Correcting our Mistakes

Written by Bob Ross

We spent much of our first full day at Standing Rock fixing problems that we created. We locked our keys in our car as soon as we arrived. That was embarrassing. There was stuff in the car that we needed. And, well, we need to get home at some point.

I'm not even sure how, but some angel of a man named Matt, from Arkansas, was soon working on our car like a AAA man. He had these air pump things that he slipped into the window. Then there were sticks lodging the door open a crack. Then there was a chopstick taped to a stick. Then Dave, a gentle Native man from an island in Alaska, came by with a slim jim (that's a tool, not a stick of meat, I learned). They pulled and prodded, and never gave up hope. They sent us off on tasks ("find me a stick this long and this far around. It has to bend a little but it's gotta be tough too"). They asked us to hold this or grab that or hand them this. We complied.

They rigged up a contraption long enough, bendy enough, and sturdy enough to reach and impress the "unlock" button on the car. It didn't unlock. They poked at it. "It's gonna open!" Matt never gave up hope and never got frustrated. When I suggested something stupid like--"why don't you tape my chaptstick to the end of that stick. Then maybe it will hit the 'unlock' button more firmly?"--he didn't make me feel stupid.

And then, just as we were about to give up and call the rental car place to get a new key ($250), Matt and Dave did it. They did it! They opened the car door and we all rejoiced. We gave them pumpkin bread, bananas, and trail mix, as if that would pay for the 60 minutes they spent working on our car. But they stuck around for another twenty minutes or so, talking about their experiences at the Oceti Sakowin camp, where we were all staying. They both had been doused by water canons and tear gas by rioting police two days ago. Dave was standing right next to the woman whose arm was shattered into pieces by a stun grenade.

Earlier in the day, Aric and I spent about an hour in the donation tent, sorting clothes. We weren't making piles of jeans, hats, scarves, and sweatshirts for the people of the camp to wear. We were sorting out all the many many clothes that were of absolutely no use at the camp. Resourcefully, the people of Oceti Sakowin decided to use these clothes as insulation for the structures that they were winterizing. But it was our job for the morning to fill garbage bag after garbage bag of clothes that well-meaning but not very thoughtful people had donated to the camp. Clothes that were no longer of use in winter--vests, t-shirts, a pair of swimming trunks. Clothes that were full of mildew. Buttoned down dress shirts. Table cloths. Baby clothes. All of it went into garbage bags, leaving the circuit of fashion and entering the circuit of insulation.

At some point in the day, I realized that most of what we were doing today--and most of what the Standing Rock struggle is all about--is correcting the mistakes of settlers, of white people, of white settlers like me and most of my delegation. Sometimes, I'm totally useless in trying to fix those problems, even those that I helped create. Other times, I just might be able to salvage something useful out of trash that people like me dumped on someone. But for so much of history, it is the people who have been dumped upon--the indigenous, the colonized, the black and brown people, who are forced to clean up, just live with, or be blamed for the messes that the settler makes.

So, what does solidarity look and sound like for white settlers--for the people who make the mistakes and dump the trash? Hopefully, it looks like humility, like admitting our mistakes or our complicity in those mistakes. It sounds like someone asking the indigenous, the oppressed, the colonized what is needed in solidarity and whether solidarity is needed at all. It sounds like patientienly taking orders from the people who know more about these problems than I do. It means trying very hard not to create those messes or make those mistakes again. Sometimes, it means putting our bodies in the line of water canon fire. It can mean stepping up and taking some of the brunt of the pain that the protectors of settler colonialism--the police, the military, the banks--inflict on those who seek to challenge them. It means shutting up, listening, opening our hearts and minds, and doing. Doing the little things like sorting through mildewy children's clothes and doing the big things like taking a stun grenade in the arm, but doing, most importantly, no more or less than we are called to do.