Taking a stand at Standing Rock
A Portland firefighter visits the protest in North Dakota to lend his support.
As Gary Fergus rounded the bend on North Dakota Highway 1806, the teepees, flags and protest banners at Camp Oceti Sakowin came into view. Floodlights on the hill beyond the camp, shining through a darkening sky, gave him a chill. "It was a terrible feeling," Fergus says. "Intimidating. Ominous."
Fergus, a 12-year veteran of the Portland Fire & Rescue bureau, had driven across five states to deliver supplies and to work in support of those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was slated to cross the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I spoke with Fergus around the wood stove in Rose's Kitchen, a mess tent and popular gathering spot at the camp where we both stayed recently.
To Fergus, the floodlights and military vehicles brought to the site expressed a clear intent to intimidate those assembled. They were an enduring symbol of the expansive resources Energy Transfer Partners and law enforcement agencies would deploy to continue building the Dallas, Texas company's Dakota Access Pipeline, in spite of growing concerns about the local water supply and the impact on Standing Rock's sacred burial grounds.
Twenty years ago, Fergus picked up a Navajo hitchhiker. Their conversation brought the brutality of centuries of oppression into sharp focus for Fergus. When he asked the hitchhiker what he, a nonindigenous person, could do to make amends, the answer was somewhat dissatisfying. The hitchhiker encouraged Fergus to build his own awareness and understanding, and to avoid perpetuating oppressive behavior. But he felt that fighting oppression was a struggle primarily for American Indians. For two decades, Fergus felt there wasn't much he could do.
This year, when the indigenous owner of Bison Coffeehouse in Northeast Portland told him about the standoff at Standing Rock, Fergus knew the time to act finally had arrived.
"The attack dogs, the rubber bullets, the water cannons, they brought the confrontation to another level," Fergus says.
He was deeply troubled to see public servants, and the private contractors working with them, use violence against peaceful civilians with legitimate complaints. Taking time away from his wife and two children, and his job with the fire bureau, would not be easy. But family and colleagues alike supported his intention to stand with the protesters. Soon, friends were rallying to buy supplies, and even to accompany Fergus on the 20-hour drive.
Fergus initially volunteered to drive a medical bus donated by the Portland Climate Action Coalition. The group already had a driver, but asked Fergus to accompany them as a legal observer, to witness and document any interference they might encounter from law enforcement. But the bus's departure time didn't match Fergus' work schedule. Undeterred, he made preparations to drive his own truck 20 hours to Standing Rock. Two firefighting colleagues and two other friends volunteered to join him.
With his team forming, Fergus focused on identifying the most useful supplies, to maximize the impact of his visit.
"I wanted to be sure that whatever I brought out would actually help," he says.
Information about what is needed can be scarce and sometimes contradictory, and many people have sent supplies without first researching what is necessary.
"It's not an opportunity to clean out the closet. If it's not for arctic survival, don't send it," says Wendi Anderson, a Milwaukie resident who staffed the donations tent. She noticed an overabundance of items like cotton clothing (which does not dry out easily), gloves and scarves that are not insulated or waterproof, "fancy or dressy" items, knit hats, and orphaned gloves, boots and socks that had not been attached in pairs prior to donation.
With advice from Lisa Ortiz, an administrator of the Facebook group Oregon for Standing Rock, Fergus and his team stuffed his truck with 1,400 pounds of food, snow pants and winter coats, teepee skins (donated by Nomadics, a Bend company), propane and snow shovels. They delivered most of the supplies to the camp's donations tent, but kept some on hand for direct distribution. As they circulated through the camp, when they saw people struggling in the worsening weather, they would give out hats and gloves.
Shortly after the group's arrival, the Army Corps of Engineers denied an easement for the pipeline crossing, bringing an unexpected mood of celebration and hope to the camp. Fergus, who hesitates to describe himself as an activist, did not initially plan to participate in direct action at the camp. But he was swept up in the celebratory mood.
He joined a small group that marched to the bridge that divided protesters from authorities, and enjoyed an opportunity to talk with activist Cornel West.
The five people in his group helped to build a structure to accommodate some of the thousands of veterans who arrived Dec. 4. From atop a ladder, Fergus heard somebody call out to him: "Hey, where did you serve?" He was a bit self-conscious as he replied: "I didn't serve in the military."
The response: "Well, brother, you're serving right now!"
After three days, Fergus left the camp, but he wasn't done helping out. Gusts up to 40 miles per hour blew many cars off the icy highway. Fergus used his four-wheel-drive truck to get a half-dozen of the stuck vehicles back on the road.
One hundred and fifty miles from camp, he encountered one last stranded vehicle. Its driver, a North Dakota resident presumably unaffiliated with Standing Rock, was likely more sympathetic to the pipeline business than to the protesters. But Fergus wasn't worried about political differences. A fellow citizen was in need. Fergus was equipped to help out, and so he did.
Two decades after his encounter with the Navajo hitchhiker, Fergus says he has found a way to take action in alignment with his beliefs and values.