Sometime in mid-October, a school bus full of New Orleanians pulled into Oceti Sakowin, the largest of the prayer camps at Standing Rock. It was followed by a truck hauling poles for a forty-foot tipi. They raised their shelter at the western edge of camp, near the tent of a Lakota elder named Grandma Redfeather. They came to stand in solidarity against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the waters of the Lakota people as well as millions who live downstream.
The bus and the tipi were owned by white folks from the Rainbow Family, a loose network of hippies united by utopian principles. Through the free gatherings they host on public lands around the world, the Rainbow Family practices various forms of counterculture. These particular Rainbows had been serving food for flood victims in western Louisiana when they heard about the prayer camps in North Dakota. They stopped in New Orleans, where they picked up some locals: Creole folks, Mardi Gras Indians, white allies, Choctaws from Louisiana, and others of indigenous descent. The Rainbows and the New Orleanians journeyed together to Standing Rock.
While they were setting up camp, some indigenous elders came by to offer advice. Many had never seen such a tall tipi, and they wanted to make sure it stood strong. The Rainbows refused help. They’d slept in this thing at plenty of gatherings, where they’d dug latrines, built fire pits, and run kitchens outside. They knew what they were doing—and soon enough, they promised, they’d be serving food for everyone.
Lit by a fire inside, the giant tipi became a social melting pot, where people of all skin tones came to eat gumbo and learn songs like “Li’l Liza Jane.” The eclectic delegation from New Orleans became known as “the tribe of the Gumbo Ya-Ya.” They connected with Grandma Redfeather, who knew some of the Rainbows from attending their gatherings. One of the original members of the American Indian Movement, Grandma Redfeather took up arms against the government in the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee and hasn’t stopped fighting since.
The Gumbo Ya-Ya stayed for a few days, trading stories and songs, and left on the night of a full moon. The Rainbows and their tipi stayed behind.
As the full moon rose, the night was alive with drumming and yelps. A group of women and Two-Spirits from the Ojibwe tribe led a moon ceremony. It was a moment for the many different peoples at Standing Rock to come together and heal. The suppression of their efforts to protect the river was the latest trauma in a long history of colonial violence.
The next morning began with a fierce wind, which Grandma Redfeather said was going to blow some bad energy out of camp. Not two hours later, a cry went up around the spirit fire at the center of Oceti Sakowin: the giant tipi’s coming down!
The winds had torn the canvas flaps where the tipi poles come together, threatening the entire structure. Some Natives rushed over to try to help, taking hold of the canvas and explaining how the tipi might be saved. Once again, the Rainbows didn’t listen. They insisted on handling the crisis alone. Soon, their canvas was ripped all the way around, leaving only the poles standing. It looked like a giant ribcage.
The Rainbows packed their stuff and were gone from camp by nightfall. Nobody asked them to leave; they just couldn’t find their place.
This story was recounted to me by my friend Sal, a mystic of Sicilian and Navajo descent. He arrived at Standing Rock with the Gumbo Ya-Ya but remained with the Rainbows after the others returned to New Orleans. When the tipi fell, Grandma Redfeather rolled up in her Subaru and told Sal to come camp with her. She adopted him, and he became her right-hand man.
A Lakota prophecy says that a black snake would cross the land, causing great destruction and threatening the balance of life. The Dakota Access Pipeline, a long and snaking beast that would pump oil across the continent, is the black snake, and the Lakota, who started the prayer camps on their treaty lands at Standing Rock, will be remembered as the ones who cut it at the head.
Sal said that the rivers are the blue snakes. As the capitalists would have it, oil pumped through this pipeline would eventually reach refineries at the mouth of the Mississippi: the black snakes and blue snakes intertwined, wrestling. Sal invited me to accompany him and Dezy, a friend from New Orleans, on a road trip back to Standing Rock. We would be joined by my friend Cole, who drove out from California.
Our mission was to help winterize Camp Dancing Horse, the camp started by Grandma Redfeather within Oceti Sakowin. “Oceti Sakowin” is the proper name of the Seven Council Fires that unite the Lakota and Dakota people, sometimes known as “the Great Sioux Nation.” Grandma Redfeather started Camp Dancing Horse many years ago on her land in Wounded Knee, South Dakota and moved it up to Standing Rock in the summer, just as Oceti Sakowin and the other prayer camps were taking shape. Now winter was approaching, and Sal, Dezy, Cole, and I hoped to build Grandma a yurt so she and her family could see the protest through.
