For the majority of the 1300 mile journey from Los Angeles to North Dakota, you don’t see much besides devastating, inhuman moonscapes illuminated by startling sunsets or sunrises. If you came – as we did – from a densely populated, warm city suffocated by endless lines of traffic and hopeless dreams, that ride becomes almost ritualistic, meditative – preparing one for the arrival at Standing Rock, North Dakota, as if it were a world unlike any we might have known before it.
I was one of only four civilians on a bus full of veterans, and I was there not as a protestor, but to document the journey of a group of 24 former members of the armed forces, just a small group from an estimated 4.5k who had heeded the call put out by Michael J. Woods and Wesley Clark Jr. to stand alongside them at the front lines of the Dakota Access Pipeline Project (DAPL), a billion dollar enterprise to pump oil across country in a thin pipe constructed on a relatively shallow pipeline which would rip right through Native American tribal land and nearby areas. DAPL had stopped mid-construction, the earth broken, gaping, gasping like a gutted fish, as First People and their supporters across the nation had joined the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their attempts to halt the pipeline, arguing that it desecrates sacred land as well as posing a massive risk to their water source. Standing Rock was the largest gathering of tribes across the country since the Battle of Little Big Horn.
I’d known many friends who had been to Oceti Sakowin (‘Seven Fires’) the main camp for the water protectors. Oceti Sakowin is the reception area, the location of the sacred fire which also acts as a hub of information and learning and community. Oceti also hosts the media tent, direct action training, and many of the other sub-camps can only be accessed through it. Surprisingly a number of Californians I’d known for years in the activist community had braved the cross country drive and cold weather, and returned a week or so later, curiously contemplative, touched by something they couldn’t quite articulate. Some had even stayed longer, drawn in by community and a shared sense of purpose, no rent, free food and other passionate idealists who couldn’t bear the idea of a career, but could find comfort in justifying their existence by fighting oppression.
What all of them could articulate was a sense of suspicion over the Veteran action. Were the Veterans actually going to be useful, or was their role merely symbolic? Were hundreds – and as numbers grew, thousands – simply showing up merely to drain the resources of an already strained encampment, or were they going to contribute in a ‘meaningful’ way, whatever meaningful meant?
A couple of nights before the action, I sat down in Wes Clarke’s kitchen with his wife, Anna, a stunning woman of Sri Lankan descent who works in marketing for Playboy. I’d known Anna for years – we’d met after I fostered one of the dogs she routinely saves as an animal rights activist – and when I found out her husband was organizing the action, I called her and asked could I join them. Wes had left earlier that day, driving a car load of donations and gear, leaving Anna to hold the fort. As I sipped a quick glass of wine, she fielded phone calls from panicked RTL’s (Regional Transport Leaders) and Skype conference calls and finally nipped out to the garage for a quick cigarette looking exhausted. “This is a complete surprise,” she told me. “Wes and Michael expected maybe a couple hundred at most to go, but we’re maxed out with over 2,000 veterans on the roster and more saying they’re just going to show up. I don’t even know how much money the gofundme has at this point, “ (I checked later that night and it was around $70,000, and is currently over a million). She was interrupted by another phone call, and looked apologetic. “I’m so sorry, I wanted to tell you more about the action, but I really need to speak to these people.” I left to go home and pack – two changes of thermals, four pairs of wool socks, one down sleeping bag, one down jacket, snow overalls, Sorels, hat, gloves, two hoodies, twenty hand warmers and twenty feet warmers).
Veterans, in my British-born mind, are frail, elderly white men immortalized on the BBC wearing startling red paper poppies on Armistice Day. Even though I’d lived in the US long enough to appreciate the difference between my British imagination and American reality, a part of me still expected this instead of the twenty four people who gathered at Union Station to step onto a shabby looking “luxury” charter bus which smelled of pee and old pizza at 4pm one Friday afternoon in early December.
