I’ve never had a home to fight for. I moved around so much as a child that I graduated from my seventeenth public school as a new kid. Throughout my twenties, money in my bank account equaled passport stamps equaled minority status in most countries I trekked through. A local woman in rural Nepal once waggled her permanently broken arm in my face, grunting muted guttural sounds from her throat. When she opened her mouth to, I assumed from her body language, yell, I saw that she had no tongue, and few teeth. With her good arm, she smacked my jacket pocket. In shock and unable to comprehend, I dumbly stared at her. I remember smelling dried sweat and dal, the traditional local cuisine, on her sleeve. My role became clear to me that day: I was a privileged Westerner come to voyeur foreign squalor. Shame washed over me. I had no place there.
I told myself to go home, but I didn’t know where that was.
This autumn, in an effort to make believe, I began building a tiny house on wheels. A place of my own. Before I started, I told myself that because I had no land yet on which to put it, I didn’t actually deserve it a roof over my head, a place to own and take responsibility for. That I hadn’t earned the right to a place to exist, or feel safe. Doesn’t everyone deserve that, one might wonder. Let me tell you: as I continue to build the tiny home, I choose to trust that I am also building something within myself that might one day belong within it.
My friend Ari was headed out to Standing Rock to support the water protectors in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. He knew no one out there and had little money. When he announced on social media his intention to go, someone he didn’t know bought him a train ticket in support, or solidarity, or perhaps lack of knowing how else to help the water protectors keep their ancestral home but to put people on it who wouldn’t budge.
“Do you want to come out, Sean?” Ari asked.
My anger and sadness flared. My body shook in resonance. I sensed that the Native Americans knew in their souls that home was more than just a plot of land in a nice neighborhood, a piece of wisdom long lost to my ancestry. I thought that I could go to Standing Rock and that my white maleness would declare my alacrity to heal the genocidal rift between our cultures. It seemed to fit my pursuit: I needed to know what it was to fight for home. I wanted viscerally to make eye contact with a man in riot gear from the other side of the line. To reach across the gulf between us: not just politics, but the narcissistic colonialist values that would keep a modern American man from honoring the Native struggle, not impeding it. I could empathize with the very human motivation to feed, clothe, and show one’s family that they loved them, but supporting a family at the expense of the freedoms police are employed to protect is another thing. I wanted the mercenary to see himself in me. I wanted my mother, who was a cop when I was a child, to see which side of the line I stood on.
To be sure, at Standing Rock I would stand isolated from my brethren in riot gear, and from the people I sought to aid. Maybe ‘aid’ was the wrong verb for what I wanted to do. Aid was what privilege-guilty Americans did to Africa; I wanted to be present, to listen. I wanted to wash dishes, chop firewood, build camp structures warm and strong enough to endure the frigid North Dakota winter.
“Yes, I want to come,” I wrote back.
I contacted another friend who was moving his family to Omaha in three days. He replied immediately. Yes, there was room for me in the moving truck, if I would help with driving.
Resistance set in. Did I have enough money? A warm enough sleeping bag? Was it ironic that I would consume heaps of fossil fuels in order to protest them? How long would I spend out there? My mother was coming to visit in a couple of weeks; would I be back in time? Would she understand if I wasn’t?
I also had my own structure to build. The Northwest’s autumnal rains left me with precious few weather windows to work. Sunshine was forecast for the week. I had planned to sheathe and put up the walls, the most significant visual progress of the build: that of raising a pile of fastened lumber into a tangible house.
Both options—going to Standing Rock; staying to build the tiny house—were noble holes to sink money into. Neither made sense. Why didn’t I just abandon both, give in to the poverty consciousness I was raised to believe—that there is never enough—and call my boss to pick up some more work, like a good American man?
Fervent and confused, I backpedaled and deferred choosing my destiny until morning.
