In the fall of 2016, when most people were feeling there was nothing they could do about the environment, global warming, clean water and the violation of native rights, Dan McKenzie stood up at Standing Rock. I came to say goodbye when Ken Runningcrane, of the Lakota Sioux, came to bless Dan’s journey from Corvallis, Oregon to Standing Rock. Friends and interested people from the community brought various provisions for the journey and for the Standing Rock community that Dan was going to support. That evening in Corvallis was an opportunity for us to let Dan know that we wanted him to also represent us, our hopes and support, for his journey and for the tribes of Standing Rock. From the view of those in attendance that evening was the start of his journey, but for Dan it was a climactic moment in his life story, the moment when, at 70 years old, he decided he had to stand up.
Growing up in Nez Perce country in Washington state in the 50’s Dan McKenzei was aware of the tensions and friendships that existed between the indigenous population living on the reservation, and the descendants of the settlers who appropriated the land. Personally he had no contact with the indigenous people on the reservation.
He grew up in along the Snake River near the Almota schoolhouse in SE Washington, in the heart of what was once the territory that the Nez Perce tribe occupied.
This area had strong traditions but Dan knew very little about the source of those traditions and attitudes. His father had only told him that his grandparents travelled by wagon train across the country and had occasional peaceful interactions with the local tribes.
“My grandmother McKenzie was very pro native. My grandfather was very anti. I had a friend whose brother was a doctor who went out to work on the reservation in Montana.”
Through the lens of settler’s traditions the local tribes were something less. At best the tribes people were seen as deserving of compassion but not necessarily respect.
Dan didn’t uncover his roots until many decades later when the internet allowed him to do research on his family. During an online search he discovered that his ancestors left Scotland in 1620. Ironically they had left Scotland because of the religious persecution of the Catholics.
For most Americans who have grown up in or near a city, Dan’s childhood would probably be difficult to imagine. In a 10 mile radius he believes there were less than 20 people. For the first 8 years of school he rode his horse to the one room Alamota school house where he studied with 10 students. Three of them were the children of the teacher.
During his pre high school years he describes his father as always having to be in control. He learned that it was better to be invisible.
“If I got noticed by my dad most of the time I got in trouble. Then I went to highschool with 400 kids from a small college town who had all grown up together with all the cliques. I was this country bumpkin with homemade shirts. I didn’t fit in.
It was sorta two groups. One got really good grades, so I kinda connected with the brainy kids but they were all pretty cliquish.
And I kinda connected with all the badass kids. I couldn’t stand cigarettes but I could carry a pack in case someone wanted to bum one. [He twisted his fingers by his biceps indicating that he placed the pack in a rolled up t-shirt sleeve] then I could be the good friend and pass one out. So I tried pretty hard to fit in, but sorta on the periphery not really get noticed.”
The desire to be relatively invisible did diminish over time.
“In 1975 when I defended my thesis on Fisheries at the University of Washinton it was a week before the end of my ten year study period so by then I was more comfortable speaking in front of other people. I’d been working for a couple years and much more used to making presentations.”
To this day he continues to prefer to be unnoticed. In his field he worked well bringing out the the best in a team and eventually retired comfortably and became involved with the movement to lower or replace the need to use fossil fuel.
It was the issues around fossil fuel that brought him to focus on what was happening with the pipelines, refineries, and eventually the situation of Standing Rock and the No Dakota Access Pipeline effort (No DAPL).
Protecting Our Civil Rights
In the spring of 2016 a team of lawyers from the Civil Liberties Defence Center (CLDC) in Eugene, OR held a workshop for Benton & Linn County individuals who were interested in acting as legal observers (LOs). The organizations stated purpose was to “educate people about their rights and why their rights are important, how to defend front line activists, and how to expose and confront the persistent erosion of our civil liberties and the Bill of Rights” (from their website).
Specifically, in this workshop, they were looking for individuals who were committed to supporting the NoDAPL effort by documenting civil rights violations against the “water protecters”, the name that the tribes used to both identify themselves, and make their purpose known.
First Opportunity to Act as a Legal Observer
On May 15, 2016 approximately 2000 people attended an action in Anacortes. Dan attended as an LO. That day 52 people were arrested for blocking the tracks. He was there to back up those who were arrested and it was there that Lauren Regan from CLDC spoke to him about the need for LOs in Standing Rock.
Shortly after that Dan made the commitment to go to Standing Rock. He found a camper trailer that he could use while he was there and leave behind for someone else in need.
