Well, the old site was getting cluttered and rather than clean it up, I figured I’d start again – who doesn’t love a blank slate? Check out my writing, music, photography and more, now with a clean, new look and a fresh, minty taste.
I kind of can’t believe I’m saying this, but … the post-election development that bothers me most isn’t the threat of an authoritarian regime. I mean, that is deeply troubling, and I’m definitely freaked right the hell out about the rise of fascism in this country, but even so, there’s a problem that worries me more – these days, when Americans talk about politics, we only seem to have two settings: Agree and Asshole.
It’s one thing for us to disagree with each other about the way this country should run. It’s another thing entirely to write each other off before the conversation even begins, as most of us have been guilty of doing at some time or other. Rather than acting as vehicles for finding common ground and mutual understanding, nearly all political discussions in the deeply-polarized Trump era are a fast train to Angrytown. It’s like we’ve forgotten that we all have the same basic needs, and that if we can express them without spewing douchery all over the place, we can potentially meet those needs and coexist without wanting to ”accidentally” drive over each other. Of course, the irony is that when we’re fighting over whose needs should be met first or better, we’re really taking care of nobody.
It’s no surprise that now, to an extreme degree, unbridled hostility has become the new normal for political disagreements, seeing as how our sitting president spent a year and a half running a campaign fueled entirely by rage, hate and fear. I mean, I would need at least an entire ream of paper to list all the ways our current administration has encouraged Americans to be shittier to each other. By suggesting, for example, that refugees are all dangerous, Mexicans are all drug-dealing rapists, Muslims are all potential terrorists, immigrants are taking all the jobs, and lies are the new truth, our government leaders are ensuring constant conflict among the most vulnerable members of society.
When we’re all in conflict with one another, we’re much easier to control. Naturally it wouldn’t bode well for the power-junkies in charge if all the poor people in the country acknowledged that not only are they all getting screwed by the same wealthy people, but also that there are many, many more poor people than wealthy ones, and with some basic cooperation the option of, say, collectively gathering up all those greedy bastards and tossing them straight into jail, would be totally viable.
Unfortunately though, no greedy bastards get victoriously tossed behind bars when the rest of us can’t even agree that all people deserve clean water, food, healthcare and housing. Their greedy-bastard faces stay free as long as we’re all viciously arguing about whether or not it’s okay for the police to shoot unarmed people to protect oil companies, whether women should be allowed to make decisions about our own bodies, whether science is real or the news is fake. If instead we started asking one another how we arrived at our opinions and actually listened to each other’s answers, it wouldn’t be so scary to step out of our trusty comfort bubbles and social-media echo chambers to engage with ideas that don’t already align with our established world view. Before long, we might even find ways to relate to each other, and from there it’s really just a matter of time till we’re all coming together for a good old-fashioned greedy-bastard toss.
It’s all easier said than done, obviously, as long as our nation’s elite are invested in keeping the rest of us at odds with one another to increase their own wealth and power. When somebody is forcefully asserting a stance I find offensive, using the same abusive language as the powers-that-be, it takes a hefty amount of effort to push past my initial, visceral reactions to that person and get to the core of our differing perspectives. If I’m able to successfully make that effort, I usually get to learn something about the other person that helps me at least understand where they’re coming from, regardless of whether I come around to their point of view, or they to mine. I might not like what I’m hearing, but at least I’m hearing it.
In these days of rampant suspicion over which information is true and which is fabricated, it doesn’t make sense to argue various points with one another, each referring to sources that the other mistrusts. We’re all in the process of getting profoundly mindfucked by the complete overload of information the internet provides. At this late stage in the game, after years of cutting off communication or unfriending people, I’ve come to understand that the only way to keep a political conversation moving forward is to ask the other person why they feel the way they do and how they came to their conclusions, and then (here comes the hard part) … listen to their answer.
