How a Drop of Water Becomes a Tsunami: Field Notes from Standing Rock
This is a peace camp
No toxic fog is needed
No sonic bomb is needed
No military police is needed
No killing drones are needed
No dogs or bullets are needed
No grenades to concuss our brains
No water cannon to freeze our bones
We come here to spread love on earth
We come to keep Earth a blue clean place
We shall stand here till blizzards fall on us
We shall stand till truth blossoms & no more
Pipelines to burn our water and land into inferno
We’ll stand till buffaloes & rivers run free and happy
We shall stand till the world becomes One Nation of Peace
On December 4, 2016, I arrived at Standing Rock with 4000 veterans, to form a human shield for the Dakotas. They have been camping at the Cannon Ball River since April, enduring daily brutal attacks from DAPL militant police.
That day, Standing Rock swelled to 20,000 people, since a Dakota woman pitched the first teepee on her land to stop pipelines from crossing the Missouri.
The story begins with oil.
Every day the world guzzles up 80 million barrels, 25% by USA.
Bakken in North Dakota has abundant crude, mined through fracking, enough to quench our thirst for oil.
Every day, crude moves by truck, train, boat, pipeline, from Bakken through North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, where half a million barrels gather before flowing to the Gulf, East Coast, Asia, Europe.
But crude is very toxic and explosive. In 2013, a train carrying Bakken oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic, near Quebec, spilling 1.5 million barrels.
Town exploded, incinerated like Hiroshima.
66 more trains have exploded since that disaster. Each explosion costs billions.
So the oil industry moves 70% of its crude through pipelines. It’s safer, it claims.
The Enbridge pipeline ruptured in 2010, spilling a million gallons into the Kalamazoo.
The cleanup cost a billion dollars, and like the Exxon Valdez, never succeeded.
That doesn’t include the price tag on the life killed in water, if there is one.
Early 2016, DAPL reached Lake Oahe, poised to drill under the reservoir, through Standing Rock’s land.
Lake Oahe is the largest dam on the Missouri, drinking water source for the Sioux.
If pipeline leaks, it’ll be deadly for the tribe and 18 million people down the river.
And pipelines do leak. Over 2,000 major accidents occurred since 1995, including the Kalamazoo and Yellow Stone.
Standing Rock Tribe set up the camp and sent out calls.
200 nations answered, from US, South and North America, Europe, Middle East…
The camp swelled into a united nation for peace.
Who are the Dakotas, also known as Lakota and Sioux?
The story began with the Minnesota River, 332 miles long, the Forgotten River.
It was once the mighty Glacial River Warren, an outlet for the glacial Lake Agassiz.
It covered Minnesota, North Dakota, Canada, gouging out the Mississippi valleys.
In St. Paul, where Fort Snelling stands, the glacial river plunges 175 feet into a gorge.
The Sioux emerged as "the Mdewakanton, 'those born of the waters.'
The Sioux Nations stretched from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains.
Oceti Sakowin: 7 fires, 7 councils, 7 tribes, 3 Lakotas, 4 Dakotas.
Then settlers came. They wanted the land and rivers.
They “negotiated“ treaties with the Sioux, “bought” Pike Island, most of south Minnesota and Wisconsin, promising annuity and peace.
Pike Island was immediately slashed from $20,000 to $2000.
By 1858, the Sioux ceded all their land except for a 10-mile tract along the Minnesota.
The proud Sioux now depended on traders who robbed them blind with 400% profit.
And money never arrived. Food never arrived. Clothes never arrived.
The starving Sioux gathered at the trade buildings, demanding the promised annuity.
The traders told them to eat grass and dung.
In 1862, a starving Dakota youth stole an egg from a settler’s homestead.
A war broke between the Sioux and America armies. The uprising lasted 6 weeks. 303 men were sentenced to die, then President Lincoln reduced the number.
On December 26, 1862, 38 Sioux were hanged at Mankato, MN, on a single gallows.
It’s the biggest mass hanging in US history.
Their bodies were buried by the Minnesota River.
Doctors, include Mayo, dug them out for “medical research.”
Children, women and elders were rounded up on Pike Island, under Fort Snelling.
They had no food, clothes, or medicine for the harsh winter.
Many were frozen to the ground and never woke up.
Over 300 died of cholera.
In April, 1863, the Congressed revoked all the treaties and banished the Sioux from Minnesota.
They were marched out along the river, into Nebraska, South and North Dakota.
Along the way, the settlers assaulted them with boiling water, rocks, guns…
The Minnesota River was a trail of tears and blood.
Those who reached their destinations died from droughts, blizzards and hunger.
Those who stayed home were hunted down for bounties.
Minnesota still hasn’t lifted the ban.
134 years later, the Sioux awakened their Mdewakanton, “Water of the Great Spirit.”
On April 1, 2016, Joy Brown pitched the first teepee on LaDonna’s land at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannon Ball.
