Last month, I found myself sitting in a tent listening to the Sioux tribal elders at Standing Rock reflect on the implications of the Dakota Access Pipeline halt. In arctic temperatures surrounded by domestic and international reporters, one of the elders described the tribe’s genuine celebration at the halt and proceeded to elaborate on its significance.
In the next breath, his words turned somber as he walked through hundreds of years of interaction between the U.S. government and his tribe (and the wider Native American community). He systematically walked through treaty after treaty after treaty and lamented the fact that the very government that had proposed them had broken each one. He said:
While we celebrate this temporary victory, we have hundreds of years of history that remind us to never trust the promises of the government. Companies have responsibility to investors. We have responsibility to be stewards of the water. Oil is malignant to the planet and those who find life from it.
Ocheti camp will remain and double our efforts to protect this land, river and home. All seven tribes of Sioux have gathered for first time in 140 years. Former enemies are standing together for the land we’ve been entrusted to steward.
We have not broken any laws. We have conducted ourselves in a prayerful and peaceful way. We are not protestors or terrorists or rioters, we are in fact water protectors. We pray for the law enforcement officials everyday. We want to walk across the bridge and shake hands. Dakota means “friend.” The people and place reflect that. We will continue to feed and keep warm everyone in this camp.
As I listened, I couldn’t help but be both inspired and saddened. In the case of Native Americans in general, and the Sioux at Standing Rock specifically, we have largely chosen to see only the realities that affirm our inherited worldviews or benefited our bottom lines. As a result, there are real people standing on real land that are hurting and pleading for us to listen. They stewarded this land long before white Europeans arrived and continue to bear the responsibility of caring for it for the generations to come.
Today, President Donald Trump signed an executive action greenlighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, which had been halted to seek alternative routes. The original route, under Lake Oahe, would have threatened the Standing Rock Sioux’s drinking water and sacred lands.
Having stood with and been cared for by these remarkable people, I have the responsibility to at the very least share their story. As inhabitants of the same plot of soil we call the U.S., I would argue it is not only their story, but our story.
May we listen. May we lament. May we act by standing in front of any bulldozer that is flattening people.