Words Unglued

The following is is a guest post by Skylar Henry. It was created as part of the COP23 SustainUs Delegation creative challenge.  Please see the end of the submission for his bio.
Poster PictureThis is a photo of six SustainUs members at the 2017 Native Voices Rising march in Washington, D.C. I provided the materials for these posters which I was able to source from the Arizona State University’s American Indian Student Support Services at the West Campus. My friend, Remy Franklin, is holding the awesome poster I created for the event. It reads, “We are not protesters. We are messengers.”

Hello, my name is Skylar Henry and I’m from Cedar Ridge on the Navajo Reservation.  I would consider myself an artist because the tribe I’m enrolled in has a rich culture and creative, artistic people. Not only do I recognize the creative culture of the Navajo Nation, but I am also recognizing that of the other tribes, both federally and non-federally recognized. This is because, collectively put, our cultures encompass the artistic values of our customs and traditions, and, with that, our point of view.

Climate justice is directly affects the lives and cultures of all of our nations.  In drawing on my perspective as an American Indian witnessing the direct impact of climate justice in my community, I chose to contribute with a poster to the 2017 Native Voices Rising march in Washington, DC. My piece incorporates a peaceful message emphasized by the soft background; however, the font also makes a bold statement.

Although I, sadly, was not in the picture, or at the march, I was and continue to be with those pictured in spirit and through my creation, the poster itself. If given another chance to be part of the cause, and possibly access to the resources to get there, I would be more than happy to show up in more than just spirit. As a student, I could allocate my time and notify my professors what I am doing and how it is important to my identity so that I would never miss this opportunity again.

My poster appears simple on the outside, but the story behind it and the energy put into it are far more complex. I was limited on resources – both material and time – but was determined to contribute my piece to the movement. The colors I had to work with were just as limited, but I made the most of what was available to me. With creative, artistic beauty and with a purpose, one is able to create any media that I would call a success.

Once completed and in reflecting on the process of creating my media, I soon realized the true effect my piece could have. To me, the colors of the font are the themes of America and of patriotism, reflecting on our Code Talkers’ view of how and why we must defend this land. That is one underlying fact in the appearance.  The overlying fact – much less abstract to the viewer – is what the statement on the poster has to say.

One of the most appealing and noticeable parts of the poster is its background. With my limited resources, I combined the colors available to me in the best way I could that would still transmit my message. I believe this palette sets the peaceful tone and feeling which was the goal of my work and the goal of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Not only is that, but the palette I chose also eye-catching to the audience and you can tell by yourself. The audience can relate to the colors and capture a tone of what they are feeling from the colors. Combined with the written statement, this poster has an effect as a whole that transmits the message the heart, mind, body, and soul.

I designed my poster so that certain keywords are of a different color, highlighting the important pieces of my short and sweet messaging. The word “protestors” may have a negative connotation, so I thought the color red would be an ideal symbolism for CAUTION. The word “messengers,” however, is in white, promoting a more peaceful tone and feeling. I added blue as well to the poster as it carries a more relaxed ambiance and meaning. The juxtaposed expressions of “we are” and “we are not”, written in this blue, illustrate the steady path to the truth and transitions to the main keywords and ideas embodied by the message.

In addition, I believe that messengers are a once-in-a-lifetime deal. To some, Jesus is a messenger.  To Navajos, it might be the coyote crossing their path. Messengers appear in our lives and may vanish as quickly as a shooting star, but their message can still be eternal. Messengers are here for us – all of us – and that which they have to say and do is what we should listen to and be concerned about. Messengers should be taken seriously, not lightly, as they may be transmitting knowledge and a concept greater than our mortal selves.

Image may contain: one or more people, snow, outdoor and natureSkylar Henry (Navajo/Paiute/Zuni) is a Junior at Arizona State University and an upcoming artist.  He draws on his heritage as inspiration and frequently incorporates artistic interpretation into his interdisciplinary Business and Communications studies.  Having grown up in the Western Agency of the Navajo Nation, which is near the Grand Canyon, he is familiar with the intersectionality of natural resources, culture, and climate justice.  In December 2016, he was fortunate enough to visit to Standing Rock and deliver artwork at the sacred campfire.

