“I’ll always remember the first structure I built for a grandma... She was crying, she was happy. We put in a stove for her. To feel that hug, to feel that emotion she had… that feeling was a bigger payback than any check I ever received.”
Theron Begay is a leader of the rarest kind — courageous, humble, with an unwavering desire to serve the people and stay positive and prayerful, no matter the challenges he faces. I met him just hours after arriving at Oceti Sakowin Camp when I was looking for a gap in “the world’s largest prayer circle” formed by the thousands who’d arrived on Dec. 4.
Theron is a bullfighter and part owner in a rodeo company from the tiny town of Sheep Springs, N.M. who had turned down a job with DAPL in North Dakota in 2015, because it was “too cold.” He poked fun at himself, saying his visit to Standing Rock last November was supposed to be a two-day trip for a “Standing Rock Facebook selfie.”
Instead it became a life-changing experience where he found himself, his true family, and his calling as a community leader, helping to build the physical and social infrastructure of an indigenous ecovillage of prayerful resistance.
That first day in the prayer circle, I’d linked arms with his friend, a bright-eyed woman named Kei Kurimoto who, as it turned out, had set up the first kitchens at Oceti. I asked her if she’d consider an interview.
She smiled and nudged Theron.
“You should interview him,” she said. “He has an amazing story!” Theron rolled his eyes, clearly not relishing the attention. Kei nudged him on, saying we should meet in Southwest Camp in the big Hogan Theron had just overseen construction on. Before we could get there, a shout rang out from the Central Fire, where the big news had just come in that the Army Corps had denied the lease to drill.
The following night, we found ourselves in the Hogan at the heart of Southwest Camp. Like hundreds of others, our car was snowed in, and Theron had offered for us to stay. We quickly realized how fortunate we were, sharing the space with the Navajo Runners and a group of Navajo vets, with the kitchen serving delicious mutton stew with green chile and fry bread.
Inside it was cozy and warm while the blizzard howled outside. Theron was part of the Oceti leadership team, making sure the thousands who had arrived at the camp were provided food and shelter, and that a multitude of vehicles getting stranded on the side of the road were pulled out. I joined one of three successful search-and-rescue teams that found two elderly vets and a suicidal 70 year old woman and brought them to the medic’s tent.
Theron was constantly making jokes, poking fun, and keeping the attitude light, though I could only imagine the pressure he was under. Considering the number of unprepared people in the camp, the severity of weather conditions and everything else, it was a miracle they were able to keep everyone alive.
Though he’d only been at camp for three weeks when we met, Theron had led winterization efforts on 100 structures and overseen construction of 200—hogans, yurts, tarpees (tipi-type structures made with tarps) for the Water Protectors who planned to overwinter there.
In mid-January, we were horrified to learn that while in Bismarck on a supply run, Theron had been assaulted by four men and badly injured. Through the weeks to follow, every time we checked in on him he’d tell us to pray for his assailants. Every time we saw his posts on Facebook he’d be thanking Creator for another beautiful day.
IC: What in your life has prepared you for this moment?
Theron: I learned how to survive without running water and electricity because my local government starved my grandparents and kept that privilege of them having running water or electricity. We had to go cut wood, haul wood and water, and we never had electricity. We had to live with the movement of nature, like sunrise, sundown, and the seasons.
And we had to get along with Mother Nature and learn how to live off the land by raising animals and crops and everything so that made me smarter than the white man who went to college. I know how to build homes, I know how to live off the land, and I know how to use natural resources. That’s the reason I’m where I am now.
My grandmother, she was very wise. She was a leader, she was very educated, and she was like a politician, involved in a lot of stuff in the community. So maybe that’s where I get my leadership skill from. I don’t take credit for anything I do; I give credit to the people who help me. I don’t say “I or me,” I say “we, us, ours, let’s do this.” I like to include everyone around me.
IC: What have been the biggest challenges in building a community here?
Theron: Trying to get a census on the people to come forward so I can help them. They’re humble and they don’t want to be asking for assistance. You can’t go door to door and asking how many people are in there. And it’s not just one tribe but people from all over the world.
As I walked around that camp I did an application process and I got to know these families. We went around trying to do winterization, and decided to do major structures. A lot of the people who are at Oceti are homeless people from Standing Rock with their families.
We built them structures. That’s how I know these people. I know how many kids they have, so I went through all of them. I got to know these people so I have a close connection with these families who are in camp because they said, “We’re not going back. We have nothing to go back to because the reservation has nothing to offer us.”
IC: You mentioned that a team of Navajo attorneys helped ensure there was no evacuation on Dec. 5. Can you explain that?
Theron: They passed a rule where we could use out-of-state lawyers, and the Navajo Nation has one hell of a legal team. The mandatory evacuation Dec. 5 was based on harm coming to people because of severe winter conditions. We had to prove we were prepared for winter and the Navajo legal team helped us with that.
The found all kind of loopholes. They told us the porta-potties were going to freeze and we couldn’t use anti-freeze because it would contaminate the ground. We said, we have compost toilets for that. They were talking about people freezing and the food supply going bad, but we had already insulated all the structures and took care of the food supply.
