Let Sage Light Shine
Following my second self-deployment to Standing Rock, I am still trying to compose a compelling letter to President Obama, to beg him to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline by executive order… to be the American hero his reputation is based on. However, despite or rather perhaps because of the clarity of injustice involved and the ecological prudence this decision rests upon, I find myself tongue tied and trying not to shout when addressing a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize just after he was elected leader of the free world. A man I voted for twice, whom I have tended to endorse and support, in spite of the hypocrisy inherent in being the President of the United States.
But this, even from one of his super loyal fan base of black Americans, is inexcusable and unacceptable.
Dear President Obama,
Thousands of US citizens and millions of people around the world, including US senators, politicians, celebrities, human rights organizations, scientists, clergy, lawyers, lawmakers, children, people of all races and genders, hundreds of Indigenous North and South American tribes, and thousands of veterans of US wars have gathered to raise our voices against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). DAPL is a billion dollar investment of banks and other representatives of the wealthiest 1% of the US and global population in a future dependent on environmentally destructive, completely non-sustainable fossil fuel consumption. This is an unsound, unjust, and ultimately absurd financially exploitative initiative that threatens the lives of 18 million human beings who also happen to be US citizens, as well as the health and lives of our progeny for all generations to come. Construction of this pipeline is an invasion upon land that not only originally but still belongs to Native Americans, that threatens their sacred sites, ancestors’ burial grounds, their lives, health, and that of their children immediately.
Upon any basis other than greed, racism/white supremacy, destructive obsession and corruption, it is utterly illogical and completely unethical to allow this pipeline to be built. I say this emphatically noting not only what is at stake but also the powerful, inspiring, and impressive human resistance, which I am honored to be part of, along with my unborn child in utero, that has formed at this critical moment in time and history to protect Standing Rock, North Dakota, the Missouri River, its tributaries, and all land and water downstream, and to reset a precedent for all of us who drink water, live on Earth.
Please find the conscience, the creativity, and the care to STOP the DAKOTA ACCESS PIPELINE from being built/completed IMMEDIATELY — By any means necessary! I believe creating a US protected area at Standing Rock, under the official stewardship of the Lakota Sioux tribe, would be most appropriate and wise.
Following my second return from Standing Rock one of the most important lessons impressed upon me is the importance of centering women of color. In general but especially in our liberation movements which I believe cannot thrive without this.
As a coalition formed largely by word of mouth and signs posted on the port-a-potties, hundreds of women of all colors, ages, backgrounds linked arms in silence and proceeded — not entirely unimpeded even within our own main camp, (Oceti Sakowin, the largest of the three land spaces that form the resistance camp/large village of Standing Rock)— to the front lines at Backwater Bridge, where just a week before unarmed water protectors in subzero temperatures were fired upon by Morton County police with water cannons, sound grenades (one of which effectively shattered one young woman’s arm), rubber bullets at dangerously close range (many of which were aimed at women’s genitals), and noxious tear gas.
We walked in silence, in prayer, in peace.
I carried with me my steel tea thermos with its new sticker that depicts a woman made of swirling waters that circle at her belly, standing at the river open-armed, looking up. “We are water” it says below. This image had been gifted to me days before in the herbal tipi by a fellow woman water protector upon learning of my pregnancy. Like Starhawk, the non-native co-leader of this action, who brought with her waters from around the world to share at Cannonball River, I struggled to keep the pace, being nearly 8 months along.
Moments before I joined in the procession as it passed through Rosebud Sicangu Spirit Camp I sat at our sacred fire — the fire that had called me back after my first visit — praying, making an offering of tobacco, when another woman, nameless to me, hopped out of a truck and ran over to me asking, “Is it true you’re in your third trimester?” Yes, I smiled. She thanked me for being there, for going on the women’s pilgrimage. She wished me many blessings, then she had to leave.
There was no question for me I had to march, and once in the powerful silent flow there was furthermore no question how far I would go, all the way to the frontline. Someone handed me a small bundle of sage. Along the walk we passed a fire and a sign next to it announcing that circle as a safe space for people of color. A brother (which is to say one of mine especially, although I never met him, a black man) tended the large fire with a pitchfork. I handed the bundle to him wordlessly. He lit it and handed it back. I thanked him with prayer hands a small bow. This little light of mine, I thought as I carried on, I’m going to let it shine.
“I saw you all walking over the hill. It was a beautiful sight to behold. The way that you really were moving like a river: powerful yet gentle, and nourishing, nourishing the land with your every step.” -Lyla June 💧Women-led Silent March and Water Ceremony at Standing Rock frontline November 27, 2016
Aside from the winding distance briskly walked, the most challenging stage of this action for me was while sitting on the concrete bridge in the middle of 1806, the barricaded road. I couldn’t hear what was happening far in front at the barrier (where Cheryl Angel voiced her powerful prayers which have moved me to tears more than once), but I could see the cops, lined up and dressed for war behind the razor wire. Here we, unarmed unspeaking women water protectors, were all vulnerable: to arrest, to attack, to the unknown.
