This is a “Framing the narrative” precursor of sorts to my telling of my time at Standing Rock. In my next piece, I will talk about the actual particulars of my short journey to and stay there with my contingent. Even though it was only a three day trip, so much happened, both within our group and at camp and surrounding it all, and I believe this first part is an important one to help name and establish a dynamic at Standing Rock and its effect, weight and importance in our communities at large beyond it, at least as I perceived it.
I won’t be talking at length about the obvious part regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline, its politics, environmental activism and why people are resisting, not because it isn’t important, but because there’s hardly a dearth of great materials on that part of the conversation: I really have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said by on-the-ground Indigenous activists, community members and reliable independent news sources but way better. I want to instead focus on the interpersonal, communal, cultural, sociological aspects of journey and what I saw there and give insight if I can.
I’ve been reflecting obsessively on my experiences at Standing Rock over the past few weeks.
There is so much to digest, so much to grasp and understand and honestly, I am ill-equipped in a way that has been humbling. A Native convergence like this has not been seen in decades. This is the culmination of work, of prophecy, of history, of all abuses that indigenous communities have both suffered in silence and resisted with rancor and rage for centuries. It seems arrogant to assume I can speak to it.
And really, so much of what I saw is not mine to speak of or retell, as I believe anything I could say would simply be inadequate aside from not being my place. I took only a handful of pictures of the camp itself, none of which made their way to social media, and it goes without saying that I did not participate in any ceremonial or organizational happenings. Frankly, there are lots of snake-tongued people surrounding this fight; I don’t need to add to the din of self-appointed Native Whisperers springing from the ground like weeds. And what it is for me to repeat, to tell and to teach, to be a witness to as a good friend of mine phrased it, I yet have to navigate with care.
While at Oceti Sakowin, they had camp orientations and trainings that they wanted all those who came to participate in, with the expressed goal of teaching people the ways they must walk the land of their hosts and behave with one another so as to respect the culture and camp protocol and to keep the camp safe. It was assumed you knew about the pipeline and kept up with news about it, knew about why people were protesting and protecting, and why you came there, but how you should behave while there has clearly been a huge issue at the camp. It’s an important framing that I feel was not prioritized for many both there and outside the camp.
There were things-physical, intellectual, cultural-that we were told we needed to leave behind and not bring into the camp (as well as things shared with us that we were not to take for ourselves without express permission), chief of which being a colonizer’s attitude. We were expected to learn and follow the Lakota ways and honor the direction of their resistence and protesting without superimposing our own desires or -splaining our own ideas for a “better” movement or action, to question and dismantle our preconceived notions and entitlements. No one there required saving or paternalism, just support, critical mass and visibility.
The questioning of one’s colonial gaze was an important practice and educational piece for me. We all perceive and read life, this earth and its people through our own filters, biases and perspectives. The toxicity and error of white supremacy is assuming one’s (colonialist, European, capitalist, binary) concepts, perception and gaze are innate, fixed, “sane”, rational, masculine, unbiased and real, while others are flawed, frantic, irrational, paranoid, feminine, weak, “crazy”, and all the implications in that false binary.
“Indigenous-centered” was something told to us repeatedly during orientation. The movement, our actions, our interactions, our hearts and minds and spirits were to remain Indigenous-centered. We follow their lead, not our own. And “Indigenous centered” means more than resisting white supremacy and colonialist systems, it means Indigenous building and creation, Indigenous values, beliefs, art, scholarship, media, perception, language, spirituality, organizing and activism (and all the diversity and complexity therein). It means seeing and understanding people for more than what has been done to them. Standing Rock is affected but not defined by DAPL, but “Mni Wiconi.” There is centuries of hurt and harm that needs to be acknowledged and addressed, injustice to battle, but there is Indigenous community and healing and resilience through it all that needs to be celebrated as well. Each time I saw a gaggle of Native kids on the back of a pick up truck or teeny brown babies toddling with their mothers and fathers, I felt that celebration deep within my gut. I would be remiss if I only painted a tragic or romantically defiant radical activist picture of the movement or I let the state and DAPL define them.
If anything, it is the state that is defined by its hatred, fear and misunderstanding of the Indigenous, of its need to command, erase and control it. If colonialism loves fear mongering and controlling the narrative, it is because Indigenous peoples are beyond their definitions a colorful and complex peoples that resists its binaries and monoliths and generalizations. If colonialism is patriarchal, it is because it hates how women are the heart of Indigenous peoples and their resistance, as we see at Standing Rock. If colonialism is individual, it is because it fears the power of Indigenous communities and communal structures. If it hates the past and tells people to “Get over it”, its because memory is short, it is only because Indigenous memory is so long and they fear accountability. Hell, the pipeline’s name itself comes from a Lakota Sioux word. What does that tell you?
Understanding this, I had to interrogate the attitude I had and assumptions I made coming into camp and resist further affixing definitions and forcing things I heard or saw into ill-fitting boxes, resist superimposing a foreign, whitewashed, self-centered, non-Native, and thus ultimately colonialist gaze and understanding onto Standing Rock and what I saw and perceived throughout my time there. I had to kick back against the way that white supremacy has taught me to see living, breathing Indigenous people as merely anthropological studies or mythical magical creatures to objectify, exploit and use to my own ends. Even as someone who thinks herself educated on Native issues and anti-racism advocacy, I still have lots of work to do.
I know that seems like quite an unnecessary and overly cautious intro. Maybe it’s just me and the type of person I am, the heaviness of it all is with me yet. I still struggle putting my experiences there into words, but being around so many beautiful Indigenous folks exemplifying resistance and decolonization, living tangible proof of all their people’s fight,
Being at Oceti Sakowin graciously gave me so much more than I gave it in ways that honestly devastated me. It shook me up and made me think about and see Indigenous people in ways I hadn’t before and it made me question my politics and my beliefs. It made rethink my relationship with myself and my people and other people, with the earth and my past and prayer, and seeing decolonization not only as a way to reconnect with one’s history and others but as as a way to ground myself and orient my spirit to my activism and the heart, intent and history that should carry and guide me through it. It made me grateful to the point of tears for my own culture and community resistance and journey through decolonization, my own Afro-Quisqueyan people. It also made me sad for ways that I’ve experienced and witness hurt in my family and community as well, the toxic things we have internalized and the violence committed to us and by ourselves as well, for the ways I have failed and haven’t brought the work to those that need it the most. It was difficult in many ways.
Standing Rock questioned the presumptuous ways I engage, ungrateful and assuming, and taught me that one must follow and listen as well as lead and speak, and that it’s about time I followed and listened more. I want to make sure I do right by the people who hosted me and their selfless struggle for autonomy and a better future for themselves and their children, all of our children.
So to be sure, these pieces and my perspective in this series that I offer is not innate, exhaustive, nor all-encompassing by any means. It is not Lakota, Dakota or Nakota, or Indigenous, therefore it should not take priority. It’s not from someone who went to Standing Rock for the long term or multiple times. I don’t even know if it is decolonized or properly de-centers white supremacy. But it is mine and I offer it, imperfect or potentially hella bullshit as it may be, to try and be a witness to this fight, and to help place myself and others like me in this struggle in a way that is honorable and still Indigenous-centered and inspired.