Two Essays on Our Work at Standing Rock

pregnant woman with earth in belly and water flowing around her

“Water is Life” drawing by Ruby Chacón. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Water Is Life: Why Chicana/o/xs Should Support NoDAPL

By Marisa Elena Duarte

On Thursday October 27 militarized police forces from multiple states joined the Morton County Sheriff’s Department in North Dakota to initiate a violent series of crowd control tactics against the peaceful water protectors and land defenders blocking the illegal construction of an Energy Transfer Company (ETC) oil pipeline across land adjacent to the current boundaries of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The pipeline, designed to transport oil from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota down to the Gulf Coast, and from there to various domestic and international markets, also threatens clean water and soil through the entire Midwest region, all the way down to the Gulf Coast of Mexico. In July, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the Army Corps of Engineers for constructing the Dakota Oil Pipeline (DAPL) through sites of Dakota and Lakota cultural and historical significance, in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act (Standing Rock Tribe v. US Army Corps of Engineers, Case 1:16-cv-01534). On September 9, US District Judge James E. Boasberg found that the Army Corps ‘has likely complied with the NHPA,’ thus allowing for continued construction. Shortly thereafter, the Justice Department, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior asked ETC to pause construction 20 miles east and west of Lake Oahe, demanding further evaluation in particular with regard to care for Lake Oahe through the National Environmental Protection Act.

By that time, over ninety tribes had sent letters of support to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Thousands of people, from tribal youth councils, to tribal delegates, medicine people, elders, teachers and professors, activists, environmentalists, college students, moms and grandmothers, artists, and more had set up three camps—the Sacred Stone Camp, the Oceti Sakowin Camp, and the Front Line Camp—in prayer around the tribal lands closest to the proposed pipeline construction. People at the camps prayed, and have been in prayer for months, out of respect for tribal ancestors who died protecting Lakota and Dakota territories, out of respect for those who continue to care for lands and waters in the Americas not with the intent of property into profit, but because clean water, clean soil, and clean air are gifts of Mother Earth. Referring to themselves as water protectors and land defenders, and not protestors, the people at the Sacred Stone Camp, the Oceti Sakowin Camp, and the Front Line Camp have been praying in the ways that their grandparents and ancestors taught them: through sweat lodge, prayer circles, dances, storywork, dreaming, teaching young people, and caring for others. Activists have been updating supporters in different places throughout the world, sending hashtags like #WaterIsLife beside #NoDAPL hashtags, indicating the integral sacred nature of the work they are doing there.

Thus on October 27 it was particularly painful to see over a hundred armed militarized law enforcement agents pulling elders from sweat lodges, spraying mace in the face of a woman carrying a prayer stick and calling the prayer stick a weapon, arresting young people and issuing blanket felony charges, and shooting bean bags and sound cannons at, essentially, hundreds of people standing in prayer for Mother Earth, for their rights as members of sovereign Native nations, for their tribal rights under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, and for the human rights of Americans deserving of clean water and clean soil. In fact, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and the Energy Transfer Company violated the rights of so many individuals on October 27, in addition to tribal rights, that the shock of it reminded Native Americans and and non-Native Americans alike of the genocidal foundations of the United States of America, the greed of American capitalists, and the overwhelming epistemic blindness of American courts and law enforcement agencies.

Why should Chicana/o/xs support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and water protectors and land defenders? My name is Marisa Elena Duarte. I am a member of Pascua Yaqui Tribe, tribal from my mother’s side, and Mexican American (South Tucson) from my father’s side, and I am writing this essay for you on November 1, Dia de los Muertos, from a hotel room in South Tucson, while my family prepares the mesa for our difuntos and parientes who have passed on. While I write this, the governor of Sonora Claudia Pavlovich Arellano has approved the illegal construction of the environmentally-devastating Sempra Energy (San Diego) gas pipeline through the Rio Yaqui Indigenous autonomous zone in Sonora, causing such violence and strife in the Yaqui tribal communities—where there is presently no potable water–that some of us are presently seeking human rights solutions through the United Nations.

