The protest camp on the plains, filled with thousands of Native Americans and others from across the country, had just gotten the news. The President had spoken to his political appointee, and the oil pipeline would have to pause construction.
There was a parade of celebrants down the muddy “Avenue of Flags,” through two lines of people holding hands. Drones hovered over Media Hill, where someone had rigged an impromptu cell tower. The temperature dropped, and horses stepped gingerly on hardening ice. The cold air smelled of woodfires, sage, and the Missouri River.
Cars lined up on the state road over the hills to the horizon turned on their headlights. People who wanted to have participated in the historic event kept rolling in.
“Get out of the road down there!” a guard at the main gate to camp yelled.
Being from that culture and spending those months in camp had provided a wealth of information we had no clue even existed.
I could find my way easily to the tipi now, even in twilight. “We” were in the Diné Sheep Camp, down from the little frame house with the enormous moth painted on its wall and the “sportsmobile 4×4” (a white jacked-up van), near the RV owned by the guy who had brought us coffee our first morning in camp.
In the tipi, Gaff, Tommy, and Adam were talking to Heather. She had been in camp with the Oglala since August, when the Seven Council Fires were formed to signal pan-tribal unity. Now it was December. Being from that culture and spending those months in camp had provided a wealth of information we had no clue even existed. Camp leadership—she did not say who that was—had put Don Cuny, or Cuny Dog, as he was known, in charge of main camp security. Cuny Dog was the Vice President of AIM Grassroots, had been a friend of John Trudell, and had been at both Wounded Knee and Alcatraz. He lived on Pine Ridge but was staying not far away in camp, in a tipi given to him by Trudell. He had recruited Heather at a Wounded Knee anniversary rally on Pine Ridge and invited her to be on the security team. After praying to decide the issue, she had accepted.
Heather had been in camp two months at a time, she corrected herself, since August, which was also when the pipeline company put surveillance cameras around its drill pad to prevent attack. Native Americans had established a forward position, called the 1851 Treaty Camp, near the pad, and took down the cameras, she said. That was when police put up the barricade on the bridge between the camp and the pad, and Red Warrior, a group that “embrace[d]…decolonization and revolution,” had set fire to a dump truck that lay rusting now on its melted tires on the two-lane state road.
If the company was no longer permitted to drill, then the barricade had no basis, she believed, and those in camp could take it down, because it was illegal.
Gaff, who until recently had been a young infantry trooper in Afghanistan, said the vets who had come by the thousands to help protect the movement were not trying to make a name for themselves. Adam listened with what seemed to be ironic interest. He was not even a vet but on assignment.
“But it’s frustrating,” Gaff said of the blocked bridge. “They’re choking that artery, and you guys might lose that asset, you know?”
Heather adored Cuny Dog, with his strong leadership and emphasis on no violence, no substances, and no weapons. He was concerned most about the swelling numbers in camp, most of whom were White well-wishers, do-gooders, and thrill-seekers looking for action. But she said that for some of the older, Wounded Knee vets it was also hard to keep back their feelings. Red Warrior, too, though many were younger, stood on the front line as an expression of those feelings. Heather mentioned a guy who had his own group she was keeping an eye on, just in case they tried to do something rash. Heather said that when she acted as head of security and people like that challenged her, she told them, “I’m 32, not 19. Respect me.”
Gaff lay back on his bag. “Just tell me what to do,” he said. “Tell me to shield a prayer group. Or take down barricades.” He said razor wire could be cut apart with bolt cutters, if they were available, but the big concrete blocks to stop traffic would probably need a crane or at least a hoist mounted on the back of a big truck. Gaff said Cyrus was legendary, though, and would find a way to take them down himself, overnight. They were all invested in the idea of Cyrus. He was a smart young Native American vet who thought he might want to be a lawyer one day to help his people. He was the one who, with Matt, a former infantry scout, had brought our smaller group together.
The tipi rustled and shook, and Matt stuck his head in the door to ask how everybody was doing. He said he needed to crap so bad he had scheduled a D&C that would take six hours. Heather laughed. He got a roll of toilet paper and headed back out.
