Sometime in the spring of 2016, a protest camp was set up in the middle of the prairie, along the Cannonball River in south-central North Dakota. It originated with mainly Native Americans opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline, a pipeline which aimed to link the productive Bakken oilfields in the northwest corner of North Dakota all the way down to Illinois. The camp was Ground Zero of resistance to the project. Led by Native Americans, it initially was based on environmental and health issues connected with the pipeline, as well as integrating local cultural aspects to the resistance, but later it grew into a site of first national and then international focus.
My purpose is not to extrapolate upon the issue at hand here- anyone who wants to can look up that on their own. There are enough people who already claim superior geological, legal, or (when all else fails) spiritual credibility on the matter than myself, and who already will gently and succinctly tell me all the reasons I am wrong anyway. This usually happens in all caps in the comment section. My aim is not to take away from those good people, who have taken the time to carefully think about why I incapable of seeing reason, one way or the other. It’s simply to tell the reader what I saw when I was there.
My own motives for going to Cannonball were decidedly less clear than those for holding the protest, although not by much. At the time, desperate for any sort of publication, I was writing for free for a small, (but for-profit), paper out of Fargo, which maintained that this was ” good exposure”. I didn’t like it- having been a musician, I knew what “exposure” meant. It means you’ll be hungry and no one will care, because I am told I “love what I’m doing.” Many times I was told it was my privilege to be working for loose change, or for free, without my say on the issue, but no matter, I digress- desperate to get my name in print somewhere, I was giving it a shot.
This paper, The High Plains Reader, actually already had someone covering the protests, a writer (who, for the following reasons, I hesitate to use the word “reporter”) that made it clear that there was no guessing where he stood on the issue at Cannonball. Decidedly anti-oil and pro-protesters, he sent reports back every week or two. Writing in as grandiose terms as could be imagined, he referred to all actions that happened (such as protesters walking up a hill and praying at stoic security guards) as “battles,” and the covers of the High Plains Reader were filled with titles like “Blood and Oil” with the appropriate dramatic artwork to go with it.
Having been there, I can’t speak to seeing any blood, or actual oil, for that matter, but having later witnessed what would be termed a “battle” I can only say that if General Pickett had been granted such a similar charge, he would not only have ended up with all his men, but probably would have time for some breaks, food, and a few television interviews on the way to the Union position. But I digress again. Since the other writer was covering the issue (although he wasn’t there the week I was), I asked my editor if I could write about artists there. She thought that was a good idea, told me were coming from all around the world. To some extent, this was a cover to get a press badge, but I did intend to follow through on the proposed project, if I could. With that I took off to the west.
I drove from Fargo, stopping only briefly for an errand in Bismarck. It had been a warm November, and coming down through North Dakota that evening, the state glowed red and orange as the sun set in the late afternoon. Highway 1806, the most direct route to the site, had been blocked by protesters, and later I would find the two burnt-out cars at the roadblock there, so I went west and took Highway 6, going to 24, east into the town of Cannon Ball. To be fair, this was at the recommendation of the other writer, who once he heard I was not trying to take his story, was helpful enough.
Somewhere on an old road next to a pit stop (called, fittingly, “Cannonball Pit Stop”) there was a handmade sign directing me to Sacred Stone Camp. This was lucky, because I would have had a hard time telling where to go otherwise. As I turned right, signs pointed to a “Historical Marker” which was located in the gravel parking lot. As I went by I saw a round stone- assumedly it was a round stone from the Cannonball River, from which it got its name. However, I have heard that such stones are not carved out anymore since the river was dammed up. I went through the town, wondering if I did something wrong, but eventually I went past a gate with a metal grating, and finally there was a sign pointing toward the camp down the road on the right, along with another one that said no “No Alcohol, Firearms, DAPL” (Dakota Access Pipeline). I took a right and went down an old dirt road to the entrance and had my first view of Sacred Stone Camp.
