This story was originally published by Indian Country Today Media Network, September 2016
We pointed our rental war pony west and rode hard into the sun, stopping only for cheeseburgers. Many cheeseburgers.
Thus began my 2,200-mile, week-long journey with my 12-year-old son, Maangozit, from Cincinnati to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to meet with folks at the water protector camps opposing the Dakota Access oil pipeline (DAPL).
Natives from more than 300 tribes had gathered near Standing Rock to speak with one voice, to call for clean water. Surely, this was a far more relevant history lesson than he would ever learn in his sixth-grade class, so I agreed to take him. He was delighted.
During a stopover, I caught him talking to his buddy Lucas on Facetime. He held his open mouth close to the screen, tongue out. “Ha, ha, haaaa, no school, dude!” he gloated.
“They have school at the water protector camps,” I told him.
He jerked his head around quickly, giving me a look of surprise remarkably like that of his beagle-mix puppy Swudge, whose ear folds over in shock and awe when we say the word, “No!”
“Oh, I’m not going, I’m not going!” he bawled.
“We’ll see,” I said.
He was quiet for much of the next day’s drive. It’s during such drives, with those long silences, that we have our best conversations. The drone of the road and passing scenery give him time to process his thoughts into words.
“Will those police be mean to me when we get out there?” he said.
“They better not,” I said, “or I’ll slap the hell right outta them!”
He smiled, soothed by my Mama Bear voice. He went back to looking at the scenery, which had now changed from the hills of the Mississippi River Valley into the flats of the prairie. And so it went for a very long time. Until we reached the “traffic safety” checkpoint just south of Mandan, where the cops gave us the once-over.
The National Guardsmen manning the stop wore combat gear and carried automatic weapons. Maangozit was visibly shaken, although we were told we were “clear to go.” It was unclear how exactly that determination had been made.
“What would have happened,” he wanted to know, if we hadn’t been cleared.
I couldn’t answer for sure, but reassured him everything was okay, and reminded him to stay close to me during this trip.
My years of carrying heavy equipment as a newspaper photographer compressed several discs in my back, so I can no longer carry two camera bodies with heavy lenses, which is what I’d brought. Maangozit made a deal that he would be my assistant. He would function as my right arm, carrying one camera body with my beloved 80-200mm f 2.8 lens, my big glass. He drove a hard bargain; we agreed on $5.00 per day, and $2.50 for travel days.
Once at the water protector camps, I went into reporter mode and sometimes forgot about my new right arm. We met with people working humbly to meet the everyday needs of the camp—dishwashers, woodchoppers and a man who rode his bike around the Oceti Sakowin camp all day long just picking up trash.
We met Teri DiGregorio as she chased after her two young daughters, Allittie and Hashtola. They ran down the long grassy hill near the press tent, their arms twirling in the air until they crashed into their mother’s arms in a giggling heap.
“We had to come and see this,” DiGregorio said. Her Navajo family had driven from Sacramento. “Seeing all the people and tribes here and how they are working to protect the future—it’s more important than anything they can learn at school.”
Some people grabbed me and Maangozit , desperate to tell their stories of how they came to be at the camps. A young Native man from the Meskwaki Nation begged us to meet with a Shango chief from Trinidad. The chief and his colleague had traveled from Trinidad to the Meskwaki Nation’s home in Iowa, insisting he and other leaders in his Shango religion had visions and dreams of the great Comanche Chief Ten Bears directing them to make their way to the water protector camps. The Meskwaki tribe aided their travel, and they sat before me with great dignity in folding chairs, wearing white dress shoes even though they were camped on the dusty prairie. They seemed to be awaiting another vision that would provide further direction. I had some trouble understanding their speech but it seemed they had made offerings here after a very long journey, and now were patiently waiting instruction.
An elder veteran wandered near the main Oceti Sakowin fire as he lovingly cradled his tiny pet poodle, which was dressed in a sweet little pink sweater. He wore a hat identifying himself as a Vietnam vet over his thinning gray hair. He walked carefully along the uneven ground as he searched for something or someone. We saw him again several hours later. This time the poodle wore a different sweater, but the vet was still searching. He asked if we knew where the veterans were. We apologized that we didn’t.
For several days, people poured out their stories of how they had been moved by something greater than themselves to come here and help protect the water.
My new right arm stood by quietly, taking it all in, his forehead often furrowed in thought. There was an unsettling yet thrilling energy in the air.
