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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2 Comments on Mni Wiconi – Part Eight – Cannon Ball Recreation Center

  1. Laura Solmen says:

    Thanks Virgil, much love to you! I really enjoy reading about your experience.

  2. Virgil says:

    Thanks Laura!

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