Black Snake Killers: Stories from Thanksgiving at Standing Rock

The following is a collection of moments, poems and reportage from my brief time at Standing Rock, North Dakota. As I promised Devon, a Lakota native from Standing Rock, I wrote these events as they happened, as I saw them and as I heard them. My experience does not reflect the experience of anyone else, nor is it a comprehensive view of all that happened during that time. These are simply snippets of story that I gathered between November 23 and November 27, 2016; as with the collecting of anything, story or berry or stone, one is likely to miss a few and drop even more as you stand back up, and they pass between your fingers like saving sand from the beach. The below are the stories that remained in my hand after our trip.

Cannonball at dawn, November, with icy black roads like frostbitten fingers named 1st Street, 2nd Street, 3rd Street, 4th Street, 5th Street, and Weasel Street. Cold air rolled lopsided from the watery sky and tumbled along the saffron hills north of town to spray our eyes with sharp snowflakes through the cracked windows of the car. A single red bulb blinked in and out of life between two green ones all strung in a circuit of Christmas lights that wreathed the window of the house on the corner.

A man named Mowgli guarded the gate with a few others around a fire. Swimming in a yellow raincoat, Mowgli gave us the low-down regarding curfews and campfires. A gale of frozen breath steamed from his warm smile every ten or twelve syllables. He asked if we could park in his section, up the road and to the left, and we obliged after a round of gratuitous handshakes.

“We didn’t think we’d need to say this, but please do not go into a tepee uninvited,” Mowgli said. “We’ve had some problems with that.”

A yellow rope with red flags encircled Red Warrior camp, an intimate oppidance of blue tarps, tepees like spires and old stoves. From within the hidden interior of that sacred compound, life and laughter echoed like the billowing smoke from their tin chimneys. Outside a sign read, “Restricted Access: No Cameras.”

Since the arrival of the Black Snake and until its departure, the Sacred Fire has burned, still burns, and will burn as strongly as those who tend it.

The young Red Warriors smile, yield a slow grave nod with dark eyes peering over their bandana facemasks, or toss their heads up in the universal sup that every ‘90s kid understands, no matter color, creed or tribe.

A worn red bandana strung up like a rag doll on a tall, leafless tree, over beyond one burial mound along the road. “Don’t go past there,” we’re told. “Snipers.”

A man in a red swim suit, toe to head with an inflatable helm, traveled arm to arm like a mosquito with a black sharpie for a proboscis. 605-519-XXXX he wrote on our forearms – the number of the attorney to call if we’re mistreated after arrest.

Photography by Forest Smith

Photography by Forest Smith

“Women and children to the dome, women and children to the dome!” a matronly voice echoed through the camp, amplified by concern, urgency and a megaphone. “The police are raiding the camp along the main road.”

Warriors on horseback galloped back and forth, bearing the will of the elders, and we linked arms not in protest of the police, but in protection of the life that lay behind us at Sacred Stone Camp. Our weapons, prayer from the sun dancers. Our armor, unity. Our banner, Inyanwakagapi Wakpa, Cannonball River, for water is life, and what is more worthy of defense than that?

A group of us stood in a circle, arms interlocked, and a man in yellow stepped forward to address us all. Natives and visitors, white and black, Latino and foreign, old and young, and more colored the ring of life round the man, a Lakota named Weasel-Bear.

Weasel-Bear is a sun dancer, along with his wife, he says, and his place traditionally should be at the sacred fire in prayer. Now, he relies on us to pray while he defends his family at the frontlines. Weasel-Bear has been arrested, pepper sprayed and attacked while in prayerful and peaceful protection of his people: a small man in a yellow coat against hoses and guns and bullets and the American government. “We cannot ask you to join us up there. Stay here and pray, we need that more than anything. We all have a place here. If you follow me to the front, I cannot guarantee your safety, so I will not ask you to join me. But if you do, do so peacefully, prayerfully, and thank Maka for all those here in prayer.” A few of us quietly unhinged ourselves from the chain and stood with Weasel-Bear, lest his little yellow rain coat bleed tears alone. Arm in arm, we marched. Hand in hand, we prayed.

“Return to camp, the elders said there’ll be no action today, return to camp,” a Warrior on horseback said, spoke into his walkie-talkie and whipped his horse around. The police jeep mimicked and did a U-turn, kicking up dust as it retreated up the road in sun-kissed farewell.

“Hey,” a Warrior on horseback called to our ragtag company of disbanded Rockfordians as we ascended the hill. “If you want to help still, go to Turtle Island. They need you.”

“You know how I know you’re city?” “How?” “’Cuz you’ve got Ray Bans for tear gas and a leather vest for rubber bullets.” “What about the cowboy hat?” “’Cuz you’re vain as fuck and you know your hair looks like shit.”

