We were told that wake up was going to be at 0530 so we could all get out by 0800. But I awoke around 0500 to the sounds of people up and packing and bugging out for warmer climes.
Word had come down that the Standing Rock tribal chairman, Dave Archambault, had asked all those who were not Sioux to vacate the area due to the weather. This seemed logical, as another blizzard was approaching, and around 4000 people had shown up for the VSSR event. That meant about 3500 more than the planners had originally thought would come, and 2000 more than were on the final roster. With another blizzard coming in, and a polar vortex that would drop temperatures well below the negative numbers, it made sense to get as many people out of the area as possible. To me anyway.
So, we all packed up and cleaned up our areas and said our goodbyes. I would have sworn that I took pictures with everyone I met that I really liked, but apparently I only got a shot of Marlow and me.
What a lovely human being
I had met Marlow in Cannon Ball. We passed each other coming and going at the entrance of the community center. She had smiled and said "Good Morning" so I smiled back and said the same thing. Later that morning, as Mel the CO (XO? ... Leader Type Person) held an informational meeting for us, I found myself standing next to her again. We made little comments to each other as the meeting progressed, and finally I introduced myself, figuring that if we were going to keep running into each other, I should probably know her name. After that, she disappeared. I think she went off with the New York 'Rambo' Brigade. But I didn't figure I'd see her again. But then, on the Monday morning of the ceremony, she ended up right next to me in the formation! We helped each other get up and down from the floor (as they had the front row sit, which was fine with my tired knees) and at one rather emotional point of the ceremony, we just stood and hugged each other. Two strangers from different walks of life, united by our veteran status and our desire to do something good for the people of Standing Rock. Later, I found her again at the AJAMC in Ft. Yates. Although I only knew her for a few days, by the time I went home it seemed like I had known her for ages. I hope I can get to Seattle some day to visit her and her wife. (And my cousin, who lives there also... and because I've never been to Washington and it's one of three states I've yet to set foot in in this country...) But yeah. I'd love to hang out with her again. She's awesome.
I went and found Mel the Chaplain/Cannon Ball CO or XO or LTP to say goodbye to her and found her in line for chow. I met her in Cannon Ball, too, and was very impressed that she stepped up to help get CB organized. She also had an incredibly chipper attitude the ENTIRE time. Every time I saw her I was greeted with a smile. Every time I greeted her, she greeted me warmly. She was a great leader because she didn't just 'give orders', she did work as well. I caught her sweeping the floor outside the mess hall one evening when I was too tired to do anything other than fall in to my bed. We had had a few good but short talks about logistics, and one good talk about the legalities around the 1851 treaty and ramifications for this event pertaining to that document and our own Constitution. I had only known her for a couple of days, but felt like I had known her for months. She's an awesome lady.
I also got to say goodbye to Tammy, Terry and Frances and a few others that had all been bonded since our Cannon Ball days... day... several hours (?) Seriously, time was weird out there. Days seemed like weeks. Hours seemed like days... or sometimes just a few seconds. I'd serve with that group again though. The Cannon Ball detachment I mean. They were top notch.
Kiyoshi and I packed all of the remaining medical gear we could into my car for a last trip to camp to drop everything off. He drove his car up to the casino and joined me for the remaining twelve miles or so to the camp.
It was still dark when we arrived, and bitterly, bitterly cold. Kiyoshi donated all of his formidable body armor to the guard we met on the way in. Ceramic plate body armor, tactical goggles that would stop a .22 round, a few other things. Then we drove down to the veterans medical tent to drop off the medical supplies.
Most people there were still asleep, and we were then directed to take it to the main medical tent for the camp. Fortunately, I had passed that on my Monday excursion, so I knew where I was going. When we got there, we met two women that told us to take it up to the main donation tent, unless it was stuff for hypothermia. Well, I had brought an extra sleeping bag to use as a cold weather wrap in case of emergency, so we left that and some wool blankets and chemical hand warmers behind. One of the women came with us to show us where the main donation tent was. It turns out that it was near the sacred fire.
I wanted to approach in the right way, so I took some coffee and tobacco with me as I approached the fire, found a couple of men nearby and presented them with the gifts and asked where we could drop of our boxes of medical supplies. They were very humble and kind, and soon we were schlepping boxes and bags of donated medical supplies from all over the country into the GP tent by the fire. We were invited to pray at the fire, and before I left, I took the opportunity to send up my first prayers from the sacred fire I had only ever seen from a distance.
