By Kimberlee Medicine Horn Jackson
Editor’s Note: Sunday, April 30 is Native American Ministries Sunday in The United Methodist Church. Your generous contributions to the special offering on that day support, equip, and empower. Funds given by East Ohio Conference congregations to previous Native American Ministries Sunday offerings sponsored a group of Native women from Ohio for a one-week trip to Standing Rock.
Kimberlee Medicine Horn Jackson, MFA, MA, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of English at Kent State University and a member of the Yankton Sioux tribe, shares her accounts and photos of that trip.
Mni Wiconi: mni translates from Lakota to English as the word water and wiconi translates from Lakota to English as the word life. This explains the term “Water is life,” a simple yet powerful mantra water protectors use to stand against big oil to help protect drinking water for 17 million people when the Dakota Access Pipeline malfunctions.
The question is not if the pipeline breaks but when. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) will be drilled under the Missouri river: the only drinking water supply for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota. Most people reading this will heave a sigh of relief and think it does not apply to them, and feel unconcerned but the bigger picture. When one considers how many pipelines crisscross our United States and the number of them that fail, oil shows no partiality to any of the living things in the areas where it leaks into the soil or water.
In April 2016, I learned about the DAPL, and that the initial planned route went through Bismarck, North Dakota. Once the officials of Bismarck realized the catastrophic results of water contamination and found the consequences unacceptable, the pipeline was re-routed to less than a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
A year ago, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard posted a video where she gave a call-to-action to her people and all others interested in saving the water to stand with her in solidarity to fight the progress of DAPL. Allard is a Lakota historian and activist who founded the first resistance camp of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Sacred Stones, which is on Allard's private property. She informed the viewer how the creation of the pipeline would desecrate burial grounds of the Sioux Nation and disturb places where artifacts exist. There was undeniable despair in her voice. The youth had also been active in raising awareness for this threat-to-life and were concerned how this would affect future generations.
Each day I checked my newsfeed and witnessed as the Sacred Stone camp, a place of prayer, grew. Then the Oceti Sakowin camp formed near the Sacred Stone camp and this was the first time since the Battle of Greasy Grass in 1876 (aka Little Big Horn, or Custer’s Last Stand) that representatives from all the bands of the Great Sioux Nation gathered.
Oceti Sakowin means the Seven Council Fires and includes the Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota Sioux and the bands that comprise them. Something of great significance was happening. History was unfolding, and I felt a strong pull to be there. It was a spiritual draw I could hardly ignore. It kept at me and I did not know then how I could get there or how long I could stay but I clearly felt my people were calling for me to join them and the allies to stand together in unity and prayer.
I remember with clarity the first few actions the water protectors did as I watched the live-feed on social media. They were unarmed. Some of the direct actions were simply standing at a certain place and praying and singing songs passed down by the ancestors. I felt deep respect for my people. Then one day I saw the DAPL police oppose the water protectors with intimidation tactics and I did not understand the push back but I felt the sickening fear as I watched unarmed women, some of them children and grandmothers, flee. All the while, the live-feed was going, and always, whoever was documenting, said, “The whole world is watching,” while attempting to reason with the aggressors. Something was dreadfully wrong.
Throughout history, white and Native relationships have ranged from dysfunctional to genocidal with the white race acting as the oppressor and the Native people engaging in self-preservation to survive the countless attempts of removal, but we are still here!
All the attempts to disconnect us from our connection to Creator have failed to varying degrees. Standing Rock was proof that we are still here, and that we can unify by standing together armed only with our prayers to bring awareness to the environmental injustices humans have committed against the only planet earth we have. In truth, this is a spiritual battle we fight against powers and principalities and not flesh and blood although the flesh and blood of the water protectors were at stake, as it is for anyone who stands in the front lines against big oil/big business.
We arrived at the Oceti Sakowincamp in mid-October before the situation became utterly brutal. I had my fears and almost cancelled the trip, largely because of the unknown. I knew the authorities were escalating their abuse of power and that they had used propaganda against Native American to arouse fear of us within the local community and were successful. And yet, there was undeniable proof the water protectors remained armed only with prayer.
