Reflections from Standing Rock: an Oaklyn Resident’s Experience


Robert Bennett of Oaklyn joined a convoy of military veterans opposing the Dakota Access pipeline, and spent a week at the Standing Rock campsite, mingling with environmentalists from across the country.

By Robert Bennett | December 22, 2016

Robert Bennett (center) with fellow Standing Rock protestors. Credit: Robert Bennett.

I had been feeling the calling to go to Standing Rock for months, but was afraid to answer it because I am fighting Parkinson’s disease.

I am an adrenaline junkie, and too ill to risk being on the action teams at Turtle Hill.

But I also served with the U.S. Marine Corps during the first Gulf War, and, inspired by the Veterans for Standing Rock movement, was moved by their actions to participate.

When a new friend asked if I would take the trip, I started a crowdfunding campaign that was quickly fulfilled, and then there was no backing out.

The extinction is accelerating; world and U.S. droughts are expanding, and climate change is converging to a point that demands action. Standing Rock is the front line of a war against the insane.

On the day we left, close friends met us with donations, and we held a small prayer circle before leaving. It was very touching and set a spiritual undertone to our journey.

Charlie, who picked me up, was young and strong and handsome. We got along well even though it sometimes felt like he was mothering me because of my Parkinson’s. But I am an alpinist and ice climber, trained in cold weather prep, and prepared for the worst. The car was packed with gear and we still had a young lady, Sandy, to pick up at the Philadelphia bus terminal.

“Hope she’s small,” I said.

Traffic was so thick in Center City that I raced into the Reading Terminal Market for some goat milk while we waited for Sandy. Halfway through the bottle, she walked up. Sandy was young, and nice, and after a bit, soon tucked herself into the cocoon of space in the back seat for the 25-hour road trip.

The trip there was uneventful and filled with laughter, until we got to Bismarck. Some people told us to be careful with the locals. There was a weird energy in town; an energy we then took with us. As we continued on to Cannon Ball, North Dakota, we encountered a military checkpoint with barricades, wire, and a couple of Army soldiers standing guard.

A convoy of vehicles arrives at Standing Rock. Credit: Robert Bennett.

The sheriff’s deputy told us the road was closed for our safety, and we were given a paper with directions around the blockade.

Charlie feared some kind of subterfuge, but I saw no reason for them to lie.

Along the detour, Charlie wanted to take a side road that the sheriff had warned us against.

It was a harrowing dirt path, marked by ice and altitude. We ended up on roads with snowdrifts by dusk, and plowed right into a deep one. Temperatures were dropping.

After somewhat calming Charlie down, we freed the car and plotted our escape, first walking out on foot for optimal safety. The sharply falling temperatures were just the thing we needed to get out; as things started to freeze, we got better traction for the wheels. We did it—barely—after two hours.

Coming into camp late, we drove around until we found a spot close to the horses. Two native boys lent us shovels, with which we cleared enough snow to set up camp, and then made igloo-like walls for wind protection. I told the boys tales of alpine danger and the wonders of extreme landscapes, to their delight (and the chagrin of their mother). I gifted them all some bee balm from my apiary at home.

The next morning we awoke to the sounds of native prayer song and calls to challenge why we were there. Charlie and I assembled at the geodesic dome for orientation, and they told us what they expected of us as guests.

There was to be a decolonization class? Why would a super-liberal like me need a class like that? My instant offense to ego should have been a big clue that I desperately needed some new thinking.

It was packed; maybe 300 to 500 people. I started getting claustrophobic anxiety that I recognized as being amplified by the Parkinson’s, and quickly moved to the exit. I wasn’t alone at least. Catching some deep breaths outside, I had stepped into a maelstrom of activity. Across from Grandma’s Kitchen (AKA California Kitchen), I joined a line of workers passing boxes. It killed my back, though, and I was quite glad I didn’t drop anything due to tremors from my illness.

Grandma’s kitchen at Standing Rock. Credit: Robert Bennett.

There was also lumber being offloaded close to the mess hall.

I introduced myself to Bear, who told me the plan.

As I slowly started to fabricate the floor frames, I realized there were plenty of youth foundering in their work, and pulled several of them to task.

They had no skills, and I had limited tools, but we quickly assembled the framing once they found a rhythm. Good hearts they were, and eager. We then set to the task of removing hundreds of pounds of vegetables from the mess hall so the frames could be placed and the decking screwed down.

My back hurt even looking at those boxes, so I yelled into the storm of street activity for volunteers. Many came to the call, and the first section was done in no time. Then we had to move a burning stove. Dennis, an elderly white man, helped lead a team of the boys I’d recruited to safely push the stove outside leveraging boards and brute force. An elder, giant native had blocked the door for us so we could work, and I got several hugs from Grandmother when we were done.

