he brought home an award plaque from the state fair that registered his farm a century farm. He shows the plaque off on a wall next to his painting of classic cars.
Similarly, my mother feels like she has slaved away for her parents’ farm ever since she was a young girl in grade school. Back then, during haying season, she took a metal hay hook to make “idiot blocks”—square bales only an idiot would work so hard to create. The process meant collecting the hay, pouring it into a frame, bundling it, and later wielding a basket loader. Whenever I complain too much about schoolwork, she reminds me, “Oh, yeah, because I loved picking rock in the fields. Sometimes you need to pull up your britches and do the suck job.”
It’s a work ethic passed down. For years, my great-grandfather Kurr worked hard to buy almost 1,000 acres between Pollock and Pierre so his sons, including my mother’s father, could later buy land from him. Fall is consumed with harvesting grains and corn to feed cattle or sell. Although he is self-proclaimed “retired,” Junior joins his nephews for fourteen-hour harvesting days spent in combines. This struggle to keep one’s family land and heritage is never questioned; the toil is worthwhile because it ensures one’s children security and financial protection.
If I were to remind my mother that the Sioux are tired from a long history of repeatedly fighting for their land, she would say, “Tough shit!” The way she sees it is this: a raw deal is a raw deal—at some point Native Americans must move on.
Columbus Day arrives and the irony hurts. I spend most of the weekend leading up to it in a dark purple Panera booth, frantically finishing assignments. I work hard to translate my French homework and power through a textbook on film noirs, all while I chug down over-priced coffee. The looming significance of the approaching holiday, however, fails to stray far from my mind. On a day associated with Native American genocide and the theft of indigenous lands, it seems particularly unjust that the Standing Rock Sioux are actively battling in my home state for their indigenous rights, traditional homelands, and basic resources.
“Them protestors are damaging windows on store fronts and everyone is sick of it,” my mother grumbles over the line. “We couldn’t even go to the casino for supper without worrying about somebody pitching a fit. It’s supposed to be a nice dinner. I want to take Junior out somewhere nice.”
Which windows, I am not sure. I stop myself from asking because I fear my mother will compromise my vision of peaceful protestors, ones who use prayer and non-violent demonstrations. If I hear protestors broke the windows of Dady Drug, Dakota Wrangler’s, or Leonard’s Studio, I will picture the stores’ owners and customers. Because I might picture the protestors as something else.
Instead, I ask, “Why? Is he still worried about Aunt Judy being in the hospital?”
“You don’t know the half of it. We’ve gone the long way up to Bismarck and back three times this week because of that bullshit across the river. Just to see Judy.” She sets the phone down for a moment to stir hamburger sizzling on the stove. When she picks it back up, she tells me, “Stuff has been too hard around here lately.”
“Mom, you gotta take a break. Junior and you sometimes overdo it.”
A glance at the dreary weather outside my window, however, tells me my folks are not the only ones experiencing a tough spell—I realize their frustrations cannot equate to the Sioux. A fresh chill in the air makes me shudder, and the colors trapped in the fall foliage resembles a picture I stumbled across online. In it members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe advance down Highway 1806 lead by a red, orange, and yellow sign with the words “Defend the Sacred” painted in black letters.
The optimistic side of me wants to agree with their mission because it is my river. My family’s river. My town’s river. The Missouri nourishes crops and attracts hunters and fishermen to our area. Swimming, boating, fishing, and ice skating provide entertainment in the middle of nowhere. I do not often think about the bass and walleye under its waters; the ducks, hawks, and owls along its basins; or the deer and pheasants near its streams that people are so fond of hunting. But, we all need the river to survive. It acts as a constant in our lives; it ensures our future.
I secretly hope the protest will win, even as the realistic part of me knows somebody is going to lose—and history suggests it will be the Sioux. A defeat, however, will not erase their desire to save the lifeline they see between land and ancestors. Their focus on heritage causes me to wonder what it truly means to be an inheritor. Can I see past the hypocrisy my mother and I have been raised in? Can either of us resist the instinct to keep parts of the past in the past, the impulse to keep everyone’s interests separate? I long for an alternative to the present situation where peoples’ hate stems from everyone’s desire to claim land and its resources. I want to believe myself innocent it this dispute. It is not possible. If I am to follow my own family’s sacred belief, I cannot cut ties with the larger history of the 2,300 acres I stand to inherit.
