Philly restaurateurs to serve Thanksgiving dinner at Standing Rock

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Judy Wicks at home with her dog, Jack. Her plan to provide meals and moral backing to the North Dakota protesters has grown to include celebrities such as Chef Jeremy Stanton and actress Jane Fonda.

People know Judy Wicks as the founder of the popular White Dog Cafe, but she won't be serving Thanksgiving dinner to anyone in Philadelphia this year.

She'll be 1,635 miles west, at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, where hundreds of American Indians are leading a tense protest against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Wicks organized a 50-person brigade to provide a hearty Thanksgiving dinner to demonstrators - given in gratitude, she said, to those who have put themselves on the dangerous front line of a battle over clean water.

The Philadelphia delegation will join with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other volunteers to serve 2,000 people, united under the Lakota words "Wowichunlah Un Wowichunkunpi," which means, "Because we believe them, we are feeding them."

That gesture of thanks and honor became part of a larger, uncertain tableau after Sunday, when police unloaded rubber bullets, tear gas, and water from hoses on protesters in 26-degree cold.

Authorities said officers were hit with rocks as they put down an "ongoing riot" when demonstrators tried to clear a blocked bridge. Native medics said 26 people were taken to hospitals, including a woman whose arm was shattered by a projectile.

"I'm horrified by the assault on unarmed, innocent water protectors," Wicks said by phone as she neared North Dakota. "We go there with humbleness, in service, in our respect for Standing Rock as a native-driven action."

Wicks, 69, initially wasn't sure how the offer of Thanksgiving food would be received. For many American Indians, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, a time to consider the genocide carried out against their peoples.

"Everyone is welcome to be amongst us," former Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Jesse "Jay" Taken Alive said. "We welcome anybody that wants to live with us and learn about us."

What began as a Philadelphia woman's plan to provide meals and moral backing has grown to include chefs and celebrities.

Chef Jeremy Stanton is coming from Massachusetts to cook turkeys over open fires, Ben & Jerry's is sending ice cream, and the actress Jane Fonda will help serve - and contributed five butchered bison and four Mongolian yurts.

South Philly Barbacoa is providing cranberry sauce made from South Jersey berries, and Philadelphia-area school children drew cards for elders at the protest camps, thanking them for protecting the earth.

They called it the Wopila Feast - wopila means "thank you" in Lakota - and hoped to raise $10,000 to feed 500 people. Donations on gofundme.com surpassed $14,000 on Wednesday.

Then, at midweek, the Wopila organizers combined forces with the Standing Rock tribe, the Standing Rock/Fort Yates Community School, and the actress Shailene Woodley, star of Divergent. Her backing enabled the groups to quadruple the number of meals, served to Indians who see the oil pipeline as the destructive black snake foretold in prophesy.

The $3.7 billion pipeline would cross four states in the heart of the country, running beneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers as well as Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock reservation.

Backers say it's an economic imperative, helping to forge American oil independence. Local water protectors - activists dislike the term "protesters" - say a leak in the 1,172-mile line could cause an environmental catastrophe.

"If somebody wants to go there for Thanksgiving - go, do it," said Paulette Moore, a Mohawk nation filmmaker who has twice traveled to Standing Rock. "They need as much attention and relief as possible."

Others are wary, saying they don't want outsiders who might assume insensitive "white savior" roles.

"There's a good way to show up and say, 'We are here in solidarity, and it's not just because of Thanksgiving,' " said Jade Begay, spokesperson for the Indigenous Environmental Network. "There's a huge element of learning taking place at Standing Rock. I encourage people to come if they're willing to be a part of that learning and that relationship-building. If you're planning to come for a day or two, you probably can't be a part of that."

As the bitter North Dakota winter sets in, organizers have sought donations of wool socks, blankets, and hand warmers. For Wicks, providing food made sense. For years she hosted Thanksgiving for Lenape Nation members at her cafe in University City. She sold the restaurant in 2009, and now promotes ways to create a more compassionate and sustainable economy.

Her journey to Standing Rock marks the second time in her life she's missed Thanksgiving with her family - a small sacrifice, she said, compared to what protesters face every day.

"This is an epic struggle," she said. "We want it to be a day we truly give back to Native Americans, for the role they've played in our country, but also for the stand they're taking to defend Mother Earth."

jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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