We were ready for winter. We had a fire response team, we had medics, we even have a school, we had basically everything you need; we’re building a town here. As you could see we had search and rescue and everything else. Basically this whole town, this whole camp is becoming green. We’re doing solar energy for everything; it’s going to be a self-sustaining town.
They said there can be no permanent structures. I told them—nothing’s permanent here. Everything is made from recycled material, they’re modular, everything you see here we can take it apart in two hours, we can disassemble, so if we have to evacuate we can get some trucks in here and load it up. We’re nomads, so we used the resources we had to move. That’s how we do it.
That’s the reason the judge didn’t kick anybody out. There are laws about taking winter refuge. You can’t kick anybody out who has a family, who has kids, who has elders. You can’t kick them out in the cold. So basically they shot themselves in the foot, because if they didn’t do that we wouldn’t have been prepared for winter – because that’s when the storm hit.
IC: How has this experience changed you?
Theron: Being here gave me a chance to find myself. I’ve been working all of my life to make money. I had a chance to take a break and take time for myself. I got lost making money. I forgot where I came from and what made me who I am. Being here I learned to meditate, I changed my diet, I lost a lot of weight and I feel better about myself.
A lot of people are in the same situation; they were in a crossroads in their life and coming here was like a healing for them. I’m so glad the veterans have come here. They felt useless in a lot of ways. People praise them and don’t want to tell them to do anything so they sit there and they feel useless at home.
So when they showed up, they didn’t know where to go or who to ask. I said, “You want to go to work? I’ve got carpentry.” They were happy and we fed them and gave them a place to stay, and they said, “What can we do tomorrow?” They like being here.
IC: What’s the most difficult thing about being here?
Theron: The only difficulty I’ve had was going into Bismarck and Mandan. I felt a lot of racism, I was denied service at restaurants, denied staying at hotels, denied to be given help at stores, even though we spent $150 grand in the local stores.
I never experienced that kind of racism before. It’s really bad. We sat down and ordered and the manager said, “You have to take your food to go and wait in the lobby. We don’t want you to eat here.” I was actually cornered in the truck stop by three guys.
We ended up in a fistfight and I got out of there, and I couldn’t wait around to give a report because the cops are against us. They’d probably charge me with assault. They were calling me “wagon burner!” I had nothing to say to them, I just kept to myself and tried to ignore them, but when they got physical I had to defend myself.
IC: How has it felt for you to be playing such a strong role in building this community?
Theron: It’s funny, when I said I wanted to make a little camp for my people I was talking about the Navajo Diné people. Instead I have a global family here. And this became my people and everyone knows me on a first-name basis.
The first structure I built for a grandma that was not Navajo, she was Sisseton. She was crying, she was happy. We put in a stove for her. She gave me tobacco, she gave me a few other things. To feel that hug, to feel that emotion she had, I could feel it was sincere. And that feeling was a bigger payback than any check I ever received.
From that point on I started helping all these people. To these people I wasn’t that guy over there. I wasn’t being pointed at by their lips, or given a nod. Everyone calls me by my first name, they hug me. I get hugs instead of handshakes. That’s my family, that’s what I love, that’s what I used to get from my grandma. The family I never had is the family I have here.
Last night I had a dream about my grandma. She said she was here with us, and that’s the reason the Hogan is like a home. There’s food, there’s kindness, there’s laughter, everything is there. That’s how I grew up. That’s the kind of home I grew up in. That Hogan touched a lot of people, a lot of people came through there.
IC: What are your plans for the future?
Theron: I have had leadership from lots of different tribes approach me. The Navajo president was here and he was proud we were here. He said, it’s good to have an indigenous person in leadership. We’ll see where it goes from here. It’s funny how things change and who knows where I’ll be because I wake up to a different sunrise every day. As long as I get to see another sunrise and see happy faces I’ll do what I can do to be of assistance.
I did the second interview just after Theron had gone in for a surgery to remove three dangerous cysts that had formed at the back of his head as a result of the assault.
In a Facebook message the morning of the surgery Theron asked us,
“Do you believe in miracles?”
He had just been told by his bewildered doctor that though the cysts had shown up during the preoperative visit three days earlier, they had now completely disappeared.
IC: How are you recovering from the assault?
Theron: When I got assaulted, I wasn’t willing to share the pictures on Gofundme, or anything like that.
I had people tell me you need to show what is actually going on in North Dakota, and what we are experiencing. So I did, and I got responses from all over the world, from New Zealand, from England, everywhere messaging me, adding me, sharing my posts and everything else. It was amazing…
I’m glad I didn’t bash the guys who did this to me—it would have put me down to their level. I forgave them and I let the Higher Power deal with them.
I think there’s a reason why this happened to me today, because I kept asking, I kept praying, what did I do wrong that I can correct? Why did this happen to me, why did I have to go through this surgery? I was scared.
Do you believe in miracles? Theron asked us. Yes, yes we do.