The circle of people around the fire was quite full, and while I am sure they would have made room for me to sit, I stood behind the front row and said my prayers as a song was being sung in the Lakota language.
I prayed for protection to all those staying here long term. I prayed for clarity in the days and weeks to come for the leaders of all of the different factions that had erupted since my last visit. I prayed for all of this to end peacefully, and for more people around the world to wake up and see the dangers that are facing us. Finally, I prayed for the fire. I prayed that the sacred fire stay burning for as long as it was needed. That it would spark a fire within all those who visited to take an ember back to where they lived and start another fire. A local fire, to fight against oppression, injustice, environmental attacks. A fire to stand up in their own communities and say 'enough is enough' and start making the changes that need to happen if we are to survive as a species.
I stepped away from the fire after the song was finished. The sun was coming up and it looked like it was going to be a bright, sunny day. Cold. Bitterly, bitterly cold. But bright and sunny. I joined Kiyoshi back in my warm car and he told me that there was going to be a camp meeting in the Dome at 0900. That seemed like an interesting thing to attend, and it was 0800 already, so we decided to head down to the Oglala Kitchen again to see if we could find Joe or anybody I had met on my previous trips to say hi. Maybe get some breakfast or basically just hang out someplace warm until the meeting.
The last time I was there, we had built a wood framed building that would serve as the new kitchen. It turned out pretty well, and next to it was still the lean-to shelter kitchen that they had been using. Next to that was a green GP tent that had been used as a dining room/gathering place the last time I was there. As we approached, we met a young man named Francois, a Lakota from Eagle Butte. As we conversed, we learned that he was looking for a way to get back home to his grandparents. Well, as a Shaffer, a couple hours added to a road trip is usually not a bad thing, so I offered to drive him down there. Then he asked if I had room for a tipi in my Highlander.
I thought for a minute... how much room does a tipi take up? How on earth would I strap the poles to the top? I told him we could try, but I made no promises. As if reading my mind he told me that it was just the canvas parts, not the poles, and that it was already all bundled up, it just needed to be loaded. So I had him grab his gear and throw it in the car. We then went to look for a familiar face in the dining hall GP tent.
As we went in, there were two white guys and a gal talking quietly next to a barrel stove, and a few cots further on with bundled up sleeping people. It appeared that the dining hall had become lodging. I walked up to the three talking people and quietly asked if Joe was around. No he wasn't. So I asked about a guy nicknamed Leprechaun that had been there in August. The girl said that he was still there and offered to take me over to his lodging. I thanked her and we all headed outside. We were followed by one of the guys that then scolded us for talking near the sleeping people. After all, he said "It's very rude to talk when people are sleeping here."
"Yeah, but you were talking when I came in, soooo..."
"But I live here." He said. "We need our sleep, we work hard."
Then Francois stepped in.
"Maybe you should be awake when there are things to be done." He said sternly. "Maybe we shouldn't sleep all day. Maybe you should think about why you are here."
Well, that just annoyed the guy further. He muttered something else about being rude and how maybe we should think about why we were there, and headed back into the tent. It was most decidedly a different vibe than the other two times I had been out there. Francois was the only native guy I had seen at Oglala Kitchen on this trip. My friend Joe had left to sell some of his amazing art in New Mexico, and apparently Clarence Rowland was around, though I hadn't met him in person yet. The gal walked us over to the shack where Leprechaun was living, but they were all still asleep. I asked her not to wake him, and pulled an Oglala Lakota flag from my coat and handed it to her.
Joe had mentioned that they needed another Oglala flag at the kitchen, and I brought one to give to him. I asked her to be sure it got to Clarence, instead. Her eyes smiled at me since every other bit of her face was covered against the cold, and she promised to get the flag to him.
The three of us climbed back into the car and decided to go pick up Francois' tipi, and head over to the dome to wait for the meeting to start. It was a short drive to a different part of the camp where Francois was storing his tipi bundle. It was about the size of a car topper, and frozen to boot. But we managed to smoosh it into the back with the little amount of stuff I was taking home with me. We drove over to the Dome and started in to see what was happening when we were greeted by a guy who asked us if we could help move his stuff back across camp to his tent. Apparently they were vacating people from the Dome, and he was going to head back over to the Veterans for Peace site. I told him that we could load stuff on top of my little workhorse, but there was no room inside with Kiyoshi, Francois and the tipi.