Heather said, “The whole point is to be decolonizing yourself.” She looked around and asked what we would want.
Gaff said, “To get pelted and sprayed with gas. I want you guys to go up there and pray. Or if you want the barricade down…. Or we can put up tents. We can do fuel runs. We have no respect for personal safety.”
Tommy, a former MP who looked like a Viking, said, “We want to put ourselves in harm’s way for the greater good.”
Heather thought about it and said, “A friend wants to put flowers on Turtle Island.” This was a small steep hillock in Canaputa Creek, where many of the protest actions had taken place. Police in assault gear often lined the ridgetop.
There was noncommittal agreement this might do.
Gaff said drones had followed him around all day. He mimicked the whine of their little motors and wondered if they belonged to the Native American media group or the pipeline company, which had joined forces with state police and federal agencies.
“Where’s Cyrus stand on all this?” he asked. “Because he’s a little [whistles].” Cyrus had served in a Ranger battalion but had been transferred out against his wishes.
Tommy said he had heard another camp had been raided by police but that no one was kicked off.
Heather said, “That was Red Warrior camp. They’re all good people. We gave them masks and medical supplies, but in some ways they are disrespectful.”
Gaff said he was coming back, on college break, “January-ish.”
Heather said, “You’re here for a few days, it’s confusing. Come for longer and you begin to understand.” She said everyone had to make up their own minds about their own behavior, and others should respect those choices. She said she had gone on a direct action against the wishes of her elder.
“I can yell, whatever,” Gaff said.
“The only thing I can’t do is the cartwheel,” Tommy said.
“A lot of vets are not like us. They get hot real quick. We’re trying to call them to us,” Gaff said.
Heather said, “My ex-husband is a Facebook voyeur: ‘I was a basement water protector.’” They had two daughters, ages twelve and six. Heather had been a certified nurse’s assistant since 2007 and had her EMS/EMT certificate. She had had no income since she went to the camp, except making and selling beadwork. She said Cyrus was always being recruited by Red Warrior but declined.
Matt seemed to have made some peace with not playing the role he had envisioned, from breaching the razor wire to commandeering National Guard MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) and turning them over on steep hillsides.
Gaff said, “I can’t wait to see Cyrus. He’s a little wacky. If someone went up to Cyrus and said, ‘Get the barricades off that road by morning,’ he’d find a way to do it.”
“That’s why we roll with him. Cyrus told some of us girls, ‘You don’t take shit,’” Heather said.
Matt came back in: “I’m no longer afflicted.” Gaff offered congratulations.
Matt said, “This is the protest: A woman serving soup for four months is the protest.” He seemed to have made some peace with not playing the role he had envisioned, from breaching the razor wire to commandeering National Guard MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) and turning them over on steep hillsides.
His cousin, a singer-songwriter, had loaned him her car to get to camp from Chicago. Now she was flying in to Bismarck, because she wanted to see the camp. Matt, Gaff, and Tommy left to pick her up at the airport.
• • •
Heather, Adam, and I sat in the clutter of cold-weather camping gear a while. Adam and his stringer partner, who was off somewhere, were from privileged backgrounds and had used up some of the group’s time and resources for themselves. He had published a book about “bros” from all countries and creeds coming together over beers and talking about the ladies in order to achieve world peace. We had taken a dislike to each other for some reason.
Heather said a sweat ceremony would start in an hour and asked if we wanted to go. Adam and I hesitated. Heather said it was no big deal. Women and men would both go to this one, which was not always the case. We would undress down to shorts in the tipi and walk across to the fire, then do the sweat. The hogan was round, symbolic of being back in the womb. It would be pitch-black inside, except for the glow of the hot stones. There would be four rounds of singing, prayer, and talking.
I said I did not know; I had three days of work to do for my editor. I did not say I hated saunas and breathing superheated air. I said feeling enclosed was not my favorite thing; maybe it had something to do with my days as a military diver.
Adam rummaged in his bag and said he had not brought shorts or a towel.
