Veteran Reflections from Standing Rock 

Standing Rock December 2016
When the request was sent out for veterans to show up to Standing Rock I told my wife Anna of my plans to go. She posted a request for donations and they started to pour in almost immediately, continuing right up until minutes before departure. Donations of fresh veggies from our local CSA, Bios Farm, firewood, blankets, toilet paper, cash, and other food items and toiletries filled up the Sprinter van wall to wall and floor to ceiling. It was amazing.
A new friend, Rich from Voices of Creative Nonviolence and fellow Chicago VFP Kevin Merwin joined me as we left Chicago. We stopped in Madison, WI to meet another VFP member, Ron Arm, and the four of us left in two vehicles for North Dakota. We drove all night including through a snowstorm in Minnesota and finally arriving at the Oceti Sakowin camp on the Sioux Standing Rock Reservation in the evening the next day.

There was a line of vehicles slowly getting directed in. A few cars leaving were honking and waving in celebration of the recent announcement denying the pipeline permit. We already succeeded. Once we got in and parked we found a donation tent and proceeded to unload the van so we could prepare our sleeping spaces. With that done we found a mess hall tent and had some stew made with a donated cow and flatbread with blueberry pudding. Delicious. We wound up visiting three different mess tents during our brief stay.

Then we followed the sound of drums and singing to the sacred fire. We listened to a few songs and joined a ceremonial dance around the fire. A woman told us of required orientation sessions for all new arrivals held in a geodesic dome tent nearby. We walked over and looked at the posted schedule and decided we’d attend the next orientation in the morning.

The orientation was moved to a large Army tent due to the size of the group which I guessed at 80 to 100. Two young woman proceeded to explain issues to the group such as following the customs of the culture of the people we were here to help. Things like: not crossing between elders and the sacred fire, not initiating violence with authorities, women were expected to wear skirts & to avoid working in the kitchens during menses, and tobacco is an acceptable gift.
This was the first time in 140 years that all seven Sioux tribes banded together for a common purpose. Even more historical and awe-inspiring is the 700 indigenous peoples from around the world represented at this event – something that has never happened before.

That day veterans joined local Native Americans in a celebration ceremony at a bridge over the Cannonball River which is a tributary flowing into the nearby Missouri River. The pipeline is planned to go under the Missouri River there. The snow started falling before the walk to the bridge began and turned into a blizzard. The wind blew the snow and anything not tied down sideways. The temperature dropped to single digits and roads were closed.

We met many other VFP members there including Chicago Chapter member Eric Lobo.

We worked on a small house being built by volunteer carpenters for a tribal elder and his wife.

The weather forecast called for more snow and sub zero temperatures. We decided to try and make it to the local casino 8 miles away. It was slow going and there were many vehicles that slid off the road into the ditch along the way.

We arrived at the casino to find the pavilion (concert arena) packed with veterans and friends staking out sleeping spots on the floor, in the bleachers, under the bleachers, and in hallways. The casino was overwhelmed. Some of us volunteered to help empty overflowing trash receptacles. Card dealers had been sent home due to the weather so black jack tables were empty. They ran out of alcohol or decided not to serve it, not sure which story is correct. There was ceremonial drumming, singing, prayers, and speeches. We were profusely thanked for our assistance.

The next morning were braved the roads and headed home, thoroughly inspired and energized.

Honored and humbled,

bob gronko

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