A few weeks ago, Milwaukee musician Marielle Allschwang traveled to Standing Rock, North Dakota to perform a benefit concert to help the water protectors facing off against the army and police. This is her written account of what she saw. She traveled and performed with Adam Michael Krause of Red Earth Press, whose much shorter account of their trip appears in the previous post.
“All a musician can do is get closer to the source."
“It’s so beautiful out,” Jennifer, our guide, Mni Wiconi Benefit concert organizer, and tribe member of the Lakota Sioux, rejoiced as we walked away from the blockade at the edge of the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Then, as if to scold the warmth, “This isn’t right. It’s November! It should be winter here. It should be cold.”
We hadn’t been in Standing Rock more than a few hours and we were already taking sobering bends through macro and microverse, portal after portal of time, space, intention, and consequence. Jennifer’s tangential commentary tacked an unnerving note to the steady realization that “we’re fucked,” amidst the consuming, ever-present, and immediately tangible list of needs and concerns at Standing Rock. In Wisconsin, we’ve had many years of sporadic weather changes, where snowfall is melted by 70-degree heat. Jennifer seemed to be noticing this phenomenon for the first time, and I felt the guilt of passing the flu to a friend.
I wrote Lakota activist Yonasda Lonewolf offering to participate in the Mni Wiconi Benefit Concert she was organizing. I was elated by how quickly I received her invitation. I was traveling to Standing Rock and there was no backing out now. “Instead of celebrating the National Day of Mourning, come spend it with us,” the concert organizers announced.
The drive from Eau Claire to Fargo looked like a Victor Hugo painting. Bare autumn trees with stumped branches, charred and sunken in pools of small lakes, reflected like the offering of mythic swords. In St. Cloud, a thin, towering chimney pushed out smoke to form a dramatic cloud-arch that met the ground like an uncanny rainbow. The moody, turbulent cape of wind and snow wrapped us like a disappearing act into the North Dakota night, and we reached Bismarck in complete darkness.
Exhausted, we figured it best to stay in a hotel to rest up and rehearse for a good performance. Pulling into a lot off the highway, we were startled to discover half of it was taken up by Sheriff SUVs from Fargo and other surrounding counties. We drove around to find signs of friendlier outposts, but every hotel and motel was crawling with cops. Dazed from twelve hours on the road and too tired to ask for trouble before we made it to the stage, I refrained from slashing their tires. Instead, I decided, I’d find a cop over breakfast, and try to penetrate his soul with eye contact and a, “Hey, don’t hurt anyone out there, OK?” I would shoot an arrow of compassion into his cold, mercenary heart, and he would go off into the morning reprogrammed, my secret weapon. But the SUV’s were all gone by 7 a.m. I was too late.
We packed our guitars and made our way to Standing Rock. Our passage into reservation territory was as inscrutable as our entrance into North Dakota itself. This time, we were engulfed in a thick white fog, an opaque wall we continued to trail for hours. Occasional phantom orbs floated and flashed in our blanched veil. Hazard lights or guardian spirits, these fleeting clementine twinkles were just a mirage, and we sailed on through the fog which remained relentlessly heavy, like Dante’s Purgatorio, like Dickens’ moor, like the abyss that stares back at you when the world as you know it is about to change.
We were just two voyagers of thousands who had taken this path over the past 6 months, to leap into the void, face the dragon, unmask the killer, and tear apart at last an illusory tapestry of lies. Finally the mist gave way, and the sky glowed like a glass of milk on a windowsill facing the sun. The orange lights were real now, as we encountered warnings of the road closing ahead. We drove on anyhow, past deceptively modest prairies. Frozen, stoic, regal, and pure, they evoked a reverent enchantment punctuated by startling rock mounds towering above the brittle landscape. Helicopters flew over us, while we passed now-familiar sheriff cars and DAPL trucks.
We reached the roadblock just short of our destination. “DAPL Workers and Local Traffic Only.” Turning around, we followed an alternate route taking us nearly all the way back into Bismarck, and then finally to the casino, our check-in location for the concert.
