Ahote woke up on a hot summer morning to the sound of a lark outside the window. The sun shone into his eyes through the blinds. He dragged himself out of bed and went to the kitchen for breakfast.
Ahote lived on the Sioux reservation of Standing Rock in North Dakota. As with most mornings, his mother had left early to help prepare for the upcoming sun ceremony. His entire family were members of the tribe and had been for hundreds of years. His mother and father were both leaders in the village. His father, Hotah, was even one of the chiefs.
As Ahote walked into the kitchen, his father waved at him from across the counter. He gestured to the table where two plates of pancakes were waiting. Ahote and his father devoured their breakfasts and, within minutes, were out the door.
The entire community had been preparing for months for the sun ceremony that would be taking place the next day. The sun ceremony happened once a year and guaranteed that the GreatSpirit would raise the sun every morning. The setup involved the entire village. Ahote and his father approached the long field on the edge of the reservation where the ceremony would be taking place. The sun reflected brilliantly off of the golden grass as his father threw him the tent poles to stick in the ground. He hammered each tent pole into the ground and walked toward the center of the field. The sun ceremony would last for days and would attract tribes from all around the area. The setup took them months, but the field was finally nearly done.
Their last step was the most important: to chop down the sacred cottonwood tree, which the ceremony would take place around. Ahote walked to his father, who was admiring the work they had done on the field.
“Are we ready?” he asked. His father nodded.
They met up with the men of the village who would be helping them chop down the tree, including Ahote’s best friend, Kohana. “Thank you for leading us, Hotah,” they said as they began their journey. They trudged deep into the forest to where the cottonwood trees grew. The tree must be tall enough to be noticeable but short enough to carry through the woods.
Finally, they came upon a suitable tree in the middle of a large clearing. Ahote’s father brought out his small, leather-bound prayer book with tattered, yellowed pages. He began uttering a prayer to the Great Spirit who planted this tree.
“O our Father the Sky, hear us and make us strong. O our Mother the Earth, hear us and give us support.”
As he prayed, Kohana began striking the tree with an ax. After five minutes, the tree crashed through the canopy and fell to the ground with a tremendous boom. They then began removing the foliage and branches from thetree until the trunk was bare. As the sun started dropping in the sky, they hoisted the tree on their shoulders and carried it out of the forest.
Just before sundown, they reached the field and placed the trunk in the hole they had dug for it to sit in. The sacred tree now stood, towering over its surroundings. Ahote approached his father. “Can we rest now?” he asked. His father gave an approving nod, and he started his journey back toward the village.
As he followed the bushes alongside the field, a long black snake slithered into the brush before him. He jumped back, startled, and quickly changed his course to go around the place where the snake had slithered. He left the field alongside his father as the sun rested its golden head.
When he got home, his mother finally returned. During dinner, his father told them about rumors of a pipeline being constructed near their land.“I doubt it will be an issue,” he said. “One of the chiefs is already talking to the city about it.”
Ahote went to bed worried.
He arose at dawn and joined his father on his way to the field. Ahote and his father walked through the sacred field they had visited daily for years, but something felt different this time. On the far side of the field sat a small construction crew wearing orange vests. They sat around a trench six feet deep and four feet wide that seemed to run for miles. Next to the channel, a long pipeline snaked its way through the tall grass.
“They’ve actually done it,” Ahote’s father said.Immediately he began walking towards the crew. He approached them and asked gruffly, “What’s going on here?”
“It’s the Dakota Pipeline, chief,” said one of the workers. “It’ll be done by next week, and you can have your field back.”
Ahote worried. Without the field and their sun ceremony, the Great Spirit would not raise the sun. “We need this field today,”said Ahote.
“Ahote, pipe down,” said his father.“This is not your issue.”
“No can do,” said the worker. “We’re already behind schedule; we can’t slow it down. Plus, the sooner this pipeline gets done, the sooner we can get this oil down to Illinois.”
Ahote and his father retreated to the meetinghouse. His father knew exactly who to talk to. Weeks prior, a representative from Energy Transport Partners, the company that built the pipeline, came to their field to scout the location. He had left his number for questions.
“A pipeline through our field!” Ahote’s father exclaimed. “That can’t be done. This land is protected.”