I was not the first one to think back to Wounded Knee of 1890 and desperately pray a massacre would not be the culmination of the stand against those who disrespect the earth and dwell from a place of greed and disregard of Native people. The government has always feared our prayers and after the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 made our religious practices illegal. It wasn’t until the Freedom of Religion Act of 1978 that we regained the rights to practice our traditional ways. In fact, it wasn’t until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 that all Native Americans born within the United States were considered citizens.
The wind was powerful the day we arrived and I feared getting blown off my feet! We stopped at the front gate of the Oceti Sakowincamp and went through security. They were present to keep infiltrators and other bad-hearted people away. We had to state our business, which was to donate some goods, to work, and in my case, to document what was happening. There were two long lines of vibrant colored flags whipping in the wind that were brought by tribes around the world who stood with us.
The camp was well organized. The husband-and-wife team who came with us set out to find a tent in which to camp so they could help in the kitchen or to cut firewood, whatever was needed. My friend and I went up a steep rise to the media tent for press passes, otherwise we did not have permission to photograph or record anything. I said honestly that I was documenting events to take back to my work as an adjunct professor with Kent State University. My friend simply cited personal use of any photographs. The interview process for me was rather lengthy and the interviewer wanted to know exactly how I was going to use the material.
While I was waiting for the media interview, I talked with Lyla June, a woman whose videos I had seen on Facebook. She was a graduate/PhD student and elegantly articulate in her stance on the power of prayer and peace. She reminded me that the bigger picture of protecting and defending the land differed from microcosm of the camp. Both were important to the story but to focus on just one or the other would not do the movement justice.
Once our husband-and-wife team was settled, we explored the camp. There was a school for children to attend, there was a medical tent and a wellness tent, there were several working kitchens, there was a mountain of donated clothing, camping equipment, hats, and gloves. There was a Two-Spirit camp for the LBGQ+ community. There was a tent for instruction for any direct-action events to educate the water protectors how to stay together and how to remain unruffled among the authorities who wanted to rile and produce violent reactions from the protectors. The camp was inclusive and supported people in the way they saw fit to contribute to the cause. There was a sacred fire close to the entrance of the camp that burned night and day, the wood smoke flavored the air and this was where speeches were made or where, through ceremony, the various Nations arrived dressed in regalia, sang their songs and were welcomed into the camp. While we were there the Apache nation arrived. It was a place of peace.
What struck me the most was the feeling of the land bathed in prayer, thick with prayer. Some might call it anointed or filled with the Holy Spirit and it extended as far as the eye could see. In general, I believe we severely limit God in our corporate prayer housed within our walled churches. We trust God to show up but then we reduce His power somehow. What I saw was multicultural prayer enacted in a good way. I think in mainstream society where our denominations remain separate we severely limit the power of God as if we will be contaminated somehow and taint the Spirit of God if other beliefs exist in the same space. Rather than trust that God created this diversity we tend to segregate those who do not agree with our statement of faith as an act of self-preservation. Are we mistaken?
Everyone I met at the Oceti Sakowin camp was kind and respectful and thanked us for coming to stand with them. They assumed the best of us. What if Christian churches did that? Some people I encountered felt such a strong pull to stand in unity with the water protectors that they sold their homes.
My friend and I stayed at the Prairie Knights Casino/hotel where some people from the camps stayed. I am always happy and more comfortable with my own people around me than at home where I am isolated from Native presence. While I was enjoying a hot meal at the hotel, I struck up a conversation with A. Bone Martinez and he told me about the sentencing the next day at the Morton County courthouse for Amy Goodman, journalist for Democracy Now! Ms. Goodman had documented when the authorities/law enforcement unleashed attack dogs on the water protectors. She was later arrested for her coverage of the despicable incident. The DAPL security targeted journalists and arrested them. I discovered how tenuous our hold on freedom of press and freedom of speech is and it horrified me.