At a nearby gas station, campers were buying hot dogs, gloves, and other provisions. The casino lobby was packed with a diverse biosphere of small groups conferencing quietly at their laptops, while a conspicuous pair more used to lecture halls than casino lobbies espoused trite theory, attempting at high volume to suss out flaws in the actions at Standing Rock: “It will only work if the government steps in; this is just all very sacrificial,” a young white male journalist announced. “Well, the protest actions need to be continuous,” his white female colleague countered. The front desk was overwhelmed with activity.
At the other end of the building, we found our group, headed by Lakota women. They met us with warm introductions, candid admissions of getting little sleep, an empowering prayer to the Great Creator, and some brief words of warning before we left for the Oceti Sakowin Camp.
Adam and I piled into a 15-passenger van with Jennifer and our group of musicians and journalists (some of us were, technically, both, though we all understood our obligation to bear witness). We were packed claustrophobically tight and became quickly acquainted. Knowing there was much to transmit in precious little time, Jennifer caught us up as best she could, but I couldn’t hear as much as I’d wished from the back corner of the van. Something about the cold, the sun, the miles of dry grass and solemnity of our drive reminded me of my grandmother’s burial: bells tolling in the crisp December air after her Kaddish; in the back seat of a strange car, I wanted to hear nothing but those bells. Now, in the van, I wanted to hear nothing but Jennifer’s voice.
What I did catch: A woman, a friend of hers, got hit in the arm by a percussion grenade thrown by the police. Shrapnel destroyed her arm. It is getting amputated soon. The police started a rumor that the grenade was thrown by a fellow water protector. Several protectors are suffering from PTSD. It has been extremely difficult to get assistance with this. Water protectors face constant disturbance and assault, raids, rubber bullets, mace, water sprays, sound cannons, and the ominous hum of helicopters and drones flying in the night. Another protector was detained by police and charged for attempted murder. She is well known as an advocate for peaceful tactics, a mother figure to indigenous youth, and rescuer of injured protectors at the front lines, many of them just kids. She could face 20 years in prison.
We passed lean-backed horses, bowing in the fields flanking the road. A supernatural liquidity set them apart from the prosaic images of muscular, hot-breathed steeds I was accustomed to. I thought of Peter S. Beagle’s fantasy masterpiece, The Last Unicorn, whose subject “moved like a shadow on the sea.” Jennifer explained that these were legacy horses whose blood dated back to Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull’s horses. I’d seen drawings of Crazy Horse in dream-gallop—pencil and crayon on faded sheets from the 1800s. Here were those same silhouettes, grazing in noble acquiescence and seemingly protected by magic.
There were thousands of water protectors at the Oceti Sakowin Camp when we arrived. Bursting with tall flags, signs, tents, makeshift plywood houses, teepees, amplified community announcements, and prayer, this was a determined, active settlement. And more cars were flowing in all the time, bringing in supporters from around the world.
We exited our pod and set foot in another world. Bismarck seemed very far away. A vibration emanated from the ground and traveled up through my soles. Someone would tell me later that he felt the same thing. I looked down at my feet the way you might look at your palms during a dream.
Clean air, bright smells of freshly chopped wood, and then the smell of its smoke, made my head vibrate pleasantly. It was a full-body vibration now. All around were sounds of people working: chainsaws and axes preparing firewood, drums pulsing, choruses of song and chants of unmitigated prayer, building, cooking, feeding, training, telling. Cycles within cycles; pilgrimage for the hopeful; concentric circumambulations of ritual and communal survival.
One of the journalists in our group showed us his voice memo of the sound cannons used by the police against water protectors in recent days. It was an evil, snarling sound, a dogfight of frequencies. Even through the tiny phone speaker, the recording made your skull hurt. Incredible, how the United States is using decades of scientific research against our indigenous peoples, yet the people of Standing Rock give us healing sounds.
Jennifer guided us up the slope of the camp, back toward the road. “There’s a tree with a red flag on it—don’t go past that tree,” she warned us.
