Days on the Rez: My Time At Standing Rock

Unless you live under an actual rock, you've likely noticed the words Standing Rock in the news a lot lately.  Here's a little recap of what's currently going on at Standing Rock, in case you don't feel quite up to speed on what's been happening:

Every time I hear or read the words "Standing Rock", I feel a sharp little pang deep in my guts.  It's not because I forgot to take my antacids.  You see, I am intimately connected to the Standing Rock Reservation. I lived there, albeit for a short time, when I was much younger.  They say every place you live, you take it with you when you move on to the next place.  It molds and shapes who you are, and it never leaves you.  This is most certainly true about my time on the rez.  

Many years ago I spent a portion of a summer living and working up there on the scorched barren flats of North Dakota.  I was young.  I was middle-class privileged.  I'm white.  I was certainly not prepared for how my short time on the reservation would become one of the most profound and moving experiences of my life.

It was a time of many firsts for me.  

It was the first time in my life I experienced abject racism.  Not casual racist remarks thrown out by dumb kids, but life-directing racism, the impacts of it, and most surprisingly to my inexperienced self, the painful reality of racism aimed specifically at me.  

It was the first time I experienced a sadness so intense, a hopelessness so complete that I felt emotionally overwhelmed.  I felt this sadness, this hopelessness in many of the people I met: natives of the reservation who were trapped there by the circumstances of merely having been born onto it.  

It was the first time I became closely acquainted with death.  It is not uncommon for people to commit suicide on the reservation. A suicide occurred the very week before my arrival.  It was a teenager just like myself. 

I was assigned work in a cemetery, rebuilding the fences knocked down by the few roaming cattle and cleaning up graves, so many of which belonged to children.

I was assigned to the food kitchen, where people of the reservation came for their meals.  The utter poverty on the reservation meant no electricity, no plumbing, and no food for many of its residents.  

I met natives of the reservation who were my age and who were already parents, or soon to be so.  We played a pick-up game of volleyball.  This series of moments changed me deeply as well, because as cliché as it sounds, during the game we were all the same: just kids having fun.  These kids were so different from me, living lives completely foreign to what I had ever previously considered, yet they were the exact same as well.  

Every day was packed with moments both surprising and profound.  

Now, I was born out west and feel pretty familiar with the desert, but I had never seen a land so desolate.  The Standing Rock Reservation sits on unforgiving ground.  During the summer I spent there temps consistently hit 110 degrees in the shade (of which there is little).  While heartbreakingly beautiful, the territory provides very little in the way of usable, farmable land or water.  It's mostly dead earth.

I feel foolish saying these things now.  I have debated posting this because I feel like an imposter, just a white girl who visited but got to leave and get back to my white girl life.  I suppose I feel guilt about having experienced these things and being able to do so little to remedy any of it.

My time on the reservation was as emotionally charged as it gets.  It was life-changing.  

Many people express interest in the tattoo I bear on my forearm.  While it is partly devoted to my Colorado roots and my persistent longing for the mountains, much of it is devoted to my time on Standing Rock.  When a curious stranger asks me about the meaning of it, I mention the reservation and how it changed me.  It is my ever-present reminder.

This is why the current news coverage of Standing Rock hits me to my core.  

I feel I am a part of that place, and it is a part of me.  

I understand deeply the importance of water on that parched patch of land.  

I have and always will stand in solidarity with the people of Standing Rock.  

I will weep bitter tears if these protests end in tragedy or failure to preserve that terrible, wonderful land.  

I will stay current and provide all the support I can.  Because it matters.

My mom and I got these shirts.  You may have seen Shailene Woodley wearing it, so it's kind of a big deal.

Please, get involved.

Mni Wiconi.  Water is Life.