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Life behind the front lines at Standing Rock, ND

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A week at Oceti Sakowin Camp

By Michele Burkey

Special to The Sopris Sun

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After three days of driving from Carbondale to Standing Rock and searching Oceti Sakowin Camp at dusk with three kids in tow, I finally found Phyllis. Phyllis Bald Eagle, who had invited my children and me to be her guests, smiled wide and gave me a warm hug when I gave her my name. I was instantly accepted for whoever I was, whatever reason I came for and for however long I wanted to be there — no questions asked.

Amos and Phyllis Bald Eagle are elders in the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and while only one small piece to the larger puzzle that currently makes up the Oceti Sakowin Camp, they are at the heart of the solution.

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When we arrived at the camp on Sunday, Nov. 20 at 4 p.m. there was a calm before the storm. Phyllis welcomed us into the community tent space that we would sleep in during our five-night stay, a space that had been donated and created for indigenous youth to connect, share and learn about their ancestry in a coffee shop like setting. Coffee was brewing all day and all night, and the youth leaders were in and out digging around for sugar or cream, or a moment by the fireplace to warm their hands.

As soon as we unloaded our bedding, Amos began to sing prayer songs next to the fire, which was right before the direct action on the bridge began. Amos and Phyllis prepared to head to the frontlines to pray and support the action in peace, as we gathered firewood and kept the tent warm for the long night ahead.

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Youth leaders were in and out of the tent all night, drying off their maced clothing, getting new goggles to protect their eyes against tear gas, or sitting down to rest a knee that was hit with a rubber bullet. My children and I watched as ambulance after ambulance rushed off; we watched as people with hypothermia were surrounded with emergency blankets and the human spirit. We watched as totes of coats were dragged to the frontlines to protect people from a number of weapons used to disperse the crowd. We listened when young people came in and said they stood there with there arms up in prayer. We listened to the planes that flew above our heads, low enough to disrupt any hope of sleep. At one point, my daughter said, “Do you know how I fall asleep? I pretend the planes are boats and we are surrounded by water.” This was night one.

Day two

The first thing I thought when I awoke the next morning wasn’t, “why am I here?” but instead, “why am I still here?” There should be a forewarning to newcomers to just hold steady for the first 24 hours, as it takes a little adjusting.

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Oceti Sakowin Camp is a fairly well run little city. There is a “store” where you can ask for anything you need (from batteries to toiletries) and the supplies are handed to you right then and there. There is a medical tent, an herbalist tent, a midwifery tent, and even a meditation yurt. There are doctors, nurses, veterinarians, mechanics, chefs and teachers. There are lawyers, builders, solar panel installers and farmers. If you can imagine something, it probably either exists already in the camp or will soon.

While we were there, Phyllis rescued a runt puppy from the reservation and my daughter and sons instantly took over its care. Soon after, Phyllis rescued the whole litter, whose mother was not being fed. The pups would surely not have survived long in the abandoned vehicle they were living in. The puppies brought warmth to the tent and purpose for my daughter, as an 11-year-old cannot help much in the many ways that an adult can help around the camp. We worked with the camp veterinarian to get them dewormed, and with a medic to try and create a pet sanctuary for strays, puppies and pets of those on the front lines. When we left the camp a few days later, the newly-created animal care space was standing but not yet set up for pets, although by this time that may have changed.

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I was warned about the planes flying overhead, the lights that glared down at camp at night, and the police presence that could be felt from across a field. However, I couldn’t have been prepared for the sheer number of people there or the chaos that was organized and held together in unity of purpose, whether it was piles of donated clothes or dry food to store for a kitchen. The sky was big and blue, the air crisp, and the sound of people working together for a cause was audible even in your sleep. Yet, in-spite of all of the sensory overload and adjustment, we felt warm and safe.

On the second day, we were awakend at 5 a.m. by a voice yelling for everyone to wake up and support those at the frontlines by joining them. The night had gone on and on, and Amos and Phyllis woke up every hour, rejoining the frontlines in the wee hours. We also woke up to a warm fire and elders who were calm and intentional. Phyllis smiled and shared her hope to cut and lay carpet on the newly build wood floors, insulated with straw.

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Out in the wide world, news outlets both small and large report almost exclusively on the direct actions — the peaceful protests that become dangerous, the wrongdoing by the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAP) owners, and the so-called “riots.” As I looked around at the warm fires, the open hearts, and the calm nature of the tribe with which we stayed, I wondered, “where are the stories about what is happening inside of camp, inside of our tent?”