Out of the red-flagged tree, a green rope snaked across the black road, keeping us several feet from the barricade. Here was the nightmare from Genesis: subjugated serpent, wilting fruit, threats of expulsion. Jennifer pointed out hills next to the road, topped unsettlingly with more police SUVs. “They have snipers up there.” If we crossed the line, the police determined, we would be trespassers and could be shot. Several feet beyond the rope sprawled a barricade—cement blocks and uniformly parked vehicles. This was the second of two barricades guarding the DAPL work site; we had encountered the first that morning, approaching from the other direction.
Yonasda ushered a tribe member before us. He was a tall, calm man in sunglasses, brown overalls, earrings and a knit cap. Later, at Standing Rock High School, he would greet me with a hug that made me feel like a prodigal daughter. Our guides urged him to tell us his story. In keeping with the oral tradition so essential to the survival of tribal customs and, now, to our First Amendment Rights, the small crowd took out their cell phones, cameras, and audio recorders, some listeners shuffling closer for an autonomous press conference. We were huddled tight. Gesturing an arm which swept above our heads toward the barricade, he explained,
There were trucks that came and parked together to barricade the road, but the road is supposed to be open. They say it’s “untravellable.” We came up to try to move the barricade and they started spraying hoses at us, tear gassing us, shooting a pellet, bean bags…We just stood there, by the water, let ‘em stare at us. A majority of the time, our friends were laughing. “Why are you staring at the water?” “Well, we’re water protectors!” (The listeners laugh) From that time on, they just stayed right there…So now we have an agreement with them that they stay there, they won’t ever come across […]
We have people that come up at nighttime, that try to go over there, look at it; they gotta dial to call us over. We had a call like that about a week ago. My little brother here, those people at the grave, forgot about this part—that’s the truck, put their laser light on him, a laser beam. As I was walking closer, two people tell us, just trying to clear the bridge, but—“You will be arrested, you will be arrested.” Now, step on that bridge, then it’s trespassing […]
If you can see that power line [across the barricade], that power line is around about where the pipeline is, and just on the other side of that is where their camp is, where all their workers and the police and all of them are camping. So, they say that’s for the public safety. That’s what the barricade is for—that’s their words, not mine.
A woman asks, “Who authorized police to use live rounds if anyone gets too close to the bridge?”
“Those people behind the barricade, they say we’re dangerous,” a protector adds.
“Who put those barricades up?” the woman continues.
Everything you see there that was set up there, besides something that could be picked up by you, he pointed to burnt out trucks and SUV’s at the barricade, was put there by Morton County.
(woman’s voice) They say anyone who comes up to the bridge is considered dangerous.
(man’s voice) Especially if they see us gathering like this.
He started telling us about that previous Sunday.
There were people out, they were being shot by bean bags and rubber bullets and all the stuff [the police] say they weren’t using.
“What was Sunday night like?”
“War,” Jennifer answered from the back of the group. “War.”
The questioner turned. “Were you there? Sunday night?”
I knew she had been, but she said nothing more.
The truth is that I couldn’t have felt safer among the water protectors. A profound sense of gratitude and respect laid the foundation for trust in the Standing Rock community, even if that trust was not automatically reciprocated to newcomers. Media restrictions had gotten tighter at the camp, and recording of sacred rituals and songs were expressly prohibited. The real danger was felt from across the barricade, up on the hills, and back at Bismarck.
Bismarck was the hub where police and DAPL contractors rested up and made furtive calls on their cell phones in hotels. Its local newspaper exhibited the bare minimum of objectivity, dutifully peppering its articles with environmentalist concerns and quotes from “protestors” who had traveled to Standing Rock as counterpoint, while printing photographs of police “restraining protestors,” publishing the sheriff’s department statements on how few arrests they had made that day, and dedicating an entire article to the financial woes of police costs, North Dakota’s extended lines of credit taken to suppress “out of hand” protests, and desperate pleas for federal monetary support. In subsequent days, Bismarck was complicit with an embargo on the Camp as part of the Army Corps of Engineers’ eviction strategy. Many of the city’s businesses declared that they would refuse to sell provisions to water protectors. We even found out that Bismarck had hosted a hip-hop concert the same weekend as ours, a ridiculous effort, hoping Salt N Pepa, Vanilla Ice, and Tone Loc would entice Standing Rock supporters away from the Mni Wiconi Benefit. During their set, Salt N Pepa announced, “We stand with Standing Rock!” eliciting boos from the audience. Is Bismarck’s response to Standing Rock a litmus test for the American Police State? This could be any city, the place where greed sleeps like a baby before it hunts your gold at dawn.