So we loaded a bedroll, a couple backpacks and a frozen garbage bag of dirty laundry on top of the car, and slowly made our way across the camp again. As we helped him load his stuff into his tent, a woman approached me and asked if I could help her get the U-Haul van she was driving off of an icy patch that wouldn't let her go. After a few tries pushing it myself, I headed back and asked the other guys to come give me a hand. With four of us pushing, it skittered it's way off of the ice and she was on her way. We bid the mover guy a farewell, and headed back over to the Dome to wait for the meeting to start.
While we waited, Francois shared with us the story of his family, the High Elks, and how they were supposed to be the true keepers of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman pipe instead of Arvol Looking Horse. He had many documents and family lineage to back up the claim, and said he was looking for a good law team to help his family take back the sacred bundle. He was earnest in his beliefs, and was obviously raised traditional, as he gave me gifts of a book and a kit to make moccasins as a thank you for driving him to Eagle Butte. But I was a little discouraged to hear his claims.
The whole week had been a series of fights between factions out there. We had taken part in a camp faction conflict with our veterans sweeping tents for firearms. We had listened to many people that had supposedly been "Standing Together at Standing Rock" tell us different things. Go home. Stay here. We don't want you here. We need you here. Go today. Stay a few more days. Now we had been scolded out of Oglala Kitchen by some white guy with an attitude, and this kid wanted help fighting Arvol Looking Horse for the sacred bundle. My spirit was tired. My soul was tired. This seemed to be just the final assault on my willpower to keep supporting Standing Rock. I didn't know who to back anymore. I was there to help. To serve. And all I seemed to find were people wanting to use me to further their own agendas. At least Francois was up front about it.
At around five to nine, we decided to head into the Dome and see what was happening. When we got inside it was hard to breathe. There were many people in the dome. Some moving their personal gear out. Some still sleeping in their cocoon bags. Some cleaning ash out of the wood burning stove. The whole place was heavy with wood smoke, which apparently led others to believe that lighting up their cigarettes was on ok thing to do. By ten minutes after nine, the place was crowding with people looking for the meeting, but nobody there to actually DO a meeting. I talked it over with the guys, and we decided that waiting another who knows how long for a meeting that may or may not happen when we had a half day's drive ahead of us to get home was probably not the best idea. So we decided that it was time to head out.
We stopped briefly outside to get a picture of ourselves at Standing Rock, as we had been too busy every other time we had been there to think of that.
see? we really were there!
As we drove out of camp, we passed the same guard that Kiyoshi had given all of his gear to. The guard was bedecked in everything, and we stopped once more for Kiyoshi to give him a rather formidable pair of riot gloves and get a picture with him in Kiyoshi's gear. It was pretty awesome.
We snapped a few pictures of the camp as we drove towards the casino, but that was about it for pictures. It just wasn't a picture taking kind of adventure, and I was lost in my conflicting thoughts about the events of the week anyway.
We drove back to the casino where Kiyoshi had parked his car, and said our farewells. I certainly hope to see Kiyoshi again someday. He's a really good guy. He'd be caravanning behind Francois and me down to just south of Ft. Yates. There he would continue on a south/southeast road back to Illinois, and I would be heading more south/southwest to Eagle Butte.
I honked and waved goodbye as Kiyoshi took the turn for his road and I continued on with Francois.
Now, a couple things to preface the following part of my adventure. Four years ago when I had first volunteered at a place called Re-Member on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, I met a man named Will Peters. He was one of the Lakota speakers that Re-Member brought in to teach volunteers about the culture of the Oglala Lakota. Over time, Will and I have grown quite close. We've had many a talk about out two cultures, and spiritual truths, and a great many things. I consider him a brother, and my Dad even calls him son. As Shaffers, we tend to adopt people we love into our "tribe" that we call the "Shaffer Hotel".
Aside to the aside... When I was growing up, Mom and Dad opened our house up to all of our friends so that we'd have a safe place to have cast parties and get togethers. Everyone was welcome as long as they followed a few simple rules. No drugs, alcohol or dangerous tomfoolery. As the years progressed, there were times when I'd go down to breakfast and find kids I didn't know already eating. They turned out to be friends of friends of friends of mine or Jason or Steph, and Mom and Dad were always fine with anyone that stuck with the rules.
So we have always had "family" that wasn't blood related. As such, it was completely normal for me to "adopt" Will and his family into mine. He's good people. Awesome wife, wonderful kids and grandkids. All around good egg. So, now that you know that, I'll tell you that Will's Lakota name translates to "Teacher of the Red Road", and teach he does. He's a high school teacher that works with kids in a good Lakota way. (And frankly, much like my Dad did as a high school teacher) He meets them where they are at, teaches them to the best of both of their abilities, is calm and gentle, but not a pushover. Will speaks Lakota to them in the classroom. Teaches them how to do beadwork to help keep them centered and focused on the good.
