It’s been a few days since I drove home from Standing Rock and I have sat at the keyboard every single one of them and tried to write something about the last day we were there, the drive home, or even the rally here in my hometown of Bellingham. Although a lot of writing has been happening (I just finished edits on a story I’ve been working on for a couple of months and sent it off to Clarkesworld. Fat chance, but why not try?) I have been paralyzed when it comes to writing about Standing Rock. This isn’t writer’s block. As you all know, I don’t even believe in writer’s block. I’ve been writing. It’s something else, and a lot of it has to do with emotional fatigue.
In my last blog post I wrote the following:
“Instead, most of the direct action protesters/water protectors were camped out about another mile north of that, where the Dakota Access construction crews irreverently sliced a scar into sacred land and where the protectors watched as cultural sites and remains were desecrated and destroyed. I know that a lot of people have requested pictured and recordings and I have been doing some and plan to do more, but we are not going to take pictures of that scarred sacred land. It is not appropriate, and it is one of the most heartbreaking things I have personally witnessed in my life. “
As hard as I try, I cannot summon up the words to describe to you the retched feeling that wormed its way through my guts seeing this. I stood across the street from that rent, black line in the rolling grassy North Dakota plains for hours (which is incomparable to those who have been there for weeks) and I barely spoke a word while I stood watch over this sacred site, this burial ground…this cemetery. I could hardly speak because I felt sick the whole time I stood there. I also felt ready. We believed that the National Guard was inbound to arrest us at any moment, and I was waiting for the potential of both physical pain, imprisonment, and possibly some awful form of humiliation. None of those things could compare to what I was staring at while I watched.
I believe in magic, although what I believe in is not what is summoned to most people’s minds when they hear that word. At the rally in my hometown one of the speakers said something that did some work in my head. He was talking about the damage that had been done to this burial site, the site that I stood beside (or on, perhaps. No doubt that the highway was already carved through Lakota ancestors final resting places), and he said something to the effect of, “The Dakota Access has already made a mistake in attacking the living, and their water supply, which is the blood of the living. But now they have brought war on the dead. Now they have brought war on our ancestors, and if they were not standing with us before, they are now. Everyone in indian country knows you don’t mess with the dead.”
I don’t know if that has anything to do with that haunted feeling I had standing at the frontline camp. I don’t know if it’s had anything to do with how brittle and hollow I’ve felt since coming home. But those words haven’t left me, and I can’t stop thinking about them.
All of these scars lie between us and our ancestors. You can call them what you want: boarding schools, foster homes, criminalized ceremonies, criminalized languages, broken treaties, genocide, erasure, industrial development, resource theft, pipelines…All of them have happened, are happening, and will be happening tomorrow.
I am a lightskinned urban indian who is half-white. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, although my family comes from more traditional lands. I have about as much privilege and opportunity I can possibly have while still being indian. I’m pointing this out because the devastation I feel and will probably continue to feel for the rest of my life after witnessing the desecration at Standing Rock has left me feeling broken, helpless, and worst of all as a writer, speechless. I never grew up in indian country, and although I would argue the connection to indian land is in my blood, and my bones, I didn’t grow up out there, where you can still see it as it used to be. I grew up with sweaty concrete, bleeding asphalt, and raging graffiti. I grew up in a family broken by the damage done to our communities. I grew up disconnected. Still, the tears keep flowing every time I think about it.
I’m going to write more about our last day there and the trip home, but I had to say something about why it has not come yet. I had to say something because I haven’t been saying anything and it hasn’t been intentional, it’s just all too raw.
But I do want to say this:
When the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior made their statement about Standing Rock I announced it as a victory. I was clear in what I said: it was a victory, but not THE victory. There were more battles ahead, and a war that will not end until we move away from fossil fuels or we’re all dead (the latter is more likely, I feel, in my heart). But it was a victory. I proclaimed it a victory because when I, and we, look upon such travesty, and in the face of a history of consistent travesty, we NEED victories. We NEED to know that we are fighting for good. We need to sit back and howl glory at the moon. We need to write it down so that it is not erased. We won that day. Do NOT tell me we did not win. Do NOT tell me that it meant nothing. It DID mean something. You, who have never had to fight and claw just for acknowledgment of your existence as a people do not know what it feels like to have people snatch just the word victory from your teeth when you’re only just tasting it.
Yes, we’re not done. And things have gotten markedly worse since I left, which I regret deeply, but that day we won. We won. We won. We won.