#NoDAPL – Part 3

My Experience at the Front Lines in Standing Rock

I left Phoenix on the evening of September 1st, driving through a double rainbow that I believed to be Navajo blessings for good travel. I passed through my home in Window Rock and picked up my friend Paul from Denver on the 2nd. We headed through Nebraska and South Dakota, crossing countless traditional territories and Reservation boundaries, weaving across the prairie. We kept driving on through the night until we arrived in Cannon Ball the morning of Saturday, September 3rd. Paul and I come from very separate social communities, yet we had both been exposed to the #NoDAPL fight through some degree of the Native Grapevine. However, we knew the coverage was incredibly limited; so limited, in fact, that mainstream media had failed to truly cover the story at that point in our journey. I was dying to know how many people were actually at the camp.

When we rounded the bend in the road and crossed the Cannonball River on the edge of Reservation land, we were greeted with a great field of tipis, tents, horse trailers, cars, and flags. Flags in medicine wheel colors, flags from the American Indian Movement, and flags from countless sovereign tribal nations, Mexico, and Canada. Upside-down American flags, even an overturned Hawai’ian flag, representing many islands of indigenous peoples struggling for sovereignty against tourism and exploitation. There was the Navajo Nation flag, standing as an equal alongside communities so unrelated and yet so similarly affected by historical trauma and continued oppression. To a non-Native who only knows the stereotypes of Indian peoples, Sacred Stone Campground looks like an Indian encampment. For Natives, it is breathtaking.

As we walked around the camp, I ogled at the diversity present. I observed every moccasin, identifying people’s tribes by their beadwork or shoe style. I stumbled upon Lakota tipis and makeshift sweat lodges, small prayer gatherings held by individual nations, a communal circle surrounding the outdoor kitchen that showcases the diversity of dances, prayers, and song. To think of how this diversity is silenced by the umbrella label “Indian” is heartbreaking, but to see how a shared love for Turtle Island and fellow man brings these Nations together is uplifting. Never in the history of time has a gathering like this happened. Ever.

And Saturday started like any other day. After the camp was fed by the amazing volunteers, using food from incredible stockpiles of donations, people of all ages and backgrounds gathered on Highway 1806 and began marching northward. Some wore traditional clothes, others in everyday jeans. Many had signs. Some sang and maintained a drumbeat. We gathered on the side of the highway, next to concrete Jersey barriers and more flags. We prayed. We smudged. A helicopter kept circling us and vanishing over the hill. Some grew faint in the heat, and our appreciation for water only grew stronger. Then, as we were ready to head back, people from a guard stand just over the knoll from us came shouting, “Over the hill! Over the hill! They’re doing construction, this is your time!”

Just like that, the horses U-turned in the grass berms. The women who had been singing gathered their tiered skirts and picked their songs back up. We walked faster now, with purpose. There was an eagle soaring in the sky; it seemed to chase a plane out of sight. Were these more signs?

When we came to the other side of the hill, there we saw them: several construction men standing around as bulldozers barreled through land. We had a moment of confusion: Why were they digging here? On a Saturday? Miles from where construction had paused days before? Less than 24 hours before, the Standing Rock Tribe had filed an injunction based on countless burials that had been discovered in the direct pathway of the pipeline. (The energy company had claimed everything had been cleared, but no one had consulted the historians from the tribe.) Then we realized: They came here to destroy the graves before the courts could take action against them.

I can’t even describe the feeling of being at the frontline at that time. I was scared, because I didn’t want to get arrested. I was afraid the police would shoot us for no reason other than being Native American. Yet I couldn’t stop my heart from pounding. There was so much adrenaline, so much energy. People began pouring in from behind, hundreds of people on foot with more arriving on horseback and by vehicle. Screaming, singing, praying. Waving signs. Crying. Shouting, “WE FORGIVE YOU! NOW PLEASE STOP!” And when they wouldn’t stop desecrating the hillside unmercifully, we rocked and rocked on the fence. A little boy holding a drum crossed with his mom to face the foreman. Democracy Now kept rolling the film. The fences came down and people surrounded to protect the boy, then to protect the earth.

