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Mni Wiconi: Love, Loss and Worship at Standing Rock

Griffin Smuts, News Editor

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We drive along the Missouri. The crescent moon glazes the river in a silver luster that oozes downstream like mercury. A fleet of Black SUV’s zooms by. “We’ve gotta be close,” my father says. I nod, tightening my grip on the map. “It looks like we continue on Highway 1806 for a little while longer. Then we’re pretty much there.” We cruise over some rolling hills and cross a bridge. Passing into a small valley, we see our destination from above. The camp stirs with energy. Tipis and treetops poke through an all-encompassing blanket of smoke, forming a lattice of pointy shapes that hang in the air like constellations. Underneath, campfires speckle the muddy ground, emanating auburn smoke into the frigid night sky. In the distance, I hear tribal elders chanting “Water is sacred. Water is life. Mni wiconi.” Beneath their mantra, the low beat of a drum guides their ceremony. We pull up to the entrance gate. A stern ponytailed man approaches us. “Welcome to Standing Rock,” he says.

Since late summer, I’d been following the ongoing and increasingly violent conflict at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. My involvement started with the shaky footage of Democracy Now! journalist Amy Goodman navigating a flurry of armed police forces, biting canines and wounded demonstrators that showed up in my Facebook news feed. When I came across the video, I drafted a livid blurb about the civil rights abuses by North Dakota Police Force and pressed “share.” I continued to follow the issue over coming weeks, staying updated as best I could despite scant media coverage. But then I got fed up; my “sharing” and “liking” of articles on social media could only do so much. If I really cared about this issue, I’d have to leave the confines of my West L.A. suburb.

One night at the dinner table, I bring up my plan. “So, Mom, Dad. I want to go to Standing Rock … in North Dakota. And I want to go soon … like this week.” Three days later, my dad, sister, Maude (a close friend) and I hop into a camper van and drive north.

We travel 1,600 miles across five state borders within 26 hours. Maude and I drive for a total of three hours while my dad (who has the stamina of a long haul trucker) drives the rest. It’s 1 a.m. when we arrive. Exhausted, I fall fast asleep.  

One of several camps, ours is called Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires. The epicenter is a fire that someone tells me has been burning for weeks. Oceti Sakowin, and the surrounding area, has an aura of sacrality; it feels like a place of worship. And it is. Where I’m from, people worship in churches and synagogues and mosques but here, the land is sacred: the land is a place of worship. I recall reading about this in my AP U.S. History textbook and finding it cheesy but, for some reason, it makes sense when I’m here. As I warm my hands over the fire, I begin a conversation with Cynthia, a friendly woman from the Red Lake tribe in Minnesota. She tells me that I should walk up the highway next to camp to get a lay of the land. She warns me, “that’s where the two sides meet … so be careful.” I’m not entirely sure what she means by this but I take her word for it.

The scene looks like something in between “Mad Max,” “Les Miserables” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” Two charred, rust-covered military trucks are heaped on top of each other, forming a barricade. The wall of ash and metal is decorated with graffiti messages ranging from “Agua es vida” to “Warrior by choice” to “Children don’t drink oil.” A few feet ahead, a head-high wall of dense razor wire provides yet another barrier. “A cop pushed me into that stuff the other day,” an older fellow named Jeremiah tells me. “They’re not kidding when they call it ‘razor’ sharp.” This is the dividing line. On our side, 10 to 20 people stand around: some talking, some snapping photos, but the majority just gazing beyond the barricade at the sea of police vehicles on the other side. Two kids who look about my age are sitting in silence, scrutinizing the fleet of armoured police trucks. I sit down next to them. “Is it like this everyday? I mean, are this many cops here all the time?” They respond without changing their gaze. “Yes.”

“We’re doing a prayer. Anyone who’d like to join is welcome.” A few people gather by the barricade in a line, their hands above their heads, faces pointed upward. I join them. “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name…” At this point I expect a Christian prayer but within a few moments they go off script. “Embrace these people and their work. Protect their water,” one woman says. “Change the minds of these policemen who are on the side of evil,” another woman says. “Mni wiconi,” an elderly indigenous man says. “Amen.”

horses_standingrockGriffin Smuts

Dinner is served buffet-style in a cozy canvas tent known around camp as “Grandma’s.” I meet Grandma while I’m waiting in line to eat. “I’m from Bishop, California and I’m spending the winter here!” she tells me. “I’m staying as long as it takes!” Grandma hugs each of the 300 people she feeds each night. She waits by the entrance to her tent and greets every person who eats her goat stew and beet salad and frybread with the same smile. “So have you been out protesting on the frontlines?” I ask jokingly. Grandma places her arm on my shoulder and stares me directly in the eyes. “Young man, just the other day, they came in the middle of the night and raided that part of camp over there. They’re telling us we’re not allowed to be here but this is our land. You, me and all of us: we’re all on the frontlines. Now go eat up!”

Walking back to my tent from Grandma’s, someone tells me to meet at the camp’s sacred fire by 10:00 the next morning for a “direct action.” I don’t know what this means but I suspect that it has something to do with the videos that brought me to Standing Rock in the first place, involving biting dogs and angry cops. This turns out to be not at all the situation.

Gathered around the fire when I show up is what must be 400 people. The group is arranged in concentric circles around a center that contains a few tribal elders in traditional attire saying prayers over the fire. Four large men beat a drum that shakes the ground. “Mni Wiconi! Mni Wiconi! Mni Wiconi!”

I’m confused. This isn’t the protest I came here for. In the distance, I spot a force of policemen lining a hilltop. Through binoculars, I see they’re looking directly at us. The elders pay them no attention. After a while, I don’t either; I close my eyes and listen. I feel the drumbeat underneath my skin and the movement of the hundreds around me swaying to the rhythm. Or maybe it’s just the wind; I’m not sure. I don’t know what we’re worshipping but I have a sense that this is what worship feels like. And maybe that’s a kind of protest in itself.

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Mni Wiconi: Love, Loss and Worship at Standing Rock