There was Elizabeth, a slim, tall woman who resembled Angelina Jolie, a quiet, reserved character who slipped into the seat behind me, put on her headphones and gazed out the window silently for the first three hours, lost in thought. Christa, a chain smoking, loud mouthed, tough talking combat medic from the Navy with a boyish haircut and a sharp tongue, who’d brought over 300 pounds of supplies along with Riz, an army Vet and Mom of four she’d met on the Veterans for Standing Rock page a couple of weeks previously. Crash was a shaven headed, shambolic tall artist who made enormous, startling art installations for events such as Burning Man. Thibault was a photographer with movie-star good looks, dark floppy hair and deep brown eyes.Anthony was a smiling stoner, Candice, a slim blond with glasses, Sharne, a mother of four from the Airforce. As the duffel bags outside the baggage compartment grew, the group tentatively chose their seats, kissed and hugged families goodbye, texted partners and uploaded videos to twitter, turned off their facebook live. There was an air of going into battle: but this time, as Christa McDermont told me, “for a war we chose”.
As the passengers on the bus stood up, one by one to introduce themselves, I was struck by the difference between the Vets and the civilians. A young woman with short hair stood up and announced, without any irony, that she was there to “gather material for (her) comedy career”. A quick google of her name, Lindsey Hitt, revealed very little about this career, perhaps unsurprising given her taste for material. Another woman in her mid forties with a breathy, excited voice and shining eyes started handing out flyers encouraging people to move their money from a bank to a credit union, urgently engaging everyone in conversation on the bus. The third civilian, an elderly man named Daryl, sat quietly in the back of the bus, emerging only to announce that he was a journalist and everyone had better behave or he’d skewer them in writing. Upon finding out that I was also a journalist, he revealed he was actually unemployed and had never written anything before, but had a remote lead at The Daily Beast who wanted 500 words in two days and could he borrow my laptop to file it? The fourth civilian was our leader, Eme, a handsome black actor in his thirties who had somehow become involved in the Veterans group and had been entrusted with the role of Regional Transport Leader with no experience organizing with veterans or water protestors.
It was not long before the final civilian of the group, our bus driver, a small, grumpy latina woman in her sixties – Judy – began to exhibit signs that the trip was taking a toll on her. As we navigated out of rush hour traffic, she began to proclaim loudly that “My back hurts. I gotta stop. I need to take a break. I can only work ten hours then they gotta find someone to replace me.” After stopping, she re-entered the freeway on the wrong side and started driving back to Los Angeles, before someone corrected her. When she turned around, she narrowly avoided T-boning a car which had right of way, and then started screaming when Eme and a couple of other passengers tried to explain her mistake.
By the time we stopped at Victorville to pick up more veterans, we were about five hours behind schedule.
At Victorville a small, bossy African-American woman stepped on the bus, her straightened hair slicked back close to her scalp. She loudly announced that she was the other RTL, and that her name was Tatiana. As we left California and Nevada, and entered snowy Utah, the temperature in the bus dropped and the pitch of Tatiana’s voice rose. She started reading directions to the female driver, who already seemed in a state of near panic. The missed turns, double backs, breaks for the bad back and hysteria increased. I turned away from the shit show with an increasingly frustrated Eme and loud Tatiana, and walked to the back of the bus to sit down next to Jai Waggoner, the only lifeguard on the bus, who was talking to ‘Captain’ Katie Robinson, a slim, pale young woman of barely thirty with bright blue eyes and a sad, kind face. “You never, ever burn the American Flag,” Jai was saying fiercely as I approached in the middle of a conversation. Christa saw me looking and explained, “Civilians learn about the pledge of allegiance but you don’t learn about the flag.” Jai, thick dreadlocks around a sad and beautiful face, leaned forward urgently. “I saw a flag the other day, just sitting on the side of the road in a puddle. I stopped my car, took it home, and then called up everyone I knew and we had a day of the dead bonfire, and then we burnt it. Only a veteran can burn a dropped flag. The flag is symbolic of all fallen soldiers.” Christa looked at me. “That’s what they don’t teach you civilians. You burn a flag you’re not making a political statement. You’re burning everyone who died serving this country.”