Perhaps Los Angelenos are enjoying long showers and preparing simmering pots of beans and tamales on this special day. Chicana/o/xs in L.A. may be completely unaware that their water is sourced from the Owens Valley, drying out California tribal communities who every day work to retain tribal languages (Nuumu) languages and lifeways in spite of generations of water theft through the LA Aqueduct project.

When I honor my Chicano parientes, my father reminds me of my grandfather who worked on ranches through the Sonoran desert, and my grandmother who worked in orange orchards in California. They had close relationships with water: herding cattle to creeks to drink, and cultivating crops we rely on. They also experienced the challenges of pesticide poisoning—from children with lifelong breathing problems to the long-term effects of DDT. The collusion between large private mining companies and state governments, usually in violation of environmental standards, is precisely what causes the dispossession and displacement of land-based peoples in the Spanish-speaking Americas. Many of the more recent generations of Spanish-speaking and Indigenous migrants in the United States come seeking a life where they can earn a living away from the environmental degradation and tyranny of their local and national governments.

There are a number of reasons for Chicana/o/xs to learn about and support #NoDAPL. We can empathize with brown people brutalized by unjust law enforcement officers. We can empathize with mothers and grandmothers reminding us to honor our parientes indígenas by caring for Mother Earth; as humans we are not better nor more blessed than tortugas, venados, vísperas, or aguilas. We are all beings made of water, made for Mother Earth, standing in her graces. We can recall that part of our Chicana/o/x strength is our insight beyond borders. We know that these oil pipelines are not just about pollution or jobs in this town vs. that town, but that they are about the interstate transnational distribution of currency, labor, goods, and bodies across borders, and often without care for the Indigenous peoples living close to the land. We have rights to work in clean environments, with regular access to clean water. There are many reasons to support #NoDAPL. Here is one of the most significant: we are who we are because of the unbroken chain of belonging between the past and the present. I support #NoDAPL because my parientes worked hard to teach me to live the right way in accord with my herencia, and I want my little cousins and future grandchildren of my communities to enjoy clean water, clean soil, and clean air, as they continue living in the right way, as people of the Earth, gente de la tierra. Nuestra agua es nuestra vida. Water is life.

Marisa Elena Duarte is Pascua Yaqui and Chicana. She is an Assistant Professor in the School of Transformation at Arizona State University. Duarte studies digital technologies as forms of social resistance and endurance. Her current research is on the social and political impacts of information and communication technologies in Indigenous communities. She also advocates for intellectual freedom and social justice in libraries, especially in Native American and borderland communities.

Painting of participants with arms linked at Standing Rock camp.

“And Justice For All.” Painting by Julian and Ruby Chacón. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Of Heart and Logistics

by Ruby Chacón

As we were leaving Standing Rock the winds were 20 miles an hour and we were in the middle of a blizzard. The night before the wind blew in snow and wet our sleeping bags, we had to sleep in the car. We woke up to seeing our tent blown over, and white snow circling in the air. If you took off your gloves for a second you would feel a bitter pain from the cold. I thought about the people who were brave enough to stay long term.

 tents, shelters, and teepees across plains

Photo by Ruby Chacón of Standing Rock camp in November 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As we were driving away, and as my battery on my phone charged, I saw voicemail from my mom. The first few were of worry. I didn’t have battery to check in and didn’t remember numbers except for my sister’s number, so I called her on Lili’s phone to tell her to send the message out that we were okay. She forgot to call my mom! I called my mom right away and after she got over the worry, she tells me my cousin Julian died a few days earlier. When I hung up the phone I sat silently in the back seat. Julian lived in the Citifront apartments where Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts is housed, a non-profit I co founded. He had an accident in his 20’s and was a paraplegic. I had painted him a couple of times. The painting I’m sharing seems so appropriate during these times that I share with you about Standing Rock. After the initial shock that he died, I felt the tears wanting to release. I held them back. I looked out the window, at the land, thinking of the people. At that moment, I felt my grandpa Jacobo’s embrace, caressing my hair the way he did when he was alive. I felt safe and loved by him. I felt our spirits unite and felt a strong purpose. I couldn’t stay in Standing Rock but I can use my talents in art. We all have our roles to play but inaction won’t help anyone. I heard that message strongly. “Use your skills to do something for others.”