It was about this time I realized I had abandoned the vets and Charlie. I went to the tents and neither Charlie nor Sandy were there. Alone and nervous, I was hungry, and it was dinner time. So I went back to the kitchen, where I was comfortable. There was a native prayer song before the meal, and then they invited elders, women and children, and veterans to be served by the native children. I took advantage of my service, and sat down for some wonderful buffalo soup and squash.

The man next to me was from Keene, New York, and was also a veteran and an ice climber. He gave me his card, and invited me to his place to ice climb. I don’t think I can climb with a new partner with the anxieties I have, but I loved the invitation. I went back and crashed in my tent. It was so cold that it was hard not to violently shake from the Parkinson’s.

Wood framing at Standing Rock. Credit: Robert Bennett.

Charlie and Sandy showed up late.

She had found a warmer tent to bunk in, and Charlie had worked all day, also doing carpentry.

The next day Charlie and I hung with the vets, and then went to breakfast and to the carpentry hall, which was really the water truck building. It was a tight fit.

We worked building a hogan for one of the elders in frigid, snowy conditions. One of the things I miss most because of my disease is working with a crew, and I was loving life, even through the misery of the cold. I got a bloody nose, and think I concerned some of the crew, but I could tell they liked me. We finished the structure and headed back. Charlie ran off to help out again. He sometimes put in 18 to 20 hours a day volunteering. I went to Grandma’s Kitchen for elk wraps.

Charlie came back late. Some others had left to go home, and he’d found a wall tent with a stove for us to move into. Thank God. I hadn’t slept in two nights, and barely had on the way out there either.

That’s when we met Monty, Rick, and Terry. Monty and Rick were interviewing the camp for a documentary; Terry was a concerned earth mother, there to do her part. I had met Monty earlier in the carpentry hall. I was immediately drawn to him. He had inches-long eyebrows, and I’d told him that if he bleached them, he’d look like a Kung Fu master. A rude first comment, but I said it with love in my heart, and he smiled and laughed.

Monty was a farmer and an intellectual, and had a heart you could see through his eyes. We had a few good conversations and he had invited me to his farm to “put my hands in the soil.” I look forward to doing just that.

Rick was young and very smart, but guarded from growing up poor and rough. I cracked the veneer of his wall but couldn’t use my clown skills to really find him, and never really had the time, as he was filming and interviewing from dawn to well after dark.

Bennett helped with the framing of buildings at the Standing Rock site. Credit: Robert Bennett.

Terry was a character, and her dog Jasper was my new dog friend.

We had very personal conversations; she kept trying to get me to be her snuggle buddy, but Jasper beat her to it.

He was a blue-eyed herding dog and very smart. He slept with me every night until I left. I think he knew I needed the extra warmth.

We all bonded quickly and besides some neurotic energy, got on well.

During the stay, I was well cared-for physically, mentally, and at work. They even did body and energy work and helped set intentions for my health, for which I was very grateful. We all had moments of deep revelation that we shared one-on-one. We had become a surrogate family.

The next day at work, we stopped to join a prayer circle that ringed the camp, hands held. The planes and helicopters and drones were constant. The vets had won some concessions, and the mood was celebratory and short in the face of reality.

That pipeline is the goal of insane billionaires, and they won’t quit. They’d planned to drill without the permits and just pay the fines. That brought not despair to the camp but a smoldering resignation. There were pipelines not near full capacity that had already been laid from that region. We know the real reason to lay a right-of-way from the borders of Canada to New Orleans is to establish a path for those damn tar sands abominations. Canadian Boreal forest was destroyed to get to these, the corpses of Jurassic, and if the pipe is connected, there will be this picture the size of Texas. While we were there, 180,000 gallons of crude oil spilled went into the Ash Coulee Creek, just 150 miles from the Dakota Access pipeline protest camp.

Charlie and I worked and worked. As skilled labor, there were some privileges, and we were fed well. The men we worked with looked rough and labored like beasts, but when they spoke, they were environmental intellectuals with amazing ideas, and were full of heartfelt hugs. Workers without the normal ego? Best crew ever!

A geodesic dome at the Standing Rock campsite. Credit: Robert Bennett.

We sometimes worked on different crews and had different experiences, which was fine with me, as Charlie mothered me a lot and tried keeping me off ladders.

I still have the ego of a climber. I’m not perfect, and it burned a little. They all seemed to conspire to keep me grounded.

Night became normal routines of finishing working late and the mess hall.

Charlie would always run off to do more, and I would make my tentmates laugh and laugh. Charlie came in one night as we were all under down and wool and hunkering for the night, except me at the stove with a cannabis pancake snack. He asked if I were coming out. I was exhausted.

“No, I’m old and tired,” I said. Monty made a crack about youth, and Charlie responded “This is like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and you’re Grandpa Joe.” I guffawed for a half hour.

Monty and Rick interviewed me one morning, asking, as they had many, “Why are you here?”