With tribal flags hoisted high and signs reading “Water is life”, we crossed the fence, chased after bulldozers, and hopped across heaps of broken earth. Some kneeled to the ground to put down tobacco in the wounds. The rest of us ran, ran, ran until we crested another knoll and ran head into a private security force with dogs. Some Crow Creek boys raced bareback on the horses they had brought up from South Dakota and rushed to the frontlines where men and women were falling to their knees. Our opponents were repeatedly pepper spraying us for walking forward. Security dogs spun wildly on leashes, barely controlled by the dog handlers. The horseback squad attempted to distract the dogs, several horses getting bitten in the process. Flag-bearers began using their nations’ symbols in self-defense from the snarling dogs. As people fell to the ground, screaming in pain from the pepper spray in their eyes, the foreshadowing cry could be heard: “Water! Water! We need water! Does anyone have any water they can spare?”

These crews were here illegally. They were intentionally destroying ceremonial places and human remains. What choice did we have? To stand there and let them do it? Or to do exactly what we did and offer forgiveness while begging for them to stop? The oppression has happened for centuries now. When will it finally end? When will Natives finally have accurate depiction in the media?

I want to know why no one asks the Tribal leaders or Tribal police what happened that day. I want to know why they asked a North Dakota Sheriff who never left the side of the highway what happened on the frontlines. He did not come to protect those with rights to their own treaty land from the vicious and uncontrolled dogs, clearly trained to attack us. He did not ensure we had proper medical care when people were bitten by the dogs or pepper sprayed repeatedly in their open eyes. Yet mainstream media paints us as criminals for defending ourselves and each other, our land, our rights, the sacred sites of our allies. Furthermore, they used quotation marks to refer to these burials as “sacred sites”, as if we talk about going to “church” on Christmas or visiting the “graves” at Arlington Cemetery. This erasure of culture and censorship in the media is nothing short of modern day genocide.

 

#NoDAPL – Part 2

Why I Came to Standing Rock

So who am I?

I am a Generation Indigenous Youth Ambassador, a participant of the 1st White House Tribal Youth Gathering, and a resident of the Navajo Nation. I study the Navajo language at Diné College and am earning my Masters of Mechanical Engineering from Arizona State University. Last year, I represented Indigenous Peoples at the United Nation’s 2nd Universal Periodic Review of the United States held in Geneva, Switzerland. This year, I will be traveling with the SustainUs COP22 Delegation to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, a journey that blends beautifully with my goal of one day earning a PhD related to tribal policy, clean energy research, and divesting oil-dependent Reservations. I also serve on the Environmental Protection Agency’s NEJAC/Youth Perspectives on Climate Working Group, with Engineer Without Border’s Nicaraguan Interim Impact Review team, and as a Civil Engineer working with compliance and permitting for the Navajo Nation tribal government. Shí éí Ats’oos Dine’é nishłį́, bilagáana bashishchiin, Béésh Bich’ahii dashicheii, adóó ‘Ats’oos Dine’é dashinalí.

When my article was published in the Navajo Times on August 11, 2016 calling for Navajo tribal leadership to declare solidarity with the people of Standing Rock, I felt like I was putting a lot of energy into something that would never happen. The Navajo Nation is just too heavily invested in oil, so heavily in fact that its Tribal Council was handpicked by the Federal Government in 1923 just to sign oil leases over to non-tribal corporations. I had called many offices in Window Rock, asking if any formal statements had been issued by leadership against a pipeline’s construction, whether on Navajo or not, and every response confirmed the silence that had come from Navajo Nation on these issues. I was fresh with frustration and anger from my Navajo Nation Government class this summer, a class which detailed exactly how the American government has manipulated and controlled the Navajo people for centuries, developing their resources and stealing their funds. (Navajo Nation has won the largest lawsuit of any Indian Nation against the Federal Government for this theft.) The government even let corporations tear apart Navajo-Hopi relations, displace thousands of tribal members from their homes, and employ tribal people to work under dangerous standards in uranium mines without properly educating them on the risks they were being forced to take. With all the power these corporations have over Americans – and especially over First Americans – why in the world would leadership hear our cries for solidarity with Standing Rock against DAPL? Many friends even told me it was a lot of work for nothing.