snow falling heavily over teepees and tents

Photo by Ruby Chacón of Standing Rock camp in late November  2016. CC BY-NC-NC 2.0

I remained silent in the back seat looking out and thinking about the people who stay at Standing Rock and remembered their stories. My reason to go there came from my own pain and injustices I saw around me that slowly kills the people I love. Sometimes I feel powerless and want to find a way to use my skill to heal the oppression, the lack of opportunity, the slow death of the spirit. When I heard those in camp and their stories, I thought “they all shared a struggle on the outside, some sort of pain and they found their lives had meaning when they felt empowered to take action.” Doing nothing is not an option. People quit their jobs to fight for the cause. What bravery! I couldn’t say I would do the same. “If I couldn’t stay like these champions, what could I do?” I thought. What are their needs? How could we be most useful? What could we take back to the outside to bring awareness?

list of items needed at camp

Photo of handwritten note of Standing Rock needs by Ruby Chacón. CC BY-NC-NC 2.0

I heard them when they said “think about us who will be living in 10 inches of snow, what would we need?” I went to the donation tent and asked the person there to write a list of what is lacking in donations (see pic for that list). In the meantime, Jarred, Lilli and I initially were going to co-create an art piece (which we did conceptualize; I will post later once it’s done and ask for a call to action with this piece, but more on that later), but we found that there were stronger needs like building a yurt before the snow came, carrying in and setting up medical supplies, reorganizing the art tent so artists could later come and make use of it and not be in chaos, and help serve food. As we did all this while we listened, a lot. Some of what I heard were the following:

  1. They are burdened by donations that are sent in by people cleaning out their closets. Please only send useful donations. Think about living outside in the winter.
  2. There are no addresses for each camp so when donations that are meant for a particular camp gets sent they automatically go to Sacred Stone. Sacred Stone is in the safe zone (on the reservation). They are not distributed to the other camps located in the unsafe zone or to those who put themselves on the front lines. I’m attaching a card with information where you could send donations. You might want to consider other smaller camps with even less resources.
  3. Another way to get them donations is to send with someone who is going there. Cash and cash cards are most useful so they can get exactly what they need. They don’t have access at the moment to the GoFundMe account so it’s not useful for the immediate needs.
  4. The local Target and Bizmarck are against the movement and making it hard for them to buy supplies. Lowes was also a problem until people from the outside started calling in. You can do what you think is appropriate. I personally don’t feel I want to shop at those places.
  5. The military is on the side of DAPL. You can hear the helicopters, you see drones (on both sides) constantly flying around. They are using terrorist tactics that are very inhumane to get the people out. They are spraying chemicals in the air (mind you there are also families with children in the camps), we heard they closed in one camp with barbed wire (there is a worry they will do the same to the other camps and they won’t have a way to get supplies on the outside), you all heard about the water cannons, the sounds that deafen the ears, etc.
  6. Think about those staying long term, there are no showers. Sometimes people will donate a room at the casino for them to shower. Also think about what they will do once they leave. Where will they get jobs and housing to start again? We all need to come together to take care of them. If you know people in a position to hire or house while they get on their feet? People come from all over. I saw a lot of people from Chicago, LA, Northern California, SLC and Logan, UT, and places in the Midwest.
  7. If you decide to go there, go with a purpose of being useful.

Ruby Chacón is a Utah Chicana artist who recognizes the long history of interaction between Chicana/o and Native American peoples. Chacón currently lives in Sacramento, California. She notes that her work is about making sure that “every aspect of our stories needs to penetrate all public institutions from educational to artistic, and yes, even libraries….This is our safeguard against those who would have us feel like trespassers in our own land, on our own continent.” For more information on her art visit her website.