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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2 Comments on Mni Wiconi – Part Seven – We Make it to Oceti Sakowin Camp

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