Then, a week after my article hit the presses, the Office of the President and Vice President of Navajo Nation formally declared solidarity with Standing Rock.

I was floored. This, in and of itself, was history, an incredible precedent set for the Navajo people, for the divestment of Dinébikeyah. When I saw the photos of President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez hoisting the Navajo Nation flag into the line of solidarity flags in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, I knew I had to do my part and join the fight.

 

#NoDAPL – Part 1

An Unprecedented Diversity in Representation

Something is happening on Turtle Island that has never happened before, and mainstream media still refuses to report it. It is the gathering of hundreds of sovereign Nations to fight one thread of corporate America. But to understand the breathtaking reality of the situation, I should first paint you a picture.

Hundreds of years ago, Turtle Island (the “Americas”) was heavily populated with an incredible diversity of people. There were Nations in the Andes with large lungs well-adapted to the altitude; there were vast cities on the Yucatan Peninsula with intricate ceremonies to maintain their balance; there were entire groups of peoples thriving off the icy hills of the Arctic Circle. In present-day America, there were longhouses in the northeast, wigwams in the Midwest, tipis on the prairies, hogans in the southwest, and plank houses in the northwest. These were people who traded abalone shells and other goods across thousands of miles; but these were also people who were not a people. They were many peoples. They were many Nations. To this day, we remain, and we remain as many Nations. We remain this way, yet we are identified, stereotyped, and degraded as one “race” of people whose stories, histories, and religions continue to be inferior to the mainstream America.

The label “Indian” is a legal term, but it is a misnomer that reminds us of how poor Columbus really was at his job (navigating) to think he was in India when he met people from the Caribbean. He is venerated for discovering America, a country he never even set eyes on, yet more than 567 tribal nations in the United States alone are now legally united under the term “Indian”. Even the title “Native American” is Euro-Centric. Many people prefer to be called by their citizenship, for example “Navajo” (or, as said in Navajo, “Diné”). Imagine all the folks at the Italian-American Club being called “European-American” and being stereotyped the same was as a Russian-American, Irish-American, or even Turkish-American. Perhaps the greatest irony is that “Native Americans” enrolled with their Nations could not legally be American citizens until 1924 – that is, if they even wanted to be citizens of the same country that committed centuries of genocide against them.

If you want to understand how this generalization – this racism – affects the way people perceive Native Americans and the way Native Americans often view themselves, I highly recommend logging into Netflix and watching Reel Injun.

Can you begin to grasp the diversity of tribal nations in North America? Can you see how these nations are no more similar than European countries with territorial boundaries drawn on a map? That each of these tribal nations comes with its own Creation Story, its own religions, its own set of constellations in the same sky? Many of these Nations were once enemies fighting for territories and resources, yet today we all face a greater enemy: The people who determined us as the same People, the people who have labeled us “Indian”…Those are the same people who have exerted their political powers to create Reservation boundaries near or thousands of miles away from traditional land; they’re the same people who have made it illegal for certain Native populations to carry eagle feathers in ceremony; the same people who marched the “Five Civilized Tribes” hundreds of miles; the same people who held the Navajo in a concentration camp for four years; the same people who started residential boarding schools to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” (government motto); the same people who shot buffalo and livestock to starve out populations, hanged Natives under Lincoln’s racist orders, and dissolved traditional governments or tribal status when tribal Nations refused to sign over all of their rights. (Another good film to watch: go on YouTube and find Broken Rainbow.)

Now that you see the diversity of indigenous Nations to this country and their historic individuality, you might begin to see the significance of what is happening in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Allegedly over 150 Native Nations from the continent have already made the journey to the Standing Rock Sioux Nation to announce their positions of solidarity with Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline. These are Nations bound to each other by nothing other than a modern identity of “American” and a legal label of “Indian”. These are Nations who could have easily been natural enemies but who are now uniting against common enemies. But they are also Nations who acknowledge all human beings are related, all human beings share the same earth and atmosphere, and all human beings need clean water to live. We need these things, and so do all of the organisms that we rely on.

