Front Line Naturopathic Medic at Standing Rock: a narrative

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Written By: Dr. Lauren Wilson ND, LMP

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At Standing Rock, the weather seems to follow the mood around camp and the movement of the animals correspond to the movement of the people and their struggle. I had never had this experience before, but it was apparent from my first evening forward.

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The natural beauty of this place is astounding.

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Upon my arrival, at sunset, golden light dashed across the rolling hills and glistened on the smooth surface of the Cannonball River. The sunset gave way to stars, hung thick and low, reflected both above and below the reaching peaks of tipis reflected in the dark water. The warm glow of fires and the sound of people in song and prayer were scattered throughout the camps. I felt  like I had come home to a place and a way of being that I had never known before.

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My friend Dr. Patrick Donovan ND, RN and I were welcomed to camp and were given a place to pitch our tents and a hot, delicious meal from the community kitchen. I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the people and the beauty of the place, what I had not seen yet was the outside force that brought people from all over the country and the world together. I got my first real hint at the severity of the situation a few days later.

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I awoke at 3am to find the gentle breeze replaced by a stagnant and penetrating fog. In the distance, the fog flickered with the shimmering of police lights that were stationed at one of the road blocks. The only sound in the still air was the distant howling and yammering of coyotes. The atmosphere was undeniably ominous. I don’t try to to read signs the way the elders do, but I could all but smell blood in the air. I went back to sleep with a feeling as sick and cold as the coagulated fog.

The next morning was no better. The fog had given way to heavy grey skies that reflected in the Cannonball River and shrouded the brown and rolling land in dim grey. People everywhere moved quickly and with purpose. There was not a chatty word spoken or a smile wasted. It was not long before the nameless, ominous atmosphere condensed into a very specific threat.

The front line was under attack.

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I put together some supplies for first aid and mace clean-up and headed to the front line. I must admit, with a little shame, that the idea of being kept in jail away from my family and away from the people who needed medical care in camp really slowed me down. I saw two young warriors, a young man and a young woman together, their tribal flags in hand and their faces covered to protect them from both poisoning and persecution. I went up to them and gave away my eye wash and other cleaning supplies along with some military rations. I knew from seeing young warriors back at camp that people on the front line were under so much stress and worked so long, that many of them were not getting enough to eat. With thoughts of my children and the patients at camp, I retreated to safety and spent the afternoon helping people who had developed respiratory problems in the cold and sometimes smoky air. It disgusted me to leave those brave young people to fend for themselves, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how keeping myself safe while they fought and suffered for me was a place of privilege I didn’t respect, but shamefully did benefit from.

As I left the front line I heard someone shout that “Obama, put an end to it!” I felt relieved, and somewhat justified in heading back to camp. As I headed back the sky cleared, vast and deep blue, a huge flock of geese flew over, low and in tight formation. I was very hopeful that Obama had actually done the right thing, but I was suspicious and so was everyone else I talked to. A young Standing Rock Sioux woman with eyes wild from the fight said “Don’t trust the government, this has been going on the same way for the last 500 years”. I learned soon after I arrived at camp that the quickest way to show one’s white privilege and ignorance is to talk about how “unbelievably outrageous” police treatment was. Looking back at history this situation is more like the continuation of a trend, rather than some kind of surprise. This is the best the United States has ever treated the Great Sioux Nation, rubber bullets are an exception to the general rule.  

When I awoke on the morning of Thursday October 27th, the camp was a buzz of rumors again. The worst of these rumors being that North Camp was going to be raided by the police, DAPL thugs, and potentially the National Guard. This information was spread by word of mouth over the camp, like a slow shock wave. When my team received word, our first thought was that we were not prepared to deal with the number and severity of injuries that we were about to see. We rushed to finish organizing our supplies and prepare the little clinic-tent before we were needed. After all, when someone is already bleeding it is not a good time to be looking for supplies.

We hustled to the best of our abilities and began to feel much more comfortable within about an hour. People had been very generous in donating both supplies and money in order to buy supplies, and we had enough to manage most potential injuries. The next step was to put together kits to take up to the front line. Essentially, we needed a good first aid kit with the addition of ice packs for blunt trauma and the supplies to treat pepper spray exposure.

After finishing my other duties at camp, I took one of these bags up to the conflict area. I was overwhelmed by the tremendous display of force on both sides of the conflict. The water protectors consisted mainly of hundreds of young, strong native men and women, but every other segment of american culture was represented as well. About half of the people there were lined up face-to-face with a row of riot police in full armor. The police slowly extended their line to begin to surround the protestors and the northernmost camp on two sides.

In a conflict like this, one would expect to see protesters squared off against police but one would never expect to see such an assemblage of military hardware set to target American citizens. Armored vehicles with mounted artillery were set to break the roadblock while  humvees were stationed on the surrounding hills. A second line of police and private contractors were outfitted with assault rifles and the occasional grenade launcher. A helicopter bobbed and pivoted above the crowd.

