#BrownExcellence: Mark Tilsen’s It Ain’t Over Until We’re Smoking Cigars On The Drill Pad – Musing from a Poetic Warrior

By Gitz Crazyboy

Every individual that went answered the call and came out with their own stories, their own experiences, and left with some very life-altering lessons.  To each of us who watched from afar and in awe, we saw people just people rising up as heroes.

I’m going to start this off by stating, stop doing everything you are doing and head over to www.marktilsen.com and buy this book, It Ain’t Over Until We’re Smoking Cigars On The Drill Pad. It is a deeply profound and powerful collection of reflective poems that almost reads like journal entries during the Dakota Access PipeLine (DAPL) protests, more commonly known as Standing Rock. As you sift through each poem you begin a journey through a myriad of emotions, both high and low, and thought-provoking ideas of what it is to be a human, from one man on the ground of Standing Rock.

Buy this book because it is required reading of any and all who deem themselves revolutionaries, as either coffee arm chair revolutionaries, grizzled veterans or those new and embarking on missions to save the planet. This is a must read for those that have seen it from the comforts of their own home or viewed it through the screens of their phones and wondered why (it was happening).  I was caught off-guard several times at how this strips away the romanticized ideas we have of front-line defenders and front-line life, but also simultaneously deepens the mythic legends we have created around these people and around these historic moments.

The author, Mark Tilsen. What can I tell you about this man? I met him briefly at Standing Rock and he left a life-long impression on me. I seen a man who was so brutally honest with the movement, the people and, more importantly, himself. If you’re going to ask his honest opinion on anything, you better be sitting down. He’s going to give you a response, it’s going to be well thought out and incredibly honest, which sometimes can be hurtful and other times the praise feels like an efficacious enchantment. He’s not an idealist lost in his own ego and dreams and you’d be surprised at the ego people grant themselves in movements. He’s real and this can rub some people the wrong way, but the longer I got to know this man the more I began to realize that this is his own personal self-practice. He holds that same honest mirror to himself.

I state this because this is exactly what drew me to this book, his honest character, and it comes across so eloquently in the poetry on the pages and really elevates what you’re about to read into another plateau. It’s generally hard for me to read poetry because a lot of times I personally get this feeling that it comes across as avant-garde pretentious drivel, especially after moments and movements like Standing Rock. People often exaggerate the importance in the roles they played, but Mark isn’t like that.  He’s a very down to earth human being and successfully did the impossible by accurately capturing the moments and, more importantly, the feeling of being at Standing Rock.  Even if you weren’t there or if you were there momentarily (a weekend warrior) this will give you that glimpse into that time when our people gathered and stood together.

Some of you might not know what Standing Rock is. It was and forever will be a definitive moment in our collective history.  It quickly became another focal point for how Indigenous peoples continue to be violently mistreated when protecting and preserving what is sacred on their own lands. The ongoing Colonial machine takes many forms; Industrialization and expansion of Oil and Gas is one of the many branches with a far reach and deep pockets to match. What turned into a “protest” site of a pipeline soon became eclipsed into a militarized police occupation by private security (Tiger Swan) working in conjunction with Morton County Police Department and further supported by police agencies from five surrounding states. The oppressors heavily geared up their police, with Humvee’s, water cannons, helicopters, attack dogs. The Indigenous peoples came far and wide and began to answer an ancestral call, armed with peace, prayer and hopes that they could stop the juggernaut of Oil and Gas companies with deep ties to the state and federal governments. The longer the movement went on the more taxing and dangerous it became on the frontline land defenders. Life-long friendships were made and life-long friendships were lost. Many of the land defenders themselves during the heightened moments of tension and the attacks from the police now suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to several human rights abuses they encountered from the security companies. One particular land defender, Sophia Wilansky, had stated many times that she lost the use of her arm because of a modified explosive device the policing service used on the people. https://nypost.com/2017/11/18/pipeline-protestor-recalls-horror-of-nearly-losing-her-arm-in-clash-with-police/

Mark has created something special and unique and you won’t be able to find anywhere else. I’m only going to give you snippets of the poems and I can say I was honestly hooked from the first few lines of:

‘In the beginning’

“We sleep to the sounds of song and laughter

Young men trying their first war cries”

I had to read those lines over and over again and it brought me back to that magic, that welcoming comfort Standing Rock brought to its visitors. Being in the space witnessing the revival of an old and, depending on which circles you sit in, an almost forgotten spirit. You only had to spend one night there and be surrounded with the love that you (could) imagine the ancestors felt. It was youth and people reclaiming their warrior spirits and in that understanding that ‘warriors’ meant protection and that warriors meant they acted fiercely out of love. I was trying to prepare myself for a deep dive into this book and was floored time and time again by its honest reflection in the first poem alone.  I was not ready to be hit so hard.