A second stood up, a third, then a camp, then 200 nations...
I traveled to Standing Rock in November and December with 2000 prayer flags made along the Mississippi, Yangtze, Ganga, Amazon, Everest.
They fluttered along the Cannon Ball, around the camp.
People photographed, filmed and made their own prayer flags.
At their request, I left them flying on the hill overlooking DAPL troops.
Who am I to tell this story? I’m not a Native, not a veteran, not even a US citizen.
In 2008, I took my writing class to the Minnesota River for a four-day canoe trip, guided by Sioux leader Le Moines, his wife Rose, Medicine man Jose, and Jon Lurie.
Le Moines started our journey at the Upper Region Sioux, near the source of the Minnesota River, the historical marker where Trader Andrew Myrick told the starving Sioux to go “eat grass.”
“The translator turned pale. He knew this insult, if translated, could spark a war. But Myrick forced him to translate, word by word, to Little Crow and other chiefs.”
Le Moines’ voice was deep and muddy like the turbid water of the Minnesota, like the story buried under the forgotten mud.
Not a single student heard of the 1862 Sioux Uprising, the mass hanging, Pike Island Internment Camp, the genocide, the bloody origin of Minnesota state, the murky water that was once the Glacial River Warren that created Great Sioux Nations and the fertile land of Midwest, its valleys, cliffs, cities…now the most polluted river on earth, sending tons of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers down the Mississippi creating a death zone the size of Texas in the Gulf.
The story howled with the wind through grasses.
We all wept as we paddled down the Forgotten River.
If academic learning is a flower and life is a tree, the flower will never bloom unless we dig our roots into the living soil.
The canoe trip changed us forever. We no longer see or write about America the same way again.
I took my classes back to rivers, the Minnesota, the Mississippi, Lake Itasca, St. Croix, the Yangtze, the Ganga, Tibet…
Kinship of Rivers project was born and bloomed during the trips, bringing people and rivers together as kin, as one family.
We are water, 75% of us, our bones, hair, organs, brain, flesh, blood.
All water moves to rivers. All rivers move into seas. All seas connect as Panthalassa.
To pollute one drop of water is to pollute all rivers, all seas.
To hurt one tribal land is to hurt all the land on earth.
The Sioux understand that.
“We have the answers on how to live with this earth. We have to share that knowledge,” said LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard, a historian from Standing Rock.
So the first teepee on her land, the first drop of water, rippling into a tsunami.
According to the creation story, the Sioux came from the center of the earth, lived on the land where the River Warren, the Mississippi and Rum River came together. After a flood they went into water and lived as underwater "people". Then a whirlpool pulled them up onto the shore, as water protectors.
Every morning people gather at the Cannon Ball for water ceremony.
Grandma Pearl blesses women with purified water and songs.
Men wait patiently behind.
I found Pearl’s assistant and handed her two jugs of water.
Her eyes teared when I mentioned Coldwater Spring.
“That’s the most sacred water from our birthplace. We’ve been using it for ceremony for thousands of years,” she hugged the jars to her chest. “Thank you for bringing it from St. Paul. Thank you for the Mdewakanton, water of great spirit.”
Kinship of River flags fluttered above our heads, above the Cannon Ball.
They’ve been blessed by rivers, mountains and Dalai Lama, now by Standing Rock.
In 2010, British filmmaker Isaac Julien invited me to the premier of Ten Thousand Waves, a film about illegal immigrants drowned at Morecambe Bay picking cockles. I was commissioned to write poems as the script. After the opening, I went to Tibet, to install an art project for a friend, a small banner of six artists’ work on fabric, including mine, a poem on the back of a turtle drowning in the oil covered Gulf. I brought two banners, one for the end of the Yangtze, one for Tibet, spanning the entire Yangtze, symbolically. I begged a fisherman to bring the flags to an island that marked the end of the Yangtze, but he refused, saying they’re ugly, scary and bad luck. I had to bribe them with a thousand Yuan to accomplish the mission. As I brought the 2nd banner to Tibet, my heart was filled with doubt. What if the Tibetans rejected us? The air was thin at 5000 meters above the sea. I gasped for air as I struggled to tie the banner with millions of prayer flags. I stepped back. Our ugly flags blended in. They fluttered in the sea of prayer, beautiful, expansive.
In the euphoria, I saw myself making flags of poetry and art, with thousands of people along the Yangtze, Mississippi and other rivers, to spread peace and love.
I asked the veterans why they came to Standing Rock.
To defend our water, said Joe from California.
To defend our rights. DAPL has violated the constitutional law, said Julie from Texas.
Pretty Rainbow welcomed us at the community center.
She’s 97, Great Grandma of Eagle Butte Reservation, served as a nurse during WWII.
She’s the oldest vet for Standing Rock.
“I’m serving for the right mission, finally,” she said, holding my hand between hers.
We stationed at Eagle Butte on Dec. 3, before our march to the Standing Rock frontline, to take some pressure off the crowded Oceti Sakowin Camp.