Why? For my boys. I have always had empathy for all native tribes worldwide but that, for me, was only on the periphery of my actions. I was here for the soil; as there were many water protectors, I was here for every species. I told them of the struggles I deal with from Parkinson’s, and how my suffering is inconsequential because I am now expendable. I teared up while speaking, and was very uncomfortable with the video, but it’s important. Monty teared up too, looked away, and wiped his eyes. He loved his boy, too. You could see it when he talked.

The day before I left was busy. We, the carpenters, had started working on our own fabrication shop, a large, two-and-a-half-story, 40-by-40-foot building. We had raised the frame and started sheathing the lower floor. It was satisfying to raise it so quickly. We had many young hands learning the joy of accomplishment with a large crew and some life skills. Charlie and I were liked because of our humor and willingness to help. I was a glorified tool boy and cheerleader; an old man with good and bad ideas. But I know the way a job flows, and contributed by staging work to better facilitate it in a way the youngsters just could not do. After 25 years of leading a crew, it was hard to not be in charge, but I got over it quickly.

Sunrise at Standing Rock. Credit: Robert Bennett.

That night as we worked by flood lamps into the darkness, Eric, the foreman, finally called the worked day over.

He asked me to go with a native from the tribe with horses near our tent.

We got to his half-built, plywood hut; no roof. There was over a foot of snow inside.

His brother had been sleeping in sub-zero temps in there, running on pure emotion; a spirit of chaos.

Neither could understand the other. They began to argue. I didn’t like it, and started to study the work that needed to be done. There appeared to be enough panels to roof the place. I started to take the panels from the wall inside, and, with help, passed them up to my work mate. We quickly finished. While helping a young lady of the roof who had been helping screw in sheeting, she fell on me and hurt my back. That sucked.

My last night with my new tent family was fun, but we were all tired and went to bed early. I stayed up to feed the stove. It was very cold; well below zero. The heat from the cherry-red stove only traveled a foot or two, and it quickly felt like freezing beyond that. The week of labor, cold, and anxiety from Parkinson’s were catching up with me, and I wasn’t thinking right.

It was too cold to go outside to pee. We all had containers for this purpose, but everyone had just gone to sleep. In an attempt to quietly go without noise, I had crimped myself, and was restricting the flow. Then I felt an intense pain, and blood started to flow out too. Oh god, what had I done?! I lay in bed and worried about everything, anxiety gone wild. I still had to go to the bathroom but was now afraid.

After hours, and deep into the night, I got up, delirious, and stumbled out into the sub-zero. We weren’t supposed to pee outside because of camp population, but it was an emergency. I went, and it was painful. I stumbled back in to the tent, shaking violently on the side of my body affected by Parkinson’s.

I panicked and jumped in the frigid sleeping sack. I tried to pull Jasper into my bed from the adjoining cot. Jasper had slept with me every night, but I couldn’t move him. The shaking was too strong, and I didn’t begrudge his not giving up on his warm spot. I pulled the covers over my head but then felt like I couldn’t breathe, and threw them off. I went back to freezing and violent shaking. This was terrible. My biggest fear was of waking others in my distress, which, looking back, was the opposite of what I should have done.

The next day I was so sore from shaking that I barely worked besides handing tools. It had shook more than my body. I spent the day introverted and introspective, contemplating the extreme shaking and what was in store for my future. The work I did distracted me from the free-floating anxiety, which was something to be grateful for.

And we prepared to leave. It was a whirlwind day, trying to see everyone and say goodbye. I gave my bee balm and salve to those with which I’d had a connection during my stay, and gave out many hugs to some rough-looking men and women. We found Bridget, a friend from home to whom we were giving a ride, and made plans to get her later. We found out Sandy was going home with a young man from South Jersey, and checked him out before she went with him.

Snow and cold weather conditions made camping more than uncomfortable. Credit: Robert Bennett.

I didn’t get to see Monty, as he had gone with the water truck to interview Jay the water guy, and the weather trapped them at the casino.

I had liked talking to him, and was interested in his invitation to put my hands in the soil on his farm out west.

It was a little sad, but I soon got a little help from my friends there, and my spirits were lifted for the ride home.

All the goodbyes set us off late, and we drove into and through a blizzard both epic and treacherous. Two young drivers addicted to phones and changing the music didn’t help me sleep and reflect on the Standing Rock experience, my personal decolonization. The word had stung my pride at first, but my soul always knew it was what was wrong with everything.

The trip had given me great humility and some earned pride in working selflessly for the collective. That was for me to keep. For the world, they got to see 8,000 veterans show up and defend those who always knew we belong to the land and not vice versa. It was so powerful a moment when the convoy showed and snaked for miles in the darkness. A pipeline of light had showed up with positive intentions to stop the black snake of oil. It was an honor to have been there, an earth warrior.

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