So we happened to be following the trail, roughly, of the ‘Flight of the Nez Perce’, Highway 12, which is a National Historic Highway with many interpretive and informational signs telling of events like the Burning of the Cache, when the US cavalry, hounding the Nimiipu, burned the stored food that had been gathered for winter. Camas, acorns, pemmican. It’s the same highway that was the ancient trade route followed by Lewis and Clarke a few decades earlier when the Nimiipu rescued their expedition.
A week or two on the same road and hundreds of miles later we were coming over the hill on Highway 1806 in North Dakota to a breathtaking sight. It was like when you see those old pictures of the big encampment on the Greasy Grass – Little Bighorn, the one where Custer got his comeuppance. It was a glimpse of that and that’s when the goosebumps started. The goosebumps returned daily, sometimes several times a day, for the time we were there, and not necessarily because of the cold.
We drove into the North Gate at the main camp, greeted by a security shack armed with a walkie-talkie and a firm but friendly welcome. We drove down Flag Row and looped around the tipis, tents, domes, yurts and makeshift whatevers of Oceti Sakowin, the nation of the seven council fires. It was the first big wind of that autumn, we were later told, and there were nylon tents blown high into trees. Equinox winds.
Phil brought the first tipi for repair after we’d pitched the shop. The shop is currently a 24-foot, seven-sided tensile tent held up with a central pole and three-inch ratchet buckles on each corner. It houses an industrial treadle sewing machine; an upholstery ‘head’ from the 1980s retro-fitted onto treadle irons from the 1890s. It’s how we make shelter for ourselves to live in and it’s one of the ways in which we make a livelihood. It’s mobile and we can bring it to anywhere we can walk. Phil’s tipi showed up with a bunch of holes and some of the front panel and smoke flaps torn. It is painted to commemorate the Blue Water Creek massacre. That’s how we came to be aware of what happened. It was an honour to work on that tipi, a well-made one looking home-made rather than mass-produced. I kept getting moments of peripheral and expansive awareness, feeling like a small thread in a tapestry woven with the likes of Little Thunder, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and there I could sit behind the machine and make some small repairs.
Often when we unload and pitch our lodge and the workshop we wonder how we’ll get it all back on the bus. And then we wonder where home is for Free People in a land where freedom prevailed before settler arrival, when ‘freedom’ became ‘invade and conquer’, claim, own and exploit for personal gain and profit. We think about the Cascade-Siskiyous of Southern Oregon, the place of our genesis as a family and a small band of migratory families. We remember the pain of displacement, of how the Front Lines first came to meet us, how we resisted for the love and honour of Place, succumbed and were arrested. We came out of only a day in jail, my wife and I, but we were not allowed to go home to the remote woods where we were pitched and woven. So we find home wherever we are. And we miss home the same. We long for home and we found it there as part of a pipeline resistance camp where wood and water were imported and the winters were savage. It is not where I would’ve ordinarily brought my family for winter range. We found a dose of home after two years on the road being others’ pets or pests. We looked around and saw tipis with people living in them, for real. We were ironically less vulnerable to the culture of settler descent with uniforms, badges and guns to come along and move us on a whim, even though there was an army of them to the north over the hill a ways. We had purpose and value and a mission with an intention for something greater than ourselves which brings us home to our indigenous nature, that of our home planet and the diversity of culture, song and language occurring everywhere.
It was like when you see those old pictures of the big encampment on the Greasy Grass, the one where Custer got his comeuppance. It was a glimpse of that and that’s when the goosebumps started.
Occasionally we are asked if we are independently wealthy to travel and live like we do. Mostly we’re unburdened by the illusion of being rent or mort-gaged (death-gripped). We have little in the way of bills, and our needs are few, but real enough that we can take care of them, mostly, directly and with agency. Most of the income we generate comes from the shop but when we’re on the road sometimes we’ll be in town passing through and stand on the street and play music for the people, with a hat out. Other times, when the weather is inclement, we’ll make a big pot of chai and put a sign out saying ‘Now Serving Organic Chai’. We used to put ‘donations welcome’ but decided even that has a poor aesthetic. Most people leave a couple of dollars and enjoy (or endure, depending on our mood for rhetoric) a visit in the bus and some itinerant news or stories. Some leave just a ‘thank you’, others might leave a 20 or more.
We were at the resistance camps from September through the winter, where temperatures dropped to -30°F (-34°C), not including wind chill. Potatoes could be knocked together like stones, those of us with beards would grow icicles. We were simply carrying on with how we normally live as a family, making and repairing tipis and tents. We and others raised funds for canvas and materials and made three 23-foot and two 19-foot tipis all with linings and ozans and at least a dozen repairs of various magnitude. My work had never been so inspired, being a tiny part of a functioning whole where every part has a place of honour. I got to work without the inefficient burden of money – the greatest system of control ever devised. I had the good fortune to work with the currency of pure relationship empowerment, no enforced reciprocation, just unconditional service, without the banks or government getting a slice of my power to pay their executives to live opulent, ostentatious and unsustainable lifestyles.
‘Jobs’ is the culture of the colonisers. It is also a system of control, one could even go so far as to say slavery. Prior to settler colonialism here on the Great Plains, there were no jobs. By all accounts the people lived a life of great abundance and luxury, but the kind of luxury that doesn’t come from the simplicity of push-button convenience, rather the embracing of the complexity of epic living, the abundance that comes from the understanding of the generosity of a thriving planet dancing with a brilliant star.