Passing another gate, I stopped at a stop sign. My car sat on the top of a hill, and in the distance, over tents and cheap structures, was a river. A windmill blew on the hill to my right, which I later found out makes electricity for the camp. On my left were some structures, if they can be called that. They looked like a hybrid of yurts and cheap building materials, with colorful cloth and flags flying on them. Off in the distance was the pipeline, across the river, which mostly just looked like a construction site.
Nearer to me, sitting on a pile of rags or clothes was an older, dark skinned woman who introduced herself as Storm. She had long white hair, tanned skin, and was sitting cross-legged at the entry point. Now, I’ve never been to San Francisco, and would obviously never have seen what it was like in the sixties. But I think she could have told me all about it. She asked me why I was here, and I said generally curiosity, but also that my editor has wanted me to research art.
“No photos, audio, or media of any kind” she told me.
That led to mildly uncomfortable moment, but I guess I didn’t raise suspicion, because she let me through. There are a few perks to looking unassuming, and one is that I can go about anywhere and people don’t think I can do anything harmful. She also directed me to the kitchens, and hinted I should try volunteering there. I think she thought I looked like the sort of person who would fit in making food, although I don’t know why. She told me where I could park and camp.
Directly in front of me were big teepees, which she said I could not go because that was for the long-term protesters, but I could go to the left. I went down the hill, along a hardened dirt road, and turned on a grassy path. Two big hills were on either side, and there was some scrub in the valley. Otherwise, it was all prairie.
I passed a firepit, and tents lined the side of the road. Some were up on the hill, where I saw the silhouettes of people climbing in the evening sun. I saw a license plate from South Dakota, decided they seemed trustworthy, and pulled in beside them and set up my tent. I was followed by a couple of twenty-somethings from Colorado, who asked if it’s okay to park there, and I said yes, as long as they weren’t running over my tent. They didn’t, so they set up camp too.
At about this time, being curious as to what people here were like, I took a walk down the way, and ended up talking to the guy from South Dakota. He was a tall and big, with glasses and a Seattle Mariners cap. He said his name was Zeke, he was a photography student, and was here with his professor from the Black Hills. We talked a while, and he said he had come up from Rapid City a few times before, partially on photography assignment but also because he just wanted to. I talked about main camp and press passes I had been hearing about, and he said he’d show me around to the kitchen. We walked there, and although already some people were lined up they said they wouldn’t be serving until seven. Coming back Zeke told me how the whole camp would soon be lighting up from lights generated by electricity. We walked past some of the more permanent fixtures, and meeting some friends at a trailer, he started talking with them. Zeke later told me he was Native American too. I stood around a moment before catching his eye, and he said he’d talk to me later, so I went back to camp. I was having trouble getting my own stove to work, and seeing myself around a dry prairie with an open flame probably wasn’t the best thing, so I went back to the kitchen.
If you want to find out what is going on, in some ways, long waits in line can be your best friend. As an added bonus, the cell phone reception wasn’t great, so people were actually talking to each other. Lines are when people talk, laugh, and complain, but mostly complain, because it’s a food line, and they’re hungry. Was I an eavesdropper? I answer by saying in this case, I was a writer, and there are a few privileges I choose to grant myself with this title. In short, public speech is the best way to know what the “vibe” of a place is.
This particular line was long, and they served only “women, elders, and children” first. An older man was in front of me, talking with some middle-aged women from California about how he had hitchhiked here from Michigan with two college girls who came down from there.
“They didn’t seem to mind, and I didn’t, so I came” he said.
A fourteen-year old boy, who was gangly and constantly interrupting the man, threw in bits and pieces of conversation when he could. He said that some people would consider him a child, but he wouldn’t, and he was going to stick around in line. The ladies from California thought they would do so as well, although a college-aged girl behind me thought it was weird they would even ask her do that, because she said she “wasn’t used to it.”
