by Victoria Upton • photography by Two Eagles Marcus and Avery Leigh
Even though we may not understand why or how things will work out, we may be driven to follow a calling. It can’t be ignored or explained. It reached deep into our soul and impacts us with a great sense of peace and belonging that lasts forever.
The buzzing of the tattoo device was barely audible over the sound of the generator, the helicopter flying low overhead, and the conversation taking place.
Nancy Gallardo always knew she wanted a tattoo.
“I never could decide what the tattoo would be,” she said. “I wanted it to have meaning. I imagined it being the El Gallo Loteria Card, the rooster from Mexican bingo, in memory of my sister Elaine who was affectionately nicknamed El Gallo by our grandparents, because she was an early-riser.”
Far from her biological family, Gallardo was catching a ride back home with a fellow Michigander, Jessica Foster. Saying goodbye to those she had developed a kinship with at the Standing Rock reservation, where she served as a Water Protector during the NoDAPL protests in North Dakota, was heart-wrenching.
Another blizzard raged through the Standing Rock campsites just days before Gallardo planned to return to Grand Rapids. The weight of the snow had crushed their pathway into an impossibly narrow passage. During the last evening, a loud clap of thunder disrupted the constant flapping of the tent. The Thunderbird had spoken. On the morning of their departure, they dug their way out to discover welcoming sunshine and open roads.
The pair finished packing and made one last trip down to the Cannonball River during the mid-morning to lay some tobacco down, pray and say goodbyes. Just before getting in the car to leave, Gallardo hugged Enila Nidrars, a tattoo artist from Europe. Admiring Nidrars’ tattoo, Gallardo admitted she had just one misgiving: She regretted not getting a Standing Rock tattoo. Nidrars simply replied, “I have time.”
The Standing Rock tattoo design created by Stephanie Big Eagle, a descendant of the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) and a NoDAPL movement participant, is filled with symbolism.
“Thunderbird represents Great Spirit, who watches over and guides all of the protectors at Standing Rock,” Big Eagle explained. “Together, the Thunderbird, the tipi and the river of life embody the new path of the NoDAPL Movement: one of unity, peace, transformation and especially the power of the spiritual path over one of greed, abuse and brutality.”
Gallardo and Foster entered a spacious army tent where seven others gathered in various states of morning activity. Nidrars explained the tattoo process while she prepared her equipment and kicked on a generator to power her machine. The helicopter flying low over the tents was a red-flag that something was amiss; anxiety was high.
“We started sharing stories of our experiences and how we got here and our Calls To Action,” Gallardo recalled. “Naming the different things we experienced. We discussed our wounds, and I told them I had been in the hospital. To be attacked without compassion was especially distressing. We were simply protesting. We were within our first amendment rights, and to be physically assaulted by our own country seemed unfathomable.”
Another woman in the tent, Nancy Shomin (known as the other Nancy) had been on many Calls to Action, arrested and released by Morton County police. She told of first-hand accounts of Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) security siccing dogs on unarmed protesters, of women who were arrested, of being subjected to a full-body cavity search and held in a dog kennel with her wrists bound so tightly with zip-ties it felt as if her circulation was being cut off.
Nidrars informed Gallardo that she would need to go over the tattoo a couple of times, maybe three. The first round wasn’t so bad, acknowledged Gallardo.
“My first Call to Action while at Standing Rock (was at) Mandan, at a construction site where DAPL kept their digging equipment,” Gallardo divulged. “We went to pray at the entrance. Several people (were) interrogated by a construction (worker), (who drove) through (the group) firing gunshots in the air. I prayed really hard that day.”
“For my second Call to Action, we went to Bismarck to the courthouse and then to the jail,” she continued. “We wanted to find out what had happened to our friends who have been arrested earlier. I met Reba Loeb, a 93-year-old protester. She reminded me that activism is a life-long commitment.”
Gallardo requested a few modifications to her tattoo design: a pink heart to affirm her alliance with the LGBT community, more blue pigment along the waves, as water has always been a source of healing for her.
