One of the spiritual leaders of Standing Rock is Doug Good Feather, the great-grand-nephew of Sitting Bull and a two-tour Iraq War veteran – he’s headed back to Standing Rock this weekend with a group of 2,000 veterans to help protect and support protesters who’ve spent months resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Good Feather is also the founder and executive director of the Lakota Way Healing Center in Denver, which helps people dealing with PTSD, addiction issues, homelessness and general trauma and depression through Native American ceremony. Good Feather treats Native American spirituality as a healing force. “After I got back from Iraq, I didn’t know if I wanted to live. I went through all of these things: addiction, homelessness, suicidal thoughts. Now I help people get through them through ceremony,” he says.
After the Thanksgiving Day showdown at Turtle Island – during which Native water protectors bravely ignored the demands of many heavily armed police to hold a peaceful ceremony honoring their ancestors – Good Feather summons some of us from the front lines of the action to one of the camp’s two sweat lodges.
Doug Pineda, another Native purveyor of spiritual wisdom and a relative of Good Feather’s, explains its core values. “In our sweat lodge, we use the elements stone, earth, water, air. We are connected to the earth. We are connected to the water. … We are connected to the earth. We live with the earth. The more we are connected, the more spiritual we are. It is that straightforward at its core,” he says.
Of the greater camp and movement at Standing Rock, Good Feather says, “This is the beginning of the healing from the addiction – the addiction to oil, the addiction to consumerism, the addiction to that lifestyle which leaves you strung out, feeling miserable and lonely.”
He adds, “We find our inner warrior again. All kinds of warriors exist; this is the warrior that we find of peace. If we don’t cure our addiction to this – to oil – nothing will matter in the future.”
“People find out here that we don’t need much to live. When we strip things away, we’re happier,” says Good Feather. “We need the elements, we need the wood, we need the water. … When we purchase a plastic cup, we’re just paying the oil industry and the Dakota Access Pipeline more money.”
About 20 of us are gathered by a fire, where lava rocks are heating up. Good Feather says, “I’m not a medicine man. I’m not here to convert anyone. I do want to open this ceremony up to you so we can pray and go through it together.” I feel reassured in his presence, his calm voice and his groundedness allowing me to safe, innocent and curious.
The fire around the lava stones lasts for several hours, making them white-hot. When Good Feather says, “OK, get ready,” we all strip down – men in shorts towels, women in long dresses and towels. Our bare feet are cold on the 20-degree ground.
This is the most crowded sweat lodge I’ve attended. Many people are there because of the traumatic police violence that had unfolded a few days earlier at the camp; there’s PTSD in the air, and a lot of nerves and pain to sweat out.
The sweat lodge itself is a relatively small structure: a spherical half dome that looks sort of like an igloo made of fabric. The whole thing is maybe 12 feet in diameter and is no more than four feet high at its center point. You have to crawl in on your hands and knees, and it’s impossible to stand up. The hot lava rocks are placed into the center of the lodge, and water is poured over them to create intense steam, heat and humidity. When the door flaps are closed, it is absolutely pitch dark.
We pile in, women on one side, men on the other. Good Feather, with his Chanupa (or pipe) and drum, is near the door. It’s uncomfortable, sitting on the hard, cold ground, cramped in with someone’s knee in your back, your foot touching someone else’s side, sitting cross-legged and freezing in the dark. But we’re there together, and the camaraderie and support are palpable.
Sweating and deep-breathing, I almost pass out from the intense humidity and drama of it all. There are five incredible singers and drummers inside who are pounding the drum and wailing away. Each song lasts 15 or 20 minutes, ending in call-and-response rapture. Cedar and bear root are sprinkled on the hot rocks, creating a thick, sweet smoke; when you breathe it in, it somehow opens you up. The drumming is rhythmic, passionate, strong and vocally acrobatic – voices that sound like they’re coming from centuries in the past.
“We suffer together to understand the depths of what we care about,” Good Feather says.
“When you do a vision quest, you stop eating and drinking. If you stop eating and drinking for 24 hours, the hunger for food falls away pretty quickly, but the thirst never leaves you. If you go without water for 24 hours, I guarantee you you will never waste a drop of water again. You’ll think of every time you spilled some or left it on the ground or used it carelessly,” he says. “I think every politician should go without water for 24 hours.”
Now it’s time for others to speak. “We have to keep our commitment to non-violence. Some people in the camp are getting agitated and angry. We need to constantly restate how we pray and how we stay with love, even love for those who are fighting against us. We must keep love in our hearts for the police,” says one participant from the reservation, echoing a big topic of conversation lately at Standing Rock: how to love one’s enemy. How can you love someone who’s shooting at you? How can you love someone who’s behaving in such a degrading manner toward you?
“I think we need to have a march. I think we need to have an action on Washington, D.C., to remind Obama, to get in Obama’s face, and make our point that these police are out of control, and that we need the Department of Justice to step in, and that he needs to stop the pipeline. Obama says that he is worried about Trump reversing his decision, but let him do his job now, let him not operate out of fear. If Trump wants to take us on, we’ll take it from there,” says another person in the sweat lodge. (Such a march is now being planned for December 12th in D.C.)
After four hours of sweat, rapture, discomfort and healing, the cathartic final song comes to a close. We pass the Chanupa around the circle and smoke a puff of ceremonial tobacco. We are thankful for the air and water all around us. We are thankful for each other. We are thankful for life and the earth. We stumble out into the night, among a billion stars.