The organizing principle of Sacred Stone Camp, where thousands of Native Americans and supporters are now camped out to protest the the Dakota Access Pipeline, is the campfire circle. From the center of camp, tents, teepees, and makeshift shelters spiral out in every direction, inching up hills and toward the Missouri River. At one, M. Jay Cook — a man somewhere in his seventies, a thick braid of hair trailing down the back of his gray sweatshirt — sat near the end of a morning fire with a young woman who’d arrived from Humboldt County, California, to join the protest, or “protection,” as participants prefer it to be called.
Nearby, a group of young men were cooking breakfast, and as the first fall wind began to whip through the camp, Cook began recounting the complicated story of his upbringing: how, as a young teen on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, he watched as men in white shirts and ties went door to door, and then watched his friends leave and go to Idaho — a place he, too, wanted to go. He told his mother he wanted to follow his friends, so he contacted the Mormon missionaries, was baptized, and was taken to the first of what Cook calls his “three families,” this one in Pocatello, Idaho.
Cook didn’t know the specifics then, but they were among more than 40,000 Native children who, between 1947 and 2000, left their homes as part of the Indian Student Placement Program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which offered students a foster home with an LDS family for nine months and the promise of a better education away from the reservation. “I learned the Doctrines and Covenants, the Book of Mormon, the whole thing!” he told me.
In his first foster family, he got along well with his mother, but his father was, in Cook’s words, “of a different mind.” The next year, he was moved to Blackfoot, Montana, where he stayed with another Mormon family, headed by a well-to-do doctor who taught Cook that wealth does not have to mean the same as greed.
He planned to go on a mission in Germany, and spent three years of high school learning German so that he could earn placement there. When the church attempted to place him in Indian Country — presumably so that he could better proselytize to other Indians — he balked and went to BYU instead. Throughout the ‘70s, he hitchhiked across the US, visiting siblings and former classmates.
Today, Cook credits all those years living and studying with white families for his ability to stand between his world on the reservation and the white world, negotiating the terrain of both — a necessary skill as he and the thousands of other Native Americans here attempt to organize internally to fight the external threats to their land, tradition, and water. And it’s a skill he’s attempting to pass down to his 10-year-old granddaughter, Precious, whom he’s raised since her mother died when she was just an infant.
As so many have articulated in the camp, it’s the young generations they’re fighting this fight for — but it’s also contingent upon that next generation to take up the fight themselves. “Even if they’re just little infants, they’re gonna look back at pictures of this and remember: I was here, I was part of this,” one man from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyata Tribe told me.
It was Precious who asked her grandfather if they could come to the camp several weeks ago, and even though she was back at school at the moment — she didn’t want to miss the first day — Cook would be bringing her back to camp that night. And it was Precious who had the idea to make signs of Barack and Michelle Obama holding Cook’s other grandchild, Wakiyan, from when they visited the Standing Rock Reservation two years before. Cook showed me the signs with pride — he’d had them laminated to protect them from the elements — and asked to pass along this message:
“In 2014, Barack and Michelle came to Cannon Ball. There were all the security checks and everything, to go see them. And at that time, he held my grandson. Barack held him, then Michelle held him. And when they both held him, he became their grandchildren. I trusted them with my grandson — his safety, his care. When they held him, they made promises. That they would help our children, that they would help us. They felt the warmth of my grandson. He felt his pure soul. He made these promises.
"But you do not seem to be fulfilling what you told us. Yéksuye, remember. Wokiksuye, we remember. Our heart goes with you, but you forget us. You put us aside in the time that we need you. Do not forget us. Yéksuye: Remember.”