“Actually, the state changed the borders of your territory. The pipeline is forty feet outside of your land.”
“That is still our field, and we need it. The sun ceremony must take place today.”
“Just move your ceremony to a different field.Our crews will be done by the end of next week. Besides, your field lies on 200million dollars worth of oil. It’s a matter of time before your sacred field becomes an oil field.”
With that, Ahote’s father slammed the phone down. He called a meeting with the village chiefs to discuss the pipeline. Ahote sat excitedly in the corner. This was the first time he could experience a village chiefs’ meeting, which happened rarely. He watched as several village chiefs entered the meeting room and sat at the large table.
“What is the situation, Hotah?” said one of the chiefs. It was odd for Ahote to hear his father called by his name. Hotah told the chiefs about the issue with the pipeline and the delay it would cause. Panic immediately set in among the chiefs.
“How will we perform our sun ceremony now?” said one of the chiefs. “Can we not just move the ceremony to a different field?” said another chief.
“This ceremony has taken place in this field for hundreds of generations. The ancient texts say that the ceremony must occur there,” said Hotah, silencing the chiefs.
Ahote had never heard of these ancient texts before. He wondered why the ceremony must occur on that specific field on the edge of the reserve.
The meeting lasted for hours but got nowhere.Chiefs argued about the best solution to the pipeline and eventually settled to move the ceremony to a different field away from the pipeline, a solution that Ahote’s father disagreed with.
Eventually the meeting ended, and the chiefs left. Ahote and his father were the last to leave. As they stepped out, they watched the sky turn yellow to orangeas the sun lowered. They began their long trek back to their house and passed the entrance to the field where Ahote saw the pipeline had cut through the middle, stopping just before where the cottonwood trunk should be.
That night dinner was tense as Ahote’s father told his mother about the problem, and the mutual understanding of the severity of the situation weighed down on their family. Ahote did not sleep well that night.He tossed and turned, filled with worry.
The next morning, Ahote joined his mother and father as they went to the field to clear their previous sun ceremony preparations and move them to the new field. They were the first of the village to enter the field, and [they were shocked] when they arrived.
In the middle of the field, the pipeline had crossed through where the cottonwood trunk had stood, and the trunk lay on its side, broken in half next to it. Ahote and his father rushed over to the trunk. When Ahote’s father had prayed over the trunk, it had become sacred. The breaking of this sacred object not only enraged Ahote but would also enrage the Great Spirit. The ceremony would have to take place fast to appease him.
As more villagers arrived, work immediately began to move the ceremony. The field they planned to host it at was not far away, but the amount of stuff that had to be moved made it an all-day ordeal. The villagers began taking tents, tables, carts, and more to the other field. Ahote, his father, and Kohana moved the broken trunk and began finding a new one. Walking with Ahote’s father to retrieve his prayer book, they watched him enter a small shed near the field and come out with it. Ahote knew that the prayer book had been used for many generations and was passed down to his father by his grandfather. He reasoned that the shed must hold the ancient texts his father spoke of.
As they made their way toward the cottonwood forest, Ahote approached Kohana. “Have you ever heard of the ancient texts?” he asked.
Kohana shook his head.
“My father said we shouldn’t move the ceremony because the ancient texts forbade it. I need to know why this is such a big deal." “What are you suggesting?” Kohana said.
“I’m saying we could check the shed and find out why we shouldn’t move.” “When are we gonna do this?” said Kohana. “We’re moving stuff all day today.” “What if we did it tonight? It’ll only take a couple minutes.” Kohana took a minute to think before finally saying, “Okay.”
Finally, they once again reached the cottonwood forest. They founda suitable tree, and the process repeated itself. His father brought out his prayer book, and Kohana began striking the tree with his ax. After five minutes, the tree once again fell, and they brought it out on their shoulders.They returned at dusk again, and the field was already cleared. They brought the tree to the new field and placed it into the hole the others dug for them.The sun ceremony would be taking place the next day.
