Note: I recently ran across this article I wrote in 1998. I have intentionally not revised it and offer it now (2017) as an historical document that is much more relevant today than it should be. 20 years ago, genetically engineered food was a threat and, today, it still is, and continues to be a runaway train that needs to be stopped.

The Demise of Agriculture and the Collapse of Civilization
Virgil H. Huston Jr.

Agriculture is the most important activity practiced on the face of the earth. Without it, civilization, as we know it, would not exist. Farmers make it possible for everyone else to do what they do without worrying about feeding themselves. In a nation founded by farmers, today, less than 1.5% of the population produces our food. And, they are generally considered, especially those who are Southern, ignorant and backward folk. Society has decided that they have minimal value, as reflected in their limited earnings unless they are big-time operators.

Even so, if I had a choice, I would be a farmer. I did it for two years and, while the lifestyle was wonderful, I simply could not make a decent living at it. A farmer friend once told me that farming was a profession that offered unlimited overtime, unfortunately, that overtime comes without pay.

A ready food supply is so taken for granted that it is rarely considered newsworthy by the mainstream press. What you do see are usually copies of press releases from USDA or state Agriculture Departments. For people so dependent on farmers, we are incredibly ignorant about how our food is produced.

Collusion and Co-option in the Tossing of USDA Crumbs

Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I was a member of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, a collection of farmers and non-profit organizations pushing for USDA to adopt a more sustainable outlook toward farming in the Southern United States. I was also at the University of Georgia as a graduate student studying Southern agriculture from an anthropological perspective. I was in the Anthropology Department, not the Agriculture Department. This is important.

The USDA announced a competition for grant funding for a consortium to help the Extension Service learn more about sustainable agriculture methods. Among the requirements for successful proposals was participation of the Extension Service and at least one non-profit organization.

We decided to put a proposal together. Now, you must realize that my department was not part of the Agriculture School. We reasoned that, of all disciplines, anthropology was probably the best suited for a project like this and we had been working in this area and knew all the players. This seemed to be a project certainly not suited for the Agriculture School to lead, especially the Extension Service, since the purpose was to educate them, not have them educate themselves.

My first phone call was to the head of Agriculture Research at North Carolina State University, who was also on the funding decision board. I figured that he would make a good asset and I had met him a couple of times.

He didn’t know I was not part of the Agriculture School and expressed surprise that I was not aware of the meeting where all the Southern land grant university Ag Schools (except for Puerto Rico, they forgot or didn’t know that Puerto Rico was part of their region) had agreed that they would only support one proposal, a proposal to be headed by the Extension Service at one of the schools. They had fixed the grant. No one has ever denied that this agreement was made, only that they felt it didn’t constitute fixing the process. However, that it was fixed was reinforced by the selection process where they selected their own proposal. And, their proposal met virtually none of the proposal criteria.

They knew there would be no competition. To make a long story short, early in the process, we got a number of Extension folks across the region and nonprofit organizations to sign onto our proposal. Every single one of them backed out under pressure from the Extension Service and/or the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group activist organization leaders, who were also in on the fix. As soon as they found out we were doing a proposal, the pressure was applied. The one exception was the Puerto Rico Extension Service that the mainland schools had ignored (just another reason why Anthropology should have run this project).

Only two proposals were submitted and only ours met all the requirements. One of the reasons given ours was not approved was we didn’t have enough Extension Service participation (all we had was Puerto Rico because of the collusion). After the grant was awarded to the Extension Service proposal, we wrote every sustainable agriculture activist organization leader we knew, as well as USDA officials and members of Congress. We formally protested the decision and the process.

Not a single person responded or did anything about it, although privately every nonprofit person and a few USDA people I talked to in-person conceded that what happened was wrong. There was just too much to lose, in their minds, by angering the USDA. This was their reasoning for being silent. They all wanted the tiny amount of money the Clinton administration was throwing at sustainable agriculture while throwing bushels of money at agribusiness.

This small amount of money was enough to corrupt everyone, including the non profit organizations fighting for sustainable agriculture. We contacted news media and none were interested. Can you imagine what the reaction would have been if the subject was AIDS research and all the medical schools had openly conspired to fix grant funding? There is no excitement in agriculture.

My point here is simply that we who are concerned about the future of agriculture are faced with extremely powerful government agencies and agribusiness firms opposed to our agenda. Couple that with an apathetic public and news media, along with activist groups that have been co-opted, and you can see the problem.

Sustainable vs Industrial Agriculture

Sustainable and industrial agriculture represent two fundamentally opposed approaches to how we should produce our food.

Industrial agriculture views the farm as a factory with “inputs,” such as pesticides, labor, feed, fertilizer, seed, and fuel and “outputs,” such as grain, vegetables, and meat. The goal is to increase yield at any cost and to eliminate as much labor input as possible, while maximizing profits for agribusiness companies. This is accomplished with economies of scale, heavy synthetic chemical usage, and mechanization.

The cost per unit of growing 10,000 chickens is less than the unit cost of growing 100. Quality is not a factor in this process. These economies of scale result in, to name just a few; huge farms with no resemblance to the “family” farm many think still exists; a focus on very few commercial crop varieties; heavy reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers; and machines. Just remember that the food shortages in the world are not because we can’t produce enough, there are millions of fallow acres in the United States alone. The problem is distribution and money. There are no food shortages, only an unwillingness to get the food to every place it is needed.

Sustainable agriculture views a farm as a system, an “argoecosystem,” made up of elements like soil, plants, insects, and animals. These elements can be enriched and adjusted to solve problems and maximize yields. This approach is holistic: the emphasis is on the farm as an integrated whole, not as a set of merely inputs and outputs. It is also scientific, although modern agricultural research cannot adequately measure things like yields in non-mono crop operations (hence the myth that industrial agriculture is essential to providing enough food and fiber to sustain us). Sustainable agriculture doesn’t mean strictly organic, although organic may be part of it. It relies on knowledge about the elements and their interaction to achieve its results. It attempts to minimize external inputs. It is a powerful approach that can produce high yields and profits for farmers.

Historical Background

I am not going to go into detail about the history of agriculture in the South, other than bring us up to the present situation.

Southern agriculture was generally sustainable prior to the days of chemicals and machines, just as was agriculture in most other places. The industrial revolution required, in some people’s minds, a change, a way to get farmers off the land and into factories.

In 1862, at the request of President Lincoln, an agricultural and statistical bureau was created by Congress. It’s purpose, quite benign on the surface, was “to acquire and diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of the word.”

Later that year, the Morill Act was passed, which provided for what we now call land grant universities. Their purpose was, “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” This was often at the expense of the traditional classical curriculum. Occurring in the midst of a civil war, this is the first federal government attempt to control education in the states for its own ends. In the end, it was quite successful, destroying family farm oriented agriculture and filling northern factories with low wage and expendable workers who were dependent on others for their very lives.

But, it gets better. In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act was passed to establish a cadre of trained experts to bridge the gap between research and farmers. These Extension Agents eventually diffused to virtually all counties. D. B. Danbom argues that the Extension Service was really created to improve the efficiency of American agriculture to meet the needs of a rapidly industrializing nation, which was not necessarily in the best interests of the farmer.

Theodore Roosevelt said that, “successful manufacturing depends primarily on cheap food.” And Senator Gronna said, in 1922, that “the original idea from which the county agent arose was that the people as a whole needed a more efficient agriculture to the end of cheaper foods and fibers. Help to the individual farmer and the industry as a whole was only incidental.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Farming itself was industrialized. Improved transportation, refrigeration, mechanization, chemicals, and the continuing decline of agricultural profitability for family farms combined to change agriculture into what it has become today. Farming is big business and most farmers without huge amounts of capital and the willingness to meet the requirements of modern market forces have been left by the wayside. Those that are hanging on are continually in danger of being forced out of business.

The Bio-Tech Age – Three Examples

We are now moving out of the industrial age into the Bio-Tech age. This is already adversely affecting an agricultural system that is unsustainable both socially and environmentally into one even more unsustainable.

Genetic engineering is basically a set of technologies that allow us to artificially move functional genes across species boundaries to produce novel organisms. These technologies allow us to do things that could never occur in nature, no matter how drastic the mutation. It is different from traditional plant and animal breeding methods where crosses can only be made between naturally reproducing organisms. With genetic engineering, for example, we can implant genes from a fish into a plant crop.