The morning after Donald Trump wins the Presidential election, I pray for the first time in months while in the shower. The water washes away an awful nightmare in which I found myself trapped in a cupboard. Even in the moment, as feelings of dread, denial, and despair rattle in my chest, I realize I’m not alone. Others also fear what this political shift means.
After I turn off the lukewarm water, I wrap myself in a towel and walk circles into the beige carpet of my apartment. I am filled with questions. How will a Trump presidency affect life back home? What about the protest? Will Trump squash it like my mother has said all along? Will its efforts go to waste? Next to the national news, the pipeline seems trivial—but Standing Rock is the first place I think about when it comes to a Trump administration.
Only a few weeks ago, hundreds of religious leaders from different faiths went to the spirit camps. With some dressed in robes, they marched along Highway 1806 and prayed for the upcoming battle remaining protestors will face once snow falls. Weather is the least of their problems now, I think. Winter appears a feeble threat compared to the precarious future strung taut over our heads and ready to break.
By December, calves are held in separate pens from their mothers. Ranchers have weaned them over the fall so they can keep them apart, which makes it easier to work them, vaccinate them, or tag their ears. At home, my parents agree to grant their renter’s cattle a few extra days in my mother’s pastureland to give his calves shots, but my mom is firm when she tells Larry he must relocate them by the weekend. The move has nothing to do with the state of the frigid pastures. Despite the hard dirt, frozen grass, and shallow snow, the cattle must be relocated to protect the spring soil.
My parents drive to the fields, and they keep an eye out as Larry and his son work at the calves’ pen. The men patiently guide the animals through the curves of one corral into a narrow chute to avoid spooking them. Then, in groups of ten, they lead the calves to a second corral, up to a station where the calves’ fuzzy, oblong heads are placed between the metal bars of a head-catch. Once each calf gets its required stick, Larry releases them to roam back out an open gate into their original pen. At the end, the men put out flakes of alfalfa to fatten them up.
“How are you? Will you be able to sleep tonight?” I ask when my mother picks up the phone. I glance at the clock only to see it’s past nine, which means it’s around eight at home. My parents probably just walked in the door and are shoving a hotdish in the oven as we speak. When I close my eyes, I picture her collapsed in her burgundy recliner with a glass of wine in her hand.
“Tired. Everything has been difficult lately. Moser was late with the rent check. I’m down to $25 in my checking account. But Larry got all his calves fixed up now. Should hopefully help them with the scoots. He should get them out to their new pens by Saturday.”
“You just got in?”
“Yep. Just another day on the ranch,” she jokes and I laugh.
The next day, though, I gasp out loud when I see my mother’s post on Facebook. Between a recipe video for lasagna soup and a movie trailer for The Shack on her newsfeed, she has shared and responded to an article on DAPL protests disrupting Bismarck’s capital building. Her message shouts: “So sick of them thinking they keep deserving from yesterday!!! Get over it. This is 1 USA. All 4 — 1. And 1 for all. If they don’t like it here go 2 another country. See how it is there!”
I try hard to make up an excuse for what I read, something to soothe the deep shame her comments spark. She’s exhausted, bent out of shape from being broke, I think. I re-check her post three times but, for once, I do not have much empathy to offer. Although she is the same woman who makes quilts for the women’s shelter in Mobridge and the Native American women who go there, I catch a glimpse of a side of my mother, of our South Dakota upbringing, and maybe even of myself I do not want to see. My mind races to deny the ugliness.
But denial is not an appropriate response. There is no other country Native Americans should go to—this is their country by right. Ignoring this fact risks the lessons about land I am finally starting to learn, the ones about caring for it and its people. The church, popular with so many here, teaches us to love our neighbors. But the reality in South Dakota is that we love some neighbors more.
My mother’s words pull back the veil. They remind me we do not always love our neighbors even though it’s one of the most important principles we are supposed to follow.
In her kitchen hangs a sign embroidered with the words of Psalm 24:1, which declares: “The earth and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, belong to the Lord.”
Temperatures plummet from thirty degrees into the twenties as a black North Dakota night descends around Standing Rock. Protestors who wear winter coats and hold hand-made signs push past a blockade on a bridge. Determined to disperse them, local law enforcement aim water cannons mounted on armored trucks. Silhouetted in the beams of spotlights, the protestors bodies crumble under the pressure of white jets of water fired from hoses. It takes minutes for water-drenched clothes to ice, and the crowd retreats due to concerns about hypothermia.
