by Patricia St. Onge (Haudenosaunee, Quebecoise, adopted Cheyenne River, Lakota)
My partner Wilson and I went to South Dakota in August for a family ceremony, which we’d been planning for a year. A few weeks before we were to leave, my hunca sister, Madonna Thunder Hawk called. “We’re up at the camp in North Dakota; we’ll come down from here for ceremony. Can you come back up here with us before you head home?” I’d been reading a little bit and seeing even less on TV about the Oceti Sakowin Camp that was growing. Indigenous people were coming together, along with some allies, to protect the water and the land. “Of course, we’d be honored to come”. There was no other response that I could imagine.
After the powwow and give-away, we drove the 4 hours up to Cannon Ball, ND. As we came closer, I could feel the energy shift. We came over the low rise (which they’ve dubbed ‘facebook hill’), my eyes teared up. I couldn’t help but take a deep breath. There, laid out in front of us, were hundreds of tents, tipis, RV’s and makeshift lean-tos. We were welcomed by a young man, quietly keeping watch.
Our dust covered rental car joined the many others, road weary, rented and rez, parked in less than tidy rows. We walked with Madonna into the hub of the camp; a giant tent, abuzz with people, coordinating the arriving donations – trucks loaded down with food, pots and pans, etc. Some were making signs, some answering questions and guiding people to other tents; information, medical, legal support, etc. Outside was a fire, about 8 feet around, covered with five or six giant pots, boiling sounds and an inviting array of odors coming up with the smoke to greet us, and everyone else who was walking by. Madonna was quickly taken up with the business of guiding the camp, along with other elders.
Wilson and I walked around a bit. Small campsites, horses in trailers, others tied up or carrying people around the camp, were peppered throughout the human relatives, adding odors to the mix that reminded me of summer horseback riding outings when I was young. As I walked, I could feel the deep satisfaction of the ancestors, watching over this amazing place. It was clear to me that something, both ancient and very new, was happening here.
We came back to the kitchen, introduced ourselves, and asked how we could help. One of the cooks brought us over to a bunch of blue tarps and pulled one back. There were more bags of potatoes than I had ever seen at one place, even a grocery store! We set up a makeshift cutting station from upturned five gallon buckets (to sit on) and a big box of cabbage as our table. We got a giant bin, filled it with a bit of water and started to cut out the rotten parts of potatoes. There wasn’t much to remove, since most of them were very fresh; we cut them up and threw them into the water bin. After a couple of hours, we had peeled about 300 pounds of potatoes. When the bin was full, a couple of strong young people came and took it away. As we walked through the kitchen, cleaned the knives and ‘cutting boards’ (the lids from the five gallon buckets), we saw the potatoes already in the pots on the fire! It was powerful to see a vibrant community, organizing and living into itself as a living, loving, system! I felt a wave of gratitude wash over me, like a river; cleansing and invigorating my soul. The sense of what’s possible was palpable.
While we were there:
They got the radio station up and running. Resistance radio; 87.9 FM http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com/2016/08/standing-rock-resistance-radio-listen.html
The Governor ordered the ND Public Health Department medical support staff and vehicles to leave the camp. A young woman came to the mic, and asked if all medical personnel would meet her at the central fire. Within 3 hours, the medical tent was back, staffed by volunteers from the camp.
People from the Comanche Nation arrived and brought greetings.
I met other Haudenosaunee folks who had driven from Wisconsin, ran into folks from Indigenous Environmental Network, and chatted with my nieces.
Madonna invited me to bring greetings to the camp. I felt honored. I surprised myself that I felt shy, too, which doesn’t happen very often. I brought greetings from Idle No More, SF Bay. I don’t represent my Nation, as I’ve never lived on the Reserve, so I reminded us all of the many ways Indigenous communities have come together over generations, and talked about how the Haudenosaunee and Lakota came together as part of a process that would eventually lead to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Here I was, standing in my adopted homelands, remembering that our journeys are both singular and intertwined.
As we headed out, we drove the mile or so up to the dig site. As it came into view, I was again moved to tears. All of the flags of the Nations who had come out in support of the water protectors, were flying alongside the road that, a couple of miles away, was being blocked by the State. There, at the roadblock, police were (and are again) intentionally profiling Indigenous people, forcing them to drive several extra miles to get to the Camps. In spite of the harassment, the small camp of folks who stand watch are strong, steady and steadfast. The flags of solidarity flying over them increased the sense of purpose, and reminded me of the strength of our ancestors that lives in us.
