One year ago this October, my husband and his father went to join the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock.1 They took our three-year-old along, three generations sardined together in the cab of our pickup truck, the bed full of tools, hardware, chainsaws, solar panels, roofing, woodstoves and our son’s Halloween costume (pirate), just in case. I waved goodbye to them from the top of our steep gravel driveway, holding our six-week-old baby. They drove from Appalachian Ohio, where we live, straight through to Cannon Ball, North Dakota. They slept in the truck, my son handing coffee between the two men. From Standing Rock, they sent me pictures of him in his grandpa’s arms, their fists raised in front of the bridge to the pipeline site, which was blocked by burnt out vehicles. My husband came back full of fire, ready to turn around and go right back. In November, we returned. This time, we brought the baby, now almost three months old. My husband’s mother came along too. We brought a wall tent and a wood stove with the intention to donate these items when we left. Between the five of us, we milled wood with a chainsaw mill, helped with carpentry efforts to winterize the camp, chopped vegetables, washed dishes, attended trainings and discussions on direct action and decolonization, participated in demonstrations against the pipeline, had snowball fights, cleaned up garbage, made friends, laid down tobacco and of course, nursed.
Friends ask me about being a parent who also remains politically involved. They ask me what it’s like to bring my kids with me to demonstrations, meetings and trainings, to breastfeed while facing a cop in riot gear, to be peed on by my baby at a direct-action training, to carry my toddler piggyback while marching through the streets. They want to know what it was like to bring my two young children to Standing Rock.
LaDonna Allard, the founder of Standing Rock’s Sacred Stone Camp, Lakota historian and grandmother who’d been traveling widely to spread the word about the NoDAPL movement, told me, ‘I speak to gatherings of young white activists, and I wonder, don’t people have families? Where are they? When we fight, we have our children with us. Where else would they be?’
The idea that political work is for young, idealistic, childless adults is one way to keep such work carefully controlled, to cast it as exceptional, a hobby for the privileged few, when of course it’s neither. It’s ordinary and necessary. So is parenting.
In the camps at Standing Rock, children were everywhere. Babies, toddlers, older kids on bikes and on horseback, kids as young as five tending fires, doing dishes. My son made friends with a Lakota kid camped out with his mother, and the two of them were put to work picking up trash together, though I think they spent most of their time eating candy.
Pipelines threaten parents’ ability to protect their children’s health and safety. Native communities are at the forefront of resisting this threat. The community that my family lives in, Appalachian, poor, and mostly white, knows something about this, too. Pipelines are being permitted and pushed through the hills we live in, one of them not 200 feet from our house. The health risks of living near such development are especially high for babies and children. We can talk all we want about what it means to be a politically involved parent. But any child who faces displacement and deportation, whose parents have been dragged into the machine of mass incarceration, who have been poisoned by lead in their water, who open picture books to page after page of white faces and friendly police offers, whose parents must fight to protect them from an oil pipeline, are born into a politics far more rigorous than most street demonstrations. We are all politically involved whether we like it or not, and children are already on the frontlines.
Of course, most of parenting is about wiping noses, potty training, making sure everyone is fed, napped and not hurting themselves or other people. Anyone raising kids knows that it’s a moment-by-moment proposition. The questions a three-year-old asks are wild and nuanced, persistent and literal. Some questions I have attempted to answer in this past week alone: Why is a robin a bird? What is racist? Why do we have to die? Why is your body bigger than my body? Is this the kind of leaf that I can eat? Why are some moms dads? What do bullies eat? Why are the police bad?
These are questions that demand answers. Answers that must dispense with the usual explanations. That unmoor me. That bring me face to face with myself. That make me wonder what I’ve been saying out loud. To answer my child honestly means to admit that mostly, I don’t know the answers, or not completely. But still, I find a way to talk about it. I tell him that the questions are worth asking, and that the answers are worth finding. I keep moving. All parents do. There’s no other choice. Luckily, I’m also a fiction writer, a storyteller. I specialize in the gaps and mysteries, the pieces that never seem to fit. Rather than claiming certainty or authority where none exists, storytellers stay honest by writing about what we ourselves don’t fully understand.