“A helicopter bobbed and pivoted above the crowd.”

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I had been told that earlier that morning sound weapons had been used on the water protectors. I was not willing to find out what that felt like without hearing protection, so I put in earplugs and handed out the rest of the carton of ear plugs to the surrounding people. I was lucky enough to not need them, but heard that evening that the crowd had been targeted with concussion grenades. I hope those ear-plugs were able to protect some of their eardrums.

I had heard previously that medics had been specifically targeted, so I had not put any identifiers on my clothing or bag of equipment. Then, as I approached I realized how suspicious my large bag would look to law enforcement. I opened my bag, hoping that the bandages and saline solution would be as visible through the cross-hairs as I knew my head was.

I moved about the area surrounded by native people praying with song and drumming, protesters lining up along the road block and a slowly lengthening line of heavily armed police. Acts of aggression and arrest by the police did not seem to follow a specific pattern. People would just periodically get maced or hauled off. I noticed a man stumbling away from the front line and asked if he was OK. He had just received a hefty dose of pepper spray and was not OK at all. As an aside, if you think pepper spray is humane, I suggest you put some tabasco in your eyes, snort salt and stick your head in a 500 degree oven; that’s how to get the feeling at  home. The gentleman experiencing this was attempting to stay calm but was unable to control occasional yells of agony and was unable to see. I had a bag of saline solution and water with me so I asked him to lie down and started to wash his eyes. At this point a truck showed up to transport him back to the main camp for additional treatment. We loaded him up and I continued washing his eyes and applying cold packs as we raced back to camp. Holding an IV bag in my fist while riding in the back of a speeding truck gave me the distinct feeling that we were, in fact, in the midst of a dystopian apocalypse.

“…I continued washing his eyes and applying cold packs as we raced back to camp.”

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Photo Credit to Alan Berner/Seattle Times

At the main camp I was shocked to find that the medical team there did not have a dedicated decontamination area. We did our best and worked together as well as we could to get the mace off and get our patient into clothing not soaked with chemical weapons. It was a dirty mess because we were washing the patient directly on the clay ground and privacy was provided by hiding between two tents. The experience of trying to decontaminate the patient with minimal resources was much more stressful than being under the gun in the conflict area.

“After this unpleasant experience, I was debriefed and encouraged by an exceptional organizer and herbalist, Daphne Singingtree…”

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Photo of Daphne, Credit to Erika Kightlington

After this unpleasant experience, I was debriefed and encouraged by an exceptional organizer and herbalist, Daphne Singingtree, back at my temporary home in Rose Bud camp. After a snack and a talk (casual trauma counseling), I was ready to go back to the front line again and help more if I could. I  carried a 5 gallon jug of water (for eye washing) and passed it to the first vehicle I could. There was not enough space in the car, so I sent the water without me and jumped in the next car that was heading into the battle. As we approached, I abruptly felt like it was no longer reasonable to travel by car. I told the driver, who wore a face covering to protect himself from mace, that I felt like getting out. I didn’t expect him to understand me but he finished my sentence, saying “…and arrive in a good way”. With so much uncertainty it is amazing how intuition begins to mean much more than it does in predictable, safe places.

During the time I had been away, the situation had deteriorated considerably. The Northern Camp had been invaded by the police and protesters had spread out over more than a mile of highway. A DAPL bulldozer was gushing flames into the grey Dakota sky, and had stopped construction the only way DAPL bulldozers seem to be capable of stopping. A private vehicle parked behind the protesters roadblock was also on fire, creating a huge plume of black smoke that rose over the golden hills. I saw another man attempting to start a grass fire on the west side of the road and realized that I was a little too deep into the conflict zone. I walked back toward camp for about a minute and saw an ancient native man sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of the fray. I identified myself to him as a medic and asked if he had any idea where my services would be most useful. A younger man, standing calmly with a ceremonial medicine-stick in hand said that “Grandfather does not speak with words”. I then met the calm penetrating gaze of the old man and was transfixed by the purity and wisdom in his eyes. In his eyes, I could see across the chasm of race and the chasm of history to a place where truth and beauty were held sacred. I felt profoundly blessed and rejuvenated, and then heard the younger medicine man say in a gentle voice, “You are a healer, move forward”. I felt like a little island of calm in an ocean of chaos, and, as advised, I moved forward.

