To every meadow be a shower of grace, to every tree the water of life; be as sweet musk to the sense of humankind, and to the ailing be a fresh, restoring breeze. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 244.

If you’ve seen the news coverage of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest encampments, you may not know how amazing the camp is itself.

That’s one of the things I think gets lost in what little media coverage we see—how extensive the camp is. A ceremonial camp, intended to hold a prayerful intention for protecting the sacred waters and standing up to civil rights abuses both present and historical, it now holds thousands of people.

The original camp, Sacred Stone, sits farther east, actually on reservation land. The main camp, Oceti Sakowin—which is the proper name for the people commonly known as the Sioux, and which means Seven Council Fires—houses the peta waken, the sacred fire.

Actually, the term camp doesn’t quite capture what’s happening out there. Once you pull into the main entrance (after smudging with sage), you drive down Flag Avenue, where each indigenous nation and country has posted a flag. As far as I know, this is the largest gathering of indigenous people in American history, and the first time the seven bands of the Oceti Sakowin have gathered since the Greasy Grass Battle in June of 1876.

The losing side in that battle called it Custer’s Last Stand, or the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Anyway, as you go through camp you can see smaller groupings—the Pueblo camp, the Rosebud camp, the Cheyenne River/Minneconjou, the Standing Rock, the medic camp where you describe your symptoms and from there are directed to the medic yurt, the herbal yurt, or the bodywork yurt. In the center of it all burns the sacred fire, where people come to pray and talk about the day’s events.

Oceti Sakowin Camp

Oceti Sakowin Camp

The first thing you really hear when you arrive is all the building. It’s bitter cold here in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, which means everyone is in full winterization mode. Tipis, military tents, and yurts are going up all over the place. Kitchens and mess halls are being extended and insulated. Compostable toilets and green shower stalls are being built. It’s an ever-expanding organic village—if you leave for a couple of days and come back things may have moved and grown.

One thing here really stood out to me, and inspired me with its Baha’i-like spirit: everyone has a role and they’re all valued. For some it’s going to the front for direct action and peaceful protest. But when they come back they need food, a place to warm up, a place to get their wounds treated. People are needed to watch and stoke the sacred and council fires. Everyone works and helps—builders, electricians, people who help set up and winterize tents, capoeira classes, people who power Facebook Hill with a windmill and bicycle to keep the electricity going.

My father-in-law and I were invited to sit by the fire at the women’s camp (invitation only if you’re male). A young guy came over and invited us to his tea yurt. Inside it was warm from an energy efficient stove, cozy with blankets and pillows and good conversation. This guy spends all day building in the camps, and at night he makes and serves delicious tea to anyone, and listens to their stories. An elder in there with us said she would introduce him to the Standing Rock Chairman, because he’s always interested in thanking people who do seemingly little things to make the camp a healing place. That spirit of gratitude and healing reminded me of the Baha’i teachings:

All that has been created is for man who is at the apex of creation and who must be thankful for the divine bestowals, so that through his gratitude he may learn to understand life as a divine benefit. If we hold enmity with life, we are ingrates, for our material and spiritual existence is the outward evidences of the divine mercy. Therefore we must be happy and pass our time in praises, appreciating all things. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 134.

Just to be clear, I’m not painting this as a utopia. There are issues as there would be with any group of up to 5,000 people, particularly under such stressful circumstances. Even in the tea yurt we could hear a stream of ambulances and the constant low flying planes from DAPL security. But it’s an incredibly special place. Everyone has the same goal, even if some of the tactics are different. In a word, it’s inspiring, and it taught me gratitude.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

7 Comments

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  • Jay Banta
    Dec 12, 2016
    Husain, I was up at the Oceti Sakowin camp the first weekend of November. I too was struck by a real Baha'i feeling. All races , all ages, all religions, the inclusiveness was palpable. People working for the common good. It made a significant and lasting impression upon my soul.
  • Hooshang S. Afshar
    Dec 12, 2016
    Husayn, please explain what do you mean in your reply below: "A community was born out on the Plains, with people from all over the world."
  • Rosslyn and Steven Osborne
    Dec 10, 2016
    Thank you Husayn for this wonderful insight to what it is to feel and be amongst these desperate folk trying to save their very existence, yet again from destruction. I have encouraged family to support them through petitions. From watching the few video clips I felt it necessary to do this, as a Baha'i. We must stand together with each other and especially with our indigenous brothers and sisters of each country. Wonderful of you to describe the prayerful and comrade of all groups aiming peacefully for the same goals.
  • Nancy Dinnigan
    Dec 09, 2016
    Thank you for being there. In the spirit of unity, there are many who would have gone if they could. I'm really glad that you did.
  • Pamela Hollows
    Dec 09, 2016
    Thank you for sharing your experience. I haven't heard any official Baha'i perspective on the protest and have wanted to know more about the spirit involved. Is it really a protest? It seems to be more than that.
    • Husayn Allmart
      Dec 09, 2016
      You know I don't know that we have a word to describe it in English. The founders refer to them as 'prayer camps', and that's really what they are. Prayer is suffused in the daily life of the camp and informs all the actions taken. There have been 'direct actions' to slow construction, but that doesn't encapsulate all that has happened. A community was born out on the Plains, with people from all over the world.
  • Dec 09, 2016
    Excellent sir! I've been on Standing Rock, doing security eons ago during the intercontinental council fires... I would have given anything to be standing with these People this time. I applaud your efforts and insights!