I am going to briefly discuss three examples of genetic engineering (GE but commonly referred to as GMO) that are currently in place, along with the dangers of each. I am not going to discuss ethical considerations of this technology, other to say I am personally opposed to it on both ethical and practical grounds. Nor am I going to discuss the possible health hazards associated with eating genetically altered foods. These dangers are real, I believe more so than the very real health issues already associated with the current system.

BT Crops

BT, or Bacillus thuringiensis, are soil bacteria that produce toxins that kill specific insects. Different strains produce different toxins, but all attack the larva of a particular insect, such as boll weevil, corn worm, and Colorado potato beetle. BT is an organic, narrow spectrum pesticide which is nontoxic to non target organisms and the environment. It is among the most important insect control mechanisms for organic farmers.

It is normally used sparingly, as any pesticide should, so as not to unnecessarily induce resistance in target species. One application upon noticing an infestation is often enough. Now, there are crops that have been genetically engineered to contain a gene for BT toxin. The altered crop produces BT toxin in all cells of the plant throughout the growing season. In 1997, in the united States alone, seven million acres were planted in BT corn, two million in BT cotton, and 25,000 in BT potato.

So, what’s the problem, you may ask? It sounds great, doesn’t it? Not really. Insects have an amazing ability to develop resistance to pesticides (so do weeds). The key here is that the insects are constantly exposed to the BT toxin. This has not been a problem with BT as used by organic farmers, since they use it so sparingly. Having the BT toxin present throughout the growing season will greatly accelerate insect resistance to BT.

The result is twofold. First, organic farmers will no longer be able to use BT as a primary means of pest control. The use of this valuable natural insecticide will be lost as insect populations do not respect property boundaries. Second, once BT resistance has been developed, conventional farmers will have to return to using synthetic chemical pesticides. Agrochemical companies will love this.

Terminator and Verminator Technology

This is some seriously evil stuff. Terminator and verminator are different approaches to the same thing. Both allow for the development of seeds that cannot be saved for replanting. Primary crops to be subjected to this technology are self-pollinating species, such as wheat, rice, oats, sorghum, and soybeans, staples for most of the world, as well as tobacco and cotton.

Terminator technology was developed and patented jointly by the USDA and Delta and Pine Land Company, the major cotton seed producer in the United States. As of now, Monsanto is in the process of acquiring Delta and Pine Land Company. Monsanto is the number two seed and number one agrochemical company in the world.

Even though the USDA participated in and funded much of the research, a private company (soon to be Monsanto) owns the licensing rights. Monsanto has been called “the Microsoft of microbiology” and “the Monster.” This technology will be particularly targeted at the Third World, but has much significance in the US. The technology basically makes the embryos in the second generation seed sterile, by using both bacterial and plant genes and can potentially be used on any crop.

In response to this obvious market coup, the United Kingdom company, Zeneca BioSciences has recently applied for patents in 58 countries for its seed killer, dubbed “the Verminator” by critics. This technology uses a gene from fat cells in the common rat to require that affected seed be treated with Zeneca’s chemicals before it will germinate or properly produce. Thus, Zeneca could pre-treat the seeds and sell them similarly to Terminator seeds or make farmer purchased and applied chemicals attractive by marketing the seed with a prevention of premature germination pitch.

The dangers are enormous. Use of these seeds could be pushed on unsuspecting farmers, leading to eventual dilution of traditional crop varieties until they are completely dependent on the corporate seed. Worse, use of these seeds may render other farmers unable to continue to use traditional varieties due to unintentional cross breeding with these “suicide” seeds. Finally, it is entirely possible that crosses with wild and weedy relatives could occur that could lead to unknown damage to other plant varieties and further decrease biodiversity.

Herbicide Resistant Crops

Round-Up ready soybeans and cotton are examples of the new crops that are able to withstand herbicide applications that would kill a normal crop. This is, to me, the complete industrialization of agriculture and is about as far from sustainable as you can get. If you have ever compared a shovelful of soil from a properly managed field (organic or not) with one from an intensive chemical operation, you will know what I mean. The managed field is alive, but the chemical field has no life. You won’t find an earthworm nor microorganisms.

Herbicide resistant crops encourage much more use of these poisons. That is bad enough, but there are other problems. This resistance has already been shown to cross into wild and weedy relatives. Just what we need, weeds that are resistant to herbicides. This leads to two things. More and more use of these chemicals (in an industry that is already the most polluting) and will require development of new and more powerful herbicides to counter the resistance. The agrochemical companies love this. That is why these crops were developed in the first place. It wasn’t to help farmers or to save the world.

Solutions?

I hate to complain about something if I can’t offer some kind of solution. I wonder if people just don’t care as long as food is in the grocery store and is cheap. Or, do they really not know about what is going on?

As with most societal problems, the answer lies with our past and its agrarian roots. A return to community, the revitalization of our farm towns across the state. South Carolina, for example, is fully capable of producing almost all of its own food. There may come a time when you have to grow your own food or buy it from someone you trust if you want natural foods, both plant and animal.

The FDA is in no rush to label genetically altered foods. You are probably already consuming rBGH milk without knowing it because of Monsanto’s heavy handedness. And it is even unclear at this time if the National Organic Standards will even exclude them. They were permitted in the draft.

It is up to us to take care of ourselves and support the farmers who could produce the food if we would only let them.

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I met so many cool people at Standing Rock. All of us thrown together in a crazy mess with a common goal to do whatever we could to stop the pipeline. Common goal and common love. Beautiful. What was insane is that I met two other South Carolina vets there at the gym.

I was taking a break from my work in the kitchen and noticed a couple of sleeping pads and some gear next to my cot. The place was starting to fill up. There was a long haired skinny guy wearing Guatemalan hippie pants and, as I approached, the smell of patchouli permeated the air. I am thinking, hot damn, this guy has to be a Deadhead. It was Walid, from Columbia, SC. Very nice guy and a major social activist. Turns out he is also an ex-Marine. Not a Deadhead, though, I didn’t hold that against him too much.

He didn’t look like my vision of an ex-Marine. I don’t look like an Army vet, either. He was born in Kuwait and is an actor in some pretty recognizable TV shows like Homeland, Outcast, and Iron Man. Despite his peaceful appearance, he had come to Standing Rock to take whatever abuse the police could throw at him. He was a lot more ready to get himself hurt than I was. I think a lot of the veterans were looking for some action. It is what we do, I guess, on some level. I wanted some action, too, like having the pipeline shut down permanently, preferably peacefully.

 

Walid the Actor

Walid the Actor, I saw one pic of him in full Taliban regalia on the set of a TV show, I think Homeland.

 

Walid and I outside the Rec Center

Walid and I outside the Rec Center

 

Before heading back to work, I went to the smoking area where this big in a not fat way, slightly balding guy wearing Marine field pants, bummed a smoke off me. We got to talking as people in smoking areas do. Turns out he had seen some shit in the taking of the Kandahar airport and in Kabul. He is a writer, too, and a graphic novelist in the last stages of editing his epic. His own blog series on the Standing Rock trip is excellent. Read his work here. I highly recommend all episodes from the beginning:

Robert Chambers Musings and Brusings 

This was Robert, an ex-Marine infantryman and self-described bi-polar intellectual barbarian. Just my type of person. I always get along with guys like this although I am never as hard core on the barbarian part. Not to mention he is brilliant. I have mentioned all through my writing about how screwed up Veterans Stand was. Robert is not as kind as I, he bashed the hell out of them, saying the leaders came for the publicity and left as soon as they could, leaving thousands of veterans completely stranded.

 

Robert and I outside the Rec Center

Robert and I outside the Rec Center

 

Robert and Walid were indeed stranded. Their car was 120 miles south in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, the other end of the reservation. And the roads were closed. They had come up on buses arranged by Veterans Stand. Those buses were nowhere to be seen and there was no communication with anyone with Vets Stand. Robert and Walid, like me, were lucky they ended up at the Rec Center and not the casino. The casino was nothing but veterans overflowing and overwhelming the place. Nothing anyone was doing there was helping the NODAPL cause, they were having trouble taking care of themselves.

