#21 Sarinea Meserkhani on Standing Rock and a Life of Purposeful Pursuit

"Join me on this journey!"

"Join me on this journey!"

I met Sarinea (pronounced like you "saw-Renée") at one of my favorite places for connection: Burning Man. Sarinea organized the French Quarter's "Social Aid and Pleasure Club" camp where I burlesque danced with her and my friend Nadia as part of the Tuesday night Mardi Gras party. Sarinea is inspirational in many ways: she's an activist, poet, explorer and truth seeker. She has a degree in Anthropology and has spent the last couple of years traveling on and off for weeks to months at a time. Recently she purchased a school bus and plans to personally remodel the inside to travel North America. She's worked as a nanny and a model and continuously seeks out opportunities for meaningful ways to impact the world. In discovering ways in which to do that, Sarinea spent her November birthday supporting the Native Americans of Standing Rock's access to clean water from the Missouri River, land and protection of their sacred spiritual sites that will be bulldozed by the Dakota Access Pipeline project (also known as "the black snake") - an oil pipeline to stretch over 1,100 miles.

What made you decide to go to Standing Rock?
It wasn't necessarily a rational decision to go. Rather, there was a physical, emotional, and spiritual "pull" - it literally felt like my heart was being tugged, and the call was loud and clear: GO TO STANDING ROCK. So I did. I feel as though my time there isn't finished yet, so I'm planning to go back in the Spring if the situation hasn't resolved itself by then.

How has that experience sparked change within you?
I came away from the experience deeply humbled. It was an absolute privilege to be given the opportunity to pray with the Natives gathered at Oceti Sakowin camp (the larger camp that is located further North, closer to the pipeline). For them to accept members of the ethnic group that has oppressed their people for so long - I'm just going to be blunt and say it: "white people" - to join them on their land and in their prayer ceremonies, I found incredibly gracious.

The space there serves as the ultimate self-reflection: who am I in the face of witnessing very real adversity that I have the privilege of choosing whether or not to be a part of? (I use privilege in this case as the means of having an option, whereas the Natives do not have such a choice.)

I became very aware of my intentions in being there. What did I actually have to contribute to the situation? Was I doing so respectfully, of both the people and the land? Was I a "hungry ghost" looking for purpose in a culture outside of my own? Was I suffering from the "white savior" complex? I found that I learned a lot in the practice of asking the questions (of myself).

What are the top 3 things you learned at Standing Rock?
My time at Standing Rock taught me that while I may understand a lot, I know very little. I came to realize that this situation is both delicate and multi-faceted - referring to both the tensions between the water protectors and the authorities, as well as the inevitable tension that arises amongst different cultures sharing space (whether that refers to the differing cultures/mentalities of the Natives vs. Whites, or even the different cultures of the various indigenous tribes gathered there). The camp itself is a cross-section of many "firsts" happening simultaneously. Due to these unique and unprecedented circumstances, one can't know what's appropriate and inappropriate without first asking. Therefore, the experience taught me to observe, inquire, and really listen before "doing" - even taking pause in offering (if at all) my seemingly well-formed opinion, and well-intentioned support. And finally I learned - and I am continually learning - to listen to my inner voice. It guided me to speak to exactly the people I needed to meet. For instance, when I had first arrived at Oceti Sakowin camp and was trying to locate my best friend Eric's tent, I found the first conversation I had in my search was with his camp mates while on "Facebook Hill," both of whom I'd never met before!

On "Facebook Hill"

On "Facebook Hill"

What advice would you give to someone considering taking the stand?
First and foremost: realize that while you are there, you are a guest. It is important to tread carefully; there are many traditions to be respectful of while there. For instance, in order to abide by Lakota tradition as a woman, it is expected that you wear a long skirt or dress to participate in ceremony (so bring one with you to wear over your winter pants!)

I also made sure to pay attention in order to assess where I was needed. Understand that the direct actions are decided upon and approved by the Elders within the camp, and this is done so according to their traditions, which outsiders may not be privy to. The way the protest is handled is ultimately not for outsiders to determine, because the consequences of the actions will be very different for the Natives, even though it will affect everyone, animals and humans alike. 

Prior to heading out there, I did a lot of research, mostly looking into the ways I could be most useful while there. I would advise reading this resource packet for allies traveling to Standing Rock.  It seemed that using my body as a physical barrier against further pipeline construction (which had a high probability of ending in arrest) was where I'd be most needed, but I found that once I got out there, there was also a need for people to donate their time elsewhere that didn't invite assault from the authorities. I volunteered my time at the donations tent, sorting clothes and separating what would not be usable during the upcoming harsh winter. If you plan on bringing supplies like gear, clothes, or bedding, please be sure that they are weatherproof and can withstand subzero temperatures. And be sure that all monetary donations go directly to www.ocetisakowincamp.org.

What 180's do you wish for our country?
This is such a controversial subject - I'm hesitant to cross into political territory. We're definitely in a dark time as a country, but I'm a firm believer that it's a darkness before the inevitable dawn. I am most inclined to refer people to an article written recently by Charles Eisenstein (author of Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible) that articulates my feelings on the subject better than I can, and I highly recommend that it be read and shared far and wide: http://charleseisenstein.net/hategriefandanewstory/

You've had many life-changing and affirming experiences from Standing Rock to backpacking solo through Europe to leading a camp at Burning Man. Based on what you've learned about yourself through these experiences, is therefore something you'd share with a younger version of yourself? What would you share and how old is the younger you?
The younger me is 15. She lacks confidence and feels anything but powerful. She wants so desperately to feel loved, and to have the respect of her peers. I would urge her not to value the opinions of others above her own, because letting that go is quite possibly the most liberating experience she'll ever have (that includes letting go of other people's fears on her behalf). The seeking of love and admiration from another will never fulfill the imaginary void created by a lack of self-love. For the longest time, I misunderstood self-love to be self-pampering, and just couldn't understand why that would be so important. I finally came to realize that self-love is far simpler than I'd ever expected it to be - it just means not doing anything that doesn't feel good or right for me (and I actually just had this epiphany weeks ago!). And lastly, I want her to know that pushing herself outside of her comfort zone is the most thrilling, enlightening, and enlivening experience, every single time she attempts it. I'd like to think that I would've started living out my wildest dreams much sooner had I known that!