“I knew pain would be involved,” Gallardo recounted. “I knew it would hurt and it did. I figured it was the norm.”
A man in the tent, Dennis, spoke about the pain in his arm. He had been hit by a rubber bullet and thought his arm might be broken but was not comfortable going to the hospital in Bismarck. He asked Gallardo if she had ever been tear-gassed.
“Yes,” she replied.
Gallardo had been hit in the chest with a teargas bag. Stunned and not knowing exactly what had hit her, she reached down to pick it up, and it exploded in her face. On the same evening, she was blasted with a water cannon. A photo of the incident was posted on Rollingstone.com.
“It was like the 4th of July, but the blasts were directed at people instead of up in the air,” she said. “We were there to pray and were told to always be in prayer. We had nothing to protect ourselves with. We ended up using ‘Tupperware shields’ for protection, and I found my plastic lid on the ground, after someone else discarded it. The only thing the shield did was bang against my head with the force of the water cannon.”
She goes on to describe a man running over and holding up a tarp to try to protect her. A medic tried to help warm her and poured the water out of her boots. The bitter cold fell to sub-zero temperatures, and her jacket was frozen solid on her body.
Suddenly the tattoo machine stopped. “We need more gas for the generator,” Nidrars announced. After finding gasoline and getting the generator started again, the tattooing and conversation proceeded. The pain was becoming more intense as the third layer of ink was applied to the tattoo.
“I was sick and couldn’t breathe,” Gallardo continued. “I knew I was in trouble. I had to go back to Grand Rapids. Thanks to Sophie Bouwsma, I was home at 2:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving.”
Gallardo’s friend, Ted Jauw insisted she seek medical treatment. She was suffering from pneumonia, bronchial spasms and a nose infection and checked into the hospital for four days.
After being released, she spent the next four hours looking for a lift back to Standing Rock before finding a ride with a group of Michigan veterans.
“I was grateful and told them they brought tears to my eyes. They said, ‘Wipe ‘em; you’re coming with us.’”
Gallardo returned to the Michigan Tent at Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock with everything she could carry: new boots, warm clothing, food, a tent and a backpack complete with a solar panel. The historic gathering of tribes, allies and people from all walks of life standing in solidarity to halt the Pipeline had grown to thousands.
In the weeks that followed, Gallardo spent her days cooking for the water protectors, security guards, medics and construction crew. During Christmas, they made gifts to share, no-bake cookies and a spaghetti and meatball dinner.
“We comforted each other and embraced the family that we became to each other,” Gallardo expressed. “We felt connected—together, like family. We were (protesting) because it was the right thing to do. When I heard shouts of ‘Water is Life’ in all different languages, I felt unity with the world.”
As Gallardo’s Standing Rock tattoo was finished, Internet service suddenly became available, and there was a Call to Action. She graciously thanked Elaine, then walked across the prairie in waist deep snow to Turtle Island, a sacred site where people were gathering for the first time since before the snow fall.
“I made it across the iced-over river to the base of Turtle Island,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Wow… just to be able to stand there…and with my tattoo, I felt a sense of contentment.”
For the very first time, Gallardo embraced being called “an elder” as she accepted a ride back to camp rather than drudge through the deep snow drifts.
“When I look at it (my Standing Rock tattoo) I think of love, of commitment and of friendship. I will forever be a water protector.”
Gallardo is a Water Protector, a life-long activist and serial volunteer. Her smoky voice can be heard on WYCE, where she is a volunteer programmer. You may have had her patiently guide you during the Heritage Hill Tour of Homes or seen her cleverly crafted props in local theater. In June, she’ll be pitching in at Festival of the Art and the Ebony Road Player’s Loving Day celebration.
As of February, Oceti Sakowin camp was cleared of all protest activity as ordered. The Water Protector efforts have grown from Standing Rock to multiple camps, reservations and community collaborations throughout the country. The term “Water Protectors” is being widely adopted by water conservation advocates.
Not yet fully operational, the Dakota Access Pipeline has experienced several spills as of May 2017. Legal decisions on the status of permits are still pending.