We’ve been home for two months; in some ways, it feels like we were there a lifetime ago, in other ways, it’s like it was yesterday. The lessons that remain with me help keep me grounded. Water is life. Our collective responsibility is to honor that knowledge, not just at Standing Rock, but here in Oakland, or wherever we live. As I use our compost toilet, recycle water from the sump pump (we’re still working on a full water catchment system), turn on the lights that are powered by the sun, I am reminded again and again just how much we take for granted. The water protectors and life in the camp is a living testimony to our shared capacity to live into the lifeways that are our gift from all Native Peoples, and so necessary for the time in which we live.
Being at Standing Rock reminded me again, that we are powerfully interconnected; we’re part of the ecosystem of the planet. I understand more profoundly what I’ve heard Ulali sing: ‘we ARE the land’. Our ancestors’ bones are here, returning nutrients to our original mother.
At the camp, at Bioneers, in so many other settings, as I watch sisters and brothers from other cultural backgrounds sharing the space with indigenous Nations, I sense a deep yearning to belong, to be part of something important and historical. I remember what John Trudell said: “we are all indigenous to somewhere”. As people who come from settler backgrounds are able to look honestly at our shared history (I hold both of those lineages in my own self), and take responsibility for the ongoing story of destruction, all of our ancestors will be healed, we will be healed, the generations yet unborn will be healed, our Mother will be healed. From that place of healing, we settler children can find our own traditions that have connected us to our Mother, Earth. It may take more digging, since the severing was intense, and in many cases, voluntary.
As those who came before us faced pressure to assimilate, many rejected who they were and where they’d come from. It’s in the traditions of our own ancestry that we’ll find the pathway to satisfying the deep yearning we feel for connection. We can’t find our indigeneity by trying on Indigenous cultures of the First Nations on this continent. When we do, we repeat what I call the ‘Columbus syndrome’; to think that because we want something, or even love something, we can claim it for our own. May Standing Rock, the Movement for Black Lives, The Struggles for land justice in Canada, Peru, Louisiana, Nigeria, and so many other places around the world continue to remind us that it is our right and responsibility to support the struggles for the protection of our Mother. We ALL share this planet home; may we be inspired to find those parts of our own traditions from which our Medicine comes.
While writing this piece, Madonna called with an update. They’ve set up another camp at the front lines, which has now become the “Treaty Camp” on historical treaty lands; The SRST have claimed eminent domain. From a press release issued on Sunday, October 23rd, “Today, the Oceti Sakowin has enacted eminent domain on DAPL lands, claiming 1851 treaty rights. This is unceded land,” Mekasi Camp-Horinek said Sunday in a news release, adding, “We need bodies and we need people who are trained in non-violent direct action. We are still staying non-violent and we are still staying peaceful.”
We were originally raising money for a yurt for our extended family. On our call, last week, Madonna told me that there are several families who don’t have relatives out here who can raise money for them; they’re still in summer tents! So, we’re going to continue to raise money, but instead of a yurt, we’re going to try to get a winterized trailer for the elders, and cots and mattresses for the winter tents that were recently donated. Today, she said they also need money for additional winter tents, wind breaks, solar panels, tools, and snow tires! If you’d like to support this effort, you can follow this link to our GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/support-standing-rock-elders-2uqmd4vs
In this time of the great turning, I give deep gratitude to the Creator, to all those who are living at the front lines, protecting water, earth and life, and to those who stand alongside, supporting in a good way.
Patricia St. Onge (Haudenosaune and Quebecoise, adopted Lakota) is a grandmother and mom, and founder of Seven Generations Consulting and Coaching. She consults with a wide array of nonprofit and public sector agencies. Her approach is facilitative, creating the space where the best, most integrated thinking happens. She is the lead author of Embracing Cultural Competency: A Roadmap for Nonprofit Capacity Builders. She serves as adjunct faculty at Pacific School of Religion and Mills College. She’s on the board of directors of Highlander Research and Education Center. She is part of a growing community in East Oakland called Nafsi ya Jamii (The Soul Community), which hosts a retreat center and urban farm. http://www.seven-generations.org/