I didn’t understand Standing Rock, not then, and not now. No matter my previous organizing experience, when it came to the scale and scope of the stand against DAPL, I was far out of my depth. When I mentioned this recently to one native organizer who spent a long time there, he said, ‘White people, settlers, are always asking native people why Standing Rock happened the way it did, as if we could make it happen again the same way. But we were as surprised as anyone. It’s been bigger than all of us, a mystery.’
I can say that when we drove up over the rise on Highway 1804 along the Cannonball River and I saw Oceti Sakowin Camp spread out before me, hundreds of tipis, tents, flags, banners proclaiming solidarity, thousands of people, I burst into tears. I can say that I dried them, that we maneuvered our van down into camp, set up our wall tent, got a fire going and stayed long enough for me to come away with renewed questions about solidarity and identity, about parenting and resistance. I can say that my questions in some ways resemble the ones a three-year-old might ask: urgent, stubborn and without any easy answers.
I am non-native, the descendent of Irish coal miners and British union organizers on my dad’s side, and of Swedish and German farmers on my mother’s. My husband and our two children are enrolled members of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. My husband’s dad lives on the reservation in HUD governmental housing. My husband’s grandmother was one of the thousands of native children swept up in the boarding school system, forcibly separated from her mother and siblings at the age of five. She lived most of her life as a Catholic, ashamed of being Indian and afraid of going to hell. It was not until near the end of her life that she was finally able to remember her own grandmother talking to her in her first language.
My husband was raised mostly by his non-native mother, a single parent who worked long hours to support her two sons. The time he spent living with his dad, he and his siblings danced at powwows, sat on a drum and learned language and traditions with their extended family. His dad’s house also meant government cheese, unstable housing, poor health care, addiction, poverty. When he was ten, he stopped dancing. He had noticed he was different from his friends and cousins. He was white. Some light-skinned native people say they are ‘white passing’. My husband describes himself as ‘white presenting’. The man has strawberry blonde hair and freckles. He says that as a kid, it didn’t matter until it did. His favorite dancers were the grass dancers. He had hoped to make grass-dancing regalia of his own. Suddenly he felt self-conscious. Some of the other kids, even the occasional adult, laughed at him for being pale. He never did make that regalia.
Since childhood, then, my husband’s strategy for dealing with the tensions of his identity has been to not talk about being Indian with those outside of his family or tribal community. As an adult, he hasn’t lived on the reservation. Though we visit often and maintain close family connections there, my husband no longer experiences the daily community life that helps some white-presenting Indians feel at home being who they are. But my husband certainly doesn’t think his predicament warrants pity. He knows that he moves through this society as a white man, and that this affords him a tremendous amount of privilege on a brutally pragmatic level.
If this society sees you as white, does that make you white? My husband would say yes. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, ‘race is the child of racism, not the father.’ Identity matters, in part, because of power. If whiteness is an invention, as we know it is, then being perceived as white is the same as being white.
But my husband would also say no. He is part of the traumatic legacy of genocide and colonization. The forces that took his grandmother and countless other Indian children from their families would be satisfied to see him forget who he is and who his family is, to corroborate the invention of whiteness. Why should he satisfy these forces? Why not resist?
Assimilation asks native people to live without context. Traditions, language and community structures are lost. Cycles of trauma, addiction, poverty, familial separation, diabetes, early death are understood not as results of colonization, but as arbitrary and inexplicable, as simple personal failings.
At our wedding, my husband’s older brother sang a song in Neshnabemwen for their grandmothers. The way my husband’s family sees it, these grandmothers are who our lives, and the lives of our children, are for. Why should he break their hearts and mark another victory for genocide?
Still, my husband understands the pitfalls of talking about who he is: that if he talks to white people about being Indian, they might see some false commonality, claim that they too are Indian, part Cherokee royalty, and you can be sure they’ve done the genealogical research to prove it. That if, on the other hand, he talks to Indians about it, they might think he’s claiming to understand what it’s like to move through this society as someone with brown skin. His greatest fear is that openly claiming his white Indian identity would only add to his skin-color privilege.
