Thanksgiving morning I watched videos of the protests at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota with a wretched feeling in my gut. Native people of the Americas have long denounced Thanksgiving as a cause for celebration and have re-appropriated the holiday as a national day of mourning in remembrance of their ancestors who suffered and perished by the millions under the banner of colonization and white supremacy. Observing the bravery of the Native and non-Native people gathered in solidarity to stop the “Black Snake,” the Dakota Access Pipeline, I grappled with my own role in the American narrative unfolding before me and I chose to go … to stand, to bear witness, to listen to and to pray with my Native American brothers and sisters.
Briefed by friends who had recently returned from the camp and by my good friend Wolf Karneffel, a veteran and member of the Hunkpapa Lakota tribe, I was told to check my ego at the gate and to listen to the tribal elders. This was not about me or my ideas or plans. It was about listening, being respectful, being prayerful and being responsible on a level I’d never previously understood.
During my time at Oceti Sakowin Camp, I listened and learned. Before my arrival, I read the Standing Rock Allies Resource Packet on how to prepare for going, how to engage with camp culture, how to follow camp protocol centered around the seven Lakota values and how best to support indigenous sovereignty movements upon returning home. An orientation facilitated by a tribal leader grounded me in the awareness that my people – white people – had become the majority in camp and our ways could be seen overpowering those of the Native American people upon whose land we were guests. He asked us to consider that the camp itself was being subjected to colonization, subtly, and sometimes not so subtly by well-meaning non-Natives who were there to help, but who struggled to listen to and understand the requests of the tribal elders.
Once I began to consider that possibility I noticed it everywhere. Where the tribal elders called for quiet introspection, there was incessant talking. When they called for people to be still and to listen, so that answers could be heard, there was constant movement and action. Where they asked for patience and a slowing down, there was a whir of industry, construction and the development of systems and structures. When asked to stand in a place of not knowing and to be flexible without concrete answers and solutions, there was a flurry of questions and a frenzy to understand, to make sense of and to control. When asked to be prayerful, I struggled with how to integrate that into my consciousness, as living prayerfully was not my usual way.
In a separate orientation, we explored the legacy of white supremacy over indigenous people and people of color that lies at the core of American history and how taking responsibility for that often-denied legacy is a powerful step toward healing, understanding and change. I began to consider the original inhabitants of the land I occupy – what happened to them in the displacement of colonization and where are they now? I pondered the story of my own family’s arrival to this country as European immigrants and the impact of their arrival on existing native populations. I began to wrap my brain around the depth of mistrust that Native people hold for the word and laws of white culture and government. After centuries of broken treaties and promises, lies, violence, murder, theft and a systematic dismantling of Native culture, that mistrust continues to be perpetuated through the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Such questions and investigations are uncomfortable. The true history of America does not paint a pretty picture and, in general, white culture avoids the fire of responsibility for its role in the oppression of Native people and people of color for more than 500 years. But to stand in that fire is the beginning. To own our individual and collective history and to acknowledge the role of our ancestors and our participation in a white supremacist culture carries the power to heal and build relations.
At Standing Rock I observed the subtle ways in which I as a white person feel entitled to take what I want in life – a Western mindset that runs counter to the Native way. There are many ways that I take: Space, time, energy, attention, resources, pictures, taking things for granted, and participating in what my friend Wolf calls “appropriation” – the taking of another’s story, their intellectual property, their art, designs, styles, patterns and culture without their consent or reflection. An example of such taking came when I moved to hug a Native man without first obtaining his approval. He kindly and respectfully declined with a smile, saying, “That’s mine. You can’t have that.” After establishing a friendship, he later embraced me warmly, but his gentle lesson reminded me to be less grabby, less intrusive and to listen on a deeper level for what is given freely and what is taken.
The lessons I gleaned from my time at Standing Rock are many and primarily center around being more aware, conscious, sensitive, reflective and respectful. One tribal elder suggested that we be gentle with ourselves through the learning process as we explore and unravel our longstanding patterns and habitual ways of moving through the world, and he asked that we “be in a good way for the duration of our Earth walk.”
The Native people I met at Standing Rock were patience, kindness and generosity personified. With gratitude I take with me their lessons to further indigenous sovereignty movements, to own my history and to develop my capacity as a white ally in this country and the world.
Jaime Becktel is a writer and artist living in Mancos.