We remained silent and steadfast and several times raised our hands in the peace sign together. When I felt anxious I reminded myself to pray and did my best to employ the meditation techniques I’ve learned as a yoga teacher and from silent retreats in India years ago. I reminded myself that fear is useless and the enemy. I banished it and forbade it to return. It worked. But certainly I felt palpably the energy that this peace and prayer took to enact. In that I felt grateful for the silence. And for the sage against the machine still burning between my gloved fingers.
“Tonight was the first all women lead action to the front lines.medium.com
After a time we all rose and moved over to our left looking out over the bridge at the frozen river. Cheryl Angel, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Starhawk, and a few other elder Native women were being allowed to cross the barrier and walk along the north side of the riverbank to complete the water ceremony! They carried our prayers, tobacco, and the offering of global waters to touch the threatened Cannonball River. We had succeeded where no one had yet since the barricades were raised weeks ago!
Remaining in silence, women shared tobacco handed out amongst those of us still on the bridge to participate at a distance in the prayerful action. I slowly let the crumbs of tobacco in my left hand float out into the freezing air over the ice below. Sage smoke swirled around us all. Almost twilight now, I focused on letting the beautiful colors of the sky — rose, indigo, violet, snow— golden prairie grass, and slate and silver river ice burn into my mind as I bore witness to this small, miraculous ceremony that I hope someday will become a painted memory.
“I have been here in Standing Rock for a week, and it feels like a month.medium.com
Finally, once reunited with our elders, linking arms in rows once again, we turned around and marched ever silently back to the sacred fire at Oceti Sakowin. There Cheryl Angel expressed her joy at being able to complete this action peacefully and Lyla June reflected upon how the spirit of our ancestors were with us instead of fear. By then we stood in darkness as it began to rain. The weather would turn into a blizzard blanketing all of camp in thick snow by morning.
Extremely fortunately, I found myself staying at the midwifery yurt that night, and, as it would turn out, every night of my stay after that. In a space as intensely warm and essentially dark as a womb itself, I found my way to the wisdom and direction I have been longing/asking/praying for for months now. Or rather those directions found me, flowing like water, at my most vulnerable and tender state of being.
“Everyday ask yourself: Did you mother someone? Were you mothered? What did you learn? What did you help someone else learn?” — wisdom from Melissa Rose, an indigenous midwife on her third trip to Standing Rock.
In Mni Wiconi Field Midwifery Yurt I realized how crucial a space that centers and cares integrally for women of color is, how powerful such a place can be. I, a black woman with distant native (and white) heritage pregnant with a mixed, partially Cherokee baby, needed a warm and safe place to stay — one such as the midwifery yurt with kindness experts and a secret toilet seemed almost too good to be true. I anguished internally over taking up space there. But what choice did I have?
Truly, if I were not in the process of becoming a mother, instinctively protective, prioritizing the wellness of her child over everything, including social acceptability, I likely would have allowed my health (including my mental well-being) to be jeopardized by staying put/squeezing into a much colder, perilously smokier tipi unfortunately settled by a stifling majority of white men (of varying degrees but low average of wokeness) in another camp.
As if with magic wands, however, the midwives waved away any trace of my embarrassed doubt, offering me a choice of cot or massage table to sleep on. The next day while snowed in in remarkable quiet and peace, and unable to venture far safely, I learned much through deep conversations about race, birthing practices, patriarchy, among other topics, over hot herbal tea and restful silences. In the days after that I tried to make myself useful through cleaning, (carefully) fetching food from the mess hall, handing out supplies to protectors (lots of baby wipes), and, once, guarding the lock-less door during a pelvic exam…
Ironically, it turned out that one of the most consistent ways I could share my gratitude was exactly through the inconvenient condition in which I had arrived. Because of the baby inside, I wake up frequently in the wee hours to pee — making me the best person to keep the wood stove fire going all night long! So in that unseen way, my baby and I ensured that the midwifery yurt stayed in its perfectly appropriate, warm, womb-like state 24/7.
“Your word is your wand.” -wisdom from Michelle, an accomplice midwife
I am confident that the directions I received — on being a single parent, on making a difference in the world as a woman, in herbal cures, on becoming a midwife myself, and much more— will continue to unfold with love, particularly over the next couple of months when I will (gasp!) fully become a mother by giving birth for my very first time. Yet the maternal, ancestral connections I feel to the time and space of my second stay at Standing Rock are too real to deny that some of this experience must be a gift from my own mother, beyond the veil. I am deeply honored and humbled not only by her enduring spirit, but truly by all the water protectors, especially the women, who have become a vessel for these powerful, natural, spiritual exchanges — and societal changes — to manifest.