Walking around camp shortly after my arrival Dec. 1, I was approached by multiple young men: pierced noses, dreadlocked hair, and exhausted faced. They represented Camp Sacred Stone security. None of them Sioux, but each of them making demands as to what was allowed in camp: no drugs or alcohol, no weapons, and no photos or video. I asked them what they might do if they caught a person taking photos. They passionately expressed their right to take and smash any electronics that might contain images of camp. That was the kind of authoritarian rule I thought protesters like these fought. I concealed my press pass and camera. After a few days, I tracked down the land owner and asked for her permission to take photos on her land. She seemed surprised I hadn’t been. A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, she expressed how important it would be for people to see what was going on in camp. Finally, I could do my real job. Yet, we now lived with blizzard warnings and below-zero temperatures.
Each morning I would spend an hour or two taking photos and doing interviews; then, I got to work helping to organize shelter, assembling wood burning stoves in teepees, and building the remaining outhouses. After my meeting with security on the first day, I was greeted enthusiastically when the people, seemingly in charge, found that I had brought a chain saw, impact driver, various other tools, and the skill to use them. One of these organizers asked me to help gather fire wood. Later, when I was on the construction crew, I told them I might be pulled away to help with getting firewood. “You’re not going anywhere. Do you know how f---ing hard it is to find skilled labor here or skill at all?” said Brian, a 20-something white man with dreadlocks. Brian went by the name Minerals. I don’t know why. He would not permit me to take his photo.
Minerals was passionate about the NoDAPL movement, seemed intelligent, and worked hard. Minerals was not like anyone I had ever met in Cedar City, Utah. He was a good man and gave me good information as to what was going on behind the scenes at camp – sorry many of our conversations were off-the-record. He was right about a lot of things. Particularly, he was right about how difficult it was to find skilled people in camp. I’ve never met so many people that didn’t know how to put on snow chains, jump a car battery, put a few screws in a wood burning stove, or run a chain saw.
I was scared to go to Standing Rock with my own supplies and the skill to take care of myself. Sure, there were dozens of well-off people showing up every day to become water protectors and fight the fight, but they rarely lasted more than a day or two. Luckily, they brought lots of supplies and left them because many of the young people – the ones that have been there and are staying through winter – came with few supplies and few skills, outside of political debate and passionate protest. I could hear my father and my grandfather in the back of my head: “No-good beatniks. G…-d… hippies running around with nothing better to do expecting everyone else to take care of them.” I couldn’t agree less with them. These people are braving the harshness of a North Dakota to ensure a clean environment for our children.
Winter in North Dakota is wind that steals the warmth from your bones and shifting duns of snow that conjure images of far-off deserts. More people had begun to arrive, and I learned that if I planned to spend Christmas with my family, I would have to leave before winter held me until spring. I am making my way home now. I decided not to join the Water Protectors at the front line when I heard new-comer after new-comer state their intention to join the line. I realized people were coming to Standing Rock as protest tourists, looking for a since of self- endowment or inner peace. They would hit the front line and leave. I guess I’m no better, but at least people can hide from the wind while they relieve themselves – I did that much for them.