Robert and Walid had spent the night at the camp. They actually found the veteran’s tent Brent and I couldn’t. It had not been erected properly. I have been in a tornado in one of those tents and it stayed up. It was in the minus 20s that night and their tent blew down. Brent and I had come so close to finding that same tent. They had a rough night and you can read about it on Robert’s blog here.

In the confusion of falling tents and arctic weather, some of Walid’s gear was stolen, reminding us that not everyone at camp are good people. In a positive place like this, that is always sad. In the morning, they found a ride to the Rec Center and our paths converged for a while.

I had met a couple of the Rez dogs on Monday. One was “Puppy,” a young dog with a cut on its head that didn’t seem to bother him much. Puppy kept getting kicked out into the cold because he was, well, a puppy and acted like a puppy. He would always find a way back in. Then, there was “Old Dog,” by far my favorite and a dog the media people had adopted. A local dog, he wouldn’t go home and the owners gave up trying to keep him there. He had a sore on one of his footpads. A young teenage local reservation girl who had befriended me asked what we could do to help Old Dog. We decided that some antibiotic ointment and a bandage might help. We got it on him and it lasted at least a couple of hours before he took it off. These are some tough dogs, they can live outside if they have to. Many did. Maudie would have been super jealous. She also would have had a heart attack over how cold it was.

 

Robert and Puppy and Walid and Old Dog

Robert, Puppy, Walid and Old Dog

 

Robert was a dog person and made friends with both these beasts. He left his sleeping pad on the ground so Old Dog could sleep with him. Anyone who loves dogs like this is OK by me.

 

Robert and Old Dog

Robert and Old Dog

 

Back to the kitchen for me.

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Dinner Monday night was pure ambrosia, beef stew over rice. It was a meal to be savored. I hadn’t had any food since 5 AM and was starving. It would have been good no matter what. I slept as well as I ever do, except when I was awakened by an older woman with long grey hair that obviously had been trying to rouse me for a while. It seems I had been given her daughter’s cot pad. I am sure I looked a sight. I gave the pad to her, found another one, and went back to sleep. Both her and her daughter thanked me the next day for being so gracious. Well, it was the daughter’s pad.

In the morning, the blizzard was still going strong and I was thankful I had brought extra packs of cigarettes. No one was going anywhere without a four-wheel drive with snow tires. I ended up giving many to my less well prepared fellow addicts. You always meet people in the smoking area, a great thing for introverts. It was in the alcove at the entrance. I felt a bit sorry for the nonsmokers, but they were cool and it was brutal outside. Everyone was getting along and making an effort, it was nice to see.

One of the locals told us that you couldn’t get American Spirit cigarettes anywhere on the reservation. Hmmm. I met more people. There was John, a white guy from California. Tall and skinny, he was wearing one piece coveralls and is my age or older, he looked tired. He was the water truck guy. As I reached out my hand to shake, he held out his left hand, apologizing that he couldn’t use his right due to multiple back and shoulder surgeries and ongoing issues.

 

Water Truck at Oceti Sakowin Camp

Love Water purification truck at Oceti Sakowin

 

I later got a hug from him. The only other place I have seen more hugging amongst strangers was Grateful Dead shows. But, I digress. John was a longtime activist, having worked in sustainable living and community gardens, as well as doing some teaching as part of that work. He was one of the hardest working people I met. He had been there awhile and slept on a cot at the top of the bleachers. He had brought a water purification truck that supplied much of the water at Oceti Sakowin Camp, the Love Water Truck that had been decorated beautifully by a camp artist. He and his helpers were doing incredibly important work. I never got his last name and hope I run into him again. I don’t know how long a person can keep up the demanding pace of being a long term water protector.

The Rec Center was the logistics hub for camp. It was also the home to the camp media people, they were from everywhere and their job was to get out the camp’s message to the world. They all worked on tables in the large room by the kitchen where there was electricity and Internet. Most slept there, as well. The only outside journalist that was allowed into the Rec Center was Sandy Tolan, an LA Times writer, professor at UCLA, and ally to the camp. He has written some excellent articles, including one where he interviewed a couple of my friends. I apparently wasn’t cool enough to be interviewed. Check out his work here. Excellent writer. CNN and the like were not to be trusted and the general consensus is that media like that were only interested in the sensational aspects of the resistance, the more violent the better.

 

Oceti Sakowin Camp symbol

All the camp media folks had badges with this on it.

I met a few of the media folks. I took very few pictures and got very few names. I regret that, but it was that kind of trip, living in the moment and not thinking about keeping in long term touch. Two of them were professional activists that travelled to places to do their journalistic thing as a way of helping the causes they believed in. One was a French man who is north of 50-years old, another tall and lanky one with creases in his face, he had been in the trenches a long time. I can’t remember his first name. Another was one of the few black people I saw, middle aged with dreads down his back and the same lines on his face. He is a photographer and videographer. At least I got his first name, Kevin. These are some dedicated folks. If I could afford it, I would be working long term right beside them all.

 

There was the heavy set middle aged woman with children and her elderly mother, both natives from a state I do not associate with Indians today. Iowa, maybe. They had a chihuahua with a leg missing that protected their cot area. They were long termers and the kids went to school at Standing Rock. They had come from the camp, perhaps knowing better than many others what was going to happen when the blizzard hit. Smart move. The kids were pretty cool and no one yelled when an errant basketball hit them on the back of the head.

I was on my own at the Rec Center and, as Sunny and others had told me, I was where I was supposed to be. I needed to find something to do that would actually help the camp. With the exception of a handfull of veterans where I was, most had ended up at the Prairie Knights Casino a few miles down the road near Fort Yates. They had overwhelmed the casino. Communications was spotty, but I was in occasional texting contact with someone there, the only person associated with Veterans Stand that ever responded to texts or phone calls. More on this later, but hearing from him made me very happy I wasn’t at the Casino.

 

Veterans ended up at the Prairie Knights Casino

The majority of veterans ended up at the Prairie Knights Casino, overwhelming the facility

 

I had found a job to make myself useful that morning helping Sunny pick up donation packages from the post office, then sorting them. Both personal mail and general donation mail was coming in. It was the camp’s official address. Mail to individuals had to be set aside and safeguarded. Donations were broken down and either given to specific groups, such as the medics or camp kitchens, or categorized and made available to anyone who needed them. Lots of cold weather clothing, hand warmers, socks, and even boots were being sent.

It turned out that the post office was closed that day because of the blizzard and we finally gave up checking to see if it was open. Sunny got a day of much needed rest and I found another job in the kitchen.

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It was dark, but Brent knew his way around the reservation. Cannon Ball was just a few miles from camp. We turned left off Highway 1806 and headed into this very small town of under 1000 people. We went to the school, thinking that was where the gym is. It was obvious that no one was there as we plowed through the snow drifts in the driveway and parking lot. Then, we started driving around. At least it was a very small town.

Due to the blizzard, no one was out and about. We came across a guy with a pickup truck pulling a car out of a huge drift in the road. We stopped and helped, then asked the man where the gym was. He pointed just down the side road, we were almost on top of it. We got back in the Explorer and promptly got stuck in the same drift. The man, who lived a few houses away, it turned out, pulled us out and we arrived at what was the Cannon Ball Recreation Center, a gym with an adjoining kitchen and meeting room area.

We walked into the building. The gym floor had some cots set up and was not that crowded. Lots of people sitting on the bleachers hanging out, a few in groups of cots. We asked the first person we saw if this was where the veterans were. They didn’t know. No one knew. Of course that was the answer. We were taken into the large adjacent office/meeting area that had the kitchen. Rows of tables and people sitting at computers. The leader we talked to there said she didn’t know about the veterans, but we were welcome to stay there. Finally, a place to park ourselves. I had essentially had no sleep in 36 plus hours. You have no idea how nice it was to have somewhere to lay my weary head.

 

Cannon Ball Recreation Center with Brent

Outside my new home for the next few days with Brent, this picture taken on Thursday morning

 

We went outside to get my gear. Even though the blizzard was still going full force and it was dark, Brent decided he was going to try and make the ten mile or so run to his parent’s house in Solen. He asked if I wanted to go, but I decided that the gym was fine by me. Maybe there I could find out what was going on. I figured that going to the comforts of a home would be a cop out of sorts. I was here to help and participate in protecting the water. I have done my share of sleeping in close quarters on cots in Afghanistan and Iraq. I actually sleep pretty darn well on a cot. I wished him well and I was on my own. He made it and the next time I would see Brent was Wednesday.

