Only as a story will this make sense. One morning in August, craving company, I walked around the corner from my apartment in Livingston, Montana, and sat down at the counter of Pinky’s Cafe. The place was unusually empty for the summer, which is when Livingston fills with visitors from all over the world. I ordered pancakes and gazed out through the big picture window onto Main Street. There were almost no cars, and not a single pedestrian. The town was sleepy. Dead.
I mentioned this to the café’s owner, who seemed surprised I hadn’t heard the news. The Yellowstone River, a world-class trout stream that is also the longest undammed river in the lower forty-eight and the key to the tourist economy of Livingston, had been closed by order of the state. No fishing. No boating or rafting. A quarantine. The cause was a fish kill. Whitefish had begun to wash up on the banks and there was a fear that the trout might also start dying. The immediate culprit was a parasite, a tiny jellyfish, but the larger culprit, it seemed, was climate change. Thanks to a hot, dry summer and a mild winter that had failed to replenish the snowpack in the Absaroka Mountains, the Yellowstone was running low and warm, stressing the fish and rendering them vulnerable to microscopic enemies.
Ten days later, in early September, the river had partially reopened, but the town was still deserted as I sat in my office reading Black Elk, by Joe Jackson, a comprehensive new biography of the fabled Sioux medicine man. I was thinking of writing a review, though really my interest in the book was personal and not easily explained, having to do with a series of strange events that followed my mother’s sudden death, five years earlier almost to the day. To describe these events in any detail might disqualify me as a rational, modern person, so suffice it to say that they involved wild birds — crows and ravens — appearing to me, both as symbols and as living creatures, at critical moments of gloom and indecision. When I told friends about the visitations they listened patiently enough, but only one, Sherman Alexie, the brilliant Native American fiction writer, noted their complex and often contradictory significance. After I spoke with him, I tracked down a copy of Black Elk Speaks, the 1932 oral history of the medicine man’s life on the Great Plains, which includes an account of his childhood vision of the spirit world. I found the book embarrassingly meaningful — embarrassingly because I learned that John Neihardt, its white editor, had molded and embellished the story, some said in order to appeal to dilettantes like me.
Jackson’s new biography rattled me with its relentless bleakness. Black Elk, who died in 1950 at the age of eighty-seven, was present at the annihilation of General Custer’s forces, saw the buffalo vanish from the plains, helped lead the apocalyptic Ghost Dance movement, and witnessed the horror of its aftermath: the massacre at Wounded Knee, which killed up to 300 Lakota, perhaps half of whom were women and children. His fate was to survive a rolling catastrophe with eyes wide open, his luck also his curse. A passage describing the murder of Sitting Bull, the beloved Hunkpapa Sioux chief, on the Standing Rock reservation in the Dakotas just weeks before the massacre finally forced me to set the book aside and turn on my phone for diversion.
“#StandingRock.” There it was again, that haunting place-name, linked on my Twitter feed to a photo of a dog snapping and leaping at a Native woman. I tapped on the associated article. Five hundred miles from me, in North Dakota, several thousand people, many of them Indians from different tribes, had gathered to protest an unfinished oil pipeline set to run under the Missouri River. They feared that an oil spill might harm the great body of water, which, as it happens, begins in Montana, just west of where I live, and eventually merges with the Yellowstone before flowing south through the Dakotas. Now they were under siege. Again. The attack dogs belonged to a private security firm hired by the pipeline company, and local police had blocked a nearby highway.
There are times as a reader when to keep on reading feels like an evasion. I stared at the book beside me on the couch, feeling angry, challenged, and inconvenienced. To merely review the biography seemed suddenly shameful; the traumas it conjured were still alive, and in the very same locales. My sense of critical distance had collapsed. In his vision, which came to him at the age of nine as he lay unconscious from a mysterious illness, Black Elk had looked down on the source of the Missouri, near the modern-day town of Three Forks, Montana, and beheld a hellish spectacle:
We came above a place where three streams made a big one — a source of mighty waters — and something terrible was there. Flames were rising from the waters and in the flames a blue man lived. The dust was floating all about him in the air, the grass was short and withered, the trees were wilting, two-legged and four-legged beings lay there thin and panting.