Heather listened, then said quietly to me, “I think you should do it.”
There was attraction there. On my second trip, a month later, she and I would play mom and dad with a mostly different crew on the six-hour drive in my rented SUV to Pine Ridge. She would take me to meet Cuny Dog, make us fry bread, and show us around the casino. She would keep us safe during a visit to a drug house. I wanted to please her. I felt a need for her to think I was worthy of the gift of experience she had already made possible.
I said ok, I would do it, if for no other reason than my kids would never forgive me if I did not.
Women and men would both go to this one, which was not always the case. We would undress down to shorts in the tipi and walk across to the fire, then do the sweat. The hogan was round, symbolic of being back in the womb. It would be pitch-black inside, except for the glow of the hot stones.
Heather said, “You’ll be changed,” in that quiet but intentional way. I worried a little at that but also felt ready for change. Aspects of my life had become unpleasant, and it would take me years to discover all the channels of that amid other joys and triumphs.
She said no one would be allowed to leave in the middle of a round of the sweat, but if you had to leave, or if you wanted to leave after a round, you had to say “Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ”—a Lakota phrase that meant “all people are relations,” or “all life is one.” It sounded like “muh-dockee-ah-say.”
Heather left the tipi for a while. I tried to memorize the syllables, lost them, thought maybe they came back in the same form, wrote them in my journal. I put on shorts, a t-shirt, my coveralls, coat, and boots with no socks. The temperature was below zero outside. The tipi was just canvas, and an old cast-iron army stove sat unfired in the middle of the floor, so for days it had been the same temperature in as out. A propane heater had appeared magically in the last day, so it was warmer, but camp organizers had warned of carbon monoxide deaths.
Heather and her friend Geronimo led Adam and me through clusters of tipis and tents and across two dirt lanes to the fire pit, a small crater of squirming coals. A cone of logs in the center of the crater shot flames.
As we stood waiting Heather explained that hard and soft woods were burned for specific effects, and that the stones for the sweat had been heating in the coals a long time. The round stones looked like glowing cantaloupes with threads of lava-like plasma squirming in them. I looked around in the dark and asked if a distant pole tent was the sweat lodge. Heather said no, the sweats were there and there. She pointed to two nearly invisible low domes made of natural materials that blended into the landscape.
We were seventeen in number. We stood quietly around the fire crater. It was very hot. A Native American medicine man, whom Heather said was up from Oklahoma, talked briefly. He was in his late 30s, tall, shaved head, scarred, and tattooed. His chest scars looked like he had done the Sun Dance, where hooks are put through the skin and men pull against them until they rip loose. He looked like active-duty Force Recon.
He said, “Everybody’s sweated before.” It was not a question, but I shook my hand no in front of me; I assume Adam did too. The medicine man said if we had never done a sweat, this was not the one for us. This sweat was fifty stones, he said, very hot. He said gruffly that we could go in anyway and leave if it got too hot, but once we were out, we had to stay out.
We all undressed. Some people put their clothes over a nylon line thirty feet from the hogan, and I copied them. We took our shoes off and walked barefoot across the ice and stood on the frozen mud some distance from the fire, waiting to go in.
She said no one would be allowed to leave in the middle of a round of the sweat, but if you had to leave, or if you wanted to leave after a round, you had to say “Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ”—a Lakota phrase that meant “all people are relations,” or “all life is one.”
The women entered first, in skirts and tops, filing in counter-clockwise. Another woman came up late and delayed the men going in, and the medicine man chewed her out sharply. Yet another woman came up, expecting to go in, and he refused her loudly and humiliatingly. Some of the young guys were ow-ing and ootch-ing on cold feet.
It was dark inside the hogan, but I could sense an empty shallow in the center. We crawled in on the muddy sand and sat down. I reached back to feel the wall, expecting it to be pliable skins on a stick frame. It was solid as concrete; there would be no escaping under a loose edge. A White self-help author had killed three people in his sweat lodge in 2009. A mother of one of the victims said of her daughter: “She was cooked to death.”