I dragged my stuff into the gym, putting it in a pile near the bleachers where there were boxes piled up and open containers with donated items from gloves to toothpaste to sweaters that had been sent for the water protectors to take what they needed. It reminded me of the care packages we used to get in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then I met my first friend. It was Sunny, who was sitting amongst the boxes. She was a long term water protector and told me where I could put my cot, so I staked out a small patch of floor in front of the donations area. It was a good place, it turns out, as it was where her and another long termer slept and I was not in the transient area. I learned the lay of the land quickly.

 

Sunny and me at the Cannon Ball Recreation Center

Sunny befriended me when I arrived at the gym and taught me the ropes. What a lovely and kind soul.

 

As we got to know each other a bit as people do when having first met, I mentioned that I was dismayed that I couldn’t seem to connect with the veterans I had come to be a part of. She told me that I was where I needed to be. I had ended up at the gym for a reason. I heard those exact words from at least twenty other people there, all separate encounters. Veterans Stand was part of the narrative, but I had ended up at what we in the military would call the forward logistics base for Oceti Sakowin Camp. This was the real deal and I was now in the middle of it.

The shit really hit the fan on Tuesday at the Rec Center here, but Monday evening, it was still fairly quiet and not crowded. I met a number of people this night and it was enlightening. There were quite a few white folks and a couple of blacks, but the majority were native Americans from everywhere. When people told me where they were from, I often had not even heard of the tribe and I am fairly conversant with North American prehistory.

There was a pastor and nonviolent resistance trainer who had come with a large interfaith group. They weren’t part of Veterans Stand, but they had come because of it and had participated in the veteran’s rally earlier in the day. His son was military and he was almost apologetic that he wasn’t a veteran only because, to him, this seemed to be a veteran thing. He didn’t perhaps realize that the veterans were latecomers to the fight and that others had been here for months. This person was a pacifist and hadn’t been happy his son had joined the military. When he realized I was very anti-war, he asked me how I had ended up in Iraq, especially as I was old enough to have been in Vietnam. Just like his son, I said, I had joined after 911 because I was pissed and wanted to do something. And, like his son, war has that romantic quality that sends people to war where they find out all those notions are lies.

Every single native American thanked me for coming and supporting them. I knew there were mixed feelings about the veterans taking over the spotlight and some veterans claiming they were why the Corps of Engineers had, on Sunday, denied the Energy Transfer Partners easement to go under Lake Oahe and the Missouri River.

 

Horses and Women Leaders at Standing Rock

Yes, there are Horses at Oceti Sakowin Camp. And some of the major leaders are women and elders. Indian cultures recognize the importance of these people, unlike US culture that marginalizes women and casts out the old. At my age, 61, I have been seeing how the US treats its elders firsthand for quite a few years now.

 

I learned a valuable lesson about cultural differences that night. And I am an anthropologist and should have known that there were incredible examples of selfless non-Western cultural attitudes right here in the USA. We so often forget our own backyards. These people all were sincerely thankful for those of us who had come to support what was much more than a fight over clean water. It was also a human rights fight of the first order.

These are lessons on how to live we should all heed. I knew, before I decided to go, that we were entering a resistance movement that had been going on for months. We were going for only a few days. One thing that still rubs me the wrong way was Veterans Stand being touted by its leadership as the cavalry coming in to save the day. Partly that was because the US Cavalry were the ones who had massacred women and children and were the point of the colonial spear that destroyed the Indian nations, including the Sioux. Not a good choice of wording.

Others said that we were going to reclaim the word. In any case, Wesley Clark Jr had been in the cavalry during his short stint in the US Army and he was going to use it. He even wore the cavalry hat and the coat of a dress blue uniform that I thought looked ridiculous in pictures. I was sensitive that we were possibly stepping on the toes of the long timers in coming in.

 

Wesley Clark in US Cavalry Uniform

I thought the use of the word cavalry and wearing the distinctive US Army cavalry hat was tacky. The publicity whoring was pretty tacky, as well.

 

I am a product of western culture and I know how our society likes to take credit for things and not share the glory. For whatever reason, I have always been one to shy away from taking credit for things and always have pointed out those that have contributed to success of anything I have ever been involved with. This propensity to not “blow my own horn” has hurt me professionally over the years in a society where life is cutthroat and it is “every man for himself.”

So, I was gratified and surprised when all the native Americans displayed nothing but sincere appreciation and happiness that I and others had come to support them. People were as helpful as any I have ever seen. They simply had no egos in the negative western sense of what an ego is. What a refreshing and wonderful thing. The only egos I have seen with water protectors have come from their white allies and I saw very little of that. This lack of ego attitude is infectious. This is the biggest lesson I got out of this entire adventure and one we should all learn from.

We are all one.

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We were now at the head of the line of vehicles heading to the camp as we started inching forward again on the icy road. I motioned for the four wheel drive HUMMER behind us to pass and take the lead. We had met the driver during the traffic jam. He was a native American veteran who had been a Ranger in Vietnam. He was from Nevada. As we were on a hill, we weren’t sure we were going to make it. In retrospect, maybe we should have left him behind us, he could have pulled us up the hill.

As we approached the Cannon Ball River bridge just up the road from where we had spent the past couple of hours, we saw tipis on the reservation side. It was a bit confusing as I thought the camp was on the north side of the river on Corps of Engineers claimed land. It turns out what we were seeing was Rosebud Camp and Sacred Stone Camp. These are on private reservation land (see Part Two – Protest Camps, Police Overreach, and Veterans). Sacred Stone is the original water protector camp and Rosebud is run by members of the Sicangu Sioux from Rosebud, SD, and includes many tribes and allies.

Visibility was poor, but you could see Oceti Sakowin Camp as we approached the bridge. It was huge, bigger than I expected. A fence line ran along the roadside that was lined with flags. All kinds of flags. Mostly tribal, I didn’t realize how many Indian tribes there were in North America. And it looked like they were all represented. It turns out that this is the largest cooperative action amongst First Nation tribes perhaps ever. The last time that all the Sioux nations cooperated was in 1876. Just seeing all those flags made me aware of the magnitude of this snow covered camp in the middle of nowhere in North Dakota.

 

First View of Oceti Sakowin Camp

First view of Oceti Sakowin camp from the Cannon Ball River bridge. We finally made it.

 

We pulled into the main entrance. There was a plywood “guard shack” and we asked if they knew where the Veterans Stand headquarters was. They didn’t. Uh oh. We asked others the same question as we slowly drove on uneven roads that weren’t really roads. No one knew. We found a place to park. While we were stuck in traffic with the bus on Highway 1806, I had gotten out my winter clothes and started putting on layers. No long johns, I figured if we found a place to spend the night at camp, I could put those on once there. I put on another pair of socks and extra tops, made sure my gloves and inserts were ready, and got my headgear together.

 

Oceti Sakowin Camp Upper Entrance

Oceti Sakowin Camp upper entrance, guard shack on right.

 

I am glad no one was video taping me when I got out of the Explorer. I couldn’t have done a comedy sketch better than these real world totally unprepared for gale force winds and extreme cold antics. I immediately knew my boots were not going to work well on the ice. In the fresh snow, OK, not on ice. My desert camo Gore-Tex over pants that I had never actually worn before were too big and wouldn’t stay up (I donated them later, maybe they would fit someone). Way too big, and the drawstring wasn’t cutting it. I had on a balaclava and my Afghan keffiyeh around my neck. I was counting on my jacket hood, that I had never used before, to be the outer layer and wind protection. Except I needed a hat to contain it. Damn thing went down to my nose no matter what I did. I couldn’t see anything. Then, a lens from my glasses popped out. Shit, my only pair of glasses. I found it on the snow, thank god. The glasses went into my pocket. Lesson learned was to always do a dry run on things like this before actually getting into the situation where it was needed.