Why do you bring your children into political action, friends ask. Don’t you want to protect them?
All parents want to protect their children. The deep impulse to do so is a measure of our humanity, but the ability to do so is a measure of the society we live in, which has always said that some people are allowed to protect their children and some people aren’t. See enslaved families being wrenched apart. See Indian boarding schools. See the current assault on DACA. For white parents, protecting our children is often code for making sure they don’t see these things. Protecting our children is code for letting them believe that the police are friendly and that things are basically okay. For letting them believe in what Sarah Ahmed terms, ‘happy multiculturalism’, where trust and friendship blossom bountiful across lines of identity without much work, and certainly without pain. For accepting the benefits of whiteness, no questions asked.
Coates writes that white people ‘were something else before they were white – Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish – and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment they will have to be something else again.’ I take this proposal seriously. But how can white people divest from whiteness while remaining accountable to the damage whiteness does?
My husband’s ability to choose when, where, and to whom he reveals his tribal identity is itself a privilege, as Black/Saginaw Anishinaabe writer Kyle T. Mays points out. In a challenge to white Indians, Mays writes, ‘Like your indigenous ancestry, mine too, is invisible. But because I’m read as a black male, the animalistic threat to society, I can’t hide.’ Yet such privilege has a way of twisting back on itself. Something of a brawler, I’ve seen my husband physically throw people out of places for expressing anti-black racism, or for being openly sexist or homophobic. But I’ve also been there when white people talk about Indians while reading my husband as white. I’ve seen him lose his ability to speak, nearly lose his breath, become sick with anger and frustration, and still not tell these people he’s Indian.
Which is to say that his incognito strategy never worked very well, anyway, and it only got worse once we had kids. At home, he began to teach our older son Neshnabemwen. His family started asking if he was going to make regalia for the kids. My husband didn’t have a plan. When we took our kids to Standing Rock, it became clear that something finally needed to change.
One frigid sunrise at Oceti, my husband waited in line at the main fire with our impatient three-year-old to put down cedar and tobacco for a morning prayer. When they were nearly to the front of the line, our son jostled towards the fire. My husband yanked him back by the belt of his snowsuit, but the white woman in front of them whirled around angrily. In a state of great agitation, she said, ‘Can’t you wait? I need room. You need to give me room to say my prayer.’ While my husband firmly held our son’s hand so the woman could have enough space, she took a long time facing the four directions, oblivious of the long line of people behind her waiting in the bitter cold. When it was their turn, my husband and child knelt briefly near the fire, put in cedar and tobacco, said some soft words, and then moved on.
That was the morning hundreds of people flowed past our tent to Turtle Island, to join a group of water protectors who had launched a floating footbridge to the other side of the river, so that they could put themselves directly in the path of the pipeline. Soon the crowd of protectors on the frontlines had swelled to nearly one thousand. It had been less than a week since the police had fired water cannons at non-violent water protectors in subzero temperatures. Now, those same police stood along the ridge in full riot gear. Below them, people held drums, pipes, banners. Water is Life. Protect the Sacred. We lent our van to a media team. We rounded up goggles and water bottles and tarps to send over. I stayed in camp with our kids, while my husband went to join the mass of protectors. A tall man, early middle age, zipped up polar fleece, flinty blue eyes, stationed himself amid the stream of people, attempting to turn everyone back. Within inches of my face, he yelled, ‘The elders said go back! No direct action!’ It was hard to imagine he thought he could turn the tide. It was even harder to imagine he was addressing me, a woman walking slowly with a baby strapped to my front and holding a small child by the hand. We were nowhere near the action, yet he looked me directly in the eye, as if I were his enemy.