I’m not suggesting that this is some kind of guaranteed solution to conflict, or that simply listening to one another will inevitably lead to some kind of kumbayah-we-are-the-world love fest. But as one of many people who are frankly horrified by the hate parade getting thrust upon us by our government, I’m convinced it’s our last hope for keeping full-scale violence from becoming our go-to method of communication. We don’t have to agree with everyone. We don’t have to like everyone, and we don’t have to pretend to be convinced that any old batshit-crazy idea is sane. But for my part, I know that if I can get even a tiny bit closer to understanding where someone is coming from, it helps me feel like there’s the slightest possibility that all hope for a brighter future is not lost.
With that in mind, I’m going to do my best to resist the urge to judge or argue with anybody without first looking for a way to understand their perspective. I might not agree with their perspective once I understand it, but at the very least, it’ll keep me from switching my political-conversation setting all the way over to Asshole. That may not lead straight to victorious bastard-tossing, but it just might keep the conversation going. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good start.
Like any devout fan of live music, I’ve spent time at beautiful outdoor concert venues all around the country, dancing in the breeze to the songs of my favorite bands, soaking up the mountains, deserts and oceans that stretch out for miles in every direction. And like many of the people who surround me in the crowd, I’ve been able to enjoy these panoramic views and natural amphitheaters without having much of a clue about their history. After all, as a third-generation Jewtalian-American, my limited knowledge of these places comes from books, rather than stories passed down by ancestors who lived in this land for generations before Europeans arrived here. Because my personal connection to these once-wild expanses of nature goes only as far as the music I’ve heard there (and a few memorable hikes), it can be a harsh wake-up call when I’m reminded that this isn’t the case for all Americans.
One of those reminders came yesterday on the steps of the Denver Capitol, where I’d gathered with a hundred or so others to voice our opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline in solidarity with the Native American Water Protectors at Standing Rock. We’d returned to the Capitol after rallying there, then marching down to the Wells Fargo Center and parading around its lobby, chanting “Divest from DAPL” and “Water is Life” to bewildered security guards. There had been no arrests, and the energy in the air was full of determination and hope. Several of the indigenous activists who’d organized the rally took time to speak, and it was then that I was jolted out of my comfort zone.
“Look over there toward Red Rocks!” one of the Native elders instructed, and we all turned to face west. “This was one of the last places of Native resistance in Colorado. Every time I hear that damn rock and roll music, I think of how this land was taken from us.”
“That damn rock and roll music.” I had to check myself and the immediate stab of defensiveness I felt when I heard those words. How many shows have I seen at the Red Rocks amphitheater? How many of my friends have played music on that stage, and how many more aspire to do so? After all, we know it as the home of the most glorious natural acoustics in the country. We know it as a place of music, art and community, not as a site of oppression and genocide. But isn’t that the point? We’re privileged to lap up the visual and sonic beauty of Red Rocks, without having to acknowledge or even be aware of the pain that many Native people associate with it. This understanding sank into my heart like a stone as I reminded myself not to be surprised – this is the reality of living in the place we now call America.
How many Native ceremonies took place where that stage now stands? How many lives and homes were destroyed to eventually make room for bleachers, concession stands and a visitor center? How many solemn or celebratory processions were made up those rock formations before there were friendly little trails leading to the top? These are the questions now bouncing around my mind as I’m reminded that this place I love is only available to me because of the suffering of those who were there first, those who were cleared out of the way. The same is true of the United States as a whole – we of non-Native ancestry are only here because the Natives who lived here first were forcibly removed.
The same force used by the United States government to violently remove indigenous tribes from Red Rocks is being used by modern-day colonists to remove them from everywhere else in this country, including the Cannonball River in Standing Rock, North Dakota – where instead of a stage, they’re building the Dakota Access Pipeline. White Americans have a tendency to be defensive about the history of the places we love, to claim that it wasn’t us who displaced and destroyed their inhabitants. We hate being reminded of that shameful past because it makes us feel a whole range of unpleasant emotions, from guilt to anger to depression. But giving in to that defensiveness is what makes it easy for us to ignore all the ways we can be working against the same kind of atrocities in the present and future. Within a water-poisoning pipeline, a Muslim ban, a surge of deportations and indiscriminate drone strikes are echoes of the same entitlement and aggression that wiped out massive populations of indigenous people in this country. The difference is that now, I can’t say “it wasn’t me” unless I’m actively working to end that aggression.