But, I knew that and hadn’t done it. What an idiot. It was embarassing. Brent was trying to help me get situated, then went off to find the veterans while I tried to get my shit together. Finally, I got it together, but the walking on ice thing was going to remain an issue. I had no other footwear. A pair of bedroom slippers would have been better.

Brent came back and said he had signed us into the camp itself, but hadn’t found anyone who specifically knew where the elusive veterans were. We also found out that there were multiple groups of veterans, but they had all been there longer and were not part of Veterans Stand. Someone said look for an Army tent. We looked around. Even in the low visibility and dimming daylight, half the tents in the camp were Army tents. Tan Army tents. Green Army tents. GP mediums all over the place. Old canvas Army tents. We started looking in tent flaps and asking. No one knew. We saw a sign for Vets Rally registration and followed the arrow. We never found anything. We later learned we were very, very close and were extremely lucky we never found it. Turns out what few Veterans Stand folks were still in the camp had been in green Army tents. None of the leaders had stayed in camp, we found out later.

 

Vets Rally Sign

We ended up being really fortunate that this sign didn’t help us find the Vet’s tent. This sign was for the rally earlier in the day.

 

It was starting to get dark and the blizzard was still going strong. We had no place to stay and the only thing happening at the camp was people dealing with the weather. The events of the day were long over and we had missed them. We needed to find a place to spend the night and it looked like camp had its hands full. Worst case was sleep in the Explorer. That would have been OK if it came to that, but not particularly pleasant.

We asked around about places to stay. Where had the veterans gone? There were thousands here earlier in the day. No one knew. The loudspeaker kept telling people to get out while they could or find a warm place for the night. Up at the sacred fire, the central meeting place, we were told that the gym in Cannon Ball was open. We decided to head there and then find out what was going on. I am not sure why I kept thinking that we had to find the Veterans Stand people. That was why we had come and that is what we were supposed to do. We had a mission.

We decided to head for Cannon Ball. One thing about being as far north as we were is that in winter it gets light later and dark earlier. Darkness was falling quickly. It took a couple more hours to get back on Highway 1806 from the camp. There was a lot of traffic for one. Driving was treacherous, for another. We tried to go out the same entrance we came in. There was quite a little hill leading up to it. We tried and tried for a long time, but the front wheel drive Explorer with Florida tags (a rental, remember) that we picked up in Savannah was not having anything to do with it. A friendly native American told us to try the other entrance that was closer to the bridge. We finally found the road leading that way and got into the traffic.

 

Oceti Sakowin Camp Upper Exit

The front wheel drive Explorer was not getting up this hill. Maybe it was the Florida tags.

 

The camp was on plains land that had no roads. It was all grass and dirt, now snow and ice. No road signs, no police directing traffic (they were too busy helping Energy Transfer Partners hurt the water protectors). There were a few camp residents helping to direct people. It was a madhouse. We finally made it to the exit and, as there was a sharp, short rise going to the road, Brent waited for the car ahead of us to clear the hill. We made a run for it, tires spinning and an Indian on Highway 1806 motioning us frantically to cut the wheel as we hit the road. Slipping and sliding, we made it. It was completely dark by now.

 

Lower Oceti SakowinCamp Exit

Somewhere over there is the road that goes to the lower camp exit.

 

We crept back to Cannon Ball slowly to find the gym.

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Across the bridge and we were on the reservation. We turned onto the now infamous Highway 1806 that goes north to Fort Yates, Cannon Ball, and on into Bismarck. Just over the Cannon Ball River in the north, the highway has been closed because of the water protector camps. Emergency vehicles going to and from the reservation and Bismarck have to take much longer routes. All for some idea of safety as dreamed up by the Morton County sheriff. Yeah, closing the road also keeps people away from the drilling areas and allows the police unlimited maneuver room.

Highway 1806 Backwater bridge near Standing Rock

The infamous Backwater bridge just north of the water protector camps that is the front line of the resistance against DAPL. Gotta love the MRAPS the police feel they need against non-violent protests.

It was snowing. In a manner of minutes, it was snowing a lot. The wind was blowing and the flakes were often sideways. Buildup on the road was starting and it was getting slick. We slowed down and stayed slow for the duration.

We were 70 miles or so south of Cannon Ball, the last reservation town before you got to Oceti Sakowin camp. The snow became a blizzard that never let up. The closer we got, the more cars and trucks were in ditches along the road. It was brutal. Locals were sliding off the roads. Our front wheel drive Explorer was not doing a good job.

North of Mobridge, blizzard starting on December 5th

It was getting bad quickly. This shot is closer to Mobridge, South Dakota, than to Fort Yates and Cannon Ball, North Dakota. It only got worse.

Thank goodness for us, Brent knew how to drive in this stuff. He grew up here. I would have been in a ditch within minutes. It was rough going, every hill was a challenge and at times we had to go around someone spinning their tires in the middle of the road. A couple of times we had to back up and make a run for it. It was harrowing. We were in the middle of nowhere and I was wondering who had picked up all the people whose empty cars were now stuck on the side of the road.

We hadn’t heard from anyone. The only thing we had seen was a Facebook video of veterans marching at the camp earlier in the day, before the snow. It could have been December 4th for all we knew, the veterans had started arriving as early as Saturday and there was no snow in the video. We had heard that a possible staging area was the high school in Fort Yates, it was the only thing we had. We finally made it to the high school. Snow was drifting three plus feet by now and we plowed through the parking lot to the main entrance. What we found were a bunch of students and staffers who knew nothing about any veterans staging area. I heard later that the students had ended up having to spend the night there due to the blizzard.

Getting close to Oceti Sakowin camp and cars stuck on the side of the road

Getting close to Oceti Sakowin camp and cars stuck on the side of the road. This was just before we came on the bus.

We had no place to go. We decided that the only place was the camp. We would at least be able to hook up with the veterans there. We thought. It was 1:30 PM and we had something like 19 miles to go, Low visibility, snowing like hell, and driving was treacherous. Two hours later and we had gone 15 miles. We can barely see, but we are getting close. Hours later, as darkness was falling, we made it.

But before that, we were held up for a couple of hours by a charter bus that had gone into a ditch. We were within walking distance of the camp by now. The bus was full of veterans who had been at the camp and were now trying to get back to Eagle Butte. Whatever veteran events had occurred were long over and people were getting out of camp. Things were pretty much shut down there due to the blizzard, we learned. We missed getting past the bus by one vehicle as they closed the road on both sides. The road had backed up vehicles both coming and going from camp. Bummer.

Bus in ditch just south of NODAPL camp

The bus was trying to get out of the camp and back to Eagle Butte during the blizzard. They made it out of the ditch, but I don’t think they made it to Eagle Butte.

We had been in the Ford Explorer for over 27 hours. It was warm and comfortable in there, at least. Brent had to be exhausted, but he didn’t show it. There was a huge motor grader that was being used as a snow plow. They were going to try and use it to get the bus out of the ditch. The rear end was in the ditch, so a chain was hooked up to the back. Everyone was still in the bus. Pulling from the back resulted in the front end sliding over toward the ditch and I thought the bus was going to tip over. Scary.

An hour later, they hooked up to the front and tried again. Before that, they wisely emptied out the bus and the veterans were standing out in the cold and wind. There was a young woman in her uniform who was clearly having a nervous breakdown and a middle aged woman, also wearing a uniform, who was trying to help the young one. We let them get into the back seat of the Explorer, even though we were heading to the camp they were escaping from. They were very grateful. The last thing they wanted to do was return to the camp, though. It seems that the young one hadn’t been able to handle the cold and blizzard. A lot of people weren’t prepared for what Mother Nature was offering up this day.

Backed up traffic heading to camp

Backed up traffic heading to camp. There were just as many heading south, away from camp.

This time it worked and the bus was back on the road. The women and other veterans who had vacated the bus got back on it and headed south. We headed north to the camp. With all the traffic going away from camp, I wondered what we were going to find there. There was still a long string going there, however. Guess we would find out.

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As my wife drove me to the I20 exit where I was meeting Brent that Sunday for the drive to Standing Rock, she asked me if I knew anything about the person I was about to spend the next 25 hours in a car with. Was it possible he was an axe murderer? “Well, I talked to him on the phone and he sounded nice. And, and, and…, he is a Marine veteran, so he has to be OK.”