Amos and Phyllis

As far as I can tell, Amos and Phyllis start their day smiling and end their day smiling. She stokes the fire while he heats up the kettle for a big container of coffee. They have four boys, three of whom were at camp at the time while two were at the frontlines all night on Sunday. Amos and Phyllis were sleeping in their vehicle in order share with visitors the yurt that was donated to them.. There was another tent with a stove for their kids; the community tent we were in had over 12 different guests in and out throughout the week, but Amos and Phyllis still slept in their vehicle. They seem to want for nothing while being showered with gifts that they freely share, to prepare for the cold winter months ahead. Things like carpet, woodstoves, food, medicine and wood were donated to the camp, and people were there to help in anyway.

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We went to Standing Rock, North Dakota, hoping to help the whole camp but quickly realized the best way to serve this cause was to focus on our camp and the elders we were with. It was easy to get lost around the bigger camp, because there were so many needs and no one knew who was new and who knew what they were doing. The greater Oceti Sakowin Camp could be a distraction, so we focused our energy on the unity of our tent and its role in the bigger Standing Rock protest picture.

Amos and Phyllis have a vision for the tent space we stayed in. It is one that carries over from their life before living at Oceti Sakowin Camp. Their hope is to have a coffee house where youth can participate in open mic nights, prayers and learn their language and history. Amos and Phyllis confessed that their home was already an open door, which explained why all of the young people felt at home and came in and out at their leisure. The tent was filled with laughter, prayer, warm bellies and open hearts.

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Each night Amos led prayer songs followed by some sharing of his culture, values, and teachings to those who chose to join. The door was open to anyone, and each night the room filled with more and more people, with more indigenous people than not. For two nights, we went around the room and introduced ourselves, sharing a bit about why we were there or what we were thankful for. Many tribes were present, and broke out in tears when they shared that it was the first time that they had been able to walk around freely and feel accepted. They shared their hurt, their hope, and their eagerness to join in the prayers all day, everyday, for as long as it took.

My own children sat sleepy-eyed in the corners of the tent during these sessions, listening. Occasionally they shared a small thought. Miles, my oldest, said, “While this whole thing is terrible — what the oil company is doing is terrible — it has brought unity, and that is a good thing, so it isn’t all bad.” Sam, a guest from the Mescalero Apache Southern Cheyenne Tribe, said this was the story missing from the headlines: the story of unity, the one about how so many people are coming together, working together to build one single space for one family, and the story about the huge numbers of people coming in on Thanksgiving who instantly dig in to some form of work around camp, whether there for a few days, a week or the long haul. There was no shortage of helping hands.

Love of the earth

When interviewed, Amos expressed his deep love of the earth. When I asked him what the message was that he wanted people to know about Oceti Sakowin Camp and why they were there, he responded, “The reason why we are fighting for the water or trying to protect the water is for Mother Earth and all the life that depends on it — trees, animals, humans — everything depends on water. It has been a hard struggle, but I think the hard part is over now. We are getting down to the final decision. As spiritual, praying people, Mother Earth lives as much as we do live from her. As caretakers and landlords of this place, we have every right by prayer to protect and try to stop this awful thing that’s going to happen by oil going underneath the water. We all know oil lines break, pipes break, and if it breaks it will affect well over 1 million people down the river. Everyone depends on it (the water). The main reason we are fighting this pipeline is to get it stopped.”

When asked about his purpose at the frontlines, he responded, “My sons are up there. They believe in the same things we do. My main purpose is to keep everybody safe, keep everybody from getting hurt. For some people it’s hard, but for me it’s just a part of life, a job that I do everyday. I go up there without fear or doubt. I go with prayer, 100 percent. A lot of prayers have been answered. The main thing here is prayer. If you don’t know how to pray, learn. This is the biggest spiritual camp that ever happened on Mother Earth and there is something very sacred going on here, and the whole world needs to be a part of it and pray with us too, so that we can ensure safety for everybody.”

Phyllis shared that the goals of the community tent we stayed in are to “give back to the youth for them waking us up to what is going on in our country … water, land and air. I want to give it back to them, have them come here and relax, enjoy themselves. They are the ones at the frontlines, fighting. They are not afraid. I want all of the youth I am meeting here from different nations to feel welcome here.”

She also said, “I want people to wake up and look around and see what the big oil companies are doing to our land, and I want them to help us stop them. This camp is a very spiritual and peaceful camp, and you can feel it. It is very important that we keep it that way. ”


On our final night in camp, Thanksgiving, we sang and shared stories and cried and bathed in sage. When my head hit the pillow and the smells of the fire burning mixed with the sound of the plane flying over head, I wondered when I would be able to return again.

As we drove away the next morning, my daughter Bjorn said, “I wish we could go back.”

“Why,” I asked?

“Because I felt safe there.”

Published in The Sopris Sun on December 1, 2016.