Some 400 years since the first Thanksgiving, Cole Chambers spent his holiday sharing necessities with the Native Americans protesting at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
People of all backgrounds have gathered at the burial ground in attempt to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The Gainesville man said he was inspired to pack up his 2001 Ford Focus and hightail it to North Dakota after seeing the use of water cannons on protesters in 20-degree weather, and stories of people like Sophia Wilansky, who was at risk of having her arm amputated after being struck by a concussion grenade, and Vanessa Dundon, a medic whose retina was severed when she was struck by a rubber bullet.
“Historically we’ve treated Native Americans like vermin,” he said. “We like to believe the atrocities committed toward natives are in the past, but it’s clear colonization is still happening.”
The upcoming Christmas holiday also prompted him to take a stand.
“I couldn’t stand back and pretend Thanksgiving is about togetherness when we use it to forget about the massacres in the 1600s,” he said. “Followed by Black Friday, when the companies invested in the pipeline make most of their profit. Rejecting the holiday entirely was the closest I could get to the spirit of it.”
Chambers said there were no mentions of the holiday or a feast at the camp. The 24-year-old normally spends the day with his family, but felt compelled to spend it otherwise this year.
He felt like part of the family at camp, and said that as a white man, he didn’t feel awkward or out of place.
“There is a white majority at camp now,” he said.
Chambers said that during orientation, organizers make a point to be respectful to all people. However, they also asked non-Native Americans not to take any dances or songs home or take part in any sort of cultural appropriation.
“I had numerous conversations with natives. Their generosity is almost baffling,” he said.
As Chambers was setting up his sleeping bag in the back of his car, a native man offered him a cot in a tent next to his camper. The man also asked him what he could do to let Chambers stay longer, and asked if Chambers had a flashlight. When he said he didn’t, the man handed his over.
“Materialism was never coded into their heads, so it was very refreshing being in that environment, especially around Black Friday,” he said.
Chambers left his home in Gainesville at 4 p.m. Nov. 22 and didn’t reach his destination in North Dakota until near midnight the next night.
“It was tough making the trip without another driver. A lot of napping,” Chambers said.
Instead of spending his money on a new flat screen TV on Black Friday, he brought about $350 in hand warmers, wool socks, blankets, trauma kits and ponchos.
Adrienne Quinter is one person who was able to donate, adding $25 to the cause.
“In a nutshell, I was glad someone I knew was going there to help,” said Quinter, 24, of Athens.
“I do not agree with the pipeline, for respectful and environmental reasons. My grandmother who raised me was Cherokee, I have studied native literature and culture for a while, and it is unfair that the corrupt U.S. officials take and take and take from the people who founded our land.”
Chambers also took basic medical and winter supplies.
“When I got up there I walked around taking pictures, socializing, and performing a few odd jobs,” Chambers said.
He helped out with wood cutting and some winterization of the structures at the Oceti Sakowin camp.
At 6 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving, a Native American got on the public address system around the sacred fire telling the camp to wake up.
Chambers said he remembered the person saying: “This is why you’re here. You are not on vacation.”
Chambers was attending orientation when someone said there was a chance the camp was being raided on Thanksgiving. This was the only part during his trip that he felt any sort of fear.
“There was no raid, but there were two direct actions. One I took part in, at the bridge and at Turtle Island,” Chambers said. “The barricade at the bridge is a public road and there’s cement barriers, armored trucks and a few dozen cops blocking anyone on the other side from reaching hospitals in Bismarck.”
There was a group praying by the bridge, which Chambers joined in on.
“The other group was where the action was at,” he said.
A bridge was constructed to reach Turtle Island, where there was a native burial ground, but which was occupied by the National Guard and law enforcement, he said.
When Chambers awoke the next day, the island was blockaded with two rows of barbed wire.
He returned home Nov. 27, and is working on plans to go back. He would especially like to be there when veterans have said they will march for the cause Dec. 4 and before the eviction notice goes into effect Dec. 5.