That was part of what this trip was about for me, the veteran thing. We need each other at times, especially when we have been away from the military for a while. It never leaves us, the good or the bad. No one else really understands that. Not just combat vets, but anyone who served. We come from as widely varied backgrounds as you can get, but we all have that common bond. For combat vets, other vets are the only people we can speak to about certain things. They don’t judge and they understand on some relevant level regardless of their own personal experiences. This common bond is very strong.

I knew in my gut that Brent would be a good guy and that we would get along. He said his wife had asked him a similar question about me and he had given her a similar response. Military people are used to being thrown into situations that are uncertain and unknown with other people we at first do not know. And we make shit work in the face of often overwhelming odds.

Brent is indeed a great guy. He is 20-25 years younger than me, but age doesn’t matter much with veterans, our common bond spans what service you were in, what wars, and over time. All wars are pretty much the same when you get right down to it. No matter where or when, soldiers are always amazed that the military is able to get the simplest things done, but somehow it does.

Brent in Mobridge

My Marine travelling buddy Brent. You can see the Missouri River/Lake Oahe out the window as we approach the bridge in Mobridge, South Dakota. Standing Rock Reservation is on the other side of the bridge.

It also turns out that he is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock tribe and grew up 11 miles from the resistance camps. He went to high school in Cannon Ball.

It was only on Monday as we entered the blizzard that I realized how lucky I was having hooked up with someone who knew the lay of the land on the reservation. Plus, the pipeline and all that it meant was personal for him, very personal. As we drove, we hit it off and got to know each other.

He had the rental car and had started out a couple of hours before he picked me up, so he got first shift driving. I was worried about the straight through driving, especially as it would be evening before it was my turn to take over. I do not have the stamina for driving I did in my younger days. I didn’t want to let him down and I sure as hell didn’t want to have to stop to rest on the way. The rental was extremely comfortable and easy to drive fast in, a front wheel drive Ford Explorer. That would help. We weren’t going to make the original meetup in Eagle Butte, so we headed straight for the camp. Pretty much the same route in either case as we were coming in from the south rather than going north to Minnesota and then west to Bismarck.

The last time I had been west was driving to El Paso, Texas, I20 almost all the way, then I10. I hadn’t been west of the eastern continental divide and north of I20 since the early 1970s. Since that time, I have travelled in Europe and Southwest Asia many times, but never in my own country. This was going to be an adventure.

We stopped in Atlanta at what has to be the most expensive outfitter store in the most expensive neighborhood in Atlanta. High Country Outfitters was a nice store and I knew it was going to be expensive, but I really needed a good pair of gloves. $65.00, but they are good ones. Got some hand warmers and waterproofing spray for our boots.

Then, it was just a whirlwind of driving and going through places that seemed exotic. Chattanooga, Nashville, St Louis and the arches at night. Saw the sign for Ferguson, MO, then one of those brown signs announcing the Downtown Ferguson Historic Site. I was tired by then and could only think, “What the hell, there is already an historic site designation for where Michael Brown was shot and killed by police?”

Ferguson Missouri sign

Yeah, my mind was wandering when we passed through Ferguson

We tried to find out what was happening in Standing Rock during the drive. There wasn’t much. The last post that was ever put on the Veterans Stand for Standing Rock Facebook event page was at 10:23 AM on Sunday, Dec 4:

The troops are arriving! Over 200 buses descending on Standing Rock!

Then it went completely dark. Both of us were constantly trying to connect with the contacts we had. Phone calls, texts, and emails all went unanswered. Not a good sign. Nothing about the events in the coming days was posted on the official event site. We were arriving late, but we figured we would get there and just fit into whatever was happening at the time. We knew there was bad weather coming. We didn’t realize just how bad. I didn’t expect communications to be nonexistant.

I was hitting NPR radio stations across the country in the hopes of news as I knew they had been covering the Veterans Stand event and profiling veterans who were making the trip. We heard about the Army Corps of Engineers decision on Sunday that the pipeline easement had been denied until an environmental impact statement could be completed. WTF? Was it over? Were we even needed anymore? And, why the hell hadn’t an environmental impact statement been done before? I assumed at least some sham impact statement had to have been done to “justify” Energy Transfer Partners moving on with this project. But there wasn’t. It made protesting this damn pipeline even more important.

This was the last thing we expected. It was good, very good. Was it because of all the publicity about the veterans going to Standing Rock? Were we responsible? I didn’t think so, but it was damn coincidental. I knew we were helping, but people had been fighting this fight for months. A few days before this, authorities had announced that the camps not on the reservation were being shut down. This did seem to be related to the veterans coming in big numbers and those announcements caused people to question going and might have made some people stay home to avoid confrontation over removal of the camps.

But, we were going there to get in a fight if, indeed, the authorities wanted a fight. Part of our mission was to put ourselves in a position to be attacked if that is what the police wanted to do. We wouldn’t provoke it, but we would be targets and in their faces. So, the threat of having a forcible removal of the camps really didn’t matter. Everything we were seeing was that the camps weren’t going anywhere. But, this “victory” of the pipeline easement denial was something else. Did we need to be there if victory had been achieved?

We really didn’t know and no one on the ground already was communicating with us. We figured that Energy Transfer Partners wasn’t going to give in that easily. We did see some posts about celebrations in the camps, but everything pointed to this not being over, although it was certainly at least a short term victory. We decided to keep going. Why not? No reason.

I am not sure where I took over driving, it was around 7 PM. I made it until 1 AM and was starting to hallucinate when I decided it was time to wake Brent up. Columbia, MO, then Kansas City, where we started heading north in a big way. Omaha, Sioux City, then into South Dakota. Souix Falls, Watertown, Aberdeen. It could have been a Grateful Dead song, but the cities weren’t the same.

Monday mid morning we hit Mobridge, SD, the last town before we entered the reservation. We stopped at a grocery store for some bottled water. It was cold and snow flakes were starting to come down. Very slowly, you had to really look to see them.

Bridge at Mobridge South Dakota going to Standing Rock Reservation

It was snowing as we crossed the bridge from Mobridge, South Dakota, to the Standing Rock Reservation

Having trouble seeing the snow come down didn’t last long.

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Virgil on December 26, 2016

Time was not on my side. I filled out the Veterans Stand roster and marked I was going to attend on the Facebook event page. That was pretty optimistic. I looked up prices for a flight. I could almost do a round trip to Europe or the British Isles for what it cost to fly in and out of Bismarck, North Dakota. Not to mention it takes many connections and hours to get there. If I fly, I would have to leave Saturday to get there on time. How could I get out of work on Saturday? And, if I got off work on Saturday, I could leave Friday night or Saturday morning and drive. Much cheaper that way.

Veterans Stand for Standing Rock Event

I said I was going. I guess I knew, deep down, it was going to happen

My conscience just wouldn’t let me do that at work, I had given my word I would be there Saturday. I continued to be excited and participate in discussions. I volunteered to help with organizing the operation. No one really seemed to be in charge and this went nowhere. It was a pattern. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, they closed the roster to new participants, they were at capacity, 2000 veterans, and there was no end in sight. Closing the roster was a good idea, but didn’t stop extra thousands from showing up. The gofundme kept climbing.

Now I had one of the coveted slots and there was no realistic way I was going to be able to go. Talk about a greedy bastard. Major guilt trip. Hope springs eternal, though, and I wasn’t giving up yet. I tend to do impractical things on a regular basis. Prices for flights were going up daily from expensive to being out of the question expensive. Then, there were no flights available at all, everything was booked. Not a lot of traffic into and out of Bismarck, North Dakota. The staging area then changed from Fort Yates, North Dakota, to Eagle Butte, South Dakota, another small town on this huge reservation, 125 miles to the south. This change was the result of the authorities hassling people heading to the camps from Bismarck and it was felt entrance onto the reservation from South Dakota would be safer. Rapid City, SD, was a closer airport, but there were only the original plans to shuttle people from Bismarck.

Eagle Butte South Dakota

This is a reservation bigger than many countries and states. For safety reasons, the staging area for Veterans Stand was moved away from the Bismarck, North Dakota, side.