The prairies of the central and northern plains, in their unmolested state, have a biodiversity on a par with rainforests. Where once buffalo teemed, far more numerous and sustainable than the current feed-lot GMO-corn-fed cattle industry, now we see oil donkeys. Where there used to be migratory villages and bands of free-roaming and ecologically connected societies with complex and dynamic trade and cultural relationships, now there are families forced through obscure, complicated and convoluted government policy into dilapidated housing schemes, historically developed from reservation confinement – basically concentration camps. Migratory hunter-gatherer and nomadic cultures have been pushed out and oppressed in favour of jobs in the form of ‘man camps’, muddy ghettos of prefab buildings housing oil workers and pipeline builders, infamous in this region for sex trafficking (including children), powder substances and jobs. Because ‘jobs!’, they say. Jobs to pay the rent. Jobs to be rent. Some of us have too much work to be able to afford a job.
Days and nights were often busy and dynamic, planes flying dark and helicopter searchlights twitching like the Eye of Sauron, still not getting their fill. Terrified of some kind of uprising, probably. Terrified of our lack of fear, of our love. Terrified of not just what they’ve done but what they are doing. Tonight the bridge is still held. The situation is still escalating. Of course. We have 500 years of continuous and current injustice, mistreatment and downright abuse at the flip side of Manifest Destiny and the American Dream.
It can only be an honour to stand with a culture that stands its ground with bare hands and chests, buffalo drums and prayer song, ancestors and those to come, in the face of the most developed military machine on the planet. Real power against hard batons, toxic chemicals and ‘less lethal’ weapons and a constitution which guarantees the right to ‘property’ over and above the right of the people to the common elements for life. This billion-dollar corporation bought title to the land where the pipeline crosses when more people started to show up at the adjacent resistance camps, for $18m. The CEO is a Texan and he’s probably never set foot on the land in question, land where these local boys ride their ponies.
We’ve had a lot of practice with eviction when life gets really close, and when the feeling of the world comes through with grace. On that occasion, when the National Guard – along with mercenary private security firm Tiger Swan, Morton County Sheriffs and law enforcement from all over the US – came to clear the resistance camps on a snowy, late February morning, life was to stand with history, or Great Spirit or God. To stand in solidarity with my relatives in icy mud and steel and numb fingers on one set of tyre chains for two full-size school buses. The heart of a people sings and drums with a defiant now. Tears mingled with mud with those here before and those after.
We find home wherever we are. And we miss home the same. We long for home and we found it there as part of a pipeline resistance camp where wood and water were imported and the winters were savage.
At the powwow in Kyle, Pine Ridge, that following summer, the Stars came down to dance in glass beads and feathers and porcupine quills. And the drum sang with the force of ancient thunder held within old mountains who were once the ocean floor. And it’s easy to blubber and cry in the presence of that culture intact. Because, as a newcomer, it seems that it was never supposed to be like that, when an external force came, a calamity – they said Blue Water Creek was the first on the Plains – and murdered in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘freedom’. Men on horseback with sabres in dark blue uniforms, motivated by Caesar’s imperial coin. Some say that is when a society goes from Brave to Warrior, I don’t think for personal survival, but for the good of the collective. You have to be pretty brave to ride bareback into a herd of stampeding buffalo. By many accounts, pre-contact warfare was more ritual than bloody. People weren’t trained and paid to efficiently hunt and kill other people. The apocalypse was happening to the first cultures of that time period, one doesn’t have to look too deeply to understand the horrors of that time. The invaders came and murdered and mutilated and the people, thousands of people after decades of antagonism and desperation and despair, came around and gathered at the Greasy Grass they called Little Big Horn and, exasperated, knew that the cavalry all had to be Rubbed Out. That’s when the government called in Custer, who had a reputation for extreme brutality.
The old and wise ones knew the world would be in peril in seven generations, it was obvious as it is now in fruition. They are gone now but they knew and they killed, they fought for us. You can read that in the prophecies. It was hard like we have never known, but those Old Ones knew. Me, I’m here to honour that, hopefully I can pick up that continuing thread. We can pick up that gossamer thread, woven shimmering spirit. They knew what it would take for us and they took as much of the burden as they could. Now we see, during the Grand Entry when the sky is bluest, before the sun is hottest and the people glitter and sparkle in primary colours, when all of the flags and all of the dancers file into the dance arena, the flag of the Seventh Cavalry dragged along the ground through the dust, around the circle. So those drums sing like they did before the switch from the Brave to the Warrior and how can one not cry for what is lost?
You can read the full essay in our latest book.
Top image: Oil Field by Jason Reed
Near Texon, Texas
After the Santa Rita gusher blew open in 1923, hundreds of wells began to fill the horizon with no regulation and little regard to the health of the land. By the 1960s, oil began to slow and over 2,000 acres of land were decimated from the exhaustive drilling. Known as the Texon Scar, what sparked the oil age in West Texas now stands as an emblem of untamed production.
Bottom image: Cotton Field by Jason Reed
Near San Angelo, Texas
The land is parched and rocky; passing summer storms do little to quench the depleting aquifer. Once the frontier edge of the American West, the region now serves as the starting point for a globalised cotton chain. Each fall, millions of pounds of genetically modified cotton is harvested in West Texas and shipped 7,000 miles away on cargo ships to China for milling and production.
Jason Reed is an Associate Professor of Photography at Texas State University. Through photographs and collaborative projects, he explores the interplay between culture and the land in Texas, critically reflecting upon the nature of a place and its intersecting histories. jasonreedphoto.com