We kept scooting around, shoulder to shoulder, to make more room, and someone in the near-dark said to make two rows, and someone else said to get in the back if it was your first time.
“Duck down behind the person in front of you, with your face near the ground, if you can’t breathe,” the woman’s voice said.
The door was still open, and when my eyes adjusted, the firelight dimly showed us in two concentric rings, with the medicine man sitting next to the door. He spoke softly, intermittently, to a boy poking in the fire with a pitchfork. After ten minutes, the boy began to bring hot stones from the fire and toss them in the depression in the middle of the hogan. After two or three stones, the temperature shot up. He brought more. The interior got sauna-hot, then scary-hot. The guy in front of me threw sage on the rocks and it burst instantly into bright flame, revealing many faces. Smoke hung halfway down from the low domed ceiling. The kid kept bringing rocks from the fire on his pitchfork and tossing them into the pit.
At fifteen stones the medicine man closed the door. It was instantly even hotter, and the kind of pitch-black you find deep in a cave or underwater on a moonless night. More sage was added; there were bright flames and choking smoke. He welcomed us and gave thanks for victory; thanks and remembrance to “Red Fawn, Sofia, and everyone else’s sacrifice from the family.” He was articulate, his voice deep, gruff, and in the cadence of Native American speech. He gave thanks for the vets who had come to help; he said there were warriors in camp, and he knew he would sleep well tonight. It was great to see everyone smiling and happy, he said.
There was the sound of a dipper in a pail. He poured water on the rocks, which vaporized and steamed. He did it again and again. The rocks could be heard boiling in their bath—a mad, raging noise.
The medicine man led rounds of singing in call-and-response, presumably in Lakota. I bent low to the ground behind the man in front of me in order to breathe. There was no relief in it; the air at the ground was as hot as anywhere else. I began to drip. I made the mistake of feeling my bare back and was shocked at how impossibly hot to the touch it was. Oils on my skin floated on sweat and condensed steam. My nose dripped, and people around me coughed. I became a rainforest.
The interior got sauna-hot, then scary-hot. The guy in front of me threw sage on the rocks and it burst instantly into bright flame, revealing many faces.
Even ducking down, the heat was so intense it was like being mildly scalded. My lips burned. I sat and tried to relax by thinking of the breath-hold contests we used to have in diving, which I called the manatee exercise—complete relaxation to slow the heartbeat and use less oxygen. Struggling to have that memory and to impose my will in the lodge made me more anxious.
As minutes dragged on and others prayed—what for, I could not know, due to the language gap—I tried to pray too, a hypocrisy for me, but I was mindless. I felt myself coming back now and then to wondering if I would make it, or if this round was nearly over. If it was almost over, I thought, maybe I could make four rounds. Not knowing the timing of it made it worse. It made it worse not knowing if I was supposed to revel in the discomfort, transcend it, or something else. I thought: Well, if the first round ends here, I will be able to make two more rounds. Then: If the first round ends here, I will be able to make it through one more round.
I tried to pray again, for the success of the Oceti Sakowin—to what conception of a god I had no idea. I tried to pray for my children, and for others in my deepest connection, maybe to the First Baptist god of my childhood, or to a universal energy. Sometimes, when pressed by proselytizers, I told them I was an Emersonian Transcendentalist with an empirical bent; now I could not remember what Emerson said.
I tried a time-manipulation trick I had used as a kid when I dreaded the end of a visit to my sister’s house and had to go back to the poverty at home. I used to pretend it was still the first day of my visit, with a week left in the visit. But there in the lodge…what was I pretending…that it was the last minutes of the fourth round…? Was that what would make the first round less anxious? Everything in me was failure.
I tried to remember the magic word I would need to leave but had lost the syllables. When some of them came to me, a minute or an hour later, they may or may not have been right. I had the cultured crocodile brain left to worry that I would mangle the phrase, offend my hosts, and embarrass Heather.