The hitchhiker kept chatting and said the girls had gone back to Michigan for college that weekend, so he was here until it got cold or when he could find another ride back there. He did say after many days that he “couldn’t stand himself” and went to the casino to get an eighty dollar shower. He said that the casino told him that they were booked up until Thanksgiving, so he went to the bar for a beer and asked the girl attending him if there was a faster way. She said to try booking online, he tried it, and got into the casino. He at least seemed clean to me.
The group talked about a couple things, clean energy, the pipeline, and the boy interrupted when he could to tell them his own opinions, such as how Bernie Sanders was the only good choice for president. The ladies from California agreed. There was something wild and manic and self-righteous about him that wasn’t quite settling for someone that young. It wasn’t right for someone old either, but when you are younger you are often fortunately forced by circumstance to at least consider that you may be wrong at times. The line moved and we went forward. A little girl with pigtails, maybe his sister, said that he could eat first, but he said he was only fourteen days away from being fifteen, and then he’d be a grownup.
“Are you an elder?” the little girl asked.
“No” he answered.
“Then come with me” she said, pulling his arm. The boy refused, and said again that he’d be an adult soon.
I found my place in line, and they had paper and Styrofoam bowls and plates, and a mix of metal and plastic silverware. I took a paper bowl with flowers. They had bison meat, vegetables, rice, bread (“garlic, cheese, or one of each”?), and a salad. It was served by young, college-aged girls. One looked at me and asked where I was from. I said “Fargo” (which made me one of the least interesting people there to most) and she said I looked just like someone from her school. I asked her where that was. She named a town in Idaho, and I said no, I wasn’t. She served me and looked at me funny, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. I took the salad last and left back toward my campsite, where everyone ate. The bison tasted pretty good, but later I’d find out that farmers who raised bison nearby had been finding them killed, most likely by some of the protesters. I regretted taking any.
The rest of the night I wandered back and forth around camp. The skies were dark, and would have been beautiful for stargazing, except for two things: one being that a bright crescent moon formed on one side of the sky, the other being that electric lights went on through the camp and across the river. These combined with bright floodlights from the what I thought were the pipeline made everything have the ambiance of the outside of a prison.
I found some cell phone reception, and talked for a bit, then wandered down by the teepees. There, upside-down American flags were hanging, and I passed an old car and a small wooded area near a creek where someone had built a sort of treehouse. It was clear that these people were here for the long haul. Walking back from the wooded area, I passed by cars with words like “Water is life” written in soap on them, and more teepees. Near the kitchen was a wooden, solar paneled structure, which the hitchhiker had been telling the Californians would be some sort of charging station. Further down were stacks of firewood, and “restricted” tents that said “men, women, and children.” There was a med tent too. I wandered around more and saw more campfires and teepees nearer to the river, but no one said “hi”. I’m sure I was just a flash in the night, and there was no need to say hello. This was pretty much a transient camp, after all. I met a stray husky, and was nervous, but he just sniffed me before going on his way.
I decided to stop at a campfire, and chose one I had previously eavesdropped on. They had a good little group around, and asked if I could join, and they were okay with that. One of the people there was a photographer named Chaz. He had been a medic in the army, having joined at nineteen, and looked a lot like the Mari Maraheshi Yogi, if the Maraheshi had worn skinny jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. He had a long beard with big gray streaks. He said he spent his time between Denver and Cancun, which he said was cheap to fly in on Frontier (everyone there all said “I love Frontier!” so I guess it’s a thing). He was pretty interesting. He was working on a manuscript and a historical novel about the Mayans. I overheard him saying how frustrating it was being on a beach in Mexico and trying to write when everyone was having fun.
There were two men from Minnesota (Twin Cities area) were on my left, although one was originally from Kuwait (but I believe mentioned that he was Palestinian), and he seemed to have resided about everywhere in the Midwest, because whenever someone mentioned a place he’s jump in and say “I lived there!” He said that schools in Kuwait used to have corporal punishment, which made the students study more, but now they were kind of bad because they didn’t do it, and everyone dropped out.