The long line of tribal flags flapping alongside both sides of the main road into camp created a magnificent grand entry spot. Men and women from the Havasupai tribe, the people of the blue-green water, prepared to enter wearing regalia the likes of which we’d never seen before. The men wore enormous ram’s horns and shouted a call to the crowd that alerted the camp to their entrance. The women’s faces were painted with red ochre. After their entrance, they danced and feasted by the camp’s sacred fire.
Men and women from the Havasupai tribe in full regalia sang and danced to announce to announce their arrival.
“We called for the spirits to be here with us,” said Jahmisa Manakaja, one of 20 people from the Havasupai reservation, located on the bottom of the Grand Canyon, who had come to Standing Rock. “That’s why our men are wearing the ram’s horns. We heard the cries of families here and have come to stand beside them in their struggle.”
She became agitated as she spoke of her tribe’s fight with uranium mining and the struggle to protect their water.
“What’s wrong with these people who want to treat the earth like this? I’m starting to think they aren’t human anymore.”
We later joined a group of protectors heading out to an action on the frontlines of the pipeline construction. We saw angry young men thrusting their fists in the air. People hollered at us for taking pictures. A shirtless young man shouted obscenities at a low-flying crop duster that dropped an unidentified liquid over a nearby field. Later during a water protector action against the pipeline, we saw him being wrestled to the ground by police, his face contorted in anger.
When scores of heavily armed police and armored vehicles appeared at the crest of the hill blocking the road, it seemed possible we might be arrested.
It was scary and unsettling. Maangozit’s eyes widened with fear. He couldn’t understand how we and others here could be arrested.
“Other than hollering, what did the people do wrong?” he said.
Eventually the police let us leave the area. Later that night, he asked to snuggle with me. “Mom, can we find my birth mother?”
I was surprised. Although I know she is often on his mind, he seldom speaks of her; his abandonment is too frightening and shameful to discuss. I told him we could but that he would have to be prepared, that it might be painful.
“I know, but I’m afraid she’ll be dead before I’m grown up.”
I was stunned. Although he was mostly silent during all the complex events we had witnessed, he had understood far more than I’d imagined.
My husband and I worry terribly over Maangozit’s cognitive abilities, which have been affected by what we know about his birth mother’s lifestyle. We agonize over his performance on reading and intelligence tests; we spend a great deal of time searching for the right educational interventions for him and advocating for him at our school district, even threatening litigation if they fail to meet their legal obligations to meet his proven needs.
I see now that his wisdom and courage goes far deeper than what can be measured by I.Q. and reading tests. He understands “the heart way,” the most sacred of our Ojibwe ceremonies in which he participated this past summer. That wisdom eludes even most educated and successful non-Native business executives, who seem unable to understand why short-term profits can never buy off our human need for a healthy planet and clean water.
“Yes, my son. I’ll help you find her.”
“I love you mom, more than Swudge, (the puppy) even.”
“I love you too, son.”
Before we drifted off to sleep he asked if he could cut off his braid. I had begged him to keep his long hair until after ceremony but have felt saddened that teasing at school has pressured him to cut it.
He explained that his hair is thick and snarly and he has grown tired of its constant presence in his eyes, and the daily fight of combing and braiding.
“Let’s leave my braid here at the camp,” he said sleepily.
“Okay,” I said.
The next day we asked our Lakota friend Marla Bull Bear about Maagnozit’s desire; if it would be appropriate here on Lakota land.
“You know that for us, our hair holds more than our DNA,” she told us. “It carries our life stories, it keeps us strong.”
She agreed, however, that if Maangozit felt strongly about it, it would be okay to leave his braid here.
We sat on the ground at Oceti Sakowin camp, and using the tiny scissors that are part of my utility knife, I slowly cut through his thick hair. The braid, cut free from his head, was heavier than I’d imagined. It was a thrilling, sensuous delight to hold it in my hand.
But, it was simply hair after all.
The braid had served its purpose; Maangozit had seen our struggle up close and understood.
We made a small fire and burned the braid, as is our way. Its ashes were grabbed quickly by the hungry prairie wind and distributed over the land near the Cannonball River. Preparing to leave, we pointed our rental pony east towards home. The remains of the braid, Maangozit’s DNA, remained behind mixed with the earth and water at Standing Rock, part of a land and story he was just beginning to understand.