I’m no expert on Native American symbolism, but burning water made me think of oil, and most blue men I know work for the police. As for the images of decay and drought, I could find them a few blocks away along the Yellowstone, whose shriveled channels still smelled of rotting fish.
I packed a duffel bag. Around midnight, two hundred miles down the road, a raven sailed through my high beams, deftly banking as it cleared my hood. Once you start noticing them, they’re everywhere, and it’s hard not to feel they’re somehow guiding you.
The prairie is deceptive. It allows you to see forever, and you see nothing, but then you come over a rise, a modest hill, and an unsuspected world leaps out. The camp at Standing Rock was like that. I thought I’d never find it, that I was lost, but then it popped up: a profusion of tents and trailers and corrals scattered along the Cannonball River, approached by a road lined with rows of tribal flags. They lent a formal, heraldic feel to a scene of picturesque disorder. I had better check my romantic streak, I thought. And then, because I feared I couldn’t, I considered leaving, turning back. Since that’s the great sin now, isn’t it? To patronize. To subsume other cultures in one’s own dreams.
The Black Elk biography had much to say on this. In a section concerning the medicine man’s role in Buffalo Bill’s touring circus, the Wild West show, Jackson makes the case that at a time when officialdom wanted to suppress Native culture, the staged reenactments of certain rites actually preserved them. That audiences found the shows enchanting thwarted the racist censors who had never counted on the power of charm. Jackson reaches a similar conclusion about Neihardt’s reconstruction of Black Elk’s memories and visions: an impure chronicle beats none at all. And as Jackson reminds us, Black Elk even devised a show of his own for gawking tourists, as did one of his sons, who performed near Mount Rushmore into the 1970s. Did whites who found Native Americans pleasingly exotic save their culture from total annihilation? And were Native Americans who played to them degraded clowns or savvy opportunists? Heady questions, full of perils.
I drove into the camp despite my qualms, which I had probably forced on myself, since indulging moral agonies is a ritual for my people, who have so few. When two teenage boys at a checkpoint waved me over and asked why I was there, I announced that I was press. This usually garners perks. Not this time. The boys directed me to the welcome desk, where I was given a sticker for my jacket and asked to restrict myself to a small area reserved for speeches and announcements, in front of the main mess tent. I sensed this rule would not be strictly enforced, and soon enough someone told me why it existed: after the dogs attacked the protesters, who’d crossed a fence because a bulldozer was plowing through a sacred site, certain reporters filed stories suggesting the Indians were the aggressors. (I’d seen video of the incident; not true.) When I heard this, I peeled off my sticker and changed focus. I was here to protect a river. I was here to stand vigil for the next four days, awaiting a crucial ruling from a federal court on whether construction of a pipeline would go forward. I stashed my notebook and found a real job, stacking donated boxes of cereal, rice, and pasta under plastic tarps so they’d stay dry.
There were thousands of people in the camp, representing as many as two hundred tribes; the numbers I heard varied. What didn’t vary, what I heard everywhere, in conversations and from numerous speakers whose amplified voices boomed across the grasslands, was that Standing Rock was the largest, most diverse gathering of indigenous people in more than a hundred years, possibly since the Battle of the Greasy Grass (also known as Little Bighorn) in 1876, in which a coalition of tribes had defeated Custer. My digital, linear sense of time, already degraded by a dead iPhone and the absence of electricity to charge it, melted at this thought. The size of the camp and the flow of new arrivals were credited by some to social media — and to Wakan Tanka, the Great Mystery. A speaker shouted, “Water is life!” in English, and then went back to speaking Lakota. A child’s toy drone buzzed overhead. That night there was dancing around a sacred fire, and a rugged old Native truck driver recalled how amused he’d been, many decades ago, when his father made a crazy-sounding prediction: When you grow up, you will have to buy your water.