I feel acutely the cloak of my ignorance weighing heavy upon me. This is a deployment, and I don’t know the terminology, the abbreviations, the ease with which everyone assumes their role in a ranked pecking order which has nothing to do with either skill or intelligence. As Tatiana became more irate up front, yelling instructions at the driver Katie explained to me that this is normal: “It happens all the time in the military. Stupid people give orders and you have to follow them. “ And nothing happens to them? She smiles. “Oh no, shit happens. Just watch.” I sat down next to Elizabeth and started to ask her questions. She had alluded to her slimness before, her struggles with ill-health and cancer scares, but talks in depth now: about her depression after being honorably discharged for a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) her alcoholism, the struggle with finding purpose and meaning in the real world after losing a community and a career that she loved. Like many veterans, thirty year old Elizabeth did not like fighting in wars she did not believe in, nor did she glamorize the horrors she saw as an Iraq veteran, but she credits the army with giving her a purpose greater than herself. Without it, she says, she would not have gotten clean after a tough spell in her teen years where she found herself addicted to Crystal Meth after falling in with the wrong crowd. It was that purpose which convinced Elizabeth to go back into the closet and hide her sexuality in the 673rd Delta Unit.
I heard similar stories from Christa, from Katie, Candice and Tina, all of whom served under ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’, all of whom deliberately concealed their sexual orientation in order to have a career in the military. Katie Robinson’s story was brutal and horrific – she’d decided to leave the military, had handed in her notice, and had only days left to serve as an O3, when she finally felt comfortable enough to slow dance with her fiancé at a military ball. That small act – taking her girlfriend in her arms to sway along to music – prompted a violent outburst from a Colonel which ended in her very public physical and verbal assault. After someone leaked the story to the press, a disciplinary hearing exonerated Katie of indecent and lewd behavior, and the Sergeant Major lost his job. The investigation, however, tore Katie and her wife apart, and the ensuing press resulted in a wave of harassment against Katie which ultimately resulted in her brutal assault by a masked stranger in the stairwell of her Hollywood apartment. Katie survived the assault, but suffered head injuries which meant she had to relearn basic vocabulary and simple actions in her long, painful recovery. She refers to her service under DADT (it was repealed in 2012) as “my small sacrifice”. Christa chimes in. “It just cost us a little bit more than the average person.”
We swapped secrets and shared stories, warily sniffing around one another, trying to gauge intent or purpose, and by the time we had forged friendships and some kind of trust, we emerged from traffic into a velvet dark night, our breath frosting in the air. As midnight passed, the inside of the windows froze solid so that I had to scrape the ice off with a key in order to peer out to the inky blackness surrounding us. We all hauled sleeping bags out from under the bus and secretly felt ashamed that we could barely deal with the inside of a bus driving through Utah, never mind shacked up in a tent during the blizzards of North Dakota. Eventually, some bright spark had enough of the shivering, and asked the bus driver to turn up the heat. “It ain’t working,” she proclaimed, smacking her lips grimly. “It’s broken.” The bright spark took a closer look. “You have the air conditioning on full blast,” I heard a horrified voice announce. Too cold to put my head out, I couldn’t see who it was. “No, it’s not working.” Judy insisted. “It is now,” said a firm voice. A click, a whirr and almost instantaneously, hot air is pumped into the shivering ice box. We slept, finally, for a few hours until we picked up a new driver, a no-nonsense black woman who has zero interest in any of us and simply wants to drive us to Point B and then get the hell out of there.
As the sun rose in Utah, slumped bodies start to stir. We stop for breakfast, stumble out for coffee and McDonalds, watching our breath mist and our boots crunch fresh snow. If we were on schedule, we should have been arriving in the next six hours, but we still have another 24 to go, and the day passes in a haze of cigarette stops and bathroom breaks, until we pick up our final driver, Joe, in Casper, Wyoming at around 9pm on Saturday evening.