Photography by Forest Smith

Photography by Forest Smith

I stood by the river’s edge in the crisp air of the mid-morning with mud caked round my ankles like a second pair of socks. Police wandered the hill, toy soldiers black against the sun. A red-bearded man in spiked leather swaggered past, groaned “Arg ye devil, gaze upon me booty,” and dropped his pants, losing his hat in the mooning. Two natives, a man and a woman, appeared at his side, gently corrected the man in low voices, patient angels on the shoulders of well-intentioned but ignorant guests.

A bridge was built with timber and boards unloaded from cars and recovered from the ground. Forty or so men and women latch them together with rope and secured them with hammer and nail. One of ours, Smaug, smoked a cigarette, patiently waiting for another to finish smashing a bent nail into a board at random, at which point he relinquished the hammer like a child splattering paint on a wall with his dad’s only brush.

“Stop building a bridge, that is a sign of aggression,” a policeman said over a megaphone atop the hill. His voice was almost pliant in the muffled decibels of his domineering device.

At the bridge, a native pressed a strip of cedar into my hands. I tucked it into my right sock and another breathed burnt sage into me. An elder with silver hair, tranquil eyes and a cowboy hat like mine held my hand and smiled at me before I made my way across. “Thank you,” he said. I waddled across the bridge, feeling it sway with each step, the bottom slapping the cold surface of the water like cannonballs clanking together as they’re loaded into the bore.

“Stop your people from crossing the bridge, that is a sign of aggression,” the policeman said in that fuck-being-a-step-father kind of voice of his.

“Why are your people wearing gas masks? That is a sign of aggression. We do not have to have a conflict today. Why are you wearing rubber gloves? That is a sign of aggression.”

A sad woman with thick black hair parted in the center of her brown forehead teetered by the river’s edge on the muddied heels of her booted feet. I meandered round the crowd at the base of the hill to stand with her. We held hands and swayed to the beat of a distant drum, the reverberations of which pulsed through the river from the Missouri into her thick knuckles that rested in my palm like crab apples.

“What are they hiding behind that blue tarp?” the policeman demanded and two adjacent men lifted their firearms towards the group in question at the base of the hill. They dropped the tarp, revealing nothing more than a pair of white guests afraid of the frozen gales of the police water cannon. “Thank you for cooperating. See, we can work together. If your people leave the island, we will leave the hill. We do not have to have a conflict today.”

We eventually left the island, but not before one frustrated native climbed the hill a few yards as police muddied her ascent with hoses. Others scrambled up to retrieve her, pulling her down with a bear hug and soothing voices, like parents comforting their child while watching their house burn to the ground, almost helpless against a force unbent by empathy.

She howled at the police from the base of Turtle Island, and her bared teeth shone so white against the black hand painted upon her Lakota cheeks.

We left Turtle Island, holding to our side of the bargain, but the police redacted theirs and remained atop the hill, nuzzling the muzzles of their guns into the sacred burial mound of the Lakota. Later, at night, scouts returned with the news that they had lain barbed wire round the island’s shore, big spirals of it impossible to cross, demolished our bridge and tossed its rotted remains into the water, and beat our boats until they were dented and rife with holes. Medics had waded in them with water and life jackets and prayers for peace.

Photography by Forest Smith

Photography by Forest Smith

Walking alone through the Sacred Stone reservation hours before dawn, surrounded by thousands of RVs and tepees, en route to one of several flooded port-a-potties, I have only the ancestral whispers of the tribe of stars above to speak with. It’s no wonder the Lakota remain so spiritual, against all odds.

Today, the scent of war in this perennial clash between indigenous and colonists is not the fume of gunpowder or hand grenades, but the indigo aroma of burnt sage and fresh cedar.

Three men of the Midwest, my Shirefolk, Smaug, Oakshield and the former’s father, join the builders at the construction staging camp on the north-east side of the site. They are constructing modules for the rooves of homes with 2x6x20 feet boards, easy to erect, dismantle, and move to another site once we’re kicked off here, the lead carpenter explains. As I stand to the side and write all this, sketching drawings of their work, I’m reminded of something Weasel-Bear had told us yesterday: “We all have a place here. Some of us are warriors. I am a sun-dancer and a prayer leader. There are builders here, too, and there are healers.” As with everywhere I go, I don’t know if I really have a place anywhere. Then, suddenly, as soon as I finished that thought a small woman named Jean grabbed me and said, “Are you looking for something to do?” and whisked me away to the amusement of my Shirland handymen.

