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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval

The world witnessed two standoffs in 2016: the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s protest against an oil pipeline in North Dakota and the armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge led by the Bundy family. These events unfolded in vastly different ways, from media coverage to the reactions of law enforcement. In Standoff, forthcoming March 2021, Jacqueline Keeler examines these episodes as two sides of the same story that created America and its deep-rooted cultural conflicts. The following is an excerpt from Standoff.


In December 2016, the Océti Sakówin camp was blanketed in snow, with temperatures so cold the simple act of taking my hand out of my glove—just for a minute to adjust my camera—was punished with exquisitely painful pricks, harbingers of frostbite, all over my exposed flesh. The pain immobilizing my hand served as a reminder of the unforgiving nature of life at this northern latitude. I thought about my ancestors, who had endured countless winters here in skin tipis and buffalo furs. These products of their ingenuity also attested to the importance of their all-encompassing relationship with the Tatanka Oyate, the Buffalo Nation that made life itself possible.

This starkly beautiful landscape, known as the Great Plains, is the homeland of my father’s people, the Dakota (known in the western dialect as Lakota). It is serene and powerful and quite capable of killing us all. It is a place of exceptional beauty, but a place that—hand stripped even for a moment of a humble glove—will remind you of your mortality. Or as they say in Lakota, unsimala ye, our pitifulness when we stand alone and our need for help whether from divine intervention or fellow human beings. Life here was made possible by our traditional culture of sharing based on kinship and responsibility. When stripped of the protection of these life-sustaining relationships, we would not survive.

The glove I wore was the product of western capitalism made in a factory in far-off China, and the gloves and clothing my Dakota and Lakota ancestors wore 160 years ago would have been the product of relationships. A buffalo or a deer hunted by a male relative became the property of his female relatives by their industry—the tanning of the hide, the butchering and preserving of the meat, their overseeing the sharing of that food, and the sewing and decoration of buffalo robes, moccasins, deerskin dresses covered in quills and, later, trade beads. And, of course, the humble glove.

When I walked through the camp, I could hear muffled by the snow the sounds of human industry. The sun beamed down and made the blanket of white glisten but offered little warmth. Cars and trucks entered the camp, driving by accompanied only by the muffled, crunching sound of the snow beneath their tires as they proceeded almost silently down flag row.

Even now, I can hear the tinny music played over the PA system at camp and the quiet echo of the hammer as white men from Vermont worked on the frame for a straw bale house. Sometimes, when I talk to others who had been there at camp, there is a moment when the longing for that place makes their voices crack; how can you go back but in thought, pictures, old social media posts, friendships? Most at the camp hoped it might last forever. The Océti Sakówin encampment was for a moment the dream realized, the dream that the organizational principles of our traditional camp circle societies might once again have a place in the world.

Our traditions cannot just be intellectual concepts, written about in academia or social media posts, they must be lived and afforded space in the real world.

Capitalism has introduced the idea that without serving a profit motive that benefits the captains of industry life, ways like ours should not be given any space to exist. At the root of it, this is what is at stake with yet another pipeline.

Through the end of the standoff at Standing Rock, Unci Maka—our mother—seemed to slumber beneath the snow. Perhaps she only heard us in her dreams and when we were praying in inipis (sweat lodges). Or when our young people and elders were being sprayed down by water cannons in the cold North Dakota night as temperatures went below freezing. Maybe it was then she heard us. But on the main road of the camp, I sensed her thoughts were turned to the coming spring, new life, fertile ground for a new order—and the greenery of spring oblivious to the agony of whoever lost this battle on the shores of the Mni Sosa, our beloved Missouri River. Or more correctly, now the human-made Lake Oahe, our wild river, turned into a giant pond.

When I returned a little over a year later in January 2018, it was all gone. No sign remained to show that a camp holding over ten thousand souls was ever there. Well, one sign remained. A blue and white “No Trespassing US Government Property” sign.


Jacqueline Keeler is a Diné/Ihanktonwan Dakota writer living in Portland, Oregon. She is editor of the anthology Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears and has contributed to many publications including The Nation, Yes! magazine, and Salon.

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