SACRED STONES CAMP — Alex Briggs is a twig on the family tree of William Rockefeller, co-founder of Standard Oil and brother to the better-known John D. Rockefeller.
He inherited good looks, a high IQ and a trust fund to see him through a university degree in mechanical engineering.
At 26, he could have it all, if all is what he wanted. Instead, he’s living in a small tent nestled in deep grass at the Sacred Stones camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. His belongings fit into a backpack the size of shopping bag. He is booted, bearded and bandana-ed, and it’s hard to see anything of him in the black and white photos of his buttoned-up great-great-great grandfather.
If that man could have looked down through six generations of time, he would be shocked to see this descendent, who Dumpster dives for food on principle, now standing in unity with Native Americans against the Dakota Access Pipeline, a massive Bakken oil delivery system routed to run right past the reservation.
This young man burns to have a personal relationship with the earth and save it from the very oil that enriched his family. He has designed and would build open source energy sites starting with a foundry and metal shop on a small community scale.
“If everyone has the capacity to provide for himself, it would lead to a peaceful and prosperous world," said Briggs, who describes oil as equal "to a centralization of power that corrupts the human spirit."
Those words would have made triple-great-granddad choke on his oysters, but Briggs says his mother, back East, understands where he’s coming from.
“She grew up with that guilt of coming from a ruthless capitalist who created a monopoly. My parents are very proud of me,” he said.
Briggs admits that, not only is he white, he was given everything he needs to prosper in a competitive society. Leaving college without debt, thanks to that trust fund, gives him the freedom to live by his beliefs, instead.
“This camp is really a transforming thing, having a powerful culture here that is rooted in the earth, experiencing the world as a sacred and spiritual place,” said Briggs, adding that he is in for the winter.
While Briggs certainly has an uncommon background, his type is not uncommon among those attracted to the camp.
Generously sprinkled throughout the temporary world of the Sacred Stones camp and larger overflow camp, where hundreds are living in tents and tepees to protest the pipeline and protect the water, are other non-native young adults. They’re generically referred to as “hippies” or “rainbow kids” around the camps, and they bring guitars, blankets and the hope that, by showing up, they are helping the cause.
Hayley Porter and her friend, Shaunti Lally, of Colorado, held events back home to raise a couple hundred bucks, awareness and donations for the camp. They drove up in his old beater car, with their black lab in the back seat and camped near the river for a few days.
Lally has a master’s degree in social change and sociology and says it’s up to this generation to break the world of its destructive dependency on oil.
“If we don’t do something, we won’t have a world. It’s up to us, we have to speak up. We have to have patience for the process and disrupt the momentum that’s pushing us to the edge,” he said.
The camp seemed a perfect place to try to build Native American trust at the same time, according to Lally.
“They are the First Nation defenders. That’s why a lot of us are here, to try to heal those wounds. We have to deal with it and address it,” he said.
Jakob Halldor, 27, a red-haired native of Iceland and now of Colorado, camped nearby and said he is part of a growing number of young people, many from the mostly white festival-awareness culture, who want respect for all life.
“We’re here supporting people who are protecting water. We need to bridge the ethnicity groups, or we won’t be able to,” he said.
In the next tent down, Dan Isler, of Illinois, looks like the former U.S. Army infantry man he once was, with a tour in Iraq under his belt.
He is more tightly wound than his long-haired, herbal-tea drinking neighbors, but no less passionate. His niece was born with birth defects from tainted well water on their farm and he knows the value of clean water.
“In Iraq, I served Halliburton and all those guys. I was a gunner, searching out incendiary explosive devices. I served my country in Iraq, but here, for the first time, I feel like I’m serving my nation,” he says. “I feel at home.”
For the threesome from Colorado, it’s time to pack up the tent in a cold wind with hopes of coming back one day soon. Isler turns to help and has another thought to share, running to catch up.
He points to the camp, where the Native families are camped, many warming themselves to wood fires against the cold that particular morning. There is a prayer circle being held in the shallows of the Cannonball River and the sound of drumming is faint on the northwesterly wind.
“We’re all affected, not just these people,” he says. “Why isn’t it up to everyone?”