“Help us find the will

to do what needs to be done

I am not going to die here

I don’t want to be arrested

And I am too big to run

But I am not a fighter, not really”

Not to prop anyone up on an unnecessary pedestal but I do wonder if the superheroes I grew up reading in comics thought this honestly and earnestly of themselves. We see these protectors and people on our computer screens, seeing them on the front lines in masks and in prayer facing down insurmountable odds, and rarely do we ask ourselves what is going on in their minds because all we can see is the bravery they wear so well.

‘Enough is too much’ is another poem that asks some very frank and very honest questions and I always go back (probably not for the last time) to these reflections on the ground of Standing Rock. When did these reflections come about, was it when Tigerswan mobilized? Or was it when the endless amounts of police just kept pouring in? Or was it just a passing thought while eating some dinner cooked over the fire?

“How much of what we do is delusion?

How many beautiful native people do you know,

are living their lives out over the edge

like Wiley coyote,

who stay alive as long as they don’t look down?”

Certain gems to me really stand out (from) almost in every poem. This is a line from the same poem that stayed with me long after I put the book down.

“You’ve been too brave for too long and you’re tired of running”

It really drives home that dark possibility on what lies on the other side of Hope, which comes across as cautionary. And I admit that this was one particular poem that brought me to tears. It got me thinking of my friends and family whose lives checked out a little too early and a little too suddenly. People who were beacons of hope and direction in my life forever gone and living on only in memory.

There is a whole gamut of emotions, memories and moments found throughout this collection. It’s a rollercoaster of inspiration and exploration in the far reaches of the human spirit and it’s made all the more tragic and far-reaching because you know that the pipe was eventually placed into the ground. Mark is one of the most important Indigenous writers we have this generation and it’s an accolade that I’m sure if he reads this he will laugh out loud. But it doesn’t make it any less real or any less true.

We have romanticized, we have dreamed and now we get a glimpse into one man’s reality of Standing Rock. I was brought to tears, I found myself laughing out loud and crying at each change or turn in phrase. At the end of this, I had to put the book down and just sit silently reflecting on what happened there, and even my own life, because I have honestly never been moved by a collection of poems such as this. You cannot help but be filled with a bittersweet cautionary sense of undying hope that’s wrapped in beauty.

Indigenous resistance knows no bounds and ultimately this collection of poetry speaks out in a desperate cry to fight, build and create a beautiful future for us all. When I think back at what Mark has done and sacrificed at Standing Rock and then collected onto paper, if he never published these words the world would have been robbed of a very unique insight. This book adds to the culture of poetry.  Poets can be dangerous as they view things in a lens that seldom of us take the time to look through and appreciate.  As a voice of reason and one of the voices of Standing Rock, I feel he does embody “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” but from a very Indigenous ancestral position. This is #BrownExcellence at its finest. Buy this book.

Gitz Crazyboy is a Siksikatsitapi (Blackfoot) and Dene youth facilitator. Gitz works with youth and creates youth-focused programs.  Gitz’s passion and purpose is helping the next generation and he has held many positions within the youth education profession. Ever the activist for the environment and Indigenous rights, Gitz is known for his leadership and participation in the Idle No More movement. A storyteller to his core, he has always had a deep connection to traditional teachings since his mother read to him as a child, and continues to be guided by the ancient wisdom the Elders carry.  Along with writing, Gitz loves to create music and enjoys being introduced to new sounds. Currently Gitz is actively reconnecting with his Blackfoot roots.  He believes the truth of who we are is in the truth and mysteries our ancestors carried – through ceremonies, songs, medicine, love and laughter.

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