Joe, wearing a baseball jacket and a leather cap, is a short, stocky Latino man in his early seventies with a deep rich St Louis voice. Close your eyes, and Joe is actually Morgan Freedman. Joe is also a veteran who seems both bemused, amused and excited by the presence of 24 other veterans. He’s instantaneously everyone’s friend, and as he takes the wheel of the bus, Jai creeps forward and sits next to him calmly reading directions from one of the few phones with working GPS and reception. I fell asleep to the sound of them discussing their vegetable patches and laughing softly together.
Sometime after midnight, we arrived at the Lakota Cultural Center in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Handwritten welcome signs on neon paper nestle into crisp new snow. We walk into a warm, strip-lit building full of gatorade and cereal bars and lukewarm coffee, grizzled, tired bodies nursing styrofoam cups, sleeping in the corner. A frazzled looking Vet calls us together. He hasn’t slept for several days, he admits, and as he launches into a description of how we should behave (no alcohol, no drugs, respect our hosts, follow their leads, no responding to violence, be on the lookout for occurrences of trauma or PTSD) what we should expect (CS gas? Rubber bullets? Water? Sound cannons? All or none of the above?) he omits to mention his name or his (past) rank, and we’re too tired to notice. We sign in, grab maps, restock on carbs, and then pile back onto the bus for another three hours to Fort Yates, where a high school on the reservation has been designated as the temporary barracks of the 2,000 vets who are actually on the roster. It’s 6am by the time we roll up, and every available space in the school contains sleeping, supine bodies. We’re quietly led to a dark corridor behind the gym, and for the first time in two days, quickly shower in steaming hot water, and then pass out for a couple of hours.
I wake up at 8:30, and Captain Katie gives me a lopsided smile as she starts to roll up her sleeping bag. Across from me, Xavier, or Batman as we’ve started to call him, a young twenty-something ex-Marine with an obsession with Marvel heroes, quietly munches on a cereal bar. I get up and find Eme and Tatiana looking frenzied and feverish. “You haven’t slept?” I ask Eme quietly. “No. There’s shit going down. I can’t talk about it but there’s a lot of developments happening. There are problems.”
He charges off and I gaze after him. Since we stepped on the bus rumor after rumor has plagued us. The state of North Dakota has been shut down. The road to Cannonball is snowed in. No one’s selling propane or firewood to anyone headed to Standing Rock. There aren’t enough beds and tents and people are freezing to death. Every hour a new rumor emerges, usually from a fathomless source: a careless facebook comment, someone’s aunt swearing blind that Fox News just said so. I’ve been around the activist community long enough to ignore them and not react: sleep when I have to sleep, save my eyes and ears and energy for the real drama, but Eme, Tatiana and many of the RTL’s have very little experience in activism – or even, in Tatiana’s case, in active duty. Combine that with the very real facts coming out of Standing Rock – the CS gas, the water guns, the sound cannons, the rubber bullets – and people were stretched taught, running on adrenalin, their nerves shrieking, sensitive to the slightest vibrational change, ready to snap. Tatiana soon bustled in, screaming that we needed to all board the bus to see Tulsey Gabbard in Cannonball, and Christa, Katie, Riz, Jai, Sharne and and the rest of the girls huddled together and decided to revolt and hop on another bus which would take us straight to Oceti Sakowin. Hearing our plans, Eme started arguing with Tatiana and Joe, the bus driver who’d slept in a sleeping bag on the floor next to us, joined in. I walked outside to watch a group of Oregonian Vets load up their van with medical supplies they were intending to donate to camp. On the floor, nestled in the snow, a single tampon lay. I took a photo of it, and one of the vets stopped and laughed sadly. “I saw a first responder kill and Afghani by shoving a tampon in an open chest wound. Sucked all the blood out and his lungs collapsed.” A tall, beautiful woman in her late twenties nodded. “Tampons are great for soft tissue – for open chest wounds, not so much.” Ironically, tampons would, twelve hours later, be lifesavers of another kind for us, as firelighters, but for now, we all grabbed our gear, threw it on the bus and headed to camp, taking a six hour detour along the way as Tatiana, panting agitatedly, decided to re-route our tired driver along a pointless expedition to find a press conference which never existed.