He also has taken the time to help THIS muddling white guy learn more about Lakota culture, traditions, and the "right way" to do certain things than I could have ever learned by reading a book.
One of the things he taught me right away was that Lakota teachings don't come with a price. No native teachings should. If you are wanting to be a student of said teachings, you should pray about it and wait until the right teacher comes. Will told me that there are many people, both native and non-native, that will claim to be 'Medicine Men' or 'Chiefs' and will offer to teach you their ways as long as you give them some money. Now, he also says that when an elder teaches you something, it is a sign of respect to give that elder a gift, and money is a fine gift. But no teacher should ask for money.
Now, back to the drive from Ft. Yates to Eagle Butte. Francois had started to tell me that his family is very well connected. Very important. That he was a medicine man and knew all sorts of medicine men and chiefs on the various reservations. That may be true, but it raised a red flag in my head, because Will had taught me that one of the Lakota values was humility, and Francois wasn't being very humble in his name dropping. Then he mentioned that even though he was young, he had great wisdom and would be happy to teach me all about Lakota culture, spirituality and wisdom if I could provide some funds for a project he wanted to do.
Yep. Another red flag.
He was a nice kid. Pretty respectful, but I could feel him trying to do things in what the Lakota would call "the wrong way". But something Will and I have not discussed is if I - as a white guy - can call out a hustler when I see one if said hustler is a native and hustling native traditions. I was unsure how to respond to this. So I asked Francois what the Lakota word for 'Karma' is. He was unsure, as he's still learning the language, and I directed our conversation to what was happening at Standing Rock, how he got there, and the events of the last few weeks. We agreed that KARMA would most likely be coming around to bite those in the booty that had done some bad things up there. Non-native and native alike. We talked about the conflict of wanting to be a law-abiding citizen, yet seeing that the law was doing horrendous things to its citizens and then lying about it. How does one stay loyal to a system that isn't loyal to them?
We started talking about spirituality again, and I mentioned some of the spiritual truths that Will and I had talked about. He once again mentioned that for a small fee, he could teach me how to do sweats and pipe ceremonies, maybe even a Sundance. I was uncomfortable again, so I mentioned that I had a Lakota friend in Pine Ridge that was already teaching me all of those things, or at least letting me be a part of them so I could learn by experience and by listening.
"Who is it?" Francois asked "I know all of the medicine men on Pine Ridge."
"Oh, he doesn't claim to be a medicine man or a chief." I told him.
"Who does he say he is?" Francois pressed. "What does he claim to be?"
"All I've ever heard him claim to be..." I said, "Is a common man. Nobody special. Just an ordinary Lakota guy. I think that's one of the reasons he is so highly respected down there, and by my family and me. He doesn't claim to know everything, yet in his humble way of teaching, shows that he knows an awful lot."
There was silence for a few minutes. Then the conversation moved along. It is noteworthy to mention now that he didn't mention money or ask for support again for the remaining hour of our trip.
As we drove along, I told him that my parents, whether they knew it or not, pretty much raised us to live by the seven Lakota virtues. Respect, prayer, honesty, compassion, generosity, humility and wisdom. We were taught to respect our elders. Live our lives as a prayer, not relying entirely on praying in a church to talk to God. Tell the truth. Empathize with others. Help people how you can, when you can, even if that means sacrifice. Don't boast or brag, let your actions do that for you. and for heaven's sake, think before you speak and learn before you teach. I understand that wisdom doesn't just magically come. Heck, I know lots of old guys that lack wisdom. Wisdom is the accumulation of lessons and life experiences AND an ability to reflect on them and learn from them. Not everyone has wisdom, and I am skeptical of someone that claims to have it mastered.
I was trying to tell Francois about my feelings on wisdom by telling him about my Dad, who has lived a long life AND learned from his mistakes and successes. He is humble and will offer an 'opinion' about something without forcing you to believe it. But since he's very often right in his opinion, a person who seeks wisdom would heed his words. As I was telling him about Dad, a Bald Eagle came out from the woods and flew along with us for about twenty seconds. Francois took this as a sign.