Afterwards, I question: How could this have happened? The mere prospect of anybody purposefully spraying a person with water in a Dakota winter is incomprehensible. Due to a lifetime spent keeping spare jumper cables in the car, abiding wind-chill advisories, and owning long underwear for the dead of winter, my fingers burn imagining the pain. Law enforcement officials later claim that they needed to put out fires lit by protestors, but this is not sufficient. Inflicting water is too cold. It’s unconscionable.
For the simple fact that protestors remain committed to keep the camp alive through winter I must commend their dedication. Although some tents remain, construction has begun on shacks to create shelter from the impending artic temps. They insist they will endure it to protect the earth and its resources. If anyone might persist through such hardships, the members of Standing Rock already know how to do so.
Traditionally, Sioux warriors made war parties and undertook raids to ensure adequate feed for their tribe and horses at the onset of winter. Once snow fell, they settled into camps where they practiced seasonal ceremonies and dances. Of course, reservation life today appears the same as that of modern America elsewhere, yet I entertain the connection that the Sioux are once again in a season of warfare, one begun by their ancestors and committed on behalf of them. People need links to their past to carry them through present struggles.
My distance from home is raising my own awareness of how its lessons shape my sense of identity and the values I hold. Over a thousand miles away and in the city, keeping a fire burning for home has become one of my necessities. Here, there is no true night sky. There are no calls of coyotes howling behind the barn, no ditches brimming with snow, or artic winds whipping across a frozen river for me to cling to like I want.
For all these reasons, I understand why there is no word for good-bye in Lakota.
Sticking to the Dakota Protest stories has kept me connected to the world of home. In recent dreams, I picture myself in my car with a thermos of coffee. I drive down vacant stretches of highway edged in deep, white snow. When I arrive home, my mother hugs me and makes me stand on the front porch. When she points to where our wheat field should be up on the hill, there is only the river, and across the river there is nothing. It is becoming clearer to me that even if the pipeline’s route changes or it’s abandoned, the harder task is mending the divide between the separate sides of the river.
At Christmas, a blizzard takes away everyone’s power in the area. Having been home a few days for the holiday, my parent’s house still feels unfamiliar. I sit in the dark living room alone and wait for my mom to find me. My eyes follow the small yellow flicker of the candle she holds while she lights more. When Junior emerges from the back bathroom, he shuffles around in slippers and stuffs towels under door frames. Curious to see how bad the storm’s grown, I make my way to the front door. A gray wall of ice appears like a cliff beyond the deck, the yard gone. I am tempted to open the door but when I touch the icy doorknob I grow frightened. Only a wooden door lies between us and a deadly storm. If stuck outside, I would die in the sub-zero temperatures. I am struck with the knowledge that an ancient world exists wrapped around us—one forgotten in our modern comforts.
Across the river, hazardous winds pound against nylon tents. The air rips rows of tribal flags into a rattling rhythm. Despite the urging of Standing Rock’s tribal leaders to seek better shelter, some remained at the camp. Their choice to stay stands in opposition to weather advisories and warnings of life-threatening conditions. And though they’ve prepared for the storm—grabbed extra wood, frozen water in bins, bundled into coats and hats and mittens—in the end, a state of emergency is called and they are relocated to shelters.
When the local newspaper arrives two days later, my mother stands up in horror. On the bottom of a page, she has found a report that the owner of a restaurant in Mobridge slipped and fell during the Christmas blizzard. In his early seventies, he froze to death outside, unbeknownst to anyone else. After she shows me the article, she picks up the phone to tell a friend. Later, a neighbor calls, concerned we haven’t heard the news. Nobody wants to accept it.
As I listen to them repeat their disbelief, I can’t help but think of the fact that their concern is fixed on this man, this person they feel is one of them, the protestors’ risk discarded.
“But Mom! I can’t let it go. I need to see their camp in person. You know this! For my story.”
“Well, it’s my car. I don’t want anything to happen to it. Or us. Yours is in the shop until tonight. Those are the facts.”
“And today’s my last chance. That’s my fact.”