I devoured a series of orientation packets put out by Solidariteam:
Add more resources to the camp than your presence will use up.
When you are with indigenous people, listen more than you speak.
Practice noticing and regulating how much space you take up.
Impact is more important than intention.
We left New Orleans on a Monday and drove through the night, continuing north on Election Day. We drove through South Dakota and on to the Standing Rock Reservation in the black of night, as the radio relayed election returns that sounded like an awful dream. After crossing seven red states, we finally made it to Oceti Sakowin, and it felt like the safest place we could be. I fell asleep in a tipi, unsure how any of this could be real.
Daybreak brought some confirmation. The camp, which seemed so small at night, was splayed all around us in the morning, a vast sea of tipis, tents, and cars flowing across the flat expanse of plains. Camp Dancing Horse was at eastern edge of Oceti Sakowin, close to the sunrise and where they kept the horses. I later learned that though many of these horses were still being broken, they were allowed to roam freely. Proud creatures, chestnut and dappled, walked themselves past our camp at all hours of the day.
To the west of us was the camp’s center, marked by a trail of variegated flags. Standing tall on behalf of hundreds of tribes and nations, those flags were always flapping in the wind. South of us was the Cannonball River, a tributary of the Missouri, where each morning some indigenous women led the camp in a ceremony to honor and bless the water.
We went down to the river on our first morning and watched as the women sang water songs, then made offerings of water to the river. Dezy and I joined the men in coming forward to offer tobacco. Sal identifies as Two-Spirit, a term used by some tribes to describe a person who embodies both masculine and feminine spirits. He was invited to offer both water and tobacco. Cast in the early light of a sun still low on the horizon, the ceremony was beautiful from start to finish. When it was over, I heard one Native woman tell another that it was the largest water ceremony she’d seen.
“Where did all these people come from?”
Grandma Redfeather was away from camp when we arrived. We spent that first day meeting our neighbors, many of whom Sal already knew. Camp Dancing Horse was, for the moment, inhabited by a bunch of white hippies, half of them with dreadlocks. They told us they were part of the Rainbow Family. Some knew Grandma from Rainbow Gatherings, but most had found their way to her camp haphazardly. Four who’d arrived together in a van admitted that they hadn’t even heard of Standing Rock until they learned about it from a hitchhiker they picked up a couple days before. He was now at Dancing Horse, too.
Sal brought Dezy, Cole and me to dinner at Winona’s kitchen, a warm refuge on the other side of camp. Then we walked back to Dancing Horse, where the Rainbow kids were holding court around the fire. They played guitar and spoke loudly of dark moments with liquor and drugs, in a camp where both those things were forbidden.
We were woken in the middle of the night by a din of angry cursing. Grandma Redfeather had returned and wanted to know who the hell was sleeping in her tipi. Sal got up to reassure her that it was just him and the friends he’d brought to help. Grandma decided to sleep in her car and the rest of us went back to bed.
In the morning, Cole, Dezy, and I felt sheepish. We were clearly imposing on this woman’s space, though Sal told us not to worry. Meanwhile, the hippie kids spit and threw cigarette butts into Grandma’s sacred fire, while their dogs shat up and down the camp. That night, Grandma unleashed another stream of ugly curses when she couldn’t find a place to warm herself by the firepit she herself had dug. So Sal sent the Rainbow kids packing. They loaded their van with six people and three dogs and departed for California, leaving a mess in their wake. Half-eaten bowls of chili froze in the night; I spent more than an hour chiseling away at dishes as others hunted dog poop and cleaned out the fire. In the time it took to evict them and cleanse our camp of their debris, we lost half a day’s worth of time needed for winterization. There was talk that the first blizzard could be less than a week away.
A tiny woman, Grandma Redfeather makes herself large with both love and vitriol. After we evicted the crusties, it took more than a day for her rage to calm. She communicated with us through Sal, whom she trusted, about how to assist her. We were directed to chop wood, fetch water, dig trenches, and put up a liner in her tipi.