Later that same day, word spread that police were raiding the camp. (This alarm later turned out to be false, one of many repressive tactics by private security firms – such as TigerSwan – and law enforcement.) My mother-in-law and I agreed we should stay at our own camp, near our car seats and supplies, but several organizers asked us to gather with other women and children in a tipi about half a mile away, on reservation land. In the spirit of cooperation, we made our way there and waited. My son kicked a soccer ball and shared beef jerky with the kids who lived there. My baby nursed and napped. In the center of the tipi, a fire smoldered, and children poked at it, adding sticks and grass. After half an hour, a young white woman came in to make the request that people who weren’t part of the tribal nation to whom that tipi belonged find somewhere else to go. I was distracted momentarily by the baby, so my mother-in-law thought that I’d missed the announcement. She tried to summarize for me, saying, ‘It sounds like we’re not welcome here anymore. Maybe we can go back to our own camp now.’ The woman who had made the announcement overheard her. She became visibly angry, raising her voice. ‘We don’t want language like “not welcome” in this camp,’ she said. ‘Remember, the important thing here is unity!’ By the time she got to the word unity, she was yelling.
I’ll admit that to me, the woman at the morning fire, the man in the polar fleece, and the woman in the tipi all looked white. I’ll also admit that I don’t know their actual family background, just as they didn’t know mine. But it wasn’t the way they looked that led me to read them as non-native. It was the way that they appeared to have latched on to some piece of native guidance or tradition and were eager to find other people they read as non-native to pass this onto. More specifically, they were looking for other white people to instruct.
I could see how badly non-native people, and white people in particular, hoped to find their place at Standing Rock. I could see it because I felt it in myself. The desperate hope for clear guidelines about what to do and how to do it, the yearning to be useful, to be effective, to be considered a trusted ally. But against the vastness of genocide, colonization, and white supremacy, the pat answers provided by progressive ally politics are inadequate. Such answers rely on fantasies. The fantasy of tidy identities, the fantasy of a clear distinction between who needs help and who is doing the helping, the fantasy of a unified native voice. The progressive ally approach says that, because they benefit most from it, white people are most responsible for undoing oppression. At its face, this makes sense to many people who care about justice. But it’s a strategy heavily invested in whiteness.
When the man with the flinty blue eyes yelled into my face, invoking ‘the elders’, I thought about a conversation I’d had with my kid.
‘Why are the police bad?’ he’d asked. It was after my husband spent a couple of days in jail following a NoDAPL solidarity action. We were stacking firewood together. My son wore his electric blue snowsuit, and his blaze orange ski hat with the emblem, Netem bgednesh gdesemam (First put down tobacco). I handed him kindling, and we layered our sticks one on top of the other until the pile came close to toppling. I hedged a bit. How much time did I have?
‘For one thing,’ I told him, ‘The police don’t decide for themselves what’s right or wrong. They don’t take responsibility for themselves. They let someone else tell them what to do.’
‘But you tell me what to do,’ he said.
I had to admit this was true.
‘But I’m trying to raise you so that when you get big, and someone else tries to tell you what to do, you’ll decide for yourself,’ I said. ‘You’ll follow your heart. You’ll be responsible for your own actions.’
I am married into a tribal nation. It’s an understatement to say that what I don’t know about Indian country could fill a book. But what I have learned from the family that I married into is this: prayers are usually a humble way of saying thank you, not a public performance. What elders say is important, and when you’re in someone else’s community, it’s important to be respectful and to listen. But there are many elders and many teachers. Different people have different ones. If you hear second-hand that ‘the elders’ have said something, and they aren’t your elders, and you don’t know them, it’s not your job to use what you think they’ve said to broadcast instructions, let alone to have power over other people. Most of all, there is no one Indian voice or Indian politics.
The family I grew up in, white, middle class, urban, educated, progressive, was part of a heavily segregated world, which grew more so as I got older, neighborhoods gentrified, cafeterias sorted along color lines, childhood friendships ended. Raised to believe in the ideal of diversity and multiculturalism, but never seeing it for myself, I have been surprised to find that spending time around my husband’s tribe is easily the only actual example of ‘multiculturalism’ I regularly experience. Pokagon tribal members represent many cultural backgrounds, not to mention every color of skin, often within the same immediate and extended families.
Mays cautions against invoking multiculturalism to avoid talking about ‘structures of power rooted in whiteness and difference’. The multiracial Pokagon band is certainly not a picture of ease, let alone egalitarianism. This country restates white supremacy again and again, and to grapple with it in a multiracial community isn’t easy. But community isn’t easy. Family isn’t easy. Love isn’t easy. It never has been.
