By Desmond Powers
After a thirty-five hour drive from New Orleans, I rolled into Standing Rock’s Oceti Sakowin camp in a VW hatchback plastered with Bernie stickers with two fellow New Orleanians and a trunk full of herbal medicine and instruments. We made the trek to Oceti Sakowin to help Grandma Redfeather, an Oglala elder and ex-AIM activist, winterize her camp, Camp Dancing Horse. Oceti Sakowin is the largest camp at Standing Rock and the size of a small village, with a several hundred people occupying a few square miles of treaty land never bequeathed to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and thus “technically” under federal control. Oceti Sakowin is made up of various larger camps, with people coming together for a multitude of reasons. The camp I stayed in, Camp Dancing Horse was on the outskirts of Oceti Sakowin. It was placed there to avoid entanglement from the tribal council and the main culture that permeated Greater Oceti Sakowin, especially that of the “weekend warrior” phenomenon.
White Allies or Weekend Warriors?
My first introduction to the recolonization of Standing Rock was a small group of travelers fresh off the Rainbow circuit who had a complete lack of respect for the space. They hogged the campfire (leaving no room for Grandma Redfeather, who is not only the founder of the camp, but an elder, and thus deserves to have a spot at the fire), cooked food only for themselves, played music, smoked copious amounts of weed, and waited out the DTs (delirium tremens), never leaving to volunteer at kitchens or winterizing. They had arrived with no prior knowledge of what was going on. They had hitched a ride from Colorado just to see what was happening. When we asked them why they came, they said that they were under the impression that it was another kind of Rainbow Gathering. This is an extreme example of the misunderstanding people had of Standing Rock. But it was everywhere. White allies, whether conscious or not, had come to Standing Rock with different goals than aid, and this manifested in many different ways, all toxic.
Outside of Camp Dancing Horse I met a very different type of person who came to Standing Rock that misunderstood its purpose. These were “weekend warriors.” They spent most of their time delivering donations they pilfered from their basements in exchange for selfies with teary-eyed natives, getting massages at mental health tents, singing whatever song they wished at prayer ceremonies, and attending one or two risk-free actions to finish off their Mni Wiconi (Water is Life) Facebook Album. People weren’t supposed to come there to have a pow-wow, they were supposed to volunteer and be involved in activism. This complete lack of respect surprised me, as it seemed common sense to me that if you’re going to an occupied space meant for activism, you shouldn’t treat it like the Bahamas. These people were invited to help out the No DAPL movement, but ended up focusing on their own “Standing Rock Experience.”
They were supposed to call attention to the movement by being on the front lines, getting arrested, helping winterize, and donating functional things that the camp needed. They did none of this. When I left Standing Rock, the tribal elders were telling people to bring donations to homeless shelters to their city of origin, as most of the donations were extraneous, or not usable in the North Dakota winter. As a result, most weekend warriors (who ate at the various kitchens in the camp and often sifted through the donations area as if it were a free Goodwill) left the mark of recolonization on Standing Rock. On my first day in Standing Rock, I attended a water ceremony at the Cannonball River, where one pays respects to feminine energy and water. This ceremony is accompanied by water songs, led by native women, normally in Lakota. What I witnessed was during any lapse in singing, the ever growing crowd (the majority of which was white) would interject with refrains of “Go Down to the River to Pray” and other non sacred protest songs. There was an invitation for people to sing whatever sacred songs they identified with, but the frequency and overwhelming recitations of these songs only served to whitewash a prayerful space for people of color, with allies assuming the position of leadership in spite of the fact that they were asked to help, not usurp. That’s what was important. Instead of being respectful and following tribal customs, many allies put priority on themselves, not the people they were supposed to be supporting. They silenced voices of color and crowbarred their way in at the one place people of color were supposed to have priority. And most weren’t even willing to get arrested.
Public vs. Dangerous Actions
Standing Rock was a warzone. The Morton County police used military grade technology to drain phone batteries, planes flew over Oceti Sakowin at 4am despite the no fly zone to spray chemicals that woke everyone up with “camp cough,” which stayed with them through the rest of the day. There were countless infiltrators and everyone’s phones were listened to, even outside of the frontlines; water protectors were assailed by the military police complex with everything they had. As a result, actions were normally spread by word of mouth to avoid police interception. Most public actions were mostly meant to keep the police on their feet (at least when I was there), while any action actually meant to stop the construction of DAPL or create real political pressure was kept quiet. As a result, most people didn’t hear about the more dangerous actions. But there were opportunities. And normally they were compromised by a lack of discipline and people focusing on themselves rather than the action. This can be seen with my friend, E__, who occupied and sabotaged a construction vehicle with a small group of people, shutting the site down for a day. He and a handful of people could’ve gotten away, but were arrested because instead of leaving promptly, the group took selfies on the vehicle, panicked when the police showed up while they were distracted, split up, and were picked up one by one.
Silencing Voices of Color
Even though the majority of people at Oceti Sakowin didn’t act like this, there were still enough to cause a large amount of harm to the movement. I met many people, including Grandma Redfeather’s children and grandchildren, who had been arrested many times and were faced with very serious charges, but still chose to return and keep fighting after being bailed out of jail. Most of the allies who intended to stay all winter were extremely respectful, put themselves in danger (legal and physical) repeatedly, and volunteered most of the day. Still, I feel as if the weekend warrior phenomenon has been underreported. Seeming white allies failed Standing Rock, taking the narcissism and vacationalism of our everyday world into a sacred fight, and desecrated it. There is a Lakota term for white people: wasichu. “he who steals the fat.” You don’t have to be white to be a wasichu, but as long as you abide by toxic white culture, whether on purpose or on accident, you are a wasichu. I saw many wasichus disguised as allies at Standing Rock. They betrayed the call to action and compromised the movement.