When Vanessa Bolin’s feet first touched ground at Cannon Ball, North Dakota, she heard a cry go out over a loudspeaker: “If anybody is a medic, we need help!”
Bolin surveyed a dark encampment dotted with campfires, and then sprinted in the direction of the voice. She ran past tepees and tents, gulping the cool prairie air and feeling amazed at all the stars she could see.
Last summer, the protest camps blocking construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline hadn’t yet surfaced in mainstream news. But Bolin arrived as a volunteer medic from Richmond on a 1,700-mile mission to help her fellow Native Americans protect ancestral lands and aquifers.
An elder tribesman was her first patient that night.
Bolin brought her own voice as well — and that was medicine enough. Through traditional song, she helped the thousands gathered to “remain in peaceful protest,” she says. As a Cherokee, she often sang her tribe’s songs. But she also took great inspiration from being an ally of the Standing Rock Sioux, the tribe whose reservation sits in the pipeline’s path.
After seven months away, Bolin has returned to Richmond with a new song of hope. On a recent weekend, she spoke about life as a Native American lady singer, as they’re called. She was preparing to practice with her drum group, Yapatoko.
“Song can heal because it is a story,” says Bolin, who formerly served as a first responder in Richmond. Now committed to a life of activism, she’s bringing a newfound passion to the powwows where she performs.
Many of them consist of hand drums and water drums, which often are referred to as “grandfather.” Lady singers usually stand on the periphery of these drums. And they aren’t asked to participate in adjoining sweat lodge ceremonies, as Bolin says, “if they’re on their moon time.”
But rather than rail against these facts, Bolin says there’s an important musical and spiritual reason for it.
“Women are regarded as very powerful figures in the tribe,” Bolin says. Because men don’t have natural, internal purification cycles like women, tribes offer purification to males through sweat lodges. If a woman on her moon cycle were to do this, as Bolin puts it, would be like clipping a microphone onto an opera singer — unnecessary because it’s unsubtle, as women are already in touch with the renewal process, without intermediaries. Indian women regard these codes as a sign of mutual respect, so that all can reap the healing benefits of the powwow. How’s that for picking up good vibrations?
Not that lady singers are just standing around to provide one long “Kumbayah.” Bolin processes hardcore experiences through her performances. At the North Dakota medical camp called Oceti Sakowin, pronounced Oh-shay-tee Shaw-ko-ween, she treated people with seizures, broken limbs, burns and concussions.
“We started to know what kinds of injuries we’d be treating that day according to the color of the tear gas sprayed by police,” she recalls. The Intercept, co-founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, thought Bolin’s experiences were so harrowing that they quoted her in a police brutality article.
During this time, a Cherokee mourning song was often on Bolin’s lips. But even when armed police ushered out the remaining protesters in late February, Bolin says she left “with a feeling of peace and of work faithfully delivered.”
Creatively expressing these kinds of experiences in other communities will be vital, Bolin says. She’d barely arrived on time for drum practice with Yakatopo recently, because she had driven from Charlottesville, where she met with groups opposed to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. On April 8, Yakatopo will venture to Charlottesville for a day-long powwow celebrating new chapters in Native American relations.
Song and protest haven’t lost their connection, suggests Laney Sullivan, a local musician with Lobo Marino. With support from Richmond’s branch of the No ACP cause, Sullivan started a fundraiser for Bolin, who let go of a lease and a job for her seven-month excursion.
“I met Vanessa at a prayer circle,” Sullivan says. “She is a very strong, passionate spirit that has found her purpose. She’s taking the risk to follow the path that has appeared before her, to be a leader and a spokesperson for this complex social and environmental movement.”
Tall Feathers, a Native American DJ for WRIR-FM 97.3, agrees. In November, after President Barak Obama requested a halt in Dakota Access Pipeline construction, Tall Feathers featured Bolin as a guest. The show was called “Rocking on with Standing Rock” and the host was ruffled up, in a good way.
“The pipeline issues are not just the issues for the indigenous people, these issues affect us all,” Tall Feathers announced. “The music today is in celebration of the order to stop the construction in the Standing Rock area.”
Yet while construction in the Dakotas has moved forward in 2017, Bolin is just getting her pipes warmed up. And she’s reunited with one other local friend: her violin, which couldn’t fit in her packed Fiat during the 2,000-mile journey.
“It was very emotional to leave my violin behind. It was part of my old life, you know? I was playing in a symphony at one time,” Bolin says, letting out a sigh. “I’m ready to play some new tunes now, though. There’s no turning back.”