Oceti Sakowin Camp, North Dakota, US – The brittle sound of hard beans rattling in pots mingles with the chatter from the next table. Diane Hart gives everyone the time of day, even if she is constantly interrupted by people popping in to see if there is food, to drop off cans of home-smoked salmon, to let her know that there is fresh buffalo available over at the main kitchen if she can send a car, or to ask for a can opener.
“I was beginning to think, ‘How am I going to stay the winter?’ and in walks this big tall man who says ‘I have a teepee for the elder cook here’,” says Hart as she chops onions for tonight’s dinner of Indian tacos. “Anything I think we need, it just appears. It’s just a blessing.”
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Hart runs “Grandma’s Kitchen”, which serves two free meals a day to around 100 people at Oceti Sakowin Camp in North Dakota. The camp borders Standing Rock Reservation and is the place where the Dakota Access Pipeline “water protectors”, as they call themselves, have been camping for months. Indigenous volunteer security guards eat beside Aztec dancers and people from China and Venezuela.
The planned construction of the $3.8bn, 2,500km Dakota Access crude oil pipeline through the area has seen large protests in recent months from the Standing Rock Sioux, other Native American tribes and their allies, who say the construction would contaminate the local water supply and encroach upon tribal burial and other cultural sites.
“My heart was drawn to here,” says Hart, explaining why she made the nearly 2,000-mile journey all the way to North Dakota from California.
“As soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to come. We’re outside the city of LA and we’ve fought for our water since 1939. A lot of reservations have problems with water. I know how important water is, and I know however this ends up it will set [a] precedent. I hope it will make a difference in our water situation.”
Rene Rodriguez is of Puerto Rican Taino heritage and drove to North Dakota from Baltimore, Maryland, to participate in the demonstrations. For the past week he has been helping out in the kitchen and anywhere else around the camp he can be of use, chopping wood, hauling bales of hay, and picking up rubbish.
“Grandma provides [the] camp with nourishment and a place where people can feel comfortable. It feels like home. People call her ‘Grandma’ for a reason,” Rodriguez says.
Preparing to move in
There is a sense at the camp that things are ramping up.
On Saturday, October 22, 127 people were arrested during protests. In the past few days, talk has increasingly been focused on law enforcement’s amassing of manpower and vehicles nearby.
“You have planes flying over the camp every hour, during the day and throughout the night,” says Tse Chi Chad Yen, a volunteer at the camp. “We have heard law enforcement build up around Fort Rice, including the calling-in of the National Guard. A few days ago through the security radio we heard that at least four busloads of police were moving towards the frontline.”
This past weekend a new camp was set up directly in the path of the pipeline and witnesses said they saw police vehicles gathering at nearby Fort Yates, just a few miles north.
Martin Bates, a volunteer with Veterans For Peace, a non-profit organisation that is “dedicated to building a culture of peace, exposing the true costs of war, and healing the wounds of war”, says he saw different kinds of police vehicles from different localities amassing near the camps.
Medical and security volunteer Didi Banergi says she is worried by what she has seen. “I was going into Bismarck and I went by the Fort Rice military camp … and I cried before I came back because I was worried … Why would they have that out there?”
On Wednesday, October 26, law enforcement officials, seeming to confirm what the protesters and volunteers had been reporting, announced that they were preparing to move in and remove the protesters from the camp but that they wanted to avoid any confrontation and violence.
“We have the resources. We could go down there at any time,” said Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney. “[But] we’re trying not to.”
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier added that authorities would continue seeking a peaceful resolution to the situation but that they were there to “enforce the law as needed”.
A place of healing
Grandma’s Kitchen is housed in a large canvas tent, with stoves and counter tops on one side, and on the other shelves, boxes, and a solar-powered refrigerator.
Before mealtime, an elder says a prayer. Children and elders are served first. With full plates, some people make their way to the campfire, although most stand, talk and eat together beside the large pot of Indian tea.
A base fund of a few hundred dollars from the Owens Valley Water Commission and a few hundred dollars from Hart helped stock the kitchen. Since then, food has come in the form of donations. Today, there is an oversized grocery bag full of elk jerky, and small handfuls of cash, such as the $140 from the woman enjoying a bowl of beans and buffalo.
Hart hands $100 to her granddaughter, 21-year-old Alexeya, to pick up eggs and vegetables in town.
“People back home are leery and distrustful. Here there is so much personal healing going on,” says Hart.
“We’re all here and not in our own community where we’re judged. People are free to talk about their problems in a way they never would back home. I met one man who was addicted to meth when he came here,” she says.
“He has been here one month and had no cravings. The young men out here are so needed and they’re learning they’re appreciated. They’re learning their self-worth.”
Hart spent much of her youth with her grandparents on the Bishop Paiute Reservation, in the Owens Valley north of Los Angeles.
“The first morning when I was here I saw a young boy racing up the hill on a horse with no saddle. When I was little, ’58 or ’59, my grandfather would tell me that someday all the natives were going to unite and be one tribe. We would rise again – not a war with guns but a different kind of war,” Hart recounts.
“That first morning it hit me like a thunderbolt. This is what my grandfather was talking about. He always hoped I would be alive to witness it.”
But the pipeline is closing in on the river that people have come here to protect.
“It’s too damn close,” Rodriguez says. “We need more prayers and to be more active. If they cross the water all isn’t lost, but they got in and we didn’t stop them.”
Rodriguez, who served in the combat engineer unit of the army, says he took an oath to protect his nation from foreign and domestic threats. “That respect I cannot combine with what some politicians are doing.”
Hart thinks the main push is coming soon. “I am just hoping we can stop the black snake. As it nears the river things will get more and more intense, more and more volatile. I’m praying no lives are lost. Prayer and spirit will succeed.”
It remains to be seen what will happen if the pipeline jumps the river. “I just hope we don’t have to find out,” says Hart.