Let’s also pause for a moment to paint the picture of the Standing Rock people and who they are. The Nakota, Dakota, and Lakota peoples are all united under the modern term “Sioux”. Each branch has subgroups, and they all speak a similar language with many dialects. They are the people who have occupied the northern Plains since the time settlers began pushing west into their territory. It is this “frontier” conflict that gave birth to the stereotype of “Indians” who challenged “cowboys” while wearing headdresses, yield bows and arrows, riding horses, and retreating to tipis. Clearly this is not an accurate portrait of all “Native” peoples. Even the “Sioux” themselves are made of an incredibly diverse gathering of people.

The Standing Rock people are among the Lakota. Their reservation now straddles the boundary between southern North Dakota and northern South Dakota. Their traditional boundaries extend well beyond these arbitrary lines, and therefore their burials and sacred sites are also scattered across this great territory. When the Dakota Access Pipeline declared it would be passing through treaty land, the Standing Rock stood in a heartbeat to oppose it. This would threaten traditional land, sacred sites, and – of course – the health of water resources. And fighting pipelines is nothing new for the Lakota. It was just last year that Obama helped to effectively block the Keystone XL pipeline from threatening traditional lands as well as the Oglala Aquifer, the largest freshwater resource in the entire world.

 

it’s time Navajo Nation uses its powerful voice for indigenous solidarity, not oil prosperity.

In fact, it’s well past time.

Although I hold tribal membership in a different community, I was drawn last summer to work for the Navajo Nation government by its impressive example of tribal sovereignty in action.  Not many tribal communities can brag they have their own Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture, etc.  Not every indigenous person can point out the window to a traditional plant or a sacred landmark.  (My own tribe suffered both relocation and the Dawes Allotment Act.)  Because of Navajo leadership’s ability to negotiate at Bosque Redondo, these are things the Navajo people have never lost and that they must never forget.  The Navajo Nation has a powerful voice, so long as it chooses to speak.

I have heard Navajo leadership use this voice.  It is loud, and it can be condemning.  Think: Gold King Mine spill.  Or: Delegate Crotty’s passionate denouncement against Donald “Drumpf”.  However, when it comes to the environmental threats caused by extractive industries on tribal lands, whether on Navajo Nation or elsewhere, I hear relative silence.

And correct me if I’m wrong.  I would love to be wrong on this.

It’s a sad reality that the modern Navajo government structure was essentially developed by the Federal Government around 1922 to pass off the rights to sign oil leases.  Even the modern Federal Government is, shall we say, uncomfortably close to the lucrative extractive industries that have an incredible knack for getting away with compliance lapses and environmental devastation.

When, on November 6, 2015, President Obama rejected Phase 4 of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Lakota and their many allies celebrated this decision.  It would save the Black Hills, a sacred site, from destruction.  It would save the Ogallala Aquifer, the world’s largest source of underground freshwater, from contamination.  It seemed like the message finally got across…except now the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is threatening the Plains yet again.

Not only will this proposed DAPL, constructed by a private energy company, also cross the vital Ogallala Aquifer, it will also cross the Missouri and Cannon Ball Rivers half of a mile away from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.  In an immediate response, a campaign called #RezpectOurWater was launched, arguing that a leak in this line could destroy local water sources and make both people and animals sick.  The youth in the campaign ask, “If it was your family at risk, would you be okay with it?”  One girl states, “I guess they don’t think we’re that important.”

Do you remember how the Gold King Mine spill felt?  How it still feels?

I have grown up being told by the elders around me: “The 3rd World War won’t be over land, or trade, or even religion.  It will be over water.”  As the Lakota say, “Mni wiconi.”  Water is sacred.

I spent 2 years working for “big oil” as an Engineer.  How I got there was a kind of sick irony.  My undergraduate degree specialized in Environmental Engineering, yet, by the time I graduated, the “alternative energy” sector had transformed into the fracking industry.  In that short timeframe, I experienced enough emergency response spills to know how I feel about this industry.

I would spend 12-hour shifts, day after day, holding air monitoring devices near the heads of migrant workers as they attempted to salvage spilled oil from contaminated streams in nature reserves.  I carried empty water bottles to collect dead salamanders I spotted for the biology counts.  (I used to catch these little guys in the woods at home.  By 2014, I had seen more dead than living salamanders in my life.)  I have also endured the misogyny of laborers while performing oversight on well pads.  I suspect these man camps in Indian Country are responsible for the increase of rape and other violence against indigenous women.

