As I march beside hundreds of silent women toward the imposing guards of the Dakota Access Pipeline, I wonder why we don’t do this every damn day, every-damn-where in the world. Arms linked, we march from the camp to the bridge, where behind towering concrete barricades lurks an LMTV (with a gunner!). The smell of sage fills the air, and not a word is uttered. I feel stronger than I ever did during my six years in the army, when an M16 was my useless bodyguard, and anger, my daily drug. Neither anger nor firepower can match the strength of a procession of women peacefully united for a common cause.
The women lead, with the men following behind to “hold the space,” keeping a protectively small distance. Indigenous people, effortlessly confident in the rightness of their action, invite us all to pray with them for the water – and even though praying is not a thing I’ve done in years, I realize the prayer isn’t the kind I performed as a kid in church, but a summoning of the power of the universe to right the wrongs of humanity. We are protecting the water because it is the reason for life, and the women here at Oceti Sakowin Camp know the best way to protect it is not through violent attacks, but through powerful, prayerful, silent presence.
We can tell it’s the women who know because this camp is a matriarchy, and it’s the women who make the decisions – it’s they, not the men, who’ve been calling for the unarmed, peaceful protest that’s been going on here for nearly four months. It’s they who march us forward onto the bridge, then signal: Sit down. We sit. In the front of the march, hands flashing the sign for peace (or perhaps the sign for victory) reach toward the sky, and the gesture ripples back through the crowd. Hundreds of hands, silently floating up toward circling airplanes and surveillance drones, spread their frigid fingers, as the bodies attached to them kneel on the road in the bitter North Dakota wind, praying for the water. We have no idea whether the authorities will attempt to intervene, but we do know that they don’t need a reason to try. We also know that we have every reason to stay exactly where we are.
They don’t intervene. They don’t even make a sound. As daylight begins to fade, we all stand and turn to look over the bridge to our left, where a group of our indigenous leaders are beginning to drum, chant and pray beside the river. Rose-tinted clouds appear in the evening sky, reddening as the sun sinks, melting into blue and then grey as the elders finish their ceremony. A bundle of sage passes through the crowd, its cleansing smoke fanned by hand after hand, and I feel as calm and centered as I ever have, strengthened by the collective intention powering this movement. We all silently link arms and march back to the camp, where an elder thanks us for the work we’ve done today, for completing our action in prayerful silence.
“They didn’t think we could do it, but we did it,” she says, and although I don’t know specifically who “they” are, I understand that this action was done to prove as much to ourselves and our allies as to the Army Corps of Engineers, the government of North Dakota, or the investors in the Dakota Access Pipeline. We’ve shown everyone watching and listening that our quiet, confident presence is our greatest show of strength – not noise, not aggression, not violence, but determination, and peaceful, passionate silence. We are Woman – hear our hearts beat. We don’t need to roar.