Last April I saw that there was a group of Sioux women who were concerned about a pipe line coming through their ancestral land. I feel a connection to land and spirit and earth and water. At twenty-four I found out that my biological dad is an indigenous person from upstate New York. When the Sioux people put out a call for help to save their river from energy transfer partners for the Dakota Access Pipeline I knew I had to do something.
I wanted to go right away. I tend to run toward things. I was ready to go but I had poor health and I couldn’t just leave. So, I started collecting things that they would need out there and advocating on their behalf. I have an amazing friend who said, “Well if you do go, I will rent you a truck and you can fill it and go.” That was great. She committed to a sixteen-foot truck.
By golly, it took me until September to say, “Okay I am going!” and then I was finally able to leave the beginning of November. I collected all the donations and realized I had more room to fill the truck. A friend suggested that I talk to her aunt out at The Mission of Love. She told me that she has a warehouse and she, “Will help you fill your truck.” So, I called her and she said, “I have all sorts of things.” That was awesome and I went down to pick them up and we loaded up the truck. To include a kitchen for the Standing Rock community, warm clothes, food, water and toys. The Mission of Love filled up every possible inch.
So, my friend Terrence and I drove out to South Dakota together. About Wisconsin I decided that long term trucking was not for me so Terrence drove most of the way. When we finally got to Standing Rock, we ended up setting up in the dark and we were invited to join people at the camp where we dropped off the kitchen. We were sitting there at a submerged fire pit that had been dug to use for ceremony at the beginning of the Standing Rock encampment. We were a little nervous because we didn’t know anyone. I looked across the fire and a young person’s face lit up with such joy when meeting my eyes. I had not seen this person since we had done hurricane relief together. There she was excited to see me and I knew that everything was going to be okay.
We warmed up and we set up camp. It was freezing. It was the first week in November and it was very cold. I woke up in the morning and looked out of our tent. There was the most mystical mist. Imagine if you were to take a picture of, like, God in heaven and added Van Gogh’s swirls in Starry Night well, the whole plains looked like that. It was like cotton candy, surreal, ethereal swirls of light and color. I could hear the sounds of geese and coyotes. It was the most beautiful thing.
I returned to bed because of the cold and was awakened by a guy on a microphone that echoed through camp. He was like, “Get up! Get up! Standing Rock! Everybody get up! It is a good day to die. Get up! Get up and go pray with your Grandmothers.” This was not a vacation and every morning he would give a call to rise.
Directly in front of my tent was a circle of seven teepees and I didn’t know anything about these teepees and their relationship to the camp. I discovered that these were the seven tepees of the seven nations of the Sioux people and there was a sacred fire burning in front. There was a prophecy that when the seven nations would come together that seven arrows could not be broken.
Because of the swirls of mist in the early morning I had not seen this vision. I looked to my right and the pipeline was a hundred fifty feet up the hill. And it was spotlighted, rather like a ski resort, if you can imagine. A line of spot lights on a hill and a bald eagle was coming at me when I stepped out of the tent that first morning. It flew from where the pipeline was, right next to the machine gun turret. It came right over the tepees through what they called the Horn. It was the Horn of the Buffalo, the strong hold of all the Seven Nations. And there is my little tent, right next to the Horn.
The bald eagle flew right at me and flew right over the sacred fire through the middle of these tepees and kept going to the river we were trying to protect. My friend Terrence, who had driven the truck, was down at the river already, praying with the grandmothers. And that just began my experience at Standing Rock.
Some people experienced some horrendous things at the hands of law enforcement, pipe line security. I did not experience anything like that personally. Instead there was a tremendous sense of place and I knew I was in the right place. It was a Spirit rich place. The smoke of the fire, the smell of the sage connected me to something visceral that I had been disconnected from my whole life. Regardless of whether I have the privilege of connecting with who my father’s people are, my time there is all I ever really will need to make that connection with my indigenous ancestors. I was so welcomed everywhere I went and I was invited to something that I think the world needs more of. It was called a forgiveness ceremony.
There was a Sioux veteran in line for lunch one day and he invited me to this ceremony for a Sioux young man who was wrongfully accused of raping someone in camp. It was a lie and they were having a forgiveness ceremony for him. It was to be held at the sacred fire in the main part of the camp. I felt really honored and I went without any expectations. Instead I went with the understanding that I would do whatever was asked of me.
After the ceremony all his friends decided to take a knee to honor him and apologize for actions that they had taken against him. And all the elders were involved in the circle, from his tribe and all the tribes there at Standing Rock. His family all came in from Washington. I was standing next to his friends and I had met a couple of them. I felt comfortable and I don’t know what possessed me. I went down on my knee to the young man too.
It was a long time kneeling there and I was wondering what I had done, not wanting to give any offence. We were all shaking from the strain of being on one knee. We closed the circle with a handshake as an acknowledgement of participation and a thank you. I followed the young men around as my turn came and people would not let go of my hand. And there was an energy we shared and we were present with each other in our eyes. I felt like I was holding up the line but there was an energy there that was really uplifting.
I came to a medicine woman and she thanked me for taking a knee and explained that by my doing that it gave him a chance to forgive all women. Then I came to a man around my age and he would not let go of my hand. I felt that his grasp gave me a chance to forgive all the men in my life who had wronged me. I let go of so much anger in that moment.
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.