Sometimes, during my morning ritual of coffee slurping and web surfing, I stare out the window into my not-so perfect minifarm and wonder if we will ever understand the complex, delicate balance it takes to get by on this planet.
That is what I was doing on the day I left for Standing Rock.
It was already late September, and tomatoes were virtually nonexistent on my vines because the summer was too chilly in the Pacific Northwest, where I now live. This year’s East Coast summer was hot and sunny, but a Facebook post that morning by a friend back home proclaimed her tomato vines were small and barren too, and she didn’t know why. All she knew was that the road next to her garden plot had been sprayed with salty fracking wastewater through the winter to keep the ice off the roadways in her small northern Pennsylvania town, the same town I left four years ago. In the past decade, frack wastewater disposal in that part of the country has cost the invading gas corporations millions in hazardous waste disposal fees. Thanks to their ability to bowl over small-town officials, they have finally found a free solution.
About 12 years ago, a cluster of gas corporation salesmen rode into our Pennsylvania town, driving shiny Excursions and wearing grins as wide as their big Texan hats. They howdied their way into our churches and neighborhoods and talked the locals into a trade. “Give us your mineral rights, and we’ll make you rich,” they said, waving dollar signs at every struggling farmer and indebted homeowner in their path.
It would be so easy, they said. They would simply coax the clean natural gas trapped in the Marcellus shale ridge beneath us into a few harmless little pipes inserted gently into earth, and there it would be — up and out of the ground and paying out big bucks. “From this day on, you’ll all be livin’ in tall cotton,” they said. No pain, no harm, no problems. ”Sweeter than stolen honey,” they said.
Mineral rights from neighborhood plots and farms were quickly signed away in exchange for promises of jobs, repaired infrastructure, and newly made millionaires.
The destructive track record of Cabot Oil & Gas might have gone unchecked were it not for a former Texas mayor who was making it his mission to expose it. Polluted water. Contaminated air. Cancer pockets. Dead farm animals. Even earthquakes. He traveled behind the salesmen to warn us of the story they didn’t tell. The gas company men, drinking too many beers in a local bar one night, were overheard discussing the townspeople as nothing more than obstacles in a plot to make billions off pieces of earth that didn’t belong to them.
We left, and it was sad. We once thought we’d spend the rest of our lives in the 1900s cottage on a small lake, the home we spent 12 years refurbishing.
Our neighbors had sold the mineral rights on their measly properties for an average pittance of $1,000 each, hardly a fortune, but it didn’t matter. They were waiting for the big return — royalties. They closed their eyes to the destroyed farms and contaminated water all around them. They even voted to sell the mineral rights under our already fragile little lake. The future? Not even a consideration. Chesapeake Energy, Carrizo Oil & Gas, WPX Energy, and Cabot Oil & Gas are all fracking there now.
The day I left for Standing Rock, I had answered a Facebook post about a group of people heading out that afternoon for North Dakota to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux and the hundreds of other tribes who were trying to protect the Missouri River from the Dakota Access pipeline. Could I be ready to leave at 2 that afternoon, the pastor asked when I called to see if I could tag along with the small group of people I had never met from a Unitarian Universalist church I didn’t belong to. I could, and so we left Seattle by train, none of us knowing what to expect but knowing we needed to be part of this huge environmental protest created by thousands of Native American water protectors, who knew too well what harm an invasion of cowboys could cause.
We made it to Standing Rock in spite of the roadblock on Highway 1806 leading to the reservation. There were patches of National Guard troops planted on the streets, and a state of emergency was declared by a governor bent on making the occupation look disorderly and violent. As we entered Oceti Sakowin Camp, we were greeted by a giant handwritten sign on the hillside: “We are peaceful.” And that is exactly what we experienced while there: a peaceful, welcoming gathering of thousands, a river of people protecting their river of life and ultimately protecting the rivers for all of us.
People from all over North and South America greeted us with hugs and handshakes on our walk from our campsite to the main camp. With my very pale skin and red hair, I was an obvious outsider, but it didn’t matter. We were all in this together. We cut vegetables together and cooked food in cauldrons over open fires. Some unloaded supply trucks filled with canned goods and wood donated from every corner of the country. Some sat around the main campfire and listened while Native Americans reinforced their collective belief that Earth is both our mother and our grandmother. Traditional prayer dances were performed by incoming tribes while nephews were instructed to help with tasks like chopping wood and keeping the camp running smoothly.
The cooperative attitude was something I hadn’t seen in my lifetime.
By dusk, I needed to call home, so I made my way up “Facebook Hill,” past tipis and tents that stretched as far as I could see. The panoramic view of the hillside below was filled with color and promise. Cellphone service was mysteriously nonexistent at the camp. Rumor was that service had been pretty reliable here before the uprising. And even on Facebook Hill, so named because it was the only place left with cell tower access, I couldn’t get enough coverage to reach the outside world. I packed my worthless phone into my pocket and watched as surveillance helicopters and drones flew over my head, hovering over the massive gathering below. I sat on the grassy knoll and rested, listening to drums echo up from the meeting area while teenagers rode horses bareback and children played games.
That night in my tent, I fell asleep to a sky lit by a full moon. With campfires glowing softly on the horizon and the sound of chanting, drums, and prayer in the distance, I was quickly lulled into dreaming, something I hadn’t done in a very long time.
The North Dakota winter is quickly approaching. Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas-based company building the Dakota Access pipeline, is biding time, waiting for the protectors to be frozen out by the 40-below temperature and wind chills that whip through the Plains during the dark season. As usual, they are underestimating the resilience of people who have endured centuries of abuse and repeated genocide by people not very different from the Energy Transfer Partners.
At Standing Rock, my story wasn’t unique. It was repeated over and over by people from all over the continent. That was my takeaway from Standing Rock. Wherever we come from, we have all been affected by the global destruction and desecration of the Earth. Billions of dollars are being made by a handful of unscrupulous corporations. All manmade things break, and this pipe, these wells, will break in time. A woman I met from the Pine Ridge Reservation was certain that all people wanted to protect the future of the children, those who will need clean water and soil for the generations to come. I had to tell her no. Some people could care less.
For now, this movement is being sponsored by the same resourceful people who brought the world Sitting Bull and Battle of the Little Bighorn. But the pledge of support that the Standing Rock Sioux have received — from people just like me, who recognize the familiar pattern of industry destroying land and water for profit, from cities and nations across the globe, from the United Nations — tells me that this is just the beginning. Maybe we will all wake up.