I’ve never seen an animal willingly subject itself to physical violence. I doubt that even David Attenborough has seen an impala in pursuit of a cheetah. Impalas know who wins that fight.
Humans put themselves in harm’s way daily. We ride motorcycles, drink alcohol, join the military, stay in abusive relationships, eat fast food. Some beg to be whipped; stand unarmed in front of advancing war tanks; set themselves on fire to make a point. We put ourselves in dangerous situations because we either 1) ignore or haven’t developed our intuition and risk assessment to register that it’s dangerous, 2) think we’re cunning enough to avoid harm, or 3) because we’re harmed enough already that we indulge in it.
Consciousness is a funny thing. With it, humans invented iPhones, democracy, and given a thousand names to the Great Mystery: Allah, Yahweh, El Shadday, Love, God. Consciousness is powerful, too, in that an individual may choose to make herself vulnerable, to chase the proverbial cheetah when her instinct says that only death will come if she does. It’s as if we are constantly asking ourselves, what if I do this?
My friend Ari knew that he might experience violence. In part, that’s why he went to Standing Rock. It felt important for him to witness people gathering to fight. It meant they believed in something. And from what I know of Ari, he probably needed something to believe in.
The complex cost of developing our consciousness is the very problem it provides us the ability to solve: as we discover new ways to create, the greater our power, and the closer we come to the values we’ve projected onto the gods. But we’re not perfect yet. Like gods in on-the-job training, humans make mistakes. We may assume that a particular resource is infinite, like oil. While framing my tiny house, I thought that I could get away with a mismeasured window frame. It wasn’t a big deal until much later when I couldn’t fit the window into the hole I’d created for it. Doing it right the first time would have been a pain, but I would have saved time and money.
By continuing to ask ‘what happens when I do this?’, observing the results, and changing our behavior accordingly, we enact and embody the very essence of what it is to be human – the ability to think, and to choose one path over another. Sometimes that looks like exploring the home culture, language, or land of others. In the not-so-distant past, European colonists coveted the land we now call America so much that they raped and pillaged for possession of it.
We did nearly everything we could to exterminate the Native American people. At Wounded Knee, we murdered them in cold blood. We systematically destroyed the bison population, once a primary food source. For decades we stole Native children, put them in boarding schools, made them wear “civilized” clothing, punished them for speaking their native languages. In the 18th century, the corporations of the day, including Hudson Bay Trading Company, traded and sold whiskey by the barrel to villages, creating a dependency that lasts into the 21st century. Later, we brought meth and heroin, drugs so powerful and addictive that the White Man has almost succeeded in our slow genocide. Now, an oil company is burying an oil pipeline under the Missouri River, a water source depended on by 17 million Americans.
I woke up the next morning with a stone in my gut. I couldn’t go to Standing Rock. Not now. I needed to build my home. If there’s any gulf I needed to reach across, any rift I needed to heal, it was the shame of the privilege that allowed me to take up space. This body, this land, even this tiny house—these are not mine. They are composed of resources lent to me—to us—for a time, and I can choose what to do with them. I have always deserved a home. The Standing Rock Sioux deserve their home. We all deserve clean water.
A month into his stay at Standing Rock, Ari was among dozens who were teargassed one night at a barricade where unarmed water protectors and heavily-armed members of the Morton County Sheriff department have faced off for months. A concussion grenade exploded in front of him, followed by a fire hose spraying bear mace. Rubber bullets and bean bags were shot at the protectors. In subfreezing temperatures, the fire hose unleashed torrents of water upon the protectors.
The concussion grenade had struck a young Native woman, tearing into her arm above the elbow. She stared dumbly at her attackers. When she opened her mouth to yell, she had no tongue. Ari’s role became clear to him. He had come to witness the fact that she and her people were the Impala being driven from their ancestral home. After generations of caring for this land, they no longer had a place there. Ari knew who would win this fight, and shame washed over him.
The suffering is no longer foreign.
(Photo courtesy of Leland B Benoist)