Recently, my husband’s aunt, the woman who made our son his first ribbon shirt, told us a story. When she was young, she was walking down the street with her brother, returned from the war in Vietnam. A car passed, and the driver yelled out the window to her, ‘nigger lover!’ She might not have looked white, but maybe she looked whiter than her brother. Her brother might not have looked black, but he definitely didn’t look white. I don’t know what was in the mind of this driver, and I don’t really care. He wanted to tell these siblings that they didn’t belong together. My husband’s aunt is another reason I cringe at questions about politically involved parenting. In a society like the one we live in, to raise seven children in one family, some of whom will hear racial epithets hurled at them, others of whom experience the unearned rewards of whiteness, to love each of these children fiercely, to prepare them for this world so that they won’t be torn apart, and so that they won’t be torn from each other, this is the ordinary and necessary work that my husband’s aunt did, and is doing each day. I’m not sure what could be more politically involved than that.
When she still had the small soft body of a child, my husband’s grandmother’s language was beaten out of her. Eighty years later, she took the small soft body of my child in her arms and spoke to him in that language, just one small word that she remembered, a small protecting kind of word, the kind of word a child might say to comfort herself or to remind herself of home. As they grow up, my son and his cousins and friends will find out about the pain of identity and power. They will find out the hard way. The only way is the hard way. For me to ‘protect’ him – to say, ‘You’re white, don’t pay attention, you don’t have to know!’ – would also be to pull him from his great grandmother’s lap, to separate him from that word, to tear him from his family. The benefits of being at the top of such a power structure are not benefits worth having.
Friends ask me what it means to be a politically involved parent. I don’t know. I’m consumed by many questions, but that’s not one of them. That morning at Oceti, when the woman at the fire read my son, with his coppery braids, as a white hippie kid taking up too much space, I’m not sure if he even noticed. He’s only three after all. But I noticed. And I thought, What about when he’s five? What happens when his questions get even more confounding? Though as an adult, his dad may have found an imperfect way to bear the tensions of his identities, it’s now our responsibility to give our children some tools to navigate theirs. What do we tell our son? This society is preparing him to wield the destructive power that whiteness was invented for. At the same time, his grandpa is helping him make regalia and prepare to dance, his uncle is giving him a drum and telling him how to take care of it, his dad is teaching him language, and showing him how to pray.
My husband and I talked about this. He talked to his dad, to his brothers. For some time, he’d been realizing that he was reaching the outer limit of his incognito identity strategy. Being at Standing Rock, being around so many ‘skins’, as his dad puts it, not to mention so many confused white people, helped him come to that realization. And then the temperature was dropping, heavy snow was in the forecast, and there were rumors that thousands of veterans were about to arrive at camp to deploy against the pipeline. They would need warm quarters. There was work to do. For all of these reasons, my husband and I decided he should stay on at Oceti after his mother and I took our children home. He wanted to come back to us with something else to offer our kids. Some way of being himself. Some way of teaching our children to be themselves. Some way of being a white Indian without hiding. Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda remind us that, when it comes to race, ‘It’s messy, and it’s going to stay messy’. My husband promised to come home with new ways for our children to be bold, and to be humble, and to engage with the big mess.
My husband is a builder by trade. After we left Standing Rock, he worked with other carpenters around the clock to prepare the camp for snow and wind. Because he was working adjacent to where the media were recharging their equipment, they kept asking him questions about the building efforts. They asked him his tribal affiliation. He told them. They looked at him funny. He said, ‘I’m the whitest person in my family.’ They looked at him funny again. He said, ‘Go talk to someone else.’ He kept building.
He wanted to go to a decolonization discussion, but the veterans arrived, the blizzard descended, and suddenly hundreds more people needed warm places to stay. In the end, he couldn’t attend one until his last night at camp. That night, the discussion was designated for indigenous people and people of color. He took a breath and joined the circle. He told the group who he was. He said he often felt like an undercover Indian. A Latino man said, ‘I’ll be honest. I hear that and it pisses me off. I think, I can’t opt out. I can never be undercover Latino.’ My husband heard him. He also said, ‘If people want me to leave, I’ll leave.’ Instead, the circle asked him to stay. Smoking cigarettes afterward, one man said to him, ‘We’re all organizers here. If you were bullshit, we’d know.’
