This is the first of three accounts over the next week from Kelly McDonald, who is traveling with a group of fellow New Yorkers to join the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The bus arrived at Oceti Sakowin Camp on Sunday night; below, McDonald details the journey.
It’s an unseasonably warm day this Friday as a diverse group of New Yorkers board a bus to Standing Rock from the corner of 140th and Alexander in the Bronx. The trip is a grassroots effort, organized via Facebook and one-on-one invitations by longtime Bronx activist Poonam Srivastava. I’ve already been to Standing Rock, in October, and feel compelled to return just a week after getting back home to Brooklyn. So I took the long subway ride here to embark on a three-day ride straight to Oceti Sakowin. Srivastava is waiting next to our coach, beaming and welcoming us aboard.
At the helm of the bus, one side of which bears a large painting of a corn cob, is Bill Hill, a lifelong activist based in the Bronx who drives the bus for The Cause, whatever that happens to be.
“Whenever somebody needs me to drive it, I drive it,” says Hill, who has caravanned New Yorkers to, among other places, Cuba, Chiapas, and post-Katrina New Orleans. At the beginning of September, Srivastava asked him to start getting New Yorkers to the front lines of the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and so, here we are.
We get going, the bus eventually reaching the slow crawl it will maintain for the rest of the trip. I start talking to my traveling companions about why they’re here. Maria Marasigan greets everyone with a bright smile—this is her return trip to Oceti Sakowin. She arrived back in Rocklin County last week and was scheduled to leave home for the Philippines today, but she canceled her ticket and headed back to Standing Rock because she felt she was needed there. “Whether you’re non-Native or Native, it’s about people being treated like human beings,” she says.
The youngest of the group is Logan Long Soldier, a two year-old Oglala Lakota Sioux from Pine Ridge, North Dakota—the same place we are now headed. A year ago, Logan and his sisters were adopted by their cousin Cheyenne Goodman, an Eastern Band Cherokee who lives in the Bronx. “[The pipeline] not only affects my Native child, but it affects millions of people,” she says. “If we don’t clean this up, then the children are going to have to clean up our mess.” Logan is learning to count in both English and Lakota and will spend his third birthday back in Pine Ridge, surrounded by family.
Then there’s Brandon, a 28 year-old activist of African and Eastern Band Cherokee descent who declines to provide his last name. He lives in Harlem, where he struggles to organize fellow NYCHA residents against the threat of hyper-development. When he learns of Goodman’s tribal affiliation, he exclaims, “We’re supposed to be here, together!” Everyone talks late into the night, getting up early the next morning to continue the journey.
We stop for our second night at a bucolic farm in Idaho, and in the fading afternoon light Cheyenne and Logan stride happily through the rows of ripe tomatoes and peppers, eating as they pick. Several people are brought to tears by the sight of the garden and the simplicity it promises. They cry in a cornfield, and hug it out. More than a few comparisons are made between the fight against gentrification in New York and Native struggles for sovereignty.
It’s late afternoon on Sunday when we finally get to Standing Rock, and through smeared windows we can see spotted ponies dotting the hills. As we near camp, Bill points out a construction crew working by floodlight, clawing up the earth and laying pipes where solid ground once was. Activists call DAPL the Black Snake, referencing the oil it carries, but the pipes themselves are a bright, unnatural blue.
The corncob bus pulls up Oceti Sakowin, where security waves us in with friendly recognition: “Oh, the corn cob bus!” As we finally and step down onto the dirt, Goodman’s family runs to greet us. After two recent actions and a whirlwind of weekend visitors, the camp is serene. People sit around fires; children play between tents, campers, and tepees. “Where the singers at?” an older protester calls from beside a fire, and minutes later, songs echoing through the camp almost drown out the drone of what appears to be an unmarked surveillance plane circling overhead. The northern horizon is bathed in light from work trucks.
I turn to Nasha Paola Holguín, a young Dominican woman from Harlem, and ask her how she feels right now. “I’m very overwhelmed. [But] I just feel like I’ve answered the call. Right now, I feel my ancestors bumping in my chest.”
Tomorrow, a long week begins.