Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Great White Father Visits Standing Rock

The President sits next to Chairman Archambault at the Cannonball Flag Day Pow-wow in Cannon Ball, N.D. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast. 
Tȟuŋkášilayapi Yuhá Hí
Whom They Have For A Grandfather Came Here
Or, The Great White Father Visits Standing Rock
By Dakota Wind
CANNONBALL, N.D. – The morning was just like any other summer morning, only this particular morning I awoke before the meadowlarks and mourning doves could fill the backyard with songs.

I hit the road with my youngest son, Lij, at 7:30. Destination: Cannonball.

The road follows the river south, and meanders back and forth along the bluffs and banks of the river through hills and even a small badlands formation near Huff. A few cars, one loaded with dancers, passed us by as if I was driving in reverse, the woman in the passenger seat was busy wrapping her hair, others in the backseat plaiting their hair, their destination the same as ours.

Traffic steadily increased as we reached Cannonball. The junction was a swarm of activity. Shiny cars and bright lights, matched by the crisp blue uniforms of B.I.A. cops and matte black of the Secret Service, a few vehicles were positioned to block the road already, as a few cars – probably residents – squeaked by through police officers ushering traffic on foot.

Prairie Knights Casino. I saw Journey play here, back when they got small after Steve Perry, but before they got big again with Arnel Pineda. 

Elders, singers, dancers, and other guests were directed to Prairie Knights Casino, a few miles south, where all would be shuttled to the Cannonball pow-wow grounds at 11:15. Early arrivals had already formed a long line, which only grew over the next few hours, but it was a jovial crowd full of flashing smiles and raucous laughter.

The bus ride in itself was filled with a hum of growing anticipation, oddly juxtaposed with Billie Idol’s “White Wedding” playing rather obnoxiously on the radio, followed by Mötley Cruë’s “Girls Girls Girls,” and finished with Billy Squier’s “Everybody Wants You,” by the time we pulled into Cannonball.

"Waiting to host President Obama at Cannonball Flag Day Celebration," Chase Iron Eyes, Last Real Indians.

The wačípi (pow-wow) ground was flanked by proud lodges at the west side of the bowery representing the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (The Seven Council Fires, commonly known as the Great Sioux Nation) and the First Nations, their doors open and facing the direction of the new day.

Security at the pow-wow. The Secret Service removed knives and other potential weapons. Photo by Mark Holman.

An odd site was a great tent, under which waited the Secret Service. They herded everyone like cattle to walk through fencing and metal detectors, some participants were taken aside and patted down. A few dancers brought knives, which were part of their regalia, but which were removed from them. I didn’t find out if those individuals got their knives back, but I felt oddly comforted that I didn’t bring mine, and out of sorts that I didn’t wear mine. A few dancers, familiar faces on the pow-wow trail, noted the absence of my sword, and jested that I looked strange without it.

Dancers were directed into the arena. Veterans had raised the flags with the voices of singers in the light of the rising sun, in pride and memory of our relatives who served our people and country. There was a light wind that blew out of the south that picked up as morning became noon, which lifted the flags, some a little worn and faded, others brilliant and new, but all rippled and snapped proudly in the wind.

The biggest flag I've ever seen fly on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation.

In the center of the bowery a large American flag roared in the wind and flew above all others, a diminutive flag of the Standing Rock Nation hummed below it at times in the shadow of the American flag.

Cannonball Flag Day Pow-wow is an annual event. Without regard to the President’s visit, a prayer was invoked by respected Standing Rock community leader Cedric Good House, and the Grand Entry commenced shortly thereafter, followed by inter tribal dances.

The announcer, Mr. Tony Bobtail Bear Sr., kept the crowd entertained with humorous quips, “Is it okay to ask what the President is doing over there? We’ve been waiting for twenty minutes now,” to, “Who wants to see the Secret Service dance?” Bobtail Bear introduced honored visitors and guests, tribal chairs rose as he called their name. Seemingly random visitors were also asked to rise but whom the Bobtail Bear knew personally and could share a personal story about.

Governor Dalrymple greets the President with a warm North Dakota handshake as he disembarks Airforce 1 at the Bismarck Airport. 