I guessed later that the first round went twenty minutes, ten to fifteen of them under steam, but I had no real basis for knowing that. In the hogan I was miserable, not enlightened, felt funky and slimed. All the individual animal and species sins poured out of me, not as catharsis or healing, but as reminder and irritant, and I did not believe in sin. This was not my culture, my ceremony, my victory, my tribe. It was like being put to death slowly and humiliatingly for my presumption.
The medicine man finally opened the flap of the door, and there was instant partial relief; at least the steam below the top of the door poured out of the hogan. I sat there as the medicine man talked some more. I wanted to want to continue, to honor their process and prove myself, and I was not sure my throat would let me say the magic words. I was not sure he would ask if someone wanted to leave. But he did, just before the second round started, and I said, “I will go,” and the magic words. Maybe they were the words.
The medicine man said in the nearly-complete blackness, “Come this way.”
I stood up, hunched, and tried to walk out between the two rows of people. He told me to skirt the pit of nuclear stones, which I could not see. I bent over and felt for the edge in the dark. The stones were no longer red, but I could make out their gray hot mass the way a pit viper sees heat. He suddenly saw me standing and barked angrily that I must crawl out, that I needed to have humility in the lodge; standing was disrespectful. I began to crawl, and a woman cried out in pain.
“Watch the toenails,” the medicine man said. He sat, watching, judging my progress. As I came even with him I said, “Thank you all for this beautiful experience.”
He said, “A’ho,” drawn out and dignified.
I climbed out the low door with difficulty and stood up like somebody with a bad back. I have a bad back but that was not my concern.
I was not cold in the subzero cold as I stood on the ice in bare feet. I was shaky. My body said, “You have escaped the thing that was killing you.” My brain said, “Get dry and dressed or the weather will kill you in a few moments.”
He suddenly saw me standing and barked angrily that I must crawl out, that I needed to have humility in the lodge; standing was disrespectful. I began to crawl, and a woman cried out in pain.
Standing by the fire, I toweled off the oil and sweat. The kid who tended the fire ignored me and began to load rocks for the next round through the door of the hogan. I pulled on my stiff coveralls, not sure my fingers would grip the fabric or zipper, and waited, balancing the embarrassment of standing there with the uncertainty of what my body would do if I asked it to transport me back to the tipi. My brain was apart. The sky was gray on the horizon and pure black overhead, moon and stars puncturing the shroud. The door flap closed behind me.
I walked, limp and used, and was soon lost in the camp I had come to know a little. I had never approached the tipi from that direction. There were so many new people in camp now, who would know where Sheep Camp was? I had little on under my insulated coveralls, and my feet were sockless in my boots.
Four or five young troops in new BDU uniforms whooped and called to each other and shined flashlights on everyone else. A Native American man in front of a tent yelled, “Turn that away!” One of the White troops said something challenging, and the man shouted, “This is a sacred fire! Stop partying!”
“What did you say?” the White kid said.
There was more between them, then the Native American man said, “I’m done with you,” and the White kid gratefully skulked away.
When I finally found the tipi I drank water and lay down. My clothes steamed before the propane heater, and I could see my breath, but I felt warm and comfortable. The sweat, like any other scourging, had been unpleasant for me, but the real issue was that, lacking spiritual context, it was little more than scourging. Curiosity had not been enough. It was not my ritual, which is to say my experience of it was nearly meaningless, as hard as I might have tried to take part.
Adam stayed all four rounds of the sweat. That took a long time, and he and Heather returned late in the evening. He seemed on the verge of collapse, and twenty-four hours later would still be saying he did not feel right, which made up for it a little.
The sweat, like any other scourging, had been unpleasant for me, but the real issue was that, lacking spiritual context, it was little more than scourging. Curiosity had not been enough. It was not my ritual, which is to say my experience of it was nearly meaningless, as hard as I might have tried to take part.
That night there were more drums, singing, and fireworks over the camp. Heather seemed disappointed in me and disappeared with a group she called the Wild Oglala Boys. None of us were invited this time.
A blizzard struck the next morning, and everyone in camp either had to flee or to remain in place until the thaw. Heather stayed. We fled.