The next afternoon a man in a black hat adorned with a band of colored beads addressed an attentive, eager crowd. “This is our day,” he proclaimed. “Their day is over.” He also said, “When I tell them I’m part buffalo, they ask me what I mean. When I tell them I’m part mountain, they ask me what I mean.” His tone was blunt yet lyrical, and his name, someone told me, was Dennis Banks. I remembered being taught to hate him. In 1972, he and Russell Means had led the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee, confronting a contingent of federal agents equipped with sniper rifles and armored vehicles. My patriotic fifth-grade teacher harangued our class about the standoff, clearly eager to see the Natives routed. But Banks was still here, a man of seventy-nine who didn’t look or act it. “You will not see this sort of gathering in your entire life,” he told the crowd, exhorting us to “get on the internet” and build opposition to the pipeline.
The day before the legal ruling I parked on the shoulder of an empty highway and shot a few pictures of the pipeline’s path, a broad and muddy high-banked trench almost vengeful in its ugliness. A moment later three police cars cruised up out of nowhere and I explained myself to a husky officer, using my best solid-citizen voice. He responded that it was his job to watch for vandals. Too late. The serious vandals had come and gone.
Back at the camp, I shared my pipeline photos on social media while a dapper reporter from The Daily Show, Hasan Minhaj, interviewed a woman dressed in traditional fringe and feathers. She was a pro, photogenic on horseback and well informed, cannily playing to the TV audience. The Missouri River was lucky to have her. It was lucky to have a lot of the women there. As far as I could tell, they sustained the camp, from its wood-fired kitchens to its little school to its tables piled high with free, donated clothing.
After a long night of ceremony, including a concert by a Native rapper, the morning of the ruling, September 9, dawned cool and damp. In the breakfast line, the youth hung back so the elders could eat first. A mile up the road, near the bulldozed burial sites, a circle of perhaps two hundred people, a few of them African-American, some of them white, surrounded several prayerful men who unsheathed long pipes from fancy cases and pointed them toward the world’s four corners, the heavens, and the earth. Everyone who wished to smoked.
When we returned to camp we received the bad news: the court had denied the tribal petition. I took down my tent and stashed it in my car next to a garment I’d bought for forty dollars from a Hunkpapa Sioux college student: a shiny black-leather motorcycle vest embroidered with a big American flag.
An hour down the road, heading home, I turned on my radio and heard better news. The Justice Department had issued a directive that work on parts of the pipeline be halted temporarily, pending a review of various issues, cultural and environmental. It sounded like a happy ending, or progress toward one. I grinned and sped along — until my engine bucked and quit and oil started spraying from under my hood, coating my windshield in viscous amber slime and proving that petroleum will have its way.
In late September, a phalanx of police, their shotguns drawn, backed by a hulking armored vehicle, confronted a group of protesters. Thanks to wiggle room in the DOJ’s pronouncement, pipeline construction had resumed nearby, and so had the tension. There were twenty-one arrests. Days later, a cold front slammed the plains, and the camp, according to reports, busied itself preparing for a hard winter. When you read this, that winter will have come. Graver difficulties, too, perhaps. In Dickinson, North Dakota, where my car died, stranding me in a motel, the boom created by the nearby fracking fields has ebbed as oil prices have declined. I met some grumpy people who had bitter views on Standing Rock. Meanwhile, on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation, one of the poorest places in the United States and one of the most addicted and suicidal, funds are being raised on Facebook to send a thousand young Lakota Sioux to help defend the waters of the Missouri.
On my way to the camp, I parked along the river’s banks and watched it drag last spring’s Montana snowmelt slowly south across the prairies. There was a crow, of course, yakking on a tree branch, grouchy, ornery. Crows are often considered tricksters, and in some legends crows created the world. But now it is all ours, not theirs. It belongs to us, the two-legged ones.
I imagine this concerns them, as it should.