That evening, we loaded our instruments into the Standing Rock High School gymnasium, its walls displaying hand-painted signs with slogans, “DEFEND THE SACRED”, “WATER IS MEDICINE”, and a moving statement (translated from Lakota), “Because We Believe In Them We Are Feeding Them.” Children were playing while artists sound checked. Families began to trickle in.
Concert organizers and musicians urgently trying to post updates to social media were struggling against the lack of internet and cell phone service. Jennifer sighed in woe at her laptop, “I need a nap.” Then she rejoiced as the website loaded – “VICE is coming to cover the concert!” Our organizers had arranged for a live stream of the concert and fund raising via text, but wifi was spotty, then completely frozen. There has been much talk at Standing Rock about unusual battery drainage and wifi disruption, possibly due to the airplanes flying over the Oceti Sakowin Camp with Dirtboxes, which you can read more about here. In any event, our hosts were finally able to stream the concert using good old fashioned Ethernet cables. Anarchists: never get rid of those Ethernet outlets.
Our stage manager floated about taking roll call. She was dressed formally, an alpha female in high heel boots, beaded earrings, a black leather jacket, and long wavy hair. I anticipated the smell of perfume, but as she flew past me in her flurry of activity, the scent of Oceti Sakowin Campfire lingered in the air—rich, intimidating, and jarring in its reminder of where we were.
In fact, everyone here carried traces of their power. Our group of performers was ethnically diverse and well educated in their family histories, which were more often than not fraught with oppression and dislocation. Earlier that day, Jennifer advised us, “Know your bloodline. It’s the only way we’ll ever be able to understand each other.” Our bloodlines flowed to Standing Rock. “If you have come here to help me,” said Murri (Indigenous Australian) artist Lilla Watson, “you’re wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Those of us at Standing Rock felt our liberation bound up with it, and I am still humbled by the great privilege of having stood in the presence of its elders, women, and baby-faced teenagers who continue to shield us with their bravery.
Before the concert started, we stood in a circle in the cold, behind the gymnasium. We huddled close—our third huddle of the day—arms linked, as another musician shared with us his heritage, a Puerto Rican grandmother sold into slavery in the U.S., and asserted that we stood in a “circle of resistance,” that this shared passion is what drives us to create, and that we were here for those on the frontlines of this critical battle.
Adam and I were determined to give the best performance of our lives. The moment was charged with relevance. We played “Farmer,” “Dead Not Done,” and “Be the Dirt.” Many of the performers were hip-hop artists including Hellnback, a rapper from Canada and member of the Samson Cree Nation, who announced between songs that his home has long suffered the detrimental effects of pipelines and fracking. The water in his community is undrinkable.
Every artist had lyrics about running.
Sometimes it would hit me, what the audience around me was facing: the children in the front row whose source of drinking water was resting naked at the nose of digging machines; the elders who have retained and transmitted a way of life and love so strong, I feel protected by it even now; warriors of peace who volunteered to face abuse, injury, trauma, imprisonment, and heartbreak for our land and its people.
We held our fists in the air. Comrades embraced one another. One young man was sitting near Adam and I as we packed our guitars. He was writing something on a scrap of paper, and paused. “Thank you,” he said, smiling up at us. “It’s the least we could do,” we replied, “You’ve done so much for us.” “Well, after standing on a bridge for ten hours being maced and sprayed with freezing cold water, we need some levity. We need some joy.”
We left Standing Rock High School in the dark, reluctantly, heavy-hearted, but proud of what we had done. Still accompanied by a caravan of concertgoers, I spotted flashing colored lights in my rear-view mirror. Worried I was about to get pulled over, I slowed to the side of the road. But it was an ambulance, blazing silently past us toward the Camp.