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Photo Credit to Waniya Locke

As I walked across the street, I heard an engine rev behind me and turned to see a large white pick-up fly past on the grassy roadside behind where the old man was sitting. I heard a man yell “That’s DAPL, get ‘em!”. About 50 protesters chased the truck at a dead run while several other trucks joined the pursuit. At the bottom of the rise one of the vehicles collided with the DAPL truck forcing it off the road at high speed through a fence and into the swamp. I feared the worst for everyone involved at this point. I expected that the DAPL worker had made his last brash move. I expected the ever present helicopter to open fire on the crowd. I expected police to surround the area and arrest us all. In preservation of my own life I walked briskly on the opposite side of the road from where the incident was unfolding. As I passed, just below a rise that sheltered my position, I heard three pops, the worst sound to hear at a time like that.

I continued back to Main Camp with a heavy heart, but without incident. As soon as I arrived, I was approached by a woman who asked if anyone with training was available to provide counseling services to three young people who had just been traumatized. I let her know that I had training and she led me to the side of camp closest to where the truck was driven off the road. By that time black smoke rose into the air on the opposite side of the hill that separated camp from whatever horror was playing out on the other side.

I met the three teenagers for whom counseling had been requested and learned that they were part of the same situation I had just observed, but they were much closer and didn’t have a rise to shelter them. They reported that during the car chase they had seen people get hit by the vehicles and that the DAPL worker had emerged from the truck brandishing an AR-15. They said that they had been at gunpoint and that others had been shot. The mother of the youths was trying to calm them down, but was having little success.

One boy paced with a large hunting knife in hand and a white bandanna tied around his face. His mother reminded him that anger makes it hard to think clearly and that he should calm down before heading back into the conflict. Two teenage girls stood slightly stunned as they recounted the horror of what they had just seen. It became clear very quickly that the kids were intending to go back out where they knew a man was standing in the swamp with an assault rifle. I appreciated the dedication and bravery, but really wanted them to stay safe at camp. I supported the mother’s request for clear headedness by pointing out that, if the boy dies today he will not be able to fight again another day. His mother told him not to cover his face, that he is Lakota Sioux and should proudly show his face. With all of my attempts and all of his mother’s attempts all I could do was delay their departure. I asked to see the knife the boy was carrying and he let me check it out for a minute, it was a really nice knife, and it went back into the fray. The boy had no intention of using the knife, but clearly it carried a symbolic power for him.

To my surprise, one of the girls also decided to go back out. The two kids sat in the front of an old pick-up with a slightly older boy in the driver seat. The mother said goodbye, took her daughter’s hand and gave her blessing. I took the daughters hand next and asked her to be safe. I could see in her eyes that she knew exactly how dangerous her dedication was, she teared up slightly as I gave her my blessing and they were gone.

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Photo Credit to Brandon L. Mauai

As I turned back to the children’s mother I started to tear-up as well. I realized that I had just sent a little girl into a war for her future. The mother said that she was very worried about her kids but would not show it. I told her that I didn’t let the kids see it but that I didn’t mind her seeing how sad I thought it was. It was then that she let me know why she didn’t try to stop them. She taught me that in Sioux culture the youth were the seventh generation and they had a right to fight for their future. No one can take that right from them, not even a caring mother.

One of the girls stayed behind because she had a daughter of her own to care for, but she was so traumatized that she really just needed some time to rest. Her mother watched the beautiful 3 year old for a few minutes until worry drove her to follow her children. She ascended the slope of the hill toward the war zone on foot following the plume of smoke that was undoubtedly from burning cars.

At this point I was really worried about the little three year old girl. She knew things were not right and her mother did not appear to have recovered enough to be a support for her child. So I just played with the baby and the dog and did my best to be cheerful about the situation. I discovered that she loved her stuffed ducks and that making them talk and jump into the air was hilarious. The dog kept trying to hump me and black smoke continued to billow in the grey sky above the hostage situation I knew must be unfolding beyond the hill, but I stayed as cheerful as I could. The little girl would occasionally get worried and ask about her grandma, and I did my best to sound believable when I said, “She went up the hill to see what’s going on, she will be back soon”.

The moment of calm was broken when about five Bureau of Indian Affairs police vehicles raced up the road to the scene. The entire camp erupted in cheers off “Thats BIA! Thats ours!” I felt some relief knowing that for better or worse the situation with the DAPL man, in the swamp, with his gun, would soon be resolved. The little girl seemed to be doing well too, so we went and spent some time with her mom. We chatted about the horrors she had seen and I smoked the rest of one of her cigarettes while the little girl played on the ground. I don’t smoke regularly, but I did that day. I can’t call it clinical, but I guess I did some counseling.

After the DAPL intruder had been arrested Grandmother returned to camp, as did her children. We stood in a circle for a minute enjoying a successful head-count and then I was on my way. I could tell that it was time for just family to be together. I was thanked and invited to return. My biggest regret is that I had to leave Standing Rock before I could return. Being welcomed as a stranger from another culture, to help the children process the horror of the day was one of the greatest honors I have ever been given. The mental health implications of this conflict, both tragic and beautiful, will play out for years to come. I hope to return to Standing Rock someday and be part of that healing process.

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