Months after I’d returned from Standing Rock, I was at a large gathering that included friends and organizers, when I was startled to recognize the woman who had yelled the word ‘unity’ at my mother-in-law. I could see that she recognized me, too. The only thing to do was introduce myself.
She said, ‘I remember you. But I don’t remember your son.’ When I said it was because he was playing with the other kids in camp, I saw her relax, her face open up. That’s when she told me about another white woman who’d been camping near that tipi. This woman had decided that she didn’t want her kids hanging out with the native kids who lived there because they were a ‘bad influence’, not private schooled, not surviving solely on organic, sugar-free food. She told me that a steady stream of white-settler women had been arriving with the expectation that they, and their children, would be taken care of, their safety and well-being ensured, and that this labor had fallen mostly onto native women. In that context, she said, it had made sense to her when some Lakota women she knew and trusted asked her to hold boundaries at their tipi. It made sense to her, yet she wasn’t sure how best to do it. She let me know that I’d encountered her on one of her hardest days, doing a job she didn’t feel comfortable doing, slipping into behaviors she wasn’t proud of.
As we talked, we circled around the same questions: for white people, can answering a practical call for support across lines of race and culture be done in a way that doesn’t descend into policing or brokering, to self-congratulation and plays for power, to ironing out the nuances of identity? Can it be done in a way that isn’t invested in whiteness? She told me that when I’d introduced myself in a friendly way at the gathering, she assumed I must not be the same person she’d met at Standing Rock, because she couldn’t imagine anyone who’d met her that day smiling at her.
The polymath artist and writer John Sims, known for his project to burn and bury the confederate flag in all fifty states, describes racism in America as a ‘chronic disease’. Our mistake, in his view, is to expect a complete cure, when only ongoing treatment is possible. My husband says, ‘You can’t un-kick someone’s ass.’ What happened in the past will continue to inform what happens today, and will reignite in unexpected ways, even when people (often white people) had hoped it was laid to rest. A complete cure would mean an erasure of history. Instead, we must expect ongoing engagement, and ongoing treatment, not wholesale solutions. Not unity.
But without unity, how can action happen? Sims suggests that action comes before unity, instead of the other way around, that acting together can build the trust necessary for important interpersonal work to happen. He says that ‘people are more likely to get to the deep emotional shit, to give each other a chance, if they’ve been through the fire together’. Indigenous Action Media warns against the belief that simply ‘using the right terminology is support.’ At Standing Rock, I saw one young native organizer roll his eyes after a meeting where decolonization had been reduced to a metaphor. He said, ‘A bunch of white settlers spent a couple of hours learning how to talk nice to Indians. But no one mentioned the pipeline.’
Decolonization isn’t a metaphor. Showing up isn’t a metaphor either. When people in camp saw other water protectors standing against the police, their hearts told them to act. From what I saw, most people ignored the man in the polar fleece who had planted himself against the tide that morning. Instead, they did what seemed right to them: they stepped around him to make sure that no one stood on the frontlines alone.
I don’t usually spend a lot of time wondering what it means to be a politically involved parent. But I do wonder what struggles for justice can learn from the work that so often happens in families. Despite this country’s history of tearing some families apart, while at the same time herding parenting into a private consumer occupation, families remain territories of resistance. People fight for their families. Family bonds are far more powerful and compelling than outside systems of authority. Families are defined by tensions, strife, disunity. And ask anyone who changes diapers, wipes noses or answers the questions of people under the age of five. Family – parenting, certainly – is defined by ordinary, necessary, daily, relentless action.