I can choose to be defensive about my identity as the descendant of European immigrants who settled in territory originally occupied by Natives. I can choose to be paralyzed by guilt over my perceived role in perpetuating colonialism as a white American. Or I can choose to participate in decolonization whenever possible – whether that means showing up to protest injustice against people of color, putting my body on the line against aggressive law enforcement trying to maintain the status quo, or simply living my life with the awareness that there’s a hell of a lot I still don’t know about the dark history of this nation. And the next time I hear “that damn rock and roll music” reverberating off of those red rocks, I can choose to listen even closer, until I hear the sound of Native drums still beating – faintly at first, but growing louder every day, until they can no longer be drowned out.
“Fall in!” came the command from the front of the Sitting Bull College auditorium Saturday night, and as hundreds of my fellow veterans and I took our places in formation, I fervently hoped that we weren’t about to witness the end of a peaceful movement.
When I first saw the news that thousands of veterans were being called to “deploy” to Standing Rock, North Dakota, my heart began to beat faster for two conflicting reasons: first, the call to duty, which elicits a visceral reaction from any current or former member of the military; and second, the belief that a militarized response to the indigenous tribes’ call for help was the wrong response. The fact that the media seemed all too eager to cover a group of uniformed soldiers marching into battle, while consistently ignoring all the veterans who’d already been selflessly working at Standing Rock for months, made me wonder if the real motivation for covering this “deployment” was not to promote the ongoing peaceful demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline, but to beat the drums of war.
Like the Standing Rock leaders, and many of my veteran friends, I saw no use for violence in this mission, and was hesitant to join the ranks of those who might be looking for a fight. But after consulting with fellow members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who’d been working on the ground with the Indigenous Youth Council and Indigenous Peoples Power Project for several weeks, I decided to be present at the encampment, not as a militarized veteran, but as one who has seen war and wishes it on no other person. This, I was told, was the best way to serve the Water Protectors. Peace and life, not war and death, was our purpose. How this would be communicated to thousands of incoming veterans, though, I had no clue.
One of the first things told to a newcomer at Oceti Sakowin Camp is that this is a ceremonial camp – a sacred place of peace and prayer. This idea of ceremony was vastly different from the one I’d known in the military, where I witnessed and participated in countless ceremonies for a plethora of purposes: promotions, awards, changes of command, retirements, deployments, homecomings, commemorations – basically, any occasion that required more than a casual nod or pat on the back. Each one was tedious, and although each contained its own symbolic gestures, most were primarily rote affairs requiring long speeches written by the presiding officers’ public relations staff. By contrast, every action taken in the Water Protectors’ camp was considered to be an act of ceremony in which all were invited to participate and find meaning. I couldn’t help but wonder how these two cultures could possibly combine. Saturday night in the auditorium, my questions began to be answered.
The Native woman who called us to formation introduced herself as the sergeant major of the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock contingency. She told us we’d be taking our orders from her – and that she was taking her orders from the elders. She had my attention.
“We thank you for answering the call to come here and support Mni Wiconi,” she said, referring to the Lakota phrase meaning “Water Is Life,” the rallying cry for the Water Protectors. “Now I’m going to tell you how you’re going to do that. Here are your orders.” I braced myself. Would we be storming the hill and taking the bridge? Would we be human shields? I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the worst.
“There will be no direct actions this weekend,” the sergeant major announced, and my heart skipped a beat as the crowd began to murmur. What was that she’d said? “I repeat, there will be no direct actions this weekend. Your orders are to remain peaceful and prayerful.”
As she introduced the next speakers – not the white male leaders of the veterans’ contingency, but first the tribal elders, primarily women – I felt a sense of deep relief sweeping over me, along with an understanding of what was taking place: We weren’t called here to be soldiers. We were called here to be warriors. And warriors, according to the elders, sought not to go to war, but to avoid it at all costs. By cloaking the request for peace and prayer in a top-down command, the elders had found a way to effectively communicate this message. And as we soon discovered, there was still much more to be said.
