Tuesday, November 29, 2016.
On any given day, an estimated 10,000 people live at the Oceti Sakowin camps at Standing Rock. To put the enormity of this community into perspective, if this were a city in Iowa, Oceti Sakowin would rank 39th out of 950 — bigger than Fairfield, Grinnell or Mount Pleasant.
The fact that so many passionate people have come together so quickly under such adverse conditions is almost hard to imagine. Even more impressive is that the infrastructure essential to a functioning city— housing, transportation, security, food, water, sanitation, public health, power — have been built, borrowed or jerry-rigged in less than four months.
Whether or not we stop the Dakota Access pipeline — and I believe we can and will — this miracle on the northern Great Plains is unparalleled. And it happened without city planners or zoning laws, under the guidance of a council of Native elders, with the tremendous energy and talent of thousands of people.
I’ll walk you through a few of these features.
Housing. The diversity of housing is as diverse as the people. Many stay in three-season tents. A lot of folks who are here for the entire winter have hunkered down with warmer, more spacious structures. Appropriately, the most common home here is a tipi.
Transportation. Oceti Sakowin’s “Main Street” is not quite the width of a two-lane highway. It is lined with the flags of many Native nations. Other roads cut a random pattern criss-crossing the community. They are either dirt, mud or now hard-packed ice and snow. Like all the roads here, there are far more pedestrians than vehicles. Cars know their place, move slowly and often wait for foot traffic to pass.
As if to further emphasize the pedestrian focus of the roads, the recent blizzard just installed speed bumps in the form of snow drifts.
Security. So far the only security I’ve seen are the teams of 2-3 people who stop vehicles entering the camp. Think TSA. What exists here is the opposite. The routine is basically this: we roll down our window, the security guy asks where we’re going and if we’ve been here before, we smile and we’re on our way.
Food. There are now 8 or 9 kitchens at Oceti Sakowin. Lyssa and I volunteer at one today: Grandma’s Kitchen. We help prepare and serve supper for an estimated 400 people. The facility is divided into three areas, each in a separate tent. The smallest tent is the actual kitchen, equipped with four propane-fired stoves. Next to that is a larger space with a serving area, dish washing station and shelves for storing dry and canned goods. Finally, there’s the dining room, which has seating capacity for 50 — and yet somehow feeds 400.
Lyssa and I continue to cook most of our own food. This is tough in a blizzard. Enough said.
Water. Mini Wiconi. Water is Life. Oceti Sakowin takes the issue of water very seriously, so much so that I’m going to save that conversation for another blog.
Sanitation. Standard, chemically-based porta-potties are the backbone of Oceti Sakowin’s sanitation system. To say that they’re unpleasant places to visit is an understatement. As I stop in at one today, I think about the EcoCommodes we hauled along the length of the Climate March. The March’s mobile outhouses used sawdust instead of chemicals. When the “toilet” was full, instead of toxic waste, we had a byproduct that was compostable. As Oceti Sakowin continues to build systems that are more sustainable and eco-friendly, EcoCommodes would be worth looking into.
Public Health. We’ve paid two visits to the medic center, once to drop off supplies, once to volunteer. The center is made up of several separate tents that can handle 10-20 people at most. It includes one tent for western medicine, another for herbal treatments, another for massage, another for acupuncture. Lyssa volunteers to sort through a pile of snow-covered “stuff,” saving what she can and tossing the rest. Most stuff is salvageable, and Lyssa later delivers two bottles of hand sanitizer to the kitchen and a vial of eucalyptus oil to the herbal tent. My task is to light a fire in one of the tents, in a stove that had a stubborn streak and needed some coaxing.
Power. Wood is in high demand. Everywhere, there are piles of logs being converted into firewood. Even more impressive is the many solar panels that are popping up everywhere. Now that the three-day blizzard is passed, we’ll help construct solar barns donated by the Bold Alliance. As Manape LaMere told me yesterday, the buzz word for future of power at Oceti Sakowin is sustainability.
The incredible speed at which the water protectors have assembled such systems to meet the most basic human needs is a testimony to their passion for the cause. It’s also a testimony to the resilience and ingenuity of our species. More than anything, it’s a testimony to the wisdom and nature of the Native people who are rising again, at a time when we need what they have to teach us more than ever before.