At Oceti Sakowin, our tent was right on the edge of the Cannonball River, on a spit of land pointing to the hill called Turtle Island (not to be confused with the way many indigenous people refer to North America). The lights of the pipeline site overlooked our small camp. In the morning, I woke up in my sleeping bag. It was snowing outside. My infant curled in my arms, a glowing ember. Outside, as loud as if they were in the tent with us, though I knew they were lining the hillside across the river, I could hear the police on their bullhorns. They were repeating: ‘We don’t want confrontation. We don’t want violence. When you put on goggles, that is an act of aggression. When you shield yourselves with tarps, that is an act of aggression.’ The goggles were to protect against the tear gas and pepper spray widely used on water protectors. The tarps were to protect against the water cannons fired at them in the freezing cold. Abuser words. Abuser logic. Don’t make us harm you. Protecting yourself is aggression.
What can I tell my white Indian son?
You can’t un-kick someone’s ass. You can’t cure a chronic disease. It’s messy and it’s going to stay messy. But I can also tell him this: some things are mercifully simple. You’ve got to stand up to bullies even when it’s hard. Things are definitely not okay. But we love you. You belong in this big family. We are grateful to be alive and here together. We are grateful to be in good company, to ‘walk together in step with other dignified feet’, as Zapatista Subcommandante Marcos said. We may not know much, I can tell him, but we know that we are responsible for ourselves. We know that even when we fight with one other, we can also fight alongside each other. We know that when we see a few brave people standing against the line of riot police on the hillside, we are instinctively moved to stand with those people, to flood across the river to join them. Our hearts tell us to do this before our minds can talk us out of it. We can follow our hearts, though they will lead us into dangerous territory.
I know that an important part of Standing Rock for many people was prayer, and I know that I’ve barely mentioned that here, characterizing the camp as a resistance camp. The words of resistance and action come naturally to me. The words of prayer, when I use them, feel like they aren’t mine. They are still outside of my understanding. My husband lays down tobacco with our children, and is teaching our three-year-old how to pray the way that he was taught to pray, to say thank you. I stand and watch, not a part of it, but yet a part of something.
1 I assume that my readers know the context of the ongoing stands against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). If they don’t, I’m not the one to give it. Seek out Sacred Stone Camp, Indigenous Environmental Network, Honor the Earth, West Coast Women Warriors Media Cooperative, Last Real Indians, Dallas Goldtooth or other sources. Resistance to pipelines, environmental injustice and colonization began before Standing Rock and has only increased since Trump signed the executive order pushing DAPL through. Find ways to support Unist’ot’en Camp, Black Mesa, Oak Flats, Camp White Pine, L’eau Est la Vie Camp, Sabal Trail Resistance, Makwa Initiative – Line 3 frontline resistance, the effort to shut down Enbridge Line 5, resistance to the Nexus, Rover, Utopia Pipelines, and others. In May, it was leaked to the press that the private security firm TigerSwan, in the pay of ETP, collaborated with law enforcement to derail water protectors at Standing Rock, using military-style tactics, and referring to protectors as ‘terrorists’. In June, a federal judge ruled that DAPL’s permits violate the law. The case is under further review. Meanwhile, of course, oil still flows. Still in the pay of ETP, TigerSwan has widened its focus to include targeting new resistance camps. As to the more general topics engaged in this essay, to paraphrase M., the anonymous author of ‘A Critique Of Ally Politics’, they didn’t start with me, and they won’t end with me. Check out the conversations on the Indian & Cowboy media network, Unsettling America, Indigenous Action Media and other sources. Visit the Water Protector Legal Collective Facebook page to support the many water protectors still facing legal battles. Support Red Fawn Fallis by going to indi.com/FreeRedFawn.
Author’s note: I am deeply indebted to the writings, stories and ideas of M.’s, ‘A Critique Of Ally Politics’, Indigenous Action Media’s ‘Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex’, Claudia Rankine’s and Beth Loffreda’s ‘The Racial Imaginary’, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Kyle T. Mays’s ‘The Souls of White-Indians. A Letter to My White-Indian Friend’, Cindy Milstein’s anthology, Taking Sides, Revolutionary Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism, Sarah Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness, Angela Davis, John Sims, Barbara Warren, Jefferson Ballew III, Peter Cusi Gibbons-Ballew, Nector Vine Ballew, LaDonna Allard and countless water protectors of all ages I met at Standing Rock. Thank you.
Photograph © Peter Cusi Gibbons-Ballew, featuring the author’s son and his grandpa