The reservation is among the poorest in US. Children volunteer to be adopted by white families for a chance to go to college.
Jay Cook, Iron Lightening, is one of the children. He ran away from a few families until he found a good one.
“That’s my grandson in the arms of Barack and Michelle,” he pointed to the photos on the wall. “They came to our land and vowed to make our life better. A promise to children is sacred. We’re praying to remind him of the vow.”
We spent the night in the high school gym, minimal equipment, but clean and spacious. Eagle Butte is generous with their children despite their poverty.
They fed us, thousands of vets, with eggs, bacon, sausage, fruits, nuts, milk, coffee.
Cars and trucks lined the ditches upside down. Blizzards had already hit this unforgiving land. A new one was on its way. Standing Rock would be colder than the Mars, the radio announced.
It didn’t stop the world from coming to the camp.
This is the nature of water: the best solvent and equalizer, the best cleansing agent, the most generous and free spirited, the foundation for life, including rocks, and the oldest element from the big bang.
H2O--two hands cradling an open heart.
Water feels. Water sees. Water is.
When we arrived at 2:00, the camp was a boiling sea: riders standing on horsebacks cheering, girls beating drums, singing and dancing on top of RVs. I grabbed a man and asked him what was happening. He laughed and laughed, choking with tears:
“The permit to cross the river is denied. Our prayer is answered.”
Standing Rock is a tsunami of joy.
Is it a miracle?
The camp forbids weapons and violence, including self-defense, no matter what DAPL releases on them: dogs, mace, rubber bullets, grenades, water cannons, drones, strip search, dog kennels, jail, huge fines...
It has no electricity, no running water, no internet, no luxury guzzling 80 million barrels of oil a day.
“This is all I need, all we need: land, water, sage, prayer. I’ve never been so happy,” said Buffalo Hair.
I’ve never seen him smile so big, so deep.
Prayer follows the law of mind and matter, indestructible like H2O.
Sometimes it goes beyond the laws of matter, when it syncs with God’s volition. That’s when miracle happens.
That’s how a drop of water becomes a ripple becomes a wave becomes a tsunami.
Standoff at Standing Rock
you have guns, we got faith
you have media, we got truth
you have tanks, we got horses
you have troops, we got spirits
you have drones, we got drums
you have bombers, we got eagles
you have tear gas, we got prayers
you have water cannon, we got blood
you have crude oil, we got blue water
you signed many treaties, we got endless lies
you have surveillance drones, we got grandma’s eyes
you have concussion grenades, we got invincible wisdom
you own big banks, we got the wealth your money can’t buy
you have floodlights to blind us, we got 7 billion pairs of eyes wide open
you wire Mother Earth with pipelines, we tie hearts to the cord of the universe
In the blinding blizzard, 4000 veterans marched to the Cannon Ball Bridge, where the Sioux hold the standoff with DAPL since April 2016. Their belief is their weapon.
Two miles away from the bridge, Wes Clark Jr., commander of “Veterans for Standing Rock,” asked Lakota elder Leonard Crow Dog for forgiveness.
This is the first time a white man knelt to the Natives, publically, semi-officially, considering his status as the son of General Wes Clark.
Leonard placed his hand on his head: “We do not own the land. The land owns us.”
Crude continues to flow around the globe. Pipelines still leak oil into rivers and land.
Standing Rock victory is the beginning of a tsunami, clearing path for tomorrow.
It requires hands willing to hold and work, a heart open to the Way, like H2O.
we welcomed you with turkey, you returned with guns and whiskey
we offered our feathers of hope, you returned with blankets of small pox
we showed you how to honor life, you hunted down our last wolf, eagle, buffalo
we offered treaties for peace and co-habitat, you exiled us to deserts, barren plains
we showed you how we love children, you jailed them in your whitewashing schools
we plead you to honor our Mother, you frack her with drills, pumps, toxic brine
we ask you to respect our ancestors, you bulldoze burial grounds, sacred sites
we say NO to pipelines, you sent troops, mace, drones, concussion grenades
so we stand up, we stand tall, and we stand together with all tribes
and nations from four corners of the earth
in defense of water—blue-blood for
algae, grass, trees, fruits
bugs, fish, birds, mammals
sky, rivers, mountains, valleys
free spirit from the birth of all stars
gift for all sentient beings from our Mother
it’s not ours to give away
it’s not yours to steal, rob, kill
A tsunami of blue water revolution from the bottom of a howling sea.
A transfer of energy, wave upon wave upon wave, till it finds a home.
About the Author: Ping Wang published eleven books of poetry and prose: American Visa, Foreign Devil, Of Flesh and Spirit, New Generation, Aching for Beauty, The Magic Whip, The Last Communist Virgin, 10,000 Waves… She’s a recipient of NEA, Bush, Lannan and McKnight Fellowships. She’s the founder and director of Kinship of Rivers Project.