"My brother Wanbli has come to tell us that we were meant to meet each other! That whatever you are doing, keep doing it, because you are on the right road!" Francois said excitedly. He told me that eagles were the most holy bird to the Lakota, and that for one to show itself to us while I was speaking honoring words about my dad was a wonderful sign from Creator. That my dad must be a great and honorable man. This I could agree with!
He sang a song in Lakota that I only knew a few words to and when he was done he smiled at me.
Now, I'm always unsure if eagles and hawks come into my view as a sign, or as a thank you for the rescues I've done, or just because they happened to be in that airspace as I've been driving by. But I've seen a lot of things all around the world, and had a lot of experiences with other critters like dragonflies, buffalo, crows, raccoons and red-winged blackbirds, (to name a few) that have seemed like way more than coincidental encounters. My middle name is Thomas, so I have 'doubt' hardwired in to me. But I'll admit that when that eagle flew by as I was talking of my dad, followed by this Lakota kid singing in Lakota a song of thanks for the visit made a pretty powerful impact on me.
The rest of our drive was spent talking about our families and things we have learned from our elders and our friends. We talked about both of us being artists and craftsmen. I offered to sell his stuff on my website if it was legal to do so, and if he wanted to. I think we sorta bonded over the fact that regardless of culture, we all have similar struggles and triumphs. We talked of places that gave one the sense of 'home' in their spirit when we came into an area of rolling hills that were familiar to him. Sights and vistas that were imprinted in our brains and on our souls that only spoke of safe and wonderful feelings of being truly home.
His were these hills and the camp at Standing Rock. Mine were my childhood neighborhood, the Island, an area in Pine Ridge, the Mississippi River and the faces of my wife and children.
As we pulled into his long driveway, another Bald Eagle flew directly over the car headed for his house. We both voiced awe, and stared at the great bird as it flew ahead of us.
"What a welcome home!" I said to Francois.
He was beaming.
He tried to get a picture of it with my phone, because who would possibly believe that an eagle had LITERALLY led him home!
just above the peak of the roof there...
We unloaded the tipi into a nearby truck and grabbed his gear to take inside. I remembered that I had a can of coffee and a bag of tobacco left in one of my bags that I had forgotten to give away at the camp, so I grabbed those to give as a gift to his grandparents when I went inside to meet them. You know, the 'right way' to greet elders. Francois introduced me to his family, and they offered to feed me, but I still had many, many miles to try and go before I got home, and I was already feeling the lack of sleep taking hold. I excused myself and headed back for my car. On a picnic table near the door were three deer heads.
Whole. Deer. Heads.
there they are all standing in a row...
I commented on how amazing they were, because the antlers were truly spectacular. Francois and I had talked a bit about how I made knife handles out of antlers on our drive, so I was taken aback when they offered me one of the heads.
Now. I do like making knife handles out of deer antlers, but I had no idea what on earth I would do with an entire head! I tried to politely decline, but was told that these were their three best kills this season, and I could pick whichever I pleased.
"No really." I said. "That is way too generous of a gift. I couldn't possibly..."
"I insist. Really!"
Well, another thing I have learned is that when people offer you something of their best or finest, it is poor form to reject it, even if it is not something you personally may ever have on your picnic table. Besides which, none of them were bloody, and they were all frozen pretty solid in the frigid air. So I chose the smallest of the three, not just because I didn't want to seem greedy, but because those antlers really would make the best knife handles. The 8 and 10 pointers were awesome, but not as knife-able. I grabbed a plastic bag to put the meaty neck side in, and set it in the back on top of my gear.
and I shall call him George...
Thanking them profusely and promising to stay in touch, I departed for the long drive home. As I drove, the bag slowly slid off of the deer head in the way back, and at one point I looked in the rear view mirror to see the giant buck staring blankly at me. Every time I rounded a corner, the head would topple to one side or the other, coming to rest staring at me with a cocked head. It was going to be a long, long drive home.
Crossing the Missouri River/Lake Oahe... Mni Wiconi, my friends. Water is LIFE.
My plan was to get home that night, but by the time I reached Pierre, I was far too tired to continue. It had been a physically and emotionally very long day, and yet another surreal day that I couldn't quite process. Conflicting emotions everywhere. The good and bad of the deployment. The good and bad at the camp. The good and bad at AJAMC. The good and bad of the DAPL easement denial. The good and bad of Francois. God, I just wanted to focus on the good of it all, but the questionable things just kept nagging at me. By 7:30, I had found a room at a Super 8 for cheap and went to bed without supper, meds, shower or anything. Just collapsed, shut my brain off and slept.