Sure, an engineering job in the oil industry could make you rich.  But what good is money  when we’ve destroyed our collective home?  The most finite of resources?  Yet it’s not just the oil spills that are a concern.  It’s also the idea of burning fossil fuels.  The incredible impact humans have made to the health of our planet in just my short lifetime.

The theory of climate change is not a joke.  There is a pure science behind it, just like the theory of gravity.  We all feel the theory of gravity; it makes it easy to believe.  But not all of us feel the theory of climate change to the same degree.

The whole concept is rooted in emissions.  In fact, hozho is at the heart of this idea.  Most people can probably understand the need for trees.  Trees are the figurative lungs of our planet as they take all of the carbons dioxide we exhale and transform it into the oxygen we inhale.  We need each other.  It’s a beautiful balance.  But, as we change the oxygen-breathing-organism-to-plant ratio, that’s similar to sitting in your garage with your car running.  Likewise, as we change the chemical composition of the atmosphere through increased carbon emissions, we change how energy such as light and heat lingers in our air.  We see these effects in everything, from the intensity of storms, to the melting of glaciers, to even the inability of calcium carbonate to precipitate into the ocean for coral and fish to build their skeletons.

Everything is interconnected.

I’m going back to graduate school this fall to study energy technology because I believe in the urgency of reducing these emissions.  In fact, I was recently selected as a U.S. Delegate to travel with SustainUs for COP22 this November.  We will be participating in the United Nations Climate Change Conference to lobby for a change in global policy.  While I might feel only somewhat impacted by climate change from my home in Window Rock, I realize I have the privilege to influence change for those hit the hardest.  There are people in “critical” countries and tribal communities that will literally lose their communities in the next few decades if we don’t come together as a Five Fingered family and make a change.

Last year’s COP21 delegation launched the campaign #ZeroBy2050, demanding leaders to adopt policy that would phase out emission-spouting industries with alternative solutions.  The year 2050 was selected because, if the average temperature of the planet rises any more than 2C (which it is projected to reach by that year), vulnerable countries will be deluged by a rising sea.  Entire islands, homes, cultures.

At UNITY this February, I sat on stage for a panel discussion and watched my Inupiaq friend, Teressa Baldwin, passionately describe her Arctic Circle culture.  Then she burst into tears as she explained her traditional village would be completely underwater by the time she is a grandmother.  The next morning, she left for Russia to strategize with other leaders from affected Arctic Circle communities.

We live in a global community.  We must hold every person accountable for how they impact each other and our resources.  And we absolutely must stand in solidarity with these entire communities who are at the immediate risk of losing everything on account of our silence, our turned blind eye.

How would you feel if someone was blowing secondhand smoke on your child?  Would you ask them to stop?  Or would you pretend each time not to see it, and then to not acknowledge the child’s subsequent struggle with asthma?  The child is our future generations.  The smoker is the fossil fuel industry, and that industry is a chain smoker determined to never kick the habit.

In order to reach this emissions goal, we must already be in the energy transition.  Creating green jobs, setting new emissions standards, holding Big Oil accountable.  Taking the hands of both tribal and federal leaders out of the pockets of these industries.  We know this, and yet oil, gas, and coal companies have already laid claim on deposits representing 2,795 gigatons of carbon.  To meet the 2C mark by 2050, no more than 565 gigatons can be developed between 2011 and 2049.  2,795 is five times this limit.  Think of that.  Then think of these proposed pipelines that are meant to slice and dice Indian Country, traveling thousands of miles over freshwater reserves and sacred sites.

Navajo Nation leadership, this is your chance.  If you voiced solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux, if you committed to this fossil fuel phaseout, if you began sincerely investing in green jobs… Not only would the Navajo Nation become a leader in what tribal sovereignty means today, but it would also set an example for the entire world.

The Navajo Nation has such a potential to be a powerful voice and a world leader.  I just hope we all make the right decision and choose Solidarity over Oil Prosperity.