The next morning, we headed out for Mandan and passed through the checkpoint manned by the National Guard and they asked us what our business was for heading into Mandan. The checkpoint was half an hours’ drive from the camp. There were armored military vehicles parked in the field. We arrived at the courthouse early and there were only about 30 people gathered. We went inside to find out where the hearing was and had to have our personal items scanned to gain entry. It is of interest to note my laptop quit working while I was there and was never recovered.
Since we were three hours early we walked around Mandan for a coffee shop. As we returned to the courthouse, I snapped a photo of an armored vehicle situated between two buildings around the corner from the courthouse, as if in preparation. Several different media were now present, including Myron Dewey of Digital Smoke Signals and LaDonna Brave Bull was there, too. A group of about 50 people holding posters and signs gathered on a small plot of grass in front of a church. Some had their faces completely covered to avoid any recognition. A Lakota elder was singing a prayer and honor song for Amy Goodman and the demonstration began after. We were on one side of the blockaded street facing about a dozen Morton County Sheriff deputies who were dressed in riot gear and holding weapons of some kind.
The demonstration went on for about 20 minutes: “Mni Wiconi-Water is life!” Above us, in constant surveillance, was a low-flying aircraft droning in circles in the heavy clouded sky. Then the sheriff started with the megaphone, “Anyone who steps off the grass will be arrested! Anyone who steps on to the street will be arrested!” I was briefly afraid and unsure of the instructions I needed to follow to avoid arrest. Really, the last place I wanted to be was on the front lines in any capacity and although this was a peaceful demonstration, it was viewed negatively by the local law enforcement. The armored vehicle lumbered by to intimidate us. I saw some people praying. Not long after, Amy Goodman and her team of lawyers came out and announced all charges were dropped and we celebrated the victory but the story was far from over.
In the weeks and months that followed, I knew I had profoundly changed for the short time I stood with my people. I watched in dread and despair as I witnessed the violation of human rights, civil rights, and religious freedom escalate against the unarmed water protectors and wondered why mainstream media was eerily missing. I saw how my people were dismissed and disregarded as humans and my heart fell to the ground in anguish. I felt depressed as I saw and heard testimony of the water protectors like Dallas Goldtooth who said, “This is triggering our historical trauma.”
I learned long ago how to pray for my enemies and saw this enacted time and again each time the water protectors stood in the front lines. I heard of how a few hired mercenaries had to walk away from their job, knowing in their heart it wasn’t right and that no amount of money could justify the brutality and abuse of concussion bullets, mace, tear gas, Tasers, water cannons used at sub-zero temperatures and other forces of intimidation. After one direct action, water protectors were marked on their forearms with a number and some were held in dog kennels until they were processed in various locations with trumped up charges and inflated bond. I stood up in my church and gave updates and asked for people to stand in prayer for the safety of the water protectors and defenders. I updated my students in the classroom. I had conversations with my colleagues who were curious but had no reliable news source except me.
In February of 2017, the Army Corps of Engineers evacuated all the camps and they no longer exist the way they once did. However, each water protector takes with him the lessons learned to their homes and has a responsibility to continue the fight. The evacuations of the camps are not viewed as defeat but rather a need to mobilize the cause for all living things. The fight also has moved into the courtrooms. Reports come daily that the charges against the water protectors are dropped.
We need each other. No one can fight a complex battle alone and one that has been going on for so long. For each of us alone, and all of us together, the fight for clean water is for our survival of not only humans, but for all life. The Oceti Sakowinbelieves that all life is sacred and we are all related. We are concerned that others, like big oil companies have no regard for this sacred land. When the focus is on money, it is removed from people. We have little understanding how people can take and take everything from the earth, more than is necessary and leave her suffering with deep wounds.
The earth is alive because Creator has made it so. In Genesis, God instructs man to have dominion over all the living things but part of the definition of dominion also includes using control in the form of restraint. How do we, in mainstream society, turn back to those original instructions?
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