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‘Find your sacred place and defend it’

December 2, 2016 GMT

“Welcome home,” a beaming Native American woman said to us as we entered the gate at the Oceti Sakowin camp last week.

It was only our second day in a dusty field next to the Cannon Ball River in North Dakota and already it was beginning to feel like home. In some ways, it felt even better.

A New York chef worked as a volunteer cook in one of the eight kitchens at camp, helping prepare fresh kale salads, baked apples, and roasted beets, dishes I don’t get at home. Members of the Veterans for Peace group and Native men kept careful watch over the camp, stepping in to calm a ranting disoriented man, or strolling into our camp, asking “Is everyone in your camp well?” as we groggily staggered out of the back of my Subaru one frosty morning.

Awed and uplifted

My 21-year-old daughter, Chrissy, and I decided to spend part of our Thanksgiving break at the site of the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota. We were awed and uplifted by the cultural sharing among the more than 300 indigenous groups represented there.

Naima Penniman, of the hip-hop duo Climbing PoeTree, described the scene at Standing Rock as a “spiritual renaissance to remind us that we are spiritually connected.”

Naima Penniman, of the hip-hop duo Climbing PoeTree, described the scene as a “spiritual renaissance to remind us that we are spiritually connected.”

“Creativity is the antidote for violence and destruction,” she told a crowd of about 100 people who watched her perform.

Bedushia Nicholi from the Yupik Eskimo tribe in Alaska presented a prayer for the Standing Rock Sioux last week. She wore a headdress she put together herself using wolf hide attached to a beaded headband. “It’s about time we come together to save Mother Earth,” she said.

A steady stream of indigenous people from around the world presented flags, sacred objects, music and prayers in front of the sacred fire during our visit. Bedushia Nicholi from the Yupik Eskimo tribe in Alsaka, Uqualla Havasupai from the Hovosupai Tribe in the Grand Canyon, a flute player from Columbia, and two Pacific Islanders living in the D.C. area spoke or performed or offered prayers.

Navajo artist Shonto Begay painted a scene showing women representing the four colors of humanity on a 10-foot banner to celebrate the Seventh Generation Medicine Concert.

Native and non-native artists created posters and designs in a well-stocked art tent. Navajo artist Shonto Begay painted a scene showing women representing the four colors of humanity on a 10-foot banner to celebrate the Seventh Generation Medicine Concert, which was held on Nov. 23. University of Wisconsin art professor Nicolas Lampert created a silhouette design of a woman with a feather that people could print onto canvas and pin to jackets and coats.

Rising Appalachia’s Leah and Chloe Smith perform at Oceti Sukowin camp in North Dakota where protesters are gathered. “Stories and food and music hold us up in times of deep hardship and also times of joy,” Chloe Smith said.

Almost everywhere you looked, someone was either singing or praying.

“Stories and food and music hold us up in times of deep hardship and also times of joy,” Rising Appalachia’s Chloe Smith said during her performance.

Police helicopter passes overhead of the Oceti Sakowin camp.

If it weren’t for the helicopters and planes circling over the camp day and night, you almost forgot that this was a volatile situation. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have camped there since April to protest the Dakota Access pipeline, and there have been clashes with police.

Mark Lesser, aka “Big Medicine,” stands on media hill at the Oceti Sakowin camp in North Dakota. “We have lost our spiritual connection to the natural world, we must get it back.”

Much of what is happening at Standing Rock is being documented by citizens and at least four documentary film crews were at Standing Rock during Thanksgiving week.

Crowds grow over Thanksgiving

A parade of motor homes and painted school buses and cars were bumper-to-bumper entering the camp until late in the night on Nov. 23. The crowd shifted overnight from mostly indigenous people to white folks doing what we always do — taking over. The three encampments swelled from 1,500 to 7,000 people over Thanksgiving.

A Columbian flute player, who was afraid to give his name because friends back home have been murdered or kidnapped for speaking out, was worried about the site turning into a rock festival or photo opportunity.

“You’ve got a woman of European ancestry singing an Al Green song at a Native gathering,” he said.

As he presented his gift of palo santo wood to the Standing Rock Sioux, though, he said the gathering was powerful.

“This is the first time this many nations have come together like this.”

Almost everywhere you looked at Oceti Sakowin, people were making music or praying.

Members of the media were asked not to photograph sensitive cultural and spiritual ceremonies, like the water blessing we participated in on Nov. 23. More than 200 people, the largest prayer circle yet assembled at Oceti Sakowin, gathered just after dawn to listen to Native prayers and then walk a half-mile to the banks of the Cannon Ball River for a blessing ceremony.

The mud had so much clay in it, some people had to be pulled out after they sank in half way to their knees.

“This just feels right,” Stella Wright, of Rhode Island, told me as she flung mud from her boots so she could walk.

I had to agree.

Many people told me they felt led to be at Standing Rock. Havasupai pointed out that some tortured souls are there to find healing.

“That’s not the purpose of this place,” he said. “The sacred fire in everyone is passion, but don’t let it get out of control and burn shit down.”

Uqualla Havasupai from the Hovosupai Tribe in the Grand Canyon encouraged people to “find your sacred place” and defend it.

He urged us to find our own sacred place when we leave Standing Rock and summon the power to defend it.

As the 2,000 or so people at Oceti Sakowin begin to disperse by the Dec. 5 deadline, mandated by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the anger and frustration continue to mount over the Dakota Access pipeline, I’ll follow Havasupai’s counsel. Billings is my sacred place and I will continue to promote our diverse culture and fight against hate.