The major problems of our trip were a complete lack of communication. After I sat down with Wes Clarke a month after we’d returned, I found that he, like us, was frustrated and trapped by the radio jammers, the wind which turned iPhones and smart phones to dead ice within seconds, the lack of a central unit of command, the sprawling, uncontrolled, random, fortuitous nature of communications. As we finally made our way into Oceti Sakowin 48 hours after we’d left Los Angeles, those of us with Verizon phones suddenly found them lit up with messages and outpourings of congratulations as the news broke that the Army Corps of Engineers had been denied their easement – which meant they could no longer, temporarily at least, continue to build the pipeline.
We drove into Oceti just minutes after hearing this news, vets starting to laugh, cry, call home. There was a sense of understandable frustration – a 22 hour trip had taken 48 hours, had involved numerous pointless bureaucratic sign in stops, very little sleep and no food for nearly 20 hours – but there was also a strange sense of impotency. “We went there not knowing if we were gonna come back.” Wes told me later. “I wrote my will before I went because we just didn’t know what was gonna happen. We’d planned to take a beating, walk up to the front line, four at a time, like Gandhi’s salt march.” And then suddenly bodies which had ached to hold the scars of a battle they believed in were instead relegated to mere symbols. No one, it seems, had been quite prepared for that outcome.
Flags fluttered against an azure sky and drums floated across crystal air and our bus was stuck in a long line of vehicles all trying to navigate the ice and snow into Oceti to celebrate. We stepped off the bus and started to walk in, Tatiana trying to yell out a drill that no one even bothered to acknowledge. We got to the edge of camp and children were sledding down a hill, people in huge jackets and scarves milling around, cameras and booms and mics everywhere. I stuck close to Darryl and Anthony, two of the army vets I’d chatted with intermittently on the bus. There was no sign of either Wes Clark or Michael Wood, the two organizers, but around 200 vets were engaged in a ritual ceremony of forgiveness holding mirrors and marching slowly around the camp – a ritual Wes admitted later he didn’t even know about. We floated around for a half hour or so, and then our bus skidded into camp and came to a stop on sheet ice. Water Protectors gazed in amusement as forty Veterans tried to push and dig and pry it out, but to no avail. We were at Standing Rock, and we weren’t leaving.
Within minutes Eme appeared looking panicked. He’d checked in at the Vet tent, to find complete confusion. There were no tents available, too many people had shown up, they had no idea where we would stay. Crash, the tall gangly artist, spoke urgently with a couple of friends, and they offered us the use of a couple of tents in Rosebud, the camp over the bridge. The sun was setting, all phones had died, we still hadn’t eaten. We grabbed the minimal gear necessary, and started to march, leaving Joe, our driver, on the bus waiting for the tow truck.
Our tent was a summer military tent turned storage unit. It was covered in a thin dust of snow when we walked in, the wood next to the stove frozen solid. Amanda, the paratrooper, found a box of donated tampons in a corner and used them as firelighters while we arranged our sleeping bags closely together and used a propane heater to thaw off. A community kitchen in a yurt was two minutes from the tent, so we took turns to go grab some food: thick, gloopy chicken and biscuits with tinned green beans and frozen strawberries and stale bread rolls and fresh fried bread. It was warm in the yurt, filled with huge bear-like men, dewdrops glistening from noses, white girls with dreads, kids running around, Australians and Kiwis and South Africans and people from god knows where who had come to call this place home. There were no chairs so we stood awkwardly, shaking and exhausted, overwhelmed and elated. I bolted to media hill after dinner to write a quick story for a woman’s magazine, and found myself battling the cold as my Mac and phone kept freezing within seconds unless I piled hand warmers on them. I dragged myself back to our tent after an hour, crept into the sleeping bag, and fell asleep despite the constant drip of melting snow falling into my face and the wood someone had tried to thaw on top of the stove bursting into flames and nearly killing us. I slept better than I had in years. And when I woke up, it was to find freezing, wet, giggling, exhausted Vets surrounding me.