Not long after, Jean returned to the staging camp, whistled at me and ordered, “Take one of those.” A line of them carried rolls of insulation, so I grabbed one over each shoulder and followed her crew to the skeletal beginnings of an octagonal home. A man named Maurice and I installed the insulation, me pressing each strip into the walls while he slammed his staple gun into the material round my fingers. Afterwards, a team of us erected a cross in the center to suit the triangular faces Smaug and Oakshield had built.

“How do we get the ropes off?” I asked one man, pointed up to the height of the cross. “Climbing,” he said. “Want me to do it now?” I asked, and they all laughed. “How good are you at climbing, son?” the man replied. “Depends on who’s at the bottom.”

Atop Turtle Island, the cavalry of police hovered like a dark cloud threatening a storm. On the nearest burial mound, a white guy wandered until a native warrior called him down, to which he acquiesced with a tantrum. To the far left, on the southwest side of the site, atop a third mound, four Lakota warriors mounted on horseback watched over their people, their black silhouettes paper cutouts from the azure canvas of the sky.

A beautiful Lakota rides a white mare with her black braids pulled back by a camouflage bandana. Her cheeks were both soft and angular, like a wet pound of clay freshly carved. By a thick rope she led a white stallion up the hill, and as their tails and braids dripped away, I wondered to whom the other horse belonged. Whoever he is, I envy that warrior.

Outside the Red Warrior camp, a Lakota warrior hunts a man in dreadlocks. Each have several of their respective people at their sides, partly holding them back, partly antagonizing the other. “I told you what would happen if you came back, bitch-ass mother-fucker,” the Red Warrior yelled. His face was sharp and wide like a warhawk and tattoos crept up his cheeks like fingerprints. “Painted Cougar kills his enemies, you punk-ass bitch! Get some warriors from the gate down here.” We discovered that the assailant had cut the tethers around the Red Warrior camp – demarcations of their territory, disrespected by an outsider, not for the first time nor the last time, yet still the Painted Cougar will strike back.

At night, the Red Warrior camp hosted a performance by a great many artists, bands, rappers and more. We delivered wood from our truck for a fire and joined the gathering in the smoky spirit of the night.

Photography by Forest Smith

Photography by Forest Smith

“Agua corre,” the Chicano woman rapped, her head a smoke visage of caramel cheeks, chestnut eyes and woven scarves. “Brown pride, yea, indigenous pride, yea, brown pride, yea, this is how we ride.”

"The sex trade started when the Mayflower departed."

Joe Fights-With-Bear returned with his quillwork, a medallion shorn by the sun and fastened with elkhide. A bear slaw, cold in this morning mist, firm like a marble limb, rested in its center to invoke the spirit of her personal medicine. He would spent hours talking to us in between his work, sharing cigarettes and stories in the warm Dakota sun.

There are two main camps here whose voices corral our energies, the Red Warriors and the Sacred Fire, the latter of which burns without breath by the Fire Keepers at the height of the site. The seventeen elder council dictates all action, but, like with pouring dye from one container to the next, the message may change with the carrier.

A child nuzzles two dogs as they romp, another wheelies his blue bike in the dust, and a police helicopter canvases the perimeter, its blades chopping metallic heartbeats in the sky – a bolero of fire.

Alrededor del cielo. 

Dawn of this day of prayer breaks with a sacred orator’s call from the Sacred Fire to awake, to arise, to dance with the sun as he climbs the sky. Our tent is thin and I am cold, so much so that nausea creeps up my throat; but the orator’s voice fills the valley like the morning mist, and I climb over this American meat pile in which my friends and I slept to have a cigarette in this blue daybreak.

A woman named Devon pulled up beside our camp in a white minivan labeled MNI Wiconi and NO DAPL. A red and green scarf is wrapped around her headrest like a bow and a blanket is draped over a car seat in the back. She was gentle, with a soft voice and kind eyes, yet her high cheeks steamed with strength and pride. She asked where we were from and why we came, and her eyes darted towards the red press pass pinned to my chest.

“This is the first time in history every indigenous tribe has come together for a common cause,” Devon said. A deaf man could hear the gravity in her voice as she spoke. “I am from here, from Standing Rock. We are peaceful, prayerful, and always have been and continue to be even today. But we cannot sacrifice our water. It is our life force, for all this reservation, for all our people, for you and for them, too. Water is life.”

Devon pointed to my press pass and told me how many of the natives there were wary of journalists because many members of the media would arrive for a day or two, interview a handful of people at the camp, and reportedly misconstrue the events at Standing Rock in order to create what many call “thumb-stopping content.”

“Just write what you saw, as you saw it,” Devon asked me before she left. “That’s your place here.” 

Photography by Forest Smith

Photography by Forest Smith