“The veterans think they’re coming to protect us,” said Faith Spotted Eagle, one of the elders, speaking to a group of volunteers before the arrival of the masses. “But they’re not coming to protect us. They’re coming to be healed.”
Healing was the next item of business. Before leaving this place, we were told, all the veterans would be invited to take part in a Forgiveness Ceremony, during which we would have the opportunity to acknowledge war crimes and wrong actions taken against Native tribes by the United States military, and realign our loyalty to the First Nations. We would be given the chance to make our mission one of service, not of violence, and in this way, we’d be taking an historic step to combine forces in the most powerful way – by uniting in peace.
There were a few veterans, I noticed, who balked at this notion, muttering that this wasn’t why they’d come to Standing Rock, but they were a small minority. There was one who tried to rally dissenters and storm the hill on his own later that night, and he was immediately stopped. For the most part, I could tell my sense of relief was shared by my sisters- and brothers-in-arms. We didn’t want to go back to war. The next day, when the announcement came that the easement for continued drilling had been denied to Energy Transfer Partners, we celebrated this small, temporary victory having been achieved without violent resistance.
Two days later, the time came to ceremonially ask forgiveness, and we embraced it, along with the accepting arms of our Native hosts. Lined up in formation beside hundreds of veterans, I was blown away by the generosity of the indigenous people of this land as they moved through our ranks, offering handshakes and hugs to each and every one of us who’d made the journey to Standing Rock. They thanked us for being there, and all I could say in response was, “No … thank YOU.” One of the Native women who embraced me, looked into my eyes before moving along and said, “I hope you find peace.” This, after all, was why we’d come.
As the Forgiveness Ceremony ended, the winter storm that had been brewing kicked up into a full-bodied blizzard. We had all gathered for the event indoors at the reservation’s casino pavilion, and most had intended to head back to the camp or leave for home afterward. But it quickly became clear that driving even a short distance would be unsafe, so nearly a thousand of us veterans (both Native and non-Native), along with the elders and many of the other Water Protectors, found ourselves snowed in. There were nowhere near enough rooms for everyone, so people camped out in the hallways and pavilion, with many opting to stake out places in the smoky bar – solidarity drinking, I told myself after a few whiskeys, as we all made friends and many hugs were exchanged.
By the next day, the casino’s food supplies began to run low, and the bar had been depleted of alcohol. The weather hadn’t cleared, and those who’d remained at the camp in dangerous conditions had begun to make their way to the casino for safety, moving the camp’s supplies to the pavilion. The elders sat at the front of the room, and Native drumming circles were set up to continue the ceremonial spirit of the Oceti Sakowin camp, while people milled around the pavilion, chatting with each other and members of the media who’d also been stranded. Periodically, the elders would quiet the room and address all of us gathered there, and instead of wandering aimlessly around the casino, I hunkered down to listen.
“There is a difference between a soldier and a warrior,” one of the elders said. “A soldier follows orders, but a warrior follows the heart. A warrior sees war only as a last resort.”
“We are not at war here,” Faith Spotted Eagle emphasized to us. “They are at war. We are in ceremony.”
If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from nearly two weeks with the Standing Rock Sioux, it’s that forgiveness and compassion have more power to heal than war and militarism have power to harm. A soldier seeks war, but a warrior seeks peace, and I may have been a soldier once, but now I have a responsibility to be a warrior. If the DAPL doesn’t succeed, another threat will arise to take its place. Standing beside the Natives of this country, along with so many others who answered the Water Protectors’ call, I know that the struggle we’re in will continue, but it won’t be a war. It will be – as it always has been – a ceremony.
This is a militarized zone unlike any I’ve seen before. One side is armed, while the other chooses not to be. One side faces no threat; the other is threatened from all angles – snow, sleet, sickness, sadness and the System. One side fights violently for oil and money; the other, peacefully, for water and justice and life. “Which side are you on?” asks an old, familiar line, and I know my answer. Our bodies are 65 percent water; the Earth is 71 percent water, and I am 100 percent on the side of those who protect the water. Every day at Standing Rock, I learn more about what that means – because this isn’t only a struggle for water rights, but for the indigenous tribes’ right to survive as they are, where they are.
