“I’d like to think it’s compassion,” Hey answered. “But it’s probably just to atone for my war crimes.”

Is that why I, too, feel drawn to battles like these? Is living in a wealthy country itself a war crime, since we live on the backs of those who can’t enjoy such prosperity?

This battle, in any case, was momentarily won. First Nations people had stood up, resisted a pipeline, and stopped it for now. That much was empirical. It’s also empirical that almost everything good in this country — the eight-hour day, the end of slavery and child labor, the right of women to vote and gays to marry, what have you — was won through struggle, sometimes cold and harsh. The long arc of history does in fact bend towards justice.

But Hey’s story showed me how this empirical stuff could happen, how shit and blood could be spun into meaning. Or at least it was one such way, one window into the process. If Standing Rock were a proverbial elephant, I’d taken a magnifying glass to one tiny bit of its skin. What about the rest of the vast reality?

Those 2,000 vets who’d arrived just before me — had some of them, like Hey, collapsed at the end of their service and ricocheted around until they found a community to truly serve with, without war crimes this time? What other stories had brought them here? And what about Rupa and the dozens of medical and legal professionals who’d left jobs and obligations to be of service here?

Most of all, what about each of the Sioux, Omaha, Dene, Ho-chunk, Creek, and others who’d come and endured months of discomfort and sometimes violence, to make Standing Rock the next Wounded Knee? Had some of them also found a community that they’d longed for, for other reasons? What else?

The idea of a formula that “we” can learn from any “them” is sloppy at best, colonial at worst. Yet since things do change, and movements do win, there must be a formula. Maybe it’s just not one we can ever wrap our heads around, or that can ever be reduced to a few words on a camera, or probably to words at all. The elephant is humongous, beyond anything most of us can imagine, which is why we can’t begin to absorb it.

Yet Standing Rock is being absorbed, just as Occupy was. At the dinner table, or in bed, or maybe even at the office water cooler, stories like Hey’s are radiating across the country in all kinds of ways. Those who participate in struggles let others see the elephant through one particular patch of skin, helping to mobilize something inside for the new struggles of 2017 and beyond.

The Latest

Avatar photo

Andy Bichlbaum

Andy Bichlbaum is a co-founder of the Yes Men, which has been doing "identity correction" or "laughtivism" for nearly two decades. By impersonating leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of...