Part of the organizing process was us being contacted by our state Regional Travel Leader (RTL) to make sure people could get there cost effectively and on time. Rental vans, and, from some places, charter buses, were being funded. This was not a fight being fought by rich folks who could just rent cars and buy plane tickets on a whim. No one had contacted me, in fact, no one commenting on the Facebook page or who I was otherwise in contact with knew who any of the RTLs were. One would think they could publish an organizational chart and contact information.

One of the people I was talking to seemed plugged into whatever the secret organizational structure was. I told her I would be happy to be the RTL for South Carolina. She sent me the roster with names and contact info and the email address of the head RTL. The head RTL never responded to my emails and it seems I never got plugged into whatever RTL chain of command there was. I did make contact with the guy acting as the Operations Officer for Veterans Stand, but he was slammed.

People were working their butts off, but it was chaos and I had no idea who the travel contacts were who could make things actually happen. No one was expecting this many veterans to drop what was going on in their lives to stand with the water protectors. I got that, it was a beast. There was the rostered group and there were all the others who came anyway, roster or not, because they, too, had to do it. Military people are used to making things happen with no resources. We adapt and overcome obstacles.

I was now in touch with some of the people in South Carolina and was supposed to figure out how to get them to Standing Rock. It was a fiasco on my end as no one that could do anything knew who I was and my wheels were spinning. I couldn’t even find out who the RTLs were for North Carolina and Georgia, as I had people right on the borders of each and was trying to hook them up with folks in adjacent states for rides.

It was frustrating. On Tuesday, I found out from one of the SC people that someone else had been made the SC RTL and I wasn’t on their list. Hmmm. This RTL was a very nice person from Nebraska who had been asked to do it. OK, if she could do it, more power to her. She was plugged into the chain and got rental vehicles arranged for some in the small SC contingent. I was pretty much resigned to not going as everyone was leaving long before I could. Then came an email from that wonderful Nebraska RTL. This was on Friday. I still hadn’t mentioned to my boss that I needed to be off after the next day.

I just remembered there is a gentlemen that is leaving early Sunday morning and is driving up if you want to travel with him. Let me know and I can give you his information.

She hooked me up with an ex-Marine from Beaufort, SC, the home of Parris Island. He had to work Saturday night as a DJ at a Christmas party. I emailed him, then called him. He would pick me up Sunday morning in a rental vehicle that had been authorized for him.

Shit, I wasn’t even packed yet and had to work Saturday. I needed to find lots of gear, most of it in bins in my barn. It was going to be cold. I would be sleeping on my own cot in a sleeping bag. Camping trips always require more gear than a hotel trip. I needed my own cup and plate, for example, and a utensil for food. Soap and toothpaste and towels. Multiple layers of clothes. I mean multiple layers. Lots of socks. I do not do cold well.

Packing to go to Standing Rock

Saturday night was packing time. I was glad I wasn’t flying and had to check all this stuff. Maudie knew something was up and she wasn’t going to be able to go.

Some of the items on the suggested packing list were unusual unless you have been deployed with the US military to a warzone. For example:

  • Water protection against water hoses (Rain Gear, Trash Bags, Ponchos)
  • Body Armor – Note: If you have ever been convicted of a felony, federal law prohibits the possession or wearing of ballistic armor. If arrested this can increase time in jail.
  • Gas Mask with Spare Filters
  • Cold Weather Sleeping Bag & Cot
  • Ear Plugs
  • Shooting Hearing Mufflers
  • Alternative Armor – Hard Motocross armor, Catchers shinguards
  • ABSOLUTELY NO WEAPONS WILL BE PERMITTED. NO EXCEPTIONS. Including – Firearms, Fixed Blade Knives, Batons, Etc.
  • ABSOLUTELY NO AMMO POUCHES ON GEAR. Although we all know that ammo pouches make good containers for other items, we are promoting peace. Please leave ammo pouches at home.
  • NO DRUGS OR ALCOHOL

Still, it was an unusual list for a peaceful protest right here in the USA. I didn’t have body armor any longer. I had to turn in my kevlar plates, gas mask (although I think I still have a spare filter somewhere), and helmet when I returned from deployment the last time. I wasn’t buying anything like that. This was a nonviolent action, I wasn’t looking to start any fights and really didn’t want one. Plus, I couldn’t afford it. If they sprayed us with water cannons, I had my waterproof outer jacket and my old Vietnam era cold weather overpants issued to me in the 1970s. The only thing I needed and didn’t have was a decent pair of gloves and inserts. I would have to get those before we got there. I also didn’t realize I needed goggles, but it turns out my new Marine buddy had me covered on that one.

I thought I had boots. Yeah, my desert boots I had worn in Iraq. These babies had canvas uppers designed to breathe in the heat. I didn’t realize until too late that also meant they would do a great job of absorbing cold air and moisture. Not to mention the frigging soles. Vibram soles that were slick as snot on ice. Not recommended. I brought my old metal canteen cup. Along with Army issued long underwear and cold weather gaiter and balaclava, I was going to be in some uniform items. No one would really be able to tell that, but when I was dressed in all that cold weather stuff, no one would be able to recognize me at all.

Desert combat boots I wore in Iraq

Nothing like desert combat boots in minus 0 degree F temperatures

I also brought my old combat lifesaver bag to donate to the medics at the camp (real medics called us combat lifetakers in Iraq as we only had a few days of training, trust me, you did not want me giving you an IV). I threw away all the outdated IV bags, but everything else was good. It wasn’t doing me any good in my barn. I took some extra polypros (Army long underwear) and wool socks to donate that I was never going to use.

Sunday, my new Marine buddy Brent picked me up and I was on the road.

Canteen cup and boot soles

Canteen cup with years of Army memories and the worst soles for walking on ice ever.

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Read Part One – Mni Wiconi – Part One – Prelude to Standing Rock

Read Part Two – Mni Wiconi – Part Two – Protest Camps, Police Overreach, and Veterans

US military veterans were going to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Wow. I looked up Veterans Stand for Standing Rock to check it out and found their Facebook event page. Boots on the ground was to be December 4th, just over a week away. Such short notice, such a long way off in a part of the country I hadn’t been to since the 1960s.

Then I hit their gofundme page. It is still getting donations as I write this. If you want to donate to the ongoing efforts at Standing Rock (and you should), do not do it here, there are better options. Like here, Oceti Sakowin Camp. This is the official and only real web site for the Oceti Sakowin Camp and I can personally vouch that they are real and will use your money properly. There are many people cashing in on this cause, unfortunately, as well as a lot of opposition sites, Facebook pages, and gofundme appeals that are funded by the corporations and industry groups who want this pipeline to go through. It is information warfare at its finest and most insidious. This is what we are supposed to do against evil regimes, not against our own people.

Donate to Oceti Sakowin Camp

On that Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, they hadn’t hit $100K yet, but there was clearly a buzz happening. It turns out that the initial goal was 50 veterans and $50K funding for travel and supplies. The Facebook page was blowing up. It was moving very quickly. I started posting to the conversations. It was infectious, one of those things that hit a nerve at the right time and went viral, people were excited and the excitement was contagious. Lots of people out there who were frustrated at this situation with DAPL. There were a lot of veterans who wanted to do something good for the world, something not involving pushing people in other countries around at gunpoint.

The gofundme has raised over $1.1 MILLION dollars, making it one of the most funded efforts on this crowd sourcing platform ever. I was watching it just go up and up. I was obsessed with hitting the refresh button. Exponential real-time increases that just kept going.

It didn’t help that I was off work for five straight days over Thanksgiving. I had all the time in the world and was making high heat fired pizza with cold fermented dough for the holiday meal. Yes, that is what we wanted. It was unreal. Better than any pizza you can get in my town and better than turkey any day. The dough was already made and waiting. Yeah, I know I cannot shape dough. Working on it.

High heat fired pizza with cold fermented dough

Yeah, I know I can’t shape dough worth a shit. But, it tastes so good.

In the next couple of days, I checked Veterans Stand in depth and started talking to a few of the most active people I saw on the page. New friends made. There was no published leadership or organizational structure outside of the two people who started this around November 11th. Michael Wood Jr is a veteran and ex-Baltimore police office who is now a social activist speaking out about police violence. Wes Clark Jr is a veteran and son of General Wesley Clark, who has run for president. He is an environmental activist. I never met either of them. I think they had a great idea that quickly got away from them. That is all part of this story. It was one of the most positive experiences I have ever had, but it was not because of Veterans Stand in the end. It was simply fate that put me where I needed to be at this particular time.

