We arrive when midnight witches one day into another. We set up camp in the first empty spot and I don’t know where my family is. Kateri, Wayne, and I drove six hours to be here.
We carry sleep to our camp.
Three young men help us set the tent, chatty and kind. I feel welcome but not safe. There is a static crackling, a murmured, frantic voice. A man wearing a walkie-talkie strapped to his shirt is here. A truck is whipping around, probably Dakota Access LLC. I watch the taillights rush over the hill. The three young men assure us that it’s okay, and that DAPL have been trying to agitate the camp.
The static crackle again, and then there is a fire spreading in a field. You can hear the tension rise and the three young men try to soothe us—not to placate but to instruct. People are told not to go to the fire. There have been snipers in the area and we need to avoid being targets.
I remember earlier a police officer had smiled and told us to be safe at their checkpoint, four miles away. The fire burns all night with no response from the police and no fire trucks. Panicked campers wake us up twice during the night as the fields burn. It is a dry night and the wind is heavy. There is no response.
We learn later that multiple people called for help and were laughed at, hung up on.
I wake up, send a few messages on Facebook to find my cousin here. When we find each other she hugs me close and tells me to move my camp.
We can see the sweep of burnt grass. She says that they don’t know how, but the fire burned itself out. It did not race down into camp. It did not smoke out the campers or burn anyone.
We move off the disputed land to where county cops and their ilk can’t come: reservation land. Across the river, where we were, was their jurisdiction.
The loud thrum of the National Guard sweeps in, ineffectually late, to dump irony all over the charred earth.
The fire is just a few miles from their post.
After I have washed dishes and introduced myself around, I sit in the car with Wayne and watch planes fly low, back and forth. We watch the sleepy way campers move between each other. The day is weighty.
My vision is bad, even with my glasses. It takes me a minute to see across the river—it looks like horses. Wouldn’t that be a great story to share, that we saw horses in the Cannonball River at the DAPL protest? Only, I get closer, and it’s not horses.
There are people in the water and I think they are swimming.
The bystanders are confused about who is in the water.
We keep watching, nothing else. We walk back. An elderly woman walks along the riverbank saying, “I have his coat.”
She is looking for him. The boats bring a boy to the riverbank.
The boy they pulled from the river looks like my son with his skin and hair.
My little boy, unprovoked, said, with a little shaking falsetto, so I know he means it, “The police? No—they’ll shoot me and make me dead.”
This is not a rhetoric I have ever taught him. It isn’t one I can dissuade him of. No. It isn’t one I will dissuade him of. He is four years old. Milk soft but leaning out, baby fat turning to muscle, and he is breaking my heart. Our people are beaten with batons, portrayed as violent. My people strip down to nothing to dive after a person in the river when state cops do not respond.
They didn’t serve the boy in the water.
There was no response.
I watched all day.
I cannot forget the relief that he was alive. I cannot forget the woman’s tears and the stillness as we watched.
With you, I am always someone. There is a thrumming in my body. Little licks of water on rock and wet moss gathers lacelike and there is a lasting cold here.
Even the wind is hard here. I see a camp—tipis. I hear the violent snapping of flags.
I imagine a ladle dipping, not into the muddy wet of the Missouri, but into the oil spilled water. Do you think it will burn?
Do you think men congratulate themselves for doing something four, twenty-four, or two hundred years too late?
Do I sound angry?
Someone called the cops on me once, my babysitter. She was on drugs. She said my siblings and I were trying to kill her with a knife. Full disclosure, I was sharpening my homework pencil with a kitchen knife and had a history of stabbing doors.
Back then, maybe even now, cops had teddy bears in their cars to give to frightened kids when out at domestic calls. I didn’t get a teddy bear. I got a hostile cop spitting in my face about how he could arrest me—he could take me away from my family.
The air in my throat is ice. Pinpricks of an extinct star gather on the arch of my brow.
When I was thirteen my little brother came home in the middle of the night, sopping wet and shaking. He was drunk and had been swimming in the lake. It was cold, like now. We had to call an ambulance and treat his hypothermia. I crawled in bed with him as we waited for the ambulance to arrive. I gave him my small warmth. I had never been so cold.
My brother was okay.
I examine my face, wrap my dirty hair in a ponytail, and try to determine if I should shower before or after work. You see, at my house, our water isn’t running. We buy water from everywhere—a mishmash of bottles to maintain basic hygiene. I wipe my face with some cucumber wipes I got at Target. I sniff my armpits. I get going.
We used to do our laundry in a wringer washer. We used to walk up a hill to my great aunt’s and shower, and then trudge home in the dark of a Northern Minnesota winter. Our damp heads steamed up to the blue sky.
I think back and then here, where I can only think of beasts with stains: oil and blood. They have become as familiar as an oil-stained cloth in a garage, or the things we ignore, just there in the light.
I think back and then here, where imparting this is as uneasy as a hand to a beast, and I don’t know which of us will tremble away first. I am reaching out—and it’s too late, and not enough, and it’s all I can do for these boys in the water.
Photographs provided courtesy of Standing Rock Rising.