A twenty-something girl was there in a wool coat and hat, who was very toothy and smiley. I never got her name, but didn’t completely trust her, probably because of the smiles. Another, blond-haired girl was there who had grown up in Thief River Falls. She reminded me very much of the sort of girls that I met at college, in that many who came from a small-town became the most liberal. But I do not know if this is the case, I always liked small towns myself, and thought that they were a very solid background. Chaz said how people in little towns looked at him weird, although the girl, in a sudden revelation did say sometimes in a small town they were more open-minded because they were forced to deal with people, but in a big city you could just find groups like you.
Her husband, a bearded man in a hoody, sat beside her. Frankly, he was just arrogant, and when asked, he said he was just from “Eastern Europe.” He kept his bare feet near the fire, and his wife was clearly enamored with him and his jokes. He was very quick to throw in quips about the US. They had an interesting take on politics: I think they were of the agreement that Trump may win, but maybe it would be good that he “destroys” the country. There is some reasoning I just don’t try to question. He and his wife talked about water in Bulgaria (where I assume he’s from) and how’s it’s just everywhere and you can just drink in springs. Thief River chimed in about fracking, which of course, they didn’t like. She said you would have to test streams in North Dakota.
Then the conversation moved on about alternate energy and how bad oil was. The Palestinian said he was there because the US should honor their treaties, others because of oil, water, ect. They asked me what the opinion was in Fargo. I said that it was mixed. It was a more liberal town, and we talked about Grand Forks. Minnesota Guy thought it might be more conservative because there was a military base there? I confirmed that was possible. I said that it was still a university town.
The Palestinian talked about wind energy. He said “You probably know this better than me” and continued without stopping to see if I did indeed know better. He said that North Dakota was going at one time to be full of wind energy, and should be coated over with wind farms. I didn’t have time to reply before everyone else said “Yeah” and so did not bother confirm or deny my opinion of it. I told them about the paper I was writing for, and said it was more left leaning (Smiley said “progressive” when she rephrased it). At another point she said “Oh look, Orion!” It was true. For the first time that winter I saw Orion rising up from the sky. “He was getting up” said the Bulgarian. His wife tittered. “We are all stardust” he said, to a general murmur of agreement.
This whole time a thermos was in the fire, and two twenty-something girls who had walked around (they were greeted but didn’t want to stay) then came back. They were both from Portland. One was an Asian girl with glasses and a high-pitched voice. She had just finished her masters in medical research, and I asked what she wanted to do with it (besides research). She said that she wanted to teach, although many look at natural medicine. She asked about me, and I said I was from Fargo.
“It’s good that we have people from North Dakota” she said.
The other girl was pretty, in that sort of hippy way, and didn’t talk much. I gathered that she was also from Portland, and didn’t go to school. The first girl was originally from the Los Angeles area. She had a jug of something Thief River and Smiley wanted (Soma?) but I didn’t know what it was. Smiley was surprised you could get it in jugs, but the girl said you could in Portland. She thought that made sense. They sort of made their hot chocolate and left not long after. Bulgaria hit a stick on the log and said he was making music. His wife laughed, and I eventually turned in. I think Smiley said something when I left because they all laughed.
I didn’t find the food very filling, gave up on the stove, and just rehydrated some food cold, and went to bed. It wasn’t too bad a night- in terms of temperature. It was cold, but not intolerably so (I had brought layers). The hardest part, I found, was that between the lights, being surrounded people, and the lack of cover on the open prairie, this was the most public camping with which I had taken part, finding a place to relieve yourself if you didn’t walk to the disposable porta potty a quarter mile away was an awkward business. Somewhere in the distance coyotes cackled, and I heard soft birds, maybe swans, toward morning. Sometime in the night, the wind picked up and flapped against the tent (or maybe I didn’t tighten my rainfly enough).
Then at first light I was awoken by a man saying that it was time for morning prayer.