Above: Mick Waggoner and Bonnie Wykman, above, run a tight ship at the Southwest Camp Hogan.
Story and photos by Rain Stites
Their day begins before the sun rises.
Fellow campers slumber while Mick Waggoner and the rest of the kitchen crew quietly tiptoe through the makeshift kitchen of foldable tables and camp stoves. Lanterns and headlamps softly illuminate their workspace.
“I got into camp and just started working in the kitchen,” Waggoner said as she sorted through ingredients for that night’s dinner, “and that’s what I do every day, is I work in the kitchen from when I wake up till when I go to sleep and I don’t really do much else.”
Waggoner had been at the Southwest Camp, the Diné or Navajo section of the Oceti Sakowin Camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota for about a week when we met.
Standing Rock gained national attention as people massed to join in solidarity against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The pipeline, according to its opponents, who call themselves Water Protectors, was to be routed through sacred native burial grounds and would potentially compromise the drinking water of those living on the reservation.
While many people witnessed the events through the screens of their computers, a simple Google search reveals only part of the story.
“It’s all about human kindness … You know that this is beyond you,” camper Francisco Torres said of the camp as we sat and sipped tea around the fire.
Behind the front lines of direct action against an aggressive law enforcement exists a different, yet equally effective, type of action.
Waggoner and an ever-changing group of about seven women and men remained in the kitchen of the Hogan, a traditional dwelling in Diné culture, nearly all hours of daylight to cook hot meals for whoever walked through the Hogan’s doors at Southwest Camp.
At its peak, the crew was responsible for cooking a hot meal for well over 100 people.
Just as gears on a clock, the kitchen crew remained in constant motion. Aroma of freshly brewed coffee and simmering stew filled the Hogan throughout the day as its inhabitants sought protection against the blistering cold temperatures outside.
“I didn’t intend on just coming in and working in a kitchen, but it just was natural, and I want to facilitate people that are doing work on the front lines,” Waggoner said, speaking about veterans, winterization teams and members of the camp contributing spiritual work. “I want to make sure that they have warm things to put in their bodies and are nourished.”
The kitchen and the Hogan mirrors the Diné culture, said Waggoner, who currently resides in Australia in a culture much unlike her own.
“I just miss someone that comes up and sees that you’re struggling and comes and helps you,” Waggoner said. “And you know, that’s how I was raised, and that’s what’s happening here — because that’s our culture.”
Donated goods from all around the country stocked the shelves and piled high within the Hogan’s walls. The kitchen crew is tasked with preparing healthy meals each day with these ingredients.
Elizabeth McKenzie, camper and member of the Southwest Camp kitchen crew, had worked in other kitchens across Oceti Sakowin before settling at Southwest Camp. Her professional background in culinary arts, McKenzie said, taught her that organization is key to the success of any kitchen.
“We were always working on the next thing,” McKenzie said of the Southwest Capm kitchen, noting she would simultaneously work on preparation for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
It’s important, she said, that those working within the kitchen be aware of what needs to be accomplished and that the camp work together as a team to help out with various tasks.
In order for the kitchen to operate properly, fellow campers could be found sorting through and organizing the camp’s donated goods. This helped the kitchen crew decide which ingredients could be used for cooking.
“That’s the best thing I’ve seen about this camp, is that people just do stuff,” Allison Melcher, camp and member of the kitchen crew said.
“There’s not a lot of red tape, there’s not a lot of waiting around,” she continued, “it’s like if you have an idea, you just gotta make it happen.”
It’s a constant work in motion. While the kitchen crew busily prepares ingredients for the next meal, taking only short breaks to eat, a small team of people can be found tackling the stack of dishes from the previous meal.
Waggoner described the Hogan as the center of family and community. And like a kitchen, she said, it’s a place for people to come together.
“What I’ve seen is that everyone is really passionate about this work (at Standing Rock),” Waggoner said, “and when they come in and have a hot meal, it allows them to relax a bit and remember why we’re here and talk about that with each other and feel impassioned again to go out the next day to do another 14-hour day. So for me, it feels really important to be a part of.”
This helps to keep the momentum of the movement alive.
“That’s what sustains actions,” Waggoner said. “It’s how our communities work and that’s what’s happening, right? Everyone’s working together to make sure that everyone’s taken care of.”
But the fight is not yet over. On January 24, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to advance approval of DAPL, reversing the block former President Barack Obama and his administration placed on construction permits of the pipeline back in December.
Water Protectors who remain at Oceti Sakowin have called for people’s return to stand in solidarity. For more information, check the websites of Sacred Stone Camp and Oceti Sakowin Camp as well as their Facebook pages.