Eventually, he announced North Dakota Governor, the honorable Jack Dalrymple.

Ms. Marcella LaBeau, Wígmuŋke Wašté Wiŋ (Pretty Rainbow Woman) in uniform. Is honored by the crowd for her service to the people and country. 

Among the many honored guests was Marcella LaBeau, a ninety-four year old WWII nursing vet. She was honored with song by the people, and brought with her a medal awarded to her from the President of France; a gleaming silver and glass medal which contained sand where the D-Day assault landed in France.

The President arrived by helicopter, under escort of four other helicopters then he and the First Lady spent an hour listening to the concerns of the youth of Standing Rock. In recent history, the youth on Standing Rock and on many other reservations deal with living in poverty, broken homes, alcoholism, chemical dependence, gang violence, and suicide (which is 70% higher in the reservations; youth suicide is even higher).

Reservations across the country and into Canada face a high unemployment rate, a lack of housing, poor access to health care, and little assistance in pursuits of post-high school education. During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, many American Indians moved to the big cities in the Indian Relocation Act, for employment, and often found poor paying blue collar jobs no one else wanted; the greatest cost the “city Indians” lay in the sacrifice of culture and language, in order to provide for their families.

Photo by Mark Holman.

The President entered the arena sometime after four o’clock in the afternoon, and was greeted with an encouragement song by the Grand River Singers. By this time, the dancers were wind-blasted and cooked, but neither the sun nor the wind could dampen the people’s enthusiasm.

The dancers performed a men’s exposition, that is, all the male dancers in every category and from every age were asked to go out to enter the arena and share their dance. My son and I entered the open arena and took up a spot to start from on the west end, in an open area near the President.

Lij asked, “Where’s the President?” I looked westerly and saw the First Lady, the President was talking with Mr. Dave Archambault Jr., Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation. My son stood behind me and peaked from around my leg towards the President and the First Lady, and waved. She waved back, then gently nudged the President in his side and pointed in our direction. They both waved, and it seemed to me that this would be as close as I would get.

There I am, on the far left and out of focus. Probably the only picture I'll be in with the Great White Father. Incidentally, if I met him, I would have addressed him with a straight face as "The Great White Father," just to see his reaction.

The song began and my son and I parted. He one way, and I another.

When next I saw my son, at the end of the song, after the men dancers left the arena and the women took our places, he said, “I met the President,” in a simple, matter-of-fact tone.

During the downtime, Lij had drawn a picture of the sun shining down upon a pile of rocks, and signed it, “To Presidunut, From *Lij**.” I couldn’t, in my doubt, believe that he’d be able to give it to him, and suggested that perhaps we could mail it, but, in his innocent resolve, said to me, “No.” And took his drawing into his own small hands with quiet deliberation.

After the women’s exposition, the Tiny Tots (a category for the youngest children dancers, boys and girls) were called forward to a last dance in the arena. Afterward, Chairman Archambault introduced the President, who offered greetings in Lakȟóta, and kept his speech mercifully short. His speech is online.

Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast.

Then the President stepped out into the bowery and offered to take pictures with the dancers. Lij had become fast friends with another young traditional dancer there, and shared his seat in the very front row. When the bar was raised, Lij raced out to the President and I lost sight of my little boy.

He returned a few minutes later empty handed, and said to me in all nonchalance, “Let’s go get some fries.” I asked him if he met the President and shook his hand, his response, “Sure.” I said, “I didn’t get to meet him,” and he said simply to me with no hint mockery, that innocence shining in his liquid brown eyes, “You can shake my hand.” And I did.

Photo by Mark Holman.

The President left in a caravan. A trail of dust rose up in swirls, a dance in itself, in a field of native grasses, shorn for the occasion. The dust drifted away to nothingness, but the sun shone golden on the prairie steppe, and the invisible wind remained. 


  1. Felt like I was there reading this

  2. Fabulous story - in their innocense, children acknowledge no boundaries. The country is painted, to my eyes, like the south west Saskatchewan country in which I grew up. I can hear the meadow lark sing its song "five cents a cabbage head".

    Kinanaskmitin Dakota Wind.

    R Procyk

  3. This was a great happening for every one