As Ahote and his family walked back towards their house, they passed the broken remnants of the sacred trunk. That night, Ahote heard a knock on his window. He opened his window and saw Kohana’s smiling face on the other side. Ahote silently slipped out the window, and Kohana presented him with a flashlight. The night was as black as coal. They made their way swiftly through the dark before arriving at the door to the shed. Ahote told Kohana to stand guard outside as he entered the pitch-black shed.
Shining his flashlight around, he saw hundreds of leather-bound books lining the walls, some looking thousands of years old. He picked up a book lying on one of the shelves and opened it up. It contained recipes for hundreds of medicines that could be made from plants. He figured this must be the medicine man’s shelf. Making his way around the room, he found the shelf with his father’s prayer book. There were only two other books on this shelf.
He picked one off the shelf and opened it up. It contained multiple stories about the Great Spirit. He finally understood the importance of the field.
In the beginning, the Great Spirit created the earth, the plants, the animals, the rocks, the oceans, and finally, humans. His creations were all considered sacred. This is why they prayed to the Great Spirit before chopping down a tree or killing an animal for its meat. The Great Spirit took special pride in several of the human settlements. He awarded them with a special substance that would be present under the ground and would give them energy, life, and a special connection to the Spirit. This is what is now known as oil. One of these civilizations was the one Ahote lived in now.Draining this oil would enrage the Great Spirit, and humanity would suffer his wrath, for in the end times, when humanity is no longer deemed worthy by theGreat Spirit, he would send a black snake down to destroy whatever it touches.
Ahote now understood the dire consequences that would face them.Not only would the draining of the oil enrage the Spirit, but a sun ceremony away from the sacred field and from the oil would not work. He rushed out of the shed and told Kohana about the consequences, which immediately worried him.They rushed back to their houses, and Ahote silently slipped through his window and into his bed.
He awoke to the sound of a large boom. He looked outside and saw black clouds covering the sky. He rushed into the kitchen, but no one else was around. Moving out the door, he saw a black snake the size of a car slithering through the village, destroying houses as it crashed through them. Around it, the grass died, and the soil turned black and decayed. The snake turned towards Ahote and coiled into a striking position with its jaw wide open, displaying two one-foot-long fangs. It launched itself towards him, enveloping him in its jaws.
Ahote awoke in a cold sweat. Rays of light shone through his window, painting the wall with an orange glow. He ran to his father’s room, where he was still asleep. He woke him up and told him about what he had seen in the sacred texts he had read. His father looked angry at first but began to worry as it dawned on him what would happen. Without speaking, he ushered Ahote into the kitchen. As Ahote sat and waited, he called each of the chiefs, telling them to meet him in the meeting house. Finally, he called Energy TransportPartners, the company that had built the pipeline, and arranged for a representative to be present at the meeting.
Ahote and his father ran to the meeting house where the chiefs were waiting. The company representative arrived at the same time as them.Under his father’s command, Ahote told them what he had read in the sacred texts the previous night. As he spoke, a worried look began to spread across the faces of the chiefs. After he finished, his father looked at the energy company representative sitting silently in the corner.
“What do we do now?” his father said. “Construction will be completed by the beginning of next week,”said the representative, echoing what the construction crew had said days earlier.
“We need our field this week. You heard what will happen if we don’t complete the ceremony,” said Hotah.
The representative got up from his chair. “I apologize, but construction has already begun and cannot be stopped. Besides, that isn’t technically your land. I’m sure your ceremony will work in another field. If you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting in an hour.” With that, he left the meeting house.
The chiefs continued to deliberate for hours about what they could do. One suggested forcing the construction crew out of their area and doing the ceremony around the pipeline. Another suggested destroying the pipeline entirely to do the ceremony. They eventually settled on holding the ceremony on the field adjacent to the sacred field where they had already set up, a solution that not everybody agreed on. They could agree that they would have to tell the village about the situation.
For the first time in Ahote’s life, his father ordered the villagers to go to the assembly hall, a building that had gone unused for years. The massive gathering in this previously unused building attracted the attention of the local news stations, which sent small camera crews to document the meeting. Ahote’s father stood in front of the large crowd and said to them exactly what Ahote had said to the chiefs in the meetings. After he finished, the crowd immediately began to panic. Ahote’s father attempted to calm them by telling them they would hold the ceremony in the field adjacent to the sacred field, close enough to the oil to work, although he did not believe in this solution.