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Stand With Standing Rock – Not On It

Originally published on the SustainUs Blog here: http://sustainus.org/2016/10/stand-with-standing-rock-not-on-it/

The sun was hot, and the pavement on Highway 1806 was even hotter. The guests at Sacred Stone Camp had just finished a communal lunch. They began falling into line behind the same banners that had led this march every day, a march up the highway to pray for the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction to halt. Just behind the banners, a cluster of Havasupai men and women gathered in rhythmic songs in their native tongue. The men sweated in colorful ribbon shirts, beating handheld drums. The women swayed to the beat in their tiered skirts and beaded shawls. For a half an hour, they sang like this, only briefly stopping when one of the women collapsed to the pavement in the heat. Today was their time to spiritually lead the protectors at Standing Rock. These Havasupai had come clear from the southwestern deserts for this purpose. No heat spell would deter them, and certainly no oil company was going to threaten a group of faraway strangers who had been subjected to the same governmental policies and historical trauma.
When I protested alongside Standing Rock and other allies on September 3rd, the vision was clear: peacefully protect. The camp never exacerbated hate. Even as Lakota churches (prayer rings, burials, and cairns) were being destroyed by the pipeline company, the front lines offered up their forgiveness for the workers’ ignorance. Each day centered around prayer and song, of renewing our connection. Daily ceremony is something I have become accustomed to on the Navajo Nation, where medicine men can be seen leaving their hogans to greet the sunrise with corn pollen. This kind of ceremony is a practice used to maintain balance that I find separates the indigenous from the spiritually landless who have lost their indigenous roots.
The #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock is a powerful one because of the prayer that maintains its focus and the cultural diversity that is revered. These are important qualities that are quickly lost in predominantly non-indigenous circles. Since the beginning of contact, certain language has been used to degrade and dehumanize indigenous peoples on Turtle Island. Outdated stereotypes constitute the majority of indigenous representation in mainstream media. Expensive football tickets are sold in the country’s capital for a team named after a racial slur. Attitudes that justify calling an indigenous woman “squaw” contribute to the highest rates of rape in a single race. Indigenous people also have the highest rates of youth suicide and police violence per capita, and all of these statistics can be attributed to stereotypes and misrepresentation. Why is this important to #NoDAPL? This misrepresentation leads to media censorship and the appropriation of the movement.

Media Censorship
If we think about censorship and #NoDAPL, we might picture corporate censorship that protects the energy company from a negative light. This type of censorship has undoubtedly occurred in mainstream media, highlighting one paradox that plagues tribal nations: that an energy company can have a more sovereign representation in the media than an actual sovereign entity. While Energy Transfer receives journalistic immunity, Standing Rock is subject to slanderous quotes by the authoritative voice of a Sheriff who was not present and of white community members who view the protest as an inconvenience to their privileged lives. The LA Times published elements of Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier’s formal statement regarding the event in which he states, “Any suggestion that today’s event was a peaceful protest, is false…Individuals crossed onto private property and accosted private security officers with wooden posts and flag poles”. (Kirchmeier was not present at the site, therefore he reported information given by Energy Transfer personnel.) The New York Times quoted one resident asking, “You get 2,000, 3,000 Natives together – is it safe?”. It’s unbelievable that such a quotation was published. (You also get several thousand non-Native people gathered at sports games. Is that safe?) It reflects the mentality of the community around Standing Rock.
However, I would argue that the censorship of indigenous peoples runs much deeper than this kind of surface censorship. There is also censorship through the representation of both the movement and Standing Rock as a nation. How many articles have been published that take quotes strictly from Sherif Kirchmeier or Energy Transfer employees? The media’s decision to rarely interview the hundreds of tribal national presidents and leaders who have voyaged to Cannon Ball demonstrates either the media doesn’t believe – or doesn’t believe their readers believe – that these indigenous peoples are as important as non-indigenous representatives of a corporation or local law enforcement. Instead, it takes celebrities like Shailene Woodley and Leonardo DiCaprio to capture America’s respect for #NoDAPL. Woodley represented the cause early, joining the Standing Rock youth on their run to Washington, D.C. In July, she posted an Instagram picture from the Capitol with the text, “The youth of the Standing Rock Reservation ran 1,800 miles from North Dakota to Washington, D.C. to protect their water from the Dakota Access Pipeline that will be built on their reservations.” She then included a link to the #NoDAPL petition in her bio.
An additional concern is how mainstream representation of the Dakota Access Pipeline dispute fails to capture the spirit of the movement. This is not some battle cry for Mother Earth or even some radical environmental statement. This movement is centered around sovereignty. Just like our natural resources, if our sovereignty is compromised then so is everything else in our lives. What is on the line? Our freedom of expression, of religion, of access to culture. The media censors the #NoDAPL movement by failing to elaborate on this core issue. This absence of representation instead perpetuates the ignorance many non-indigenous communities have around the political status and alleged freedom of tribal nations, and how many hundreds of them exist in America alone.
Finally, just as language can be used to dehumanize a group of people through racially-charged vocabulary, it can also be used to make one race of people’s culture seem inferior, pushing it to the fringe of society. As Simon Moya-Smith points out, BuzzFeed’s use of quotations around the destruction of Lakota “sacred sites” insinuates a religious inferiority. Would we publish that terrorists bombed a Catholic “church”? It’s the same story, just a different race.

