by Leah Forester
The Natives are restless. They’re rising up across America to defend human rights and environmental justice. The unifying force? A fierce mission to block the Dakota Access Pipeline or “Black Snake” which will potentially carry 400,000 barrels of oil a day under the Missouri River, endangering a water source for 18 million people. These water protectors are tirelessly praying, beating drums, and banding together to protect the sacred–the land, the water, the creatures large and small. Meanwhile, the governmentrolls back one EPA protection after another. As a mother to small children, I join them in their fight to protect Mother Earth. As an artist, I’m drawn in by the drums, the beauty of the people, their incredible resilience.
As an idealist and dreamer, I’m in wonderment of their connection to Great Spirit and the fearlessness they display while standing against injustice, something they have been doing for over 500 years. Thousands of people of all colors and creeds, the warriors of the rainbow have been touched by this moment and have made the pilgrimage to Standing Rock to be of service and defend the water for all of us. As our Native brothers and sisters say, “We are all relatives.” The world has plenty of struggles going on but sometimes our hearts get captured by one particular story because it has a lot to teach us. That’s what happened to me.
I was captivated by the incredible creativity coming out of the Standing Rock movement, the Art-ivism: protest art and music that spoke to my larger question. What does it really mean to be an “American?” A quest of this nature demanded that I look beyond what I had been taught in classrooms and through mainstream media; it meant I had to go beyond colonialism and my white privilege. It demanded that I step out of my comfort zone and learn a bit about real American history. My teachers came in the form of Nakota Elder Frank Iron Eagle, and the Navajo artist Thundervoice Eagle, two gentle souls who crossed cultural boundaries to share their experience with me. Class is in session.
“This conversation is related to immigration patterns across the country in which we are forced into negotiating with not only the United States, but Great Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal. So we did have relationships with that Eastern European migration to the West, and culturally we already knew that that was going to happen because the prophecy of that day was the boat people were coming. What they saw was a dove. A symbol of peace. But this dove, he had a regular talon and on his other talon was that of a hawk in this prophecy.
The interpretation of that was to be careful because this dove was coming in peace, but it also had the talon of a hawk, which means he was a very greedy, greedy dove. And so basically these prophecies that have been told, if you really study and look at the environment and how everything has been developed since that landing, you see that the basic drive for the American Way became that of a house, and a picket fence, and 2.5 kids, and a two-car garage, and that was the American Dream. It was spread all over the world, so we have immigration from a global society here now in our country. We have always been in a reactive state. We are always reacting, a push and shove, so as the migration went West, of course there was push and shove.
Our migration pattern was that of the buffalo. We followed the buffalo. As the movement towards the gold fields in Colorado along the Bozeman Trail, the pioneers I guess you could say, basically wiped off the buffalo and there was a wide-set bounty on every buffalo and I have seen pictures of mountains of skulls. What they did was they let the body lie on the prairie. They took the heads, and they counted the heads, and that is how they received their bounty. Basically, one culture’s expansion has annihilated another culture’s existence. This was all driven by a dream of gold, a dream of riches. But in our culture, we pattern ourselves after the environment.
We pattern ourselves after the bears, the buffalo, the elk, the cougar. All of these animals, we pattern ourselves after, and we learn from these animals how to move, how to hunt, how to defend ourselves, how to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves. So we have been trying that year, after year, after year, and we still do it, and we will never give up trying to do that. Our commitments to creation, to humanity, to the environment, and to the fire, the water, the earth to walk on; have all been commitments that we have kept since our creation story. In order for us to keep walking on this earth we need to identify our personal commitment to our existence. If we all were to identify that personal commitment, then I believe humanity can be on the same page at once. On a spiritual level, on an intellectual level, a political level, and soon, the word is finally being heard and it is not falling on deaf ears anymore. People are listening.”
I think we all have so much to learn from Iron Eagle and the Sioux traditions, and to be in a place of listening and learning, rather than doing what we have traditionally done as this dominant entitled culture, which is to come in and try to think that we know how to do things. To colonize. It is time for us to shut up, and listen, and learn, and go backwards, and simplify, and get back in touch with what the sacred aspects of life are, so that we can sustain ourselves and have the truly global kind of society that we think we want. But our actions have been taking us in a completely different direction.
When I went to my first rally against the Dakota Access Pipeline, I heard somebody get up onto the mic and say, “We are all relatives.” That is such a novel idea. None of us are walking around on this world thinking that way. If the people who have been the most oppressed by us can still identify us as relatives, maybe we can adopt that same thinking. This idea of forgiveness and of prayer, for me that has just been, on a personal level, a huge lesson of how we can each address our own individual battles with this same thinking. It takes the separation away from us. Person to person, nation to nation, this is really the beginning of thinking about world peace from the inside out.