Christa, Riz and I went off to find coffee and food for the girls who couldn’t bring themselves to leave the warmth of the tent. We found ourselves in another community kitchen, being regarded coolly by a young blonde Australian girl who offered us coffee and seemed displeased when we said yes. Rosebud was known as the white person’s camp, and for good reason. While Oceti, Sacred Stone and Red Warrior seemed run predominantly by Native Americans, here their white supporters had settled. I did not see any of the Burning Man tales so beloved of the press, but it was apparent that Standing Rock was not a protest. Standing Rock was a new society, a society where mini communities sprung up to feed, shelter and clothe one another, take on tasks such as chopping wood and keeping the sacred fire going. As the weather had harshened, the nature of that community became ever more simplified: it became, simply about survival. “Fuckin’ love this shit,” breathed Christa as we stood in the cold and she lit another cigarette. “Have no idea what the hell’s going on, it’s disorganized as shit and I wouldn’t be anywhere else on earth.”
We took thick oatmeal back to the other girls in styrofoam cups, and gradually made our way to the main camp for a noon muster, where to our horror, we found that the bus remained – but Joe had gone, taken to hospital for signs of hypothermia after stepping out into the cold to try and direct the tow truck down to camp. Our phones, still jammed and blocked, wouldn’t even turn on, so we couldn’t text or call him and check he was OK. I began to feel sick, perhaps with emotion or cold, or maybe with having consumed little aside from coffee and cereal bars for 36 hours. Eme steered me into a dark, steaming, greasy tent and plied me with bacon, water and gatorade, and I began to thaw out, and take in my surroundings.
Oceti was overrun with Vets. Christa, Sharne and Candice made their way to the Medics to help out while the rest of us went to check on the bus and Joe. The bus was still frozen and unmoving, but Joe had disappeared, probably to a hotel while waiting to retrieve the vehicle and drive us home.
It was just as we started marching to the bridge leading to the pipeline that the blizzard broke.
People said it was the worst blizzard for twenty years, but then others said it was just another shitty North Dakota winters day. We pushed back stinging snow and wind and tears as First people sang and danced and a woman in a long skirt, her dark hair streaming in the wind cried out, “This is what you were made for. This is your destiny. Thank you for listening.” Around a thousand Vets struggled through the wind until we got to the bridge, and then a long line of elders pushed their way through, linked arms and refused to let anyone go any closer to the pipeline. In the distance and the darkening gloom we saw the quick wink and flash of the headlights of the Army Corps vehicles. People said they were still drilling, that the easement denial was just a way to dissuade the Vets and get them sent home. People said, people said. In this year of false news, rumors and gossip and whispers never seemed so vicious, when we were stumbling blind around a camp, not quite sure whether we were welcomed or despised, unable to call home, surviving the cold long enough to get to the next warm fire, the next hot tea, the next smile. As the temperature dropped and the drumming increased and an hour turned into two, people began to break away, dribble apart and make their way, with difficulty, back to camp, the wind slapping our face. I saw a young woman ride past, galloping on a white horse which suddenly slipped, reared and fell, hitting an older veteran to the floor and unseating his rider. I grabbed onto someone and it turned out to be Brendon, a thin, quiet white guy from the bus who seemed fragile and erratic – PTSD, people surmised. Laughing, we struggled back to the bus and warmth. Thibault and Crash greeted us with the news that Joe, the driver, had never made it to a hotel. He’d been found in the snow with hypothermia, and had spent the night in hospital.
Our vets arrived in short, sharp shocks of frozen air, snow and frosted lashes, until we’d all been accounted for. “They’re telling everyone to go home,” Eme announced. “Mission’s over, there’s not enough places to sleep and the storm’s moving in. We need to leave now, or we might be staying for a week. Who wants to go?”
No one moved.