“Junior barely made it back from the mailbox. That’s three miles away. You want to go how far? The wind-chill is twenty below! The roads are sheer ice. What if we slide in the ditch?”
Standing in my mother’s kitchen, I realize I’m on the losing side of a battle. I note her pinched forehead as she slowly looks me up and down, trying to sort out why I care so much. My face reddens when tears start to slip from my eyes. Frustrated that my reasons are not convincing her, I bang my coffee mug down on the granite countertop.
I am suddenly desperate to make it to Standing Rock. With my mother. For her to experience something that might broaden her mind. For it to tell both of us a first-hand truth.
“But Mom I’ve waited so long. I want us to go together.”
“Baby, look. I’d bring you there myself just so you don’t have to feel torn up about it. I would if I could.” Her mouth turns in a frown. “But I can’t change the weather.”
“Fine,” I relent. I take a hard look at my mother, the drooping lines around her eyes and fading Wall Drug t-shirt. She, like the weather, seems unchangeable. When she goes to grab my hand, I pull away. “I’m upset,” I tell her, “Not at you, but that it can’t be different.” Her deep sigh follows me when I rush out of the room.
Maybe I’ll get another chance, I think. Deep down, though, I know this is a lie. The camp, the story, aren’t going to wait for me to come back.
When I leave for Ohio the next day, I feel like I’m driving in the wrong direction.
Like that, it’s gone.
The evacuation order from the North Dakota Governor seals the camp’s fate.
Told to vacate the grounds by February 22nd, protestors conduct a ceremonial burning of their own camp. One last stand on the protest site.
Unhampered by freezing rain, they ignite roughly twenty fires. Against the backdrop of a hazy blue sky, one fire grows higher than rest, eclipsing the white tipi alongside it. Wooden posts and building frames fall into liquid-gold embers. Orange and yellow flames send up black plumes of smoke. Sleet mixes with ash.
Over the course of Wednesday, rain fades into pale skies and smoke dissolves into white wisps. Men and women pack up what they can into their vehicles. They walk together, singing and voicing prayers, on their way out. Many faces are somber but some look determined—a glint in their eyes, their mouths upturned. Some clutch bundles of sage—the sign for cleansing and renewal. A wish for new possibilities.
On Thursday, cleanup efforts begin. The Oceti Sakowin camp is declared officially closed. Dozens of broken tents, large piles of debris, and the shells of ruined structures remain in the mud-slick crater. By the time cleanup crews finish their work, they will haul away almost 600 truckloads of garbage to turn the site back into an empty field before spring floods arrive.
In the aftermath, I am heart-broken. The fact that the site of the Dakota Pipeline protest disintegrated in a week’s time, with no trace left, causes me to question if it has even taken place. Certainly, when it comes to peoples’ attention and more pressing media headlines, the destruction of the camp will fade from the national consciousness. I refuse, however, to think its work is over. Though the protest’s physical form has collapsed, I grasp the belief that protest and resistance are not fixed to one place—they are bolstered by it.
The oil that the Dakota Access Pipeline will run under the earth and the Missouri River affects more than the Standing Rock Sioux. A broken pipeline means contaminated land and water necessary for life. Its route carves more than a thousand-mile path across the United States from the Bakkens in North Dakota to refineries in Illinois, and its chain of crude oil holds the power to benefit some while it harms others. Like other past Corps decisions in the Dakotas regarding water, it stands to alter my family’s future and the land that keeps us all connected.
Over sixty years ago, before the Oahe Dam’s construction in South Dakota, wild sedges and chokecherry trees lined two quarters of land my mother’s family owned along the riverbank. It’s a past my family rarely remembers. On summer afternoons, my grandmother threw a blanket in the truck and packed tuna-salad sandwiches along with pickles in mason jars for picnics. There, my grandfather taught my uncle, then a toddler, how to catch glimpses of fish in the water as they waded up and down the shore. He could not teach my mother, born a year later, this lesson in the same spot—a place the dam permanently put under the river.
Of course, the land is still there, buried beneath the water. One tiny piece submerged under its weight beside thousands of acres belonging to the Sioux that the project likewise flooded. A small loss, almost incalculable in the face of what the Sioux suffered and continue to suffer. Still, for all our differences, we are tethered to the same river, shaped by shared decisions.
This is the nature of my home, no matter how far I find myself from it.