Appropriating #NoDAPL
While mainstream media seems vetted against properly representing Standing Rock and its efforts, thousands of non-indigenous people have gathered in Cannon Ball and at marches in cities to stand in solidarity with the tribe. Less than a week after Energy Transfer’s hired security guards attacked unarmed people and intentionally destroyed sites protected by NAGPRA to advance their motives, our SustainUS delegation held its retreat at Canticle Farms in Oakland, California. The day I arrived to Oakland, San Francisco held its solidarity march for Standing Rock. I joined the march and learned something I hadn’t realized before: Movements – and not just culture – can be appropriated, and the consequences are uncannily destructive.
It was uplifting to see so many people gathered in support of a cause hundreds of miles away; however, it was discouraging to see stereotypes, generalizations, cultural appropriation, and misrepresentation within the movement itself. Non-natives were smudging, beating drums, and seemingly trying to imitate the prayer at Standing Rock. Just like the generalizing comments I read on article links, folks would say things that imply all Natives are peace-loving and earth-worshipping. This generalization is not accurate, and it buries the environmental issues we have in our tribal communities such as dumping and limited access to recycling services under a race-based stereotype.
Furthermore, as the protesters gathered on September 8th in downtown San Francisco to draw attention to the movement, they took what the movement stood for and appropriated it. Instead of calling for the defense of Lakota sovereignty, protesters were suddenly blocking entire intersections, screaming up at the CitiBank building, and accusing the San Francisco Police Department of defending the bank’s entrance. This caused a huge divide in protesters as Native citizens cried: “This is a peaceful demonstration of solidarity. This does not embody the sentiments at Sacred Stone Camp. Stop making this about you!”

It is so crucial to remember the #NoDAPL fight is to protect tribal sovereignty, not to protest anything else. It’s this sovereignty that is undermined by Native mascots, media censorship, and non-tribal entities’ use of eminent domain on treaty lands. For a country that has supposedly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in the last year, the United State’s complacency towards Energy Transfer’s blatant disrespect for tribal sovereignty should be more alarming than ever. Chariman David Arcahmbault II has recently taken this issue to the United Nations to receive international support. Now it’s our delegation’s turn to make sure #NoDAPL is properly represented in person, spirit, and media as we bring this issue of tribal sovereignty and corporate power to COP22.

SustainUs COP22 Delegation

Our delegation has begun booking flights.  At our retreat in California this last week, we filmed a video for our fundraiser:

 

<a class=”embedly-card” href=”https://www.generosity.com/volunteer-fundraising/sustainus-cop22-fundraiser–2″>SustainUS COP22 Fundraiser</a>
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https://www.generosity.com/volunteer-fundraising/sustainus-cop22-fundraiser–2

 

Donate, share, and communicate!  We are looking to bring issues to COP22, including #NoDAPL work.

obligatory COP22 fundraising post.

If you want to learn more about my work and COP22, please check out the link to our GoFundMe fundraiser:

GoFundMe – COP22

I included a summary there.  Please consider supporting us through that link.  Also, please share the fundraiser on social media or even by email to people you know.

If anyone prefers making a direct donation, such as to our delegation at SustainUs, please email me for details at kayla.devault@sustainus.org – thanks!