We met a family from North Carolina who said they’d help us build a yurt. Besides that, our biggest task was to assemble the tent that would serve as Camp Dancing Horse’s kitchen. We were given a piece of canvas, some rope, and several wooden poles, most of it made by hand. We were expected to build a structure that could withstand several inches of snow and winds of up to forty miles an hour. Grandma offered little guidance.
After several hours of thought and labor, digging the poles into the ground and variously re-arranging the canvas, we asked Grandma to check our progress. She lashed out, shouting angrily: “No! No! No! This isn’t right at all!” She demanded that we take it all down. The sun was inches from the western horizon; there was no time to try again that day.
Grimacing, we uprooted the poles we’d painstakingly dug into the earth. We whispered about the Zen master who makes you build a tower just to make you tear it down. It took two more days and another complete restart before we got the tent up the way Grandma wanted. Her methods were intense, but in the end, effective. It was foolish to think we’d succeed quickly in doing something we’d never done. But as we built and un-built the tent repeatedly, we learned how to get it right.
On Saturday, I went to Oceti Sakowin’s morning meeting. Walking from Grandma’s outpost at the edge of camp toward its municipal center, I became aware of a fresh infusion of people: the “weekend warriors,” those who stay for two or three days, had flooded in overnight, noticeably swelling the camp. Passing the main mess hall, the breakfast line was longer than I’d ever seen it.
The meeting was led by an Oceti Sakowin elder named Johnny, a serious and upbeat man who wore his long, black hair in a braid down his back. He began by telling us, in a tone of disbelief, that he’d gotten lost on his way to the meeting. The ongoing influx of newcomers had changed the landscape of camp. New tents obscured the old landmarks and filled in de facto roads. People who’d been living at Standing Rock for months now had to strain to find their neighbors. What once was a small village had become a sprawling city.
The changes weren’t just physical. As allies flooded in, indigenous leadership was increasingly drowned out in a sea of noise. I watched cringing as Johnny attempted to steer the meeting through an onslaught of questions from people who had just arrived, most of them white or white-passing. A man who wanted to set up rocket stoves accused the elders of not providing enough direction. He said he had ideas for how to help, but didn’t feel “at home” voicing his opinions. A volley of voices backed him up. Many agreed that camp was lacking organization.
After hearing all the complaints on the floor with patience, Johnny addressed the room gravely. He told us that for weeks, people had been coming to Standing Rock with projects and plans for winter. Almost none of it had come to fruition. Johnny was frustrated that accusations were being made by people who were not staying for winter and were not likely to see their ideas through. He was willing to work with anyone who wanted to help, but we didn’t seem to appreciate that time was running out. A Native woman stood before the room and asked how many of us had camped through winter in North Dakota. Nobody raised their hand. She tossed some water into the air and said, “in a few weeks, that water will freeze before it hits the ground.” This shut everyone up, but more than an hour had already been wasted.
By the end of the meeting, the air was thick with tension. Johnny looked exasperated. He rubbed his temples and spoke once more, seeming to invite sympathy. “Do you see what we’re dealing with here?” he asked. “Our decolonial space is being colonized.”
The word “colonized” gets used a lot at Standing Rock. When someone told Sal that he couldn’t attend a ceremony because he wasn’t from the right tribe, Sal told me that the person’s standards were colonized. When someone told my friend Arrow that he couldn’t take his dog to an action, we agreed that such policing was colonial. At morning meeting, Johnny informed the white folks that Oceti Sakowin would not provide the systematized direction we expected. “We do things differently here,” he said — differently from the ways of the colonizers.
One evening, Cole pulled me away from the campfire to tell me that our plan to build a yurt was not going to work out. We’d spent the day helping cut wood to make the rafters and latticework for several yurts, but after some difficult conversations, the team came to Cole with bad news: Camp Dancing Horse would not be receiving one.
The yurt-builders had become embroiled in controversy, accused of working without direction from indigenous leaders. This fed doubts they already had internally about whether they were doing the right thing. To avoid proceeding of their own volition, as colonizers are wont to do, they now planned to bring their resources before the official channels of Oceti Sakowin to ask where they were needed most. Though they’d made a deal with us, become our friends, and even supped with Grandma Redfeather, they knew that our agreement was originally made between two groups of white people. They didn’t feel comfortable proceeding.
