When we are little, we are taught that Thanksgiving is a commemoration of the first meal the Pilgrims and Indians shared. It is a story of strangers working together to survive that first harsh winter in a foreign place, our Native brothers and sisters helping us with their knowledge of the land.
While the origin remains disputed, the “Day of Thanksgiving” was made official in 1637 by Governor John Winthrop. The day was to celebrate white men coming back safely from conquering the Pequot people in Mystic, Connecticut where they had slaughtered upwards of 700 indigenous men, women, and children.
Native Americans mourn this day not only for the repeated massacres and injustices taken against their people since colonization, but also as the loss of their sovereignty.
With the No Dakota Access Pipeline water protectors in the news and images of peaceful Native Americans contending with police brutality, including the use of dogs and water cannons, thousands of us pilgrims could not sit idly by.
We took to the roads departing from a hot and sunny San Diego with the back of our camper proudly displaying a fist clutching flowers with NO DAPL painted underneath. The entire driver’s side stated, STAND WITH STANDING ROCK in tall red and black letters. We were headed to North Dakota.
A simple call to our community resulted in an outpouring of neighbors coming over with donations, thanking us for making the journey, and sending us on our way with not only supplies, but also love and prayers to bring to the people at Standing Rock.
The very first night of our journey was November 20th, the night that Morton County Police fired water cannons, tear gas, and pepper spray at peaceful protesters in sub-freezing weather. That’s where we were headed, to witness these atrocities first hand and to offer our support and our supplies.
When we crossed into Wyoming it was almost as if the air itself had changed. Never before have I so strongly felt that I was in a “red” state. Proud honks and raised fists of solidarity suddenly turned into wide-eyed stares and the occasional middle finger.
In a parking lot in the town of Gilette, Wyoming a man stopped to tell us his views. He denied global warming saying, “it’s a myth they’re just brainwashing you to believe.” He insisted that pipelines don’t leak and would not endanger the water supply. After stopping in Gillette, I have since learned that the city calls itself the “Energy Capital of the Nation” because of its involvement with the coal and oil industry.
At a gas station outside of Rapid City, South Dakota someone yelled “Fuck Standing Rock, I stand with Trump” as they sped away in the darkness.
We were eager to finally make our way into the Oceti Sakowin camp. It was incredibly larger than I had imagined. The flags lining the main road gave me chills down my spine. Indigenous people from all over the world were represented here. We arrived late at night and I recognized the floodlights on the hill from pictures and videos I’d seen. “Tactics” one of the men said, “They’re always on. It’s to make us scared.”
An Indigenous woman who had been on the front lines told us that not only were they spraying water cannons in below freezing weather, but they were also adding pepper spray to the water. She advised us to have a spray bottle of milk of magnesia ready, to help calm the effects of the mace. Vinegar, she said, was effective against tear gas.
What we experienced at Standing Rock was a powerful movement that will not be stopped. We saw Indigenous nations welcome their allies who opted out of a traditional Thanksgiving of sweeping history under the rug, and chose to make history in a new and bold way.
In a highly charged and emotional atmosphere, the approach is clear and simple: be peaceful, be prayerful. Send love not only to the earth, to the water, and to each other, but also to everyone working for DAPL on the other side.
Recently, the army corps has denied the final permit to allow drilling underneath Lake Oahe, saying they will look into other routes. Water protectors are not letting up, however, considering that DAPL could continue drilling, without a permit. On December 5th a pipeline 150 miles from Standing Rock leaked, spilling 176,000 gallons of crude oil, justifying the efforts of the water protectors and strengthening their resolve.
As more pipelines are being announced from the Trans-Pecos and Piñon Pipeline in the Southwest to the Trans Mountain Expansion Project in the Pacific Northwest, I hope we will continue to see activists coming together to defend the environment, precious cultural heritage sites, and to demand an economic shift away from big oil.
The word “pilgrim” translates to “one who has come from afar.” A pilgrim is a traveler who is on a journey to a holy place. This is what we should learn as children; that this land is sacred and was home to Indigenous people long before we arrived. We should be taught to carry a spirit of reverence for every step we take and for every sip of water we drink. We can make Thanksgiving a day where we remind ourselves to live our lives as an expression of gratitude to mother Earth.
I am grateful that this year I got to see, firsthand, strangers coming together, to a sacred place, to honor the land and learn from the Native Americans the way we should have done a long long time ago.