Stories from the Road: Standing Rock Reservation - North Dakota (August 10, 2017)
This piece was originally published on MillennialPolitics.co in August 2017
“There is a Sioux prophecy that says one day young people will come to the Native People asking for knowledge and understanding,” Jen says as she leans back in her chair and pulls her long, dark hair to one side. “It seems like that time may be now. I get goosebumps just talking about it.”
We are all sitting in the Visitors Center at Sitting Bull College, just over the border in North Dakota. Artwork depicting the recent protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline cover the walls and letters from supporters fill glass cases and baskets around the room.
It is impossible to drive through the Standing Rock Reservation and not notice the Missouri River. The main road follows the winding path of the tributary, as if to constantly remind passengers how small they truly are. On a clear day the land on the other side is the only thing distinguishing the blue of the river from the blue of the sky. Thinking about spilled oil creeping its way through the sparkling currents echoes the tribe’s nickname for the now infamous pipeline, the black snake.
There is a piece of art directly to Jen’s left that depicts the use of water cannons on the protestors. I remember seeing photos of it on the news, but seeing it portrayed in paint is different. I am not looking at it from the perspective of an outsider, I am looking at it through someone else’s memory. Jen also describes days of hypothermia, tear gas, and fear. These are things that I cannot begin to relate to, even as she speaks. She finished by telling us how the battle over the pipeline has shifted from the reservation to the court room. When asked how other people can continue to help the cause and stand with Standing Rock, her answer surprises me.
“Think about what you want your community to look like, and then make it happen.” Her words are simple and stir something akin to shame in me. What does it mean to ‘Stand with Standing Rock’? By Jen’s definition, it seems to be less about looking outward towards North Dakota and more about looking down at where your feet are planted. I cannot help but wonder if it is easier to travel to North Dakota to passively support change than to stay at home and actively work for it.
Even as I feel shame, I also feel like my presence is a small piece of this great prophecy. The protests on the reservation have sparked some sort of awakening, there is no doubt about that. They sparked our visit. And that prophecy is about more than just defeating one evil or saving one group of people. Rather, it is about a wider shift in consciousness and responsibility. A recognition that protesting a pipeline in North Dakota or cleaning up a park in your home town can hold equal weight because they both indicate the same shift towards preservation.
“We are not a date in history. We are not a reservation.” I have to force myself to meet Jen’s gaze as the implications of her words rests. We matter, the silence seems to scream. It emanates from the bust of Sitting Bull in the corner. It stares back from the photos spread around the room. I can hear her words as I stand on the hill outside the visitor’s center. They matter. I matter. The river matters. Being on the reservation does not make this more true than when I am at home. Standing with Standing Rock can mean helping to protect their community, but, more importantly, it means to make sure that I am protecting my own.