As yurts were built left and right and kale arrived by the truckload, I began to see that Standing Rock was gentrifying. White people had arrived in a space that was not our own and tried to improve it according to our standards. We ate foods cooked by our poorer, browner neighbors and learned a few words in their language. We improved the housing stock and brought newer, greener technologies. But as we tried to help, we simply got in the way.
In their Standing Rock orientation guide, Solidariteam includes a section on de-centering settler worldviews in order to re-center indigenous ways. They write that the settler ethos is built on “perfectionism, superiority, purity, competition, individualism, binaries, and suppressed emotion.” As Soldiariteam warns, “it’s hard work to recognize and abandon these familiar attitudes,” but “it’s the only way forward.”
Community Ready Core, a group of black activists in Oakland, recently published a resource on ways that white allies can divest from white privilege and “weaponize” their power in the interests of black liberation. The methods they list include organization, infiltration, and reparation. They state their thesis beautifully: “In exchange for letting go of their ability to dominate and control, white activists gain access to something much more valuable: a place in the revolutionary struggle.”
When I learned that Dancing Horse would not be receiving a yurt, I was devastated. I felt like if I didn’t leave behind such a large and tangible structure, my coming to Standing Rock would be meaningless. Talking to Cole helped me see that my mind was tangled up in those same settler instincts that were weighing down the camp. We agreed that we should stop striving to “leave our mark“ and focus more on listening. Following the advice of Grandma Redfeather, we began to pray.
A couple days later, Cole received a text from our yurt-building friends. Good news!, they wrote. Some things had changed, and Grandma would be receiving a yurt after all. They would come by that afternoon to set it up.
The wood pieces that would support Grandma’s yurt were among those we helped prepare just a few days before. The canvas walls that wrapped around the frame were sewn by a hippie girl who slept at Dancing Horse during the crusty phase. She also came on that happy day to help us put it all together.
Together we used our hands to separate the wooden lattice, compressed like an accordion. As the frame expanded, it was shot through with rays of gold from the sinking sun, streaking their way from the west to my eyes through the diamond-shaped apertures that opened in the lattice. Those same rays gilded the faces of my friends, the ones I’d been camping with for a very long week, the people who built this structure. We worked as a team until the frame became a yurt, became shelter for the woman who sheltered us.
I didn’t understand why the plans had changed, and I didn’t want to question it. But during that final phase of construction, I heard glimpses of the story from our friends.
Apparently, the controversy around them being “white colonizers” had been stoked by other white people. Other white folks had accused them of building yurts for camps that weren’t deserving. The ensuing confusion halted their efforts for days, yet when they finally spoke with indigenous leaders, they were told that they could continue as planned. The Natives were grateful to our friends for building winter-safe structures. The people who tried to police them, obstructing construction just days before the first snow, spoke from a place of no authority.
On my last night at Standing Rock, Sal and I invited Grandma to join us in the yurt. We warmed it with her old kerosene heater; the walls were newly insulated with blankets found at the donation tent. Grandma seemed to appreciate the space and invited some of her family members to join us. As freezing storm winds whipped at the walls of the yurt, those of us inside shared a rare warmth and comfort. We traded stories and smoked tobacco late into the night.
At Standing Rock, when someone wants to get everyone’s attention, they shout “relatives!” Many Natives use this word to describe not just their family members, but everybody they know. Every white ally at camp is a relative. The police officers and DAPL workers are relatives, too.
I remember the urgency Johnny imparted at the winterization meeting. “We’re running out of time,” he said, yet the allies could not focus. While we were running our mouths, debating the best way to do this or that, the indigenous people were modeling a better way, hoping desperately we’d listen.
Sal got back from Standing Rock in February. He told me that Oceti Sakowin peaked in size just after I left, around Thanksgiving—maybe ten thousand people were there. After that, the camp steadily shrunk as the storms got worse and the snow piled higher. By January, only a few hundred remained.
“It would make you sad to see it now,” Sal told me. The plains are still covered with tipis and tents, but most have been abandoned. Grandma moved the yurt to her land in Wounded Knee. Though President Trump has made the pipeline a more pressing threat than ever, the focus of those at camp has turned to clean up: they must remove the vast sea of garbage and unused structures before the snow thaws in the spring. The weekend warriors and fair-weather friends succeeded in leaving their mark.