The Operations Order (OPORD) was well written and encouraging. For a military guy, it was pretty impressive and hit all those gung ho things we soldiers love and hate at the same time. Military people live and die by OPORDS. It is how missions get accomplished and they have specific formats and sections. This one sucked me right in. Here is an excerpt:

VETERANS STAND FOR STANDING ROCK OPERATIONS ORDER | DECEMBER 4-7 2016

I. Situation – In response to the assertion of treaty rights, citizen’s rights, tribal rights, and protection of the most valuable of resources, water, the Sioux tribes and allied comrades, are under sustained assault by agents of and working for private interests under the color of law. First Americans have served in the United States Military, defending the soil of our homelands, at a greater percentage than any other group of Americans. There is no other people more deserving of veteran support and this situation encapsulates whether we are called heroes for violence and cashing paychecks or for justice and morality.

a) Opposing Forces – Morton County Sheriff’s ofIice combined with multiple state police agencies and private security contractors.

1) Composition, Disposition, Strength we will face between 500-1000 police and contractors with approximately 300 in riot gear.
2) Capabilities & Limitations – Enemy has rubber/plastic bullets, CS gas, pepper spray, and an LRAD sound cannon. They will be limited in their violence against us by US and international human rights laws, a national press presence and observers from the US Congress.
3) Most Likely Course of Action – we will likely be gassed, pepper sprayed, shot with rubber bullets, hit with batons and brieIly arrested.
4) Most dangerous Course of Action – live fire with lethal rounds.

b) Friendly Forces – Veteran and Tribal protests

1) Higher’s mission & Intent – our intent is to honor the giants on whose shoulders we stand, such as Gandhi’s salt protest or MLK’s Selma protest. In the ultimate expression of alliance, we are there to put our bodies on the line, no matter the physical cost, in complete non-violence to provide a clear representation to all Americans of where evil resides. The Water Protectors are leading the way against this same evil which we must all face globally, saving ourselves and our children from the apocalyptic outcome of climate change.
2) Adjacent Units – there will be no adjacent units. We are there to give the Sioux a breather from the abuse they’ve been taking and allow them a couple days of warrior’s respite.
3) Supporting Units – there will be civilian and tribe members watching us from behind but nobody supporting us – we are the cavalry.
4) Attachment/Detachment – Medical Detachment will be led by Aaron Mischler. If you are a trained combat medic, contact Aaron at [email address redacted]
5) Civil/Terrain Considerations – the national press will be on location filming our entire action which is why it is critical that we demonstrate discipline, resolve and bravery. This is not an action of violence, if you feel any potential for violence or antisocial behavior, do not participate in actions, contact us for resources to address that first. Anytime one of us who speaks to a camera or tweets something out, you are a representative of all of us, feel no shame in leaving that to members more experienced in that lane.

II. Mission – Our mission is to prevent progress on the Dakota Access Pipeline and draw national attention to the human rights warriors of the Sioux tribes regarding the United States lack of treaty enforcement.

And on it goes. Read the entire OPORD here.

Back to trying to figure out how to make this trip. 1700 miles by road, that is 25 hours driving straight through with multiple drivers. We were supposed to arrive at our Assembly Point in Fort Yates, North Dakota, by noon on the 4th. That means leaving no later than mid-morning on Saturday, the 3rd. And I had to work on Saturday, couldn’t ethically get out of it as I had promised to cover the shift that day. Most people I was talking to were leaving earlier than that and giving themselves a couple of days to get there.

Map to Cannon Ball from my home in South Carolina

1700 plus miles by road. I could almost go to Europe for what an airline ticket to Bismarck cost.

All I knew was that I needed to go to Standing Rock and get shot at with water cannons in subzero weather or maybe rubber bullets in the face. I needed to really fight for freedom, something I had never done when in the US Army. I needed to make a difference in the world, a positive difference. Such is the plight of an idealist.

Next, the journey begins.

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Read Part OneMni Wiconi – Part One – Prelude to Standing Rock

The Black Snake is coming. There is a Lakota prophecy that a zuzeca sape (black snake) will come and cross the land. It will bring with it destruction and devastation. It will poison the water. It will destroy the world. It will be the end of times.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is the Black Snake with the potential to pollute the waters from the upper reaches of the Missouri River all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. This pipeline crosses over 200 waterways, including the Mississippi River. Somehow, it must be stopped.

Energy Transfer Partners (ETA), the Dakota Access Pipeline’s (DAPL) parent company, has claimed that Standing Rock Reservation’s tribal governance never expressed opposition to the pipeline nor participated in the routing process. Yet, Tribal Chairman David Archambault II, had expressed the tribe’s opposition as early as September, 2014, as soon as they learned about it. There is a lot of disinformation out there seeded by ETA and their allies in industry and government.

On April 1, 2016, tribe member Ladonna Allard Brave Bull established the Sacred Stone Camp on her property just south of the Cannon Ball River. It was the first of the water protector camps. Soon, this resistance camp grew and more camps were established north of the Cannon Ball. Oceti Sakowin Camp is just across the river from Sacred Stone. That is where I went.

Ladonna Allard Brave Bull started the first water protector camp, Sacred Stone on her land just south of the Cannon Ball River on April 1, 2016

Ladonna Allard Brave Bull started the first water protector camp, Sacred Stone, on her land just south of the Cannon Ball River on April 1, 2016. That camp is still there.

I am not sure exactly when I found out about the DAPL protests. In my circles, there are many people that are environmentally and human rights oriented. We tend to share news of issues that need to be addressed. What I do remember are all the discussions about why the DAPL resistance was getting virtually zero media coverage. DAPL had been protested as early as 2014 in other states, including by Native American tribes in Iowa affected far downstream of Standing Rock. Keystone pipeline protests had generated large amounts of press and those actions had actually helped stop that pipeline. Maybe there were more rich white landowners affected by Keystone, not just Native American tribes. As an aside, many think that DAPL will be carrying some of that oil originally destined for Keystone. In any case, it seemed that no one in the media cared a bit for what was happening at the confluence of the Cannon Ball and Missouri Rivers in North Dakota.

Until violence and police overreach started entering the picture in a big way. Then, it barely made the cut, but some mainstream outlets started carrying the news when someone got hurt. One of the first big confrontations was caught on video on September 3rd. It shows pepper spray being used against water protectors. Dogs were unleashed, as well, and numerous people were bitten, including a child. Dogs should never be used this way. The outrage started growing exponentially. Finally.

The tipping point for me came a few days before Thanksgiving when water cannons were used against water protectors at night in 26 degree temperatures. This is so beyond the realm of reasonable I have trouble comprehending it. The increasingly militarized police forces have also been using rubber bullets aimed at faces, concussion grenades, and Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) against protesters. People have been seriously hurt, including one woman who almost lost her arm and had to be medevaced to Minneapolis. Hypothermia cases have gone through the roof as temperatures drop. Hitting people with water cannons in sub-freezing weather is simply inhuman. I thought the first picture I saw of police with Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and armor was taken in Afghanistan.Wow.

It is very frustrating to see things like this and be unable to help. One feels helpless. The water protectors have generated a lot of outside support. This is a fight that affects all people. Water is necessary for all people. Folks from all over the world have gone to Standing Rock and/or helped from afar. I wanted to do my part. Sitting at home posting about it was doing nothing. I am an action person. What little money I could afford to donate would not go very far. I needed to actually be there, hands on, real, and personal.

Two days after the now infamous water cannon and concussion grenade incident, my friend Liz Rabban tagged me in a post on CNN, Veterans to Deploy to Standing Rock. I read it. I read it again. I shared it. I became obsessed. There were a bunch of veterans who felt like me. Standing Rock needed me. I needed Standing Rock.

Boots on the ground was less than two weeks away. Cannon Ball, North Dakota, was 1700 miles away. I have a job. I have very little money. There was no way I was going to be able to make this trip. But, I needed to. I was compelled by unseen forces.

Thank you, Liz, for thinking of me when you first saw this story.

Stay tuned for the continuing story.

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