At around noon, with the villagers still worried about what was to come, they headed to the field to complete their sun ceremony. When they arrived, they saw dozens of people who had seen the broadcast and believed the chief’s message protesting near the pipeline. Many of the villagers joined these protests. The protests and the sun ceremony continued for several hours as protestors raised signs and shouted at the construction crews, and dancers danced around the sacred tree trunk. Despite the festive ceremony, tension still enveloped the villagers. They periodically glanced at the sky, praying that the Great Spirit would accept their ceremony and would raise the sun every day for the year. The ceremony wrapped up as the sun dipped below the horizon, and the villagers returned to their homes in the dark.
In Ahote’s house, dinner lasted longer than usual as his family discussed what would come and expressed their worry about the situation. Ahote went to bed late at midnight with no clear plans for the next day. Despite his worry, he slept well.
He awoke the next morning in a cold, pitch-black room. He checked the clock, which read 9:43. He assumed it was wrong. Outside, it was still dark. He checked his phone, and it also read 9:43. His greatest fear dawned on him: Their sun ceremony had failed, and the sun had not been raised into the sky. He turned on the news, and it was complete pandemonium as news anchors struggled to make sense of the sudden lack of sun. Ahote rushed to his father’s room and woke him up.
“The sun is still not up,” he exclaimed, showing his father the clock on his phone, which now read 10:02.
Ahote saw his father the most worried he had ever seen him. His father suddenly jumped out of bed and ran out the door with Ahote close by his side.
Outside, most of the village was up and was looking at the sky incomplete awe as it was as dark as a grave, with no stars or sun to light it up. Ahote’s father immediately texted the chiefs to meet him in the assembly hall.He rallied the villagers to follow him on the way there.
For hours in the light of the assembly hall, the chiefs deliberated about what to do, taking suggestions and questions from the massive crowd of villagers. At times the severity of the situation became clear, and the crowd erupted out of worry, at which point Ahote’s father would retain order. Multiple solutions were thrown around by the chiefs and villagers, but the one thing that was clear was that they would have to retake their field. After hours of conversation, the convention finally came to a conclusion: They would have to retake their field by force.
The massive convention of villagers thundered out of the assembly hall as the sounds of war cries from the men of the village echoed through the halls. The village had not gone to war for hundreds of years.
Ahote saw his father through the large crowd and rushed towards him. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“They are planning to destroy the Dakota Pipeline,” said his father. From his tone, Ahote could tell he disagreed with the decision. As the last of the crowd exited the large building, Ahote and his father joined at the tail of the procession.
Unsure of where they were going, they followed the crowd winding their way through the village until they reached a large, old building on the edge of the village. It was clear the building had not been used in a long time as parts of the roof were rotting away, and moss dangled off the metal holders where torches were supposed to be placed. The building was unfamiliar to Ahote but was recognized by his father as the weapons house. The villagers were finally able to open the latches and swung open the large wooden gates.
The procession slowly made its way inside. Most of the villagers had never seen this building before. Ahote and his father slowly made their way inside the building. The orange glow of the torches held by some of the villagers softly illuminated the room. Ahote looked in awe at the walls, which held every weapon he could imagine, from bows and arrows to spears. In the corner of the room, he recognized a bow and arrow his grandfather had given him for his tenth birthday. He hadn’t seen it in years. The light from the torches danced on the walls as the villagers began choosing their weapons for the war. One by one, spears, bows, knives, and s \words were taken off of the walls as the villagers began heading out the door.Drums beat as war cries got louder as more people joined in. It was now around 2:00PM but still pitch-black outside.
As the last people left the house, Ahote saw his father dawning a spear and a shield, his face painted with streaks of blue and white. He gestured to Ahote, who grabbed his bow and arrow. Ahote and his father walked out of the door wielding their weapons into the darkness that awaited them outside.
Christopher Nguyen is a sixteen-year-old and lives in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. He attends Hilton Head Christian Academy. Besides writing, some of his other hobbies include golf, playing the saxophone, flying, traveling, and spending time with his friends and family. He hopes you enjoy reading his story.
"sun rise" by Sean MacEntee is licensed under CC BY 2.0.