We quickly made plans to return to Rosebud for the night. The men had been given another army issue tent, and they ran the mile back over the bridge to put it up next to ours after the one they were in the night before got snowed in. We waited for the girls to arrive, and headed back to our frozen, snow covered tent, which was now insulated by about four feet of snow surrounding the canvas, plus several inches inside on top of our sleeping bags. The girls crawled into their bags, Captain Katie shivering and gray. Sharne turned to her. “Snuggle up. Get close between us. We don’t want you to die.”
Christa, Amanda and I went back to the kitchen to eat watery soup and bread rolls. Despite the cold and the exhaustion, we were exhilarated. So much of civilian life is about the crushing, soul destroying boredom of existing in capitalism: paying bills, waiting in lines, listening to hold music for several hours to find out why your internet doesn’t work. It’s about the commute and the hustle, the fruitless search for a job that doesn’t obliterate all your hopes and dreams, the sad realization that you may have to make do. That shit is taken care of in the armed forces. You train. You follow orders. And sometimes, you live life on the very razor edge of existence, every breath a precious gift, every minute an answer to a prayer. Then it’s back to life cutting coupons and searching for work in the ‘real’ world. And suddenly there’s Standing Rock, and an opportunity to put this dying body in front of a gun again, and live every second like it really matters. For the first time in my entire life, I began to understand why someone might join the military, and why someone might miss it when they’re out. The type of community that your unit gives you was the type of community at Standing Rock. It’s the type of community that doesn’t exist anymore in an age when no one gives a shit if you can’t pay the rent or the medical bills or buy food. No one cares. At Standing Rock, everyone noticed when Katie became hypothermic, or when Christa, buried for a half hour underneath a trapped two-wheel drive car struggling to free it, suddenly started shaking and became incoherent, her skin cold and clammy. We cared when Lindsey ‘the comedian’, clearly struggling with the extreme conditions and probably nursing some kind of personality disorder, lashed out at the Vets carrying her around and called them “hypocrites” and mocked their tears and their laughter cruelly. I mean, we cared about the Vets she mocked, not her. In fact, I lost my journalistic cool listening to her insult the people I’d come to consider friends, and told her to fuck off myself. But that night of the blizzard sticks with me: the girls laughing in the tent despite being covered in snow, Jai and Candice waiting up patiently all night to knock the flue of the wood stove back into place when the winds tore it out to prevent us from being smoked out, the solid drip-drip-drip as snow melted on our bodies, then drifted back as condensation onto the roof of the tent only to freeze and snow back down on us. I think we all, without fail, felt the happiest we’d felt for a long, long time. We had not been shot at, we had not marched to the front lines, we had not stood face to face with the Army Corps of Engineers. Our enormous presence had completely colonized the entire village of Standing Rock and strained its resources, but our presence had, I believe, exerted the necessary political and social pressure to deny the easement and prevent the kind of scene which the international media would have lapped up – of Vets – many disabled, many suffering from PTSD, many elderly, and many weak – being shot at by their own government in support of the water protestors and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Not that the easement was a victory – but it was a small step on the road to victory.
We left the next day. With the blizzard increasing, Chairman Archambault, the spokesperson for the Standing Rock tribe, had released a statement thanking the Vets and asking them to leave due to the worsening conditions. Within days Red Warrior Camp would announce their departure, and others would pack up and leave too, leaving only a core group of 200-300 people left from the estimated 8 thousand or so who made up the community when we were there. We left the bus behind, frozen in ice. Joe called me on the way back home to reassure everyone he was fine. We hitched a ride with a friendly couple who drove six of us to the Casino, and then went back to get more until our entire group was reunited in the smoky, crowded lobby crammed with slot machines, smokers and sleeping Vets. It was at the Casino that we saw Wes for the first time since we’d arrived. Looking gaunt and exhausted, his voice croaking, he flitted around, posing reluctantly for selfies and group shots, his spiritual mission over. We had completely missed the apology ceremony where Wes, in his uniform from Custer’s Cavalry, gave his viral speech to the elders. We were digging out cars from snow, hauling out sleeping bags, carrying hypothermic friends and flatlining coffee in subzero temperatures at the time probably. Shortly after we saw Wes, he hitched a ride out of town on his friend, Milan Markovic’s, private jet and casually tweeted about it, unleashing a torrent of rumors for the media bandwagon regarding the funds Veterans Stand had received. Wes, people stated, had run off with the money and was spending it on private jets (he did not pay a penny for the flight home and covered all his own expenses). The rumors and the backlash – not to mention the ridiculous logistics of 4,000 plus veterans clamoring for reimbursements for gas, equipment and travel expenses – convinced Wes to gently bow out of the movement, leaving Michael to hold the reigns. Wes was reticent to talk about his decision, stating simply that he felt his purpose at Standing Rock was more spiritual, whereas Michael, a seasoned activist, saw an opportunity to capitalize on their high profile by using a portion of the money raised to move to LA, rent a house, establish a 501c3/4 and run Veterans Stand as a serious non-profit. He chose LA, he told me, because in the past, “I’ve been asked to do so many interviews and just had to say no. In LA I’ll be close to CNN, NBC, all the major networks.”