“Everyone wants to be fists-up,” says the young woman leading Oceti Sakowin Camp’s newcomers’ orientation. ”Nobody wants to be fists-down, shoveling snow and washing dishes.” She reminds us we all live on territory that was taken by force from Native people, and that the urge to want to take control of fighting the Black Snake, as our indigenous hosts have named the Dakota Access Pipeline, is shades of imperialism. Many of us don’t understand, she explains, the ways that attitude embodies all the DAPL represents: colonialism, capitalism and race-based entitlement. Plenty of people show up wanting to stick it to The Man – few recognize how this desire can turn us into The Man’s right hand.
The only way to really side with the water protectors, I learn, is to serve them – not to be their boss or supervisor or savior, but simply to serve them in any way possible. This is, after all, a matter of life and death for them – there’s no time to waste on trying to be a star. The newcomers’ orientation (as well as the daily Decolonization meeting) exists, after all, because too many people have been coming to the camp expecting to lead the charge against the Black Snake, failing to see that the charge is already being led. What the charge needs, desperately, is followers. But when a majority of the volunteers who turn up are not only white, but more accustomed to giving instructions than receiving them, the dynamic that ensues eerily mimics the one known all too well by Natives, and can be summed up in five words: “You’re not doing it right.”
It becomes my mission to counteract that narrative in every possible way during my short stay at Standing Rock. When I feel the urge to go to the front of the march, I stay back. When I want to rush straight to the Direct Action training, where people are being prepped for doing battle with the long arm of the law, I change course and veer toward the kitchen. But I only work there for a day and a half, because I want to respect the indigenous tribes’ choice to observe a person’s moon cycle by, among other restrictions, keeping them away from food preparation and serving – and wouldn’t you know, my Moon happens to have risen a few days early. Even though my white-feminist mind initially bristles at this exclusion (“What am I – dirty?” sputters my inner monologue), I learn in orientation that this isn’t an attempt to shame people who bleed (not only cis-gendered women, it’s acknowledged), but a way of honoring the ability of these people to bring forth life, and the unique power that we exhibit during this time of the month. An indigenous man in the room adds to this explanation that “when a person is on their Moon, they can bring a roomful of men to their knees,” and this sounds much more respectful than being dismissed as weak because I’m “on the rag.” This is, I’m told, our time to be served, and it sounds pretty appropriate to me.
When I sheepishly inform Megan, a young Native woman I meet in the kitchen, that I have to excuse myself because my Auntie Flo has arrived, she smiles.
“You’re in your own ceremony at this time,” she assures me, and rather than feeling crippled by my intensifying stomach cramps, I suddenly feel strengthened, while also humbled by the idea that she, not I, has been addressing menstruation the “right” way. As one who regularly derides the American Way of telling us to “shut up and shove some cotton up your twat,” I’m embarrassed to realize that I haven’t even been honoring my own body. That’s the patriarchy for ya, I think to myself. And I smile, remembering that this camp is a matriarchy – yet another foreign concept to most of us volunteers. Who are we to think we know what we’re doing? I ask myself, and am unable to locate an answer.
The first day, I learn how to stand in strength and silence with Native women on the bridge by standing behind them as they face down concrete barriers and armed guards. The second day, I learn to stand in the kitchen, washing dishes and preparing food, overseen by Native women. The third day, I learn to stand in the donations tent handing out socks, gloves, hats and boots to Native men and women who won’t ask for them, while keeping an eye out for my fellow white people who might be loading up shopping bags full of things they don’t need. I have no idea what I’ll be learning next. Chances are, it will be far less glamorous than standing on the front lines, facing down The Enemy. But I’m certain that whatever task I accept, as long as I’m serving the Water Protectors with humility and respect for their work, wisdom and sacrifice, I will be doing it right.