Friends and interested people around Corvallis held 2 pot luck dinners to express their support. 30 people from Corvallis came to support and be part of the ceremony to bless Dan’s journey. A local tribal member from the Lakota Sioux, Ken Runningcrane, lead blessings for the journey and spoke about the some of the challenges that he and his friend Joan would encounter.
Two days later Dan and his partner Joan left for Standing Rock.
The Journey Begins
Dan appreciated all of the heartfelt responses from the community but found the attention a little overwhelmin. He absorbed Ken’s message about the journey buty only had “shadowy knowledge” about native traditions when he left for Standing Rock.
He understood that he was riding into a environment that would be physically and, more importantly, culturally different from his current life. During a stop in the middle of Montana the meaning of Ken’s words became visceral.
“We stopped for gas in some place in the middle of Montana, a small mountain community,. While I was paying for the gas the lady behind me had noticed the trailer and said “Are you on your way to Standing Rock?” and I said “yes”. She expressed her gratitude. She’d grown up around there and knew the plight of native Americans. She wanted to go to Standing Rock but she couldn’t.
That was like in the middle of nowhere someone was explaining what I was doing… That kind of started that part of the journey of being at Standing Rock and instantly feeling part of this incredible community.”
Being at Standing Rock
At Standing Rock Dan immediately felt accepted as a part of the community and impressed by the way people greeted each other.
“Hello… Where are you from?… Thank you for being here.”
He had a sense of belonging from the beginning. Everything that happened was supporting community and the individuals in the community.
“I was taken aback after being treated with humility and reverence. At first this all felt really strange and then really affirming. .. this was my time to stand. I’m retired. The kids are gone. I had the financial resources. My community was backing efforts. It was time to stand up, to speak out after 20 years of inaction”.
For Dan the days at Standing Rock started in the legal tent.
“The lawyers and the legal observers all introduced themselves. The indigenous members of the group each introduced themselves and their tribal lineage. I didn’t know what to say.
I was always considered an ally but each morning during those introductions, during their efforts to hold on to their heritage, to keep a touchstone alive, I would feel a sense of separateness. Their recitations seemed to reaffirm the persecution there tribes and families had experienced.”
It never occurred to him to say “my people came from Scotland to avoid religious persecution.” He described not being able to be comfortable being just who he was. At those moments he felt that who he was made him somehow separate. The natives he worked with used oral history to remember their roots.
“I watched a very different approach to geneology. Ancestor.com didn’t fit there. I appreciated their need to affirm their lineage, their heritage”
That impression of separateness, coupled with his decision to stand up and speak out, eventually presented Dan with a dilemma. Having a life long disinterest in standing up for himself or being noticed. Now it was time time to stand up and standing up brought up a sense of fear and a new understanding of the white privilege he experienced in his life.
“Being at Standing Rock was the first time my white privilege was up front and in my face. I could walk down the street, not be accosted, not be arrested, not be hassled by the cops and this was not the case for the indigenous people on the lines and in the tent.”
“What I was seeing amongst the people was different. The indigenous people have never had positive interaction with the police. I could compare this with my interactions with the police. If I got stopped there was a reason, not because of how I look. At some of the protests there were instances where there was a line of people and the cops only pulled out native person. They were the ones who got roughed up.”
The morning meetings were only a small part of the day. The rest of the time he was aware of the respect he was afforded as an ally and an elder. It took a little longer to get used to being perceived as an elder, but that didn’t create a problem. He smiles when he speaks of it.
In contrast ;
“my heritage was benign, positive. The stories of my family were about community and association, not a history of genocide and trying to maintain my culture. I knew of the Oregon trail and my grandfathers peaceful encounters with indigenous population and the settling of homesteads.
It was at Standing Rock that I learned about the Doctrine of Discovery that had allowed my ancestors to lay claim to the land that was freely roamed until that time.
I was embarrassed. My eyes were opened to the shared responsibility that I came to call the “stain on my soul” caused by 70 years of not speaking out.”
Everything I learned created a new, unfamiliar sense of fear. Previously I had trust, albeit tentatitve, in the authorities and judicial system. But observing and understanding the tenuous nature of civil rights I realize that I am only a half step away from the same treatment as that which new friends have learned to live with. I realize how easily my lifestyle of white privilege can disappear when I stand up. Being there makes you realize that your faith in the law and the system is pretty unfounded…
This was the most significant spiritual and emotional experience of my life.”