Agoras in Action: Feeding the Front Lines of Standing Rock
Feeding the Fighters of Standing Rock
CANNON BALL, N.D. — On any given night, supper lines here at the dusty prairie camps near the Missouri River where the last piece of a 1,170-mile pipeline is set to be placed might include young Navajo women from Arizona who have never camped in the cold, and older white women for whom chaining themselves to a fence for a cause is nothing new.
There are protest tourists in new boots, Lakota elders who spend hours in prayer, parents from the suburbs who have dragged the children away from their video games.
They have all driven for hours — sometimes days — to join hundreds of protesters at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. And they all need to eat.
The camps grew fast over the summer, sometimes swelling on the weekends to what both organizers and the North Dakota state patrol said was well over 3,000 people. The original intent was to stop or at least change the route of the Dakota Access pipeline, a $3.7 billion project that will stretch across four states.
The camps have since broadened into a gathering of people focused on bringing attention to environmental issues and the rights of indigenous people. As the number of teepees and yurts built to withstand the brutal North Dakota winter has grown, so, too, have the camp kitchens.
No one is directly in charge of the chaotic but robust network of what amounts to several free restaurants, which reflect both the broad spectrum of the nation’s diet and its battles over food politics.
“There is no rhyme or reason, but everyone gets fed,” Rosetta Buan, 40, a cook from Asheville, N.C., who is on her third trip here, said Sunday. “There are little miracles every day. Dishes get washed. Bellies get filled.”
The roster of cooks can change daily, bringing the kind of cutthroat power plays any chef will tell you is inherent in many professional kitchens. Writing a daily menu is a challenge. The voluminous stream of food donations might produce 50-pound bags of rice, cases of Funyuns, butternut squash from an urban farm in Detroit and roadkill deer. Supplies, supplemented by runs to Bismarck, about an hour’s drive away, are spread among pop-up and permanent tents, refrigerated trucks and wooden palettes on the ground.
Anyone who is hungry heads to the dining tent, grabs a plastic plate from a mismatched pile and lines up under a sign that reads, “Lakota Rules: Women and children first.” All that is asked is that you take a minute to wash dishes, sort food or find some other way to pay for your meal with labor.
Ms. Buan, who owns the vegetarian restaurant Rosetta’s Kitchen in Asheville, was called upon during one trip to help figure out what to do with a donated buffalo that was hanging from the bucket of a bulldozer. On this visit, she is setting up a snug vegetarian kitchen that will feed about 30 of her family members and friends who plan to stay through the winter even if Energy Transfer Partners, the Dallas-based company building the pipeline, meets its goal and finishes the project by January.
Like almost every cook here, she will feed anyone who walks in.
The main kitchen is at the Oceti Sakowin camp, the biggest of four camps within a short hike of one another. Most of the meals are prepared in a military tent outfitted with a 12-burner propane stove and a few other large pieces of cooking equipment, including a black smoker just outside the door.
Members of the news media are warned that no images can be captured from within the main food tents, for fear that health inspectors might spot violations and use them as an excuse to shut down the camps.
“It’s hard to be up to code when you are camp cooking, but we’re getting there,” said Mateo Cadena, 29, who took a break from his kitchen job at the Yellowstone Club, a private resort in Big Sky, Mont., to cook at the main kitchen for several days earlier this month.
The clash of food cultures is writ large here. A sizable contingent of vegans and vegetarians struggle in a culture that is based on hunting game.
Although everyone tries to be respectful, a kitchen shift can get tense. At the nearby Sacred Stone camp, the Lakota woman who runs a kitchen that can feed up to 200 people a day struggles with a white cook from Montana who insists that using propane is disingenuous when they are fighting an oil company, and that children should not be fed white sugar.
Caitlyn Huss, 25, a manager of a vegan hostel in Los Angeles, was closing up late one night last month when the tent flap opened and someone dropped off a deer that had just been killed by a car.
“We knew we had to find an elder from the sacred fire to come and bless it, then find someone who could skin it for us,” she recalled. “It was crazy.”
Brian Yazzie, a Navajo chef who works for the Sioux Chef, a native food company based in Minneapolis, said the cultural gap even among tribe members can be wide. He spent a few days last month cooking at the camps, and is gathering donations so he can head back during the week of Thanksgiving.
He cooks food he describes as pre-colonization: local meat and vegetables and no gluten, dairy or processed products. It’s difficult at the camps, he said. When he first surveyed the supply tent, he saw stacks of flour, canned goods and vegetable oil. “It was like the mid-1850s when my ancestors were put on reservations or internment camps and given government rations to eat instead of their natural resources.”
At the camp, he made hominy and bison soup and roasted pumpkin with quinoa flavored with maple syrup.
Savannah Jo Begay, 29, a Navajo from Pinon, Ariz., spends her evenings making fry bread from flour, water and lard. It’s the kind of food Mr. Yazzie battles against, but something a lot of people at the camps crave.
“You put some love into the fry bread and it makes it feel like home,” she said.
That desire for homey food led to breakaway kitchens run by different tribes that have the feel of extremely rustic neighborhood bistros. Pueblo cooks might serve bowls of red chili stew while the Oglala Sioux fry venison. One night last week, the Upper Klamath Basin kitchen offered elk stroganoff.
Winona Kasto, 47, a Lakota cook from Green Grass, a small community on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, ran the big kitchen for a time. She left to start a little kitchen she calls the Soup Kettle House. With help from a rotating band of volunteers, she turns donations delivered by sympathetic national food companies and whatever else shows up into meals that Lakotas want to eat.
“I just want to feed the people and our ancestors the proper way,” she said.
When a donated buffalo was butchered, she got the lungs and some other internal organs. She boiled them into soup. That day, some young protesters tried to swim across the river to the construction site and clashed with the police. Someone rushed into her kitchen and said they needed hot soup at the front lines.
“I packed it up and they ran it out there,” she said. “Even the white people were eating that lung soup.”