Speaking to the two men separately, I was struck by their differences. Wes had spent much of the time speaking to elders and becoming deeply embroiled in the inner politics of the tribes and the camp, whereas Michael had handled the money, the logistics and the Veterans themselves. However it was Wes who had captured the public imagination, perhaps with that image of himself wearing Custer’s cavalry uniform, kneeling before the elders in forgiveness. Both men did an admirable job of handling an enormous logistical nightmare – getting over 4,000 vets in and out of North Dakota in little more than a week without any injuries or deaths, but whereas the limelight shone on their endeavors seemed to repel Wes, Michael, in contrast, basks in it. “I don’t know why everyone’s so fucking obsessed about the money we raised,” said Wes when I asked him. “There’s a 3.2 billion dollar enterprise breaking treaties and violating the law and ruining the lives of Native Americans, and people are hung up about their $200 gas receipt not being reimbursed in less than a week. I mean, I don’t think anyone gets what’s going on down there. It’s about larger treaty issues and the protection of land and water, but everyone wants to talk about the money. It kind of sums up the world now. I swear historians in the future will be scratching their heads saying, “Right at the end they were really worried about gay marriage?” What the fuck? There are much, much larger issues at stake and we’re wasting our time on fake news.” Wes wanted some of the money – particularly money they’d planned to spend on legal defense, anticipating hundreds of arrests – to go back to the tribe. Michael instead plans on using it to develop Veterans Stand as a major force on the political activist scene, with eyes on Flint, Michigan as the next landing stage. At Standing Rock, the two didn’t cross paths much, Wes running around in a bulletproof vest witnessing tents collapse and catch on fire, caught between the squabbles of different tribal factions, his hands tied by his commitment to allowing the elders to call all the shots. Michael arrived three days after Wes, spent only a couple of days at camp with the Vets, before flying back out to Pennsylvania with his wife, Jessica, who accompanied him on the trip.
Standing Rock is empty now. I received a text from my friend, Vincent, a member of the Lakota tribe, saying “Some of my peoples were hemmed up by a camp security detail made up of all white men. One of them had a dog. Don’t go there Ruth. It’s different now.”
Things change, movements evolve. For all the people who committed to protect water at Standing Rock, many more came in with supplies, stayed a few days and left before the inner politics of the place could seep too deeply into the magic. Like most activist organizations, consensus on the way ahead evades the water protectors and the elders alike, as well as their supporters. The value of the veteran action lies in its symbolic power: the image of servants of the government, now serving the very people whom that government has oppressed since this country came into existence. Its value lies in the message this sends to current Vets serving in wars they may or may not believe in, suppressing parts of themselves for something greater than themselves – something that may, or may not, be good. At Standing Rock, the Vets found something good, and their presence was healing for both themselves, and for the Native Americans who lost ancestors and land at the hands of their oppressors. We came away having played a small part in a narrative that was not yet played out, but it was a role which gave everyone strength to fight the coming regime, and a reminder that we got into this mess because we didn’t show up, and the people who did show up – well, they just don’t care.
It’s not enough to care. Where our mouths go, our bodies need to follow.