Those Fighting To Preserve Native Land Are Protectors, Not Protesters

By Sara Kent

We all long for meaningful, personal identity.

A big piece of mine as a girl in the northern woods of Maine was knowing that, on my mother’s side, both parents had roots in the Penobscot Nation tribe. This heritage was part of my sense of home; the tiny town I grew up in, too small for a stoplight, was located in Penobscot County.

When I looked down at my long fingers — my hands and feet with their pronounced bones and veins that had become representative to me of capable features of that legacy — I felt a deep surge of pride. Everywhere my feet took me, everything my hands did, felt linked to a piece of the past somewhere in my blood.

I never connected with the Penobscot Nation reservation 80 miles to the south, but I spent long hours alone among the evergreens and ferns and moss, wistfully imagining what it would have been like to have lived one or two hundred years prior. I practiced moving stealthily across the moss and earth and sprawling tree roots, avoiding twigs and attuning my awareness to signs of life around me. I tried to move my canoe through the lake water without the paddle making sound. One summer afternoon I rested in the tall grasses that had been pressed down by a sleeping deer the prior night, curling myself into her shape.

This identity helped shape what has become my life’s passion and work: environmental preservation. I believe that wild spaces must be preserved for their own sake, as a tribute to those who have walked through them harmlessly for millennia, and for the wonder and identity of children to come.

Professionally, I support environmental advocates and fight to maintain the integrity of natural resources near where I live now, in Southern California. Last week I streamed a hearing of a proposed development of one of the last remaining stretches of coastal open space in this region. My nonprofit’s attorney joined hours of public testimony and made strongly worded comments in favor of preservation.

Many of the speakers from local tribes spoke passionately and tearfully for protection of the land. Not only are there threatened species in the area, but as Dr. Charles Sepulveda of Cal Poly Pomona, speaking with the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, emotionally shared, there are burial grounds and a village site documented as recently as the mid-19th century.

It is too easy to hear “sacred Indian burial grounds” and feel an ethereal sense of something we should respect, but dismiss it almost as quickly as superstition. Many shrug off desecration in modern society as unavoidable.

But it would have been impossible to ignore these speakers. My chest tightened when Dr. Sepulveda said: “We know their names. These were very real people that were displaced by Spanish colonialism. We are descendants of those people.” He continued: “I view this land as sacred, where my ancestors lived, worked, prayed, and were buried . . . As a native scholar, I often teach, write, and speak about the importance of place . . . Native peoples have been unable to be stewards of our own lands in Orange County because of the genocidal colonialism we experienced. Banning Ranch can provide opportunity for Native peoples to reconnect with our lands and can provide us the ability continue teaching our children the sacredness of place.”

They weren’t just faceless historical inhabitants. Each member has a name.

His comments reminded me of the single portrait, which hung on the wall of my home growing up, that includes my Penobscot great great grandfather. He has a name. His parents and children and siblings are part of me.

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In North Dakota, #NoDAPL protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe have shed light on this all-too-common form of desecration, as well as the brave people who fight against it. Developers bulldozing on sacred burial grounds to make way for the Dakota Access Pipeline are destroying the bones of cherished people with names and histories. It is theft of irreplaceable resources from the future. It’s the pillaging of the history of living people in favor of a profitable, temporal present — profiting none of those who bear the cost of loss. It represents a bloody sacrifice of our collective future with the smoke and pollution from the burning of fossil fuel and the negative health impacts this causes. It is the potential and likely ruination of water in the years ahead, unnecessarily replacing rich resources of the past with poison.

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These realities were fully acknowledged during Tuesday’s showing of solidarity for Standing Rock Sioux in San Diego.

The evening began with an Aztec prayer: a dance, and a calling out for the safety of those in North Dakota standing with the Standing Rock tribe. The scent of burning sage permeated my senses, the drums shook my chest, and tears filled my eyes as I realized such prayer is necessary. North Dakota nights are becoming colder, and the treatment by “law enforcement” of those peaceably preventing eternal loss of the sacred has been inhumane.

Diana Duro from the local Cupeño (Kupa) Tribe of the Pala Reservation looked meaningfully at the crowd of 300 and spoke into the microphone:

“‘Pala’ means ‘water . . .’ Our people are a prayer people. We are a nation within a nation that has forgotten how to pray. We are here for a Divine purpose: The Creator has assigned us positions to take care of the earth.

We are not protesters. We are PROTECTORS.”

She then joined the Kupa Dancers at the center of the crowd.

I stood with the others and held a scrawled sign for passers-by and crews using the Aztec dancers as an evening news backdrop. I wondered if TV viewers at home could hear the drumbeat over the descriptions by the newscasters of the colorful scene.

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Gina Tiger-Madueno of the Standing Rock Sioux/Hunkpapa Lakota spoke eloquently of her deep sense of obligation to do all within her power to help. Next week she will leave her home and small child in San Diego County to support Standing Rock preservationists in North Dakota. Members of the crowd contributed funds Gina will use to help provide supplies for winter. She said poignantly: “This is not a Standing Rock issue, this is not a Native issue. This is an issue to all of us as humans. We need water.”

Masada Disenhouse held a bag for the cash donations. She and other climate activists organized on behalf of SD350, a climate action organization that has done exemplary work over the years conveying the negative impacts of local projects on human lives. But aside from some minor facilitation at the microphone and some important points made by Masada connecting climate, history, and future health to the necessity of leaving fossil fuels in the ground and preventing the oil pipeline, they focused the night squarely on representatives of local tribes.

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Dahlia Tayag of California Registered Nurses also stood with colleagues in solidarity and opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Their message, quite simply: Poisoned air and water makes people sick.

Before inviting members of the crowd to dance with her, Dianne Duro spoke again as the sun was lowering, held up her hand, and said: “[Alone] we are like fingers that can break, but together we can make a fist!”

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SD350 volunteers had painted and printed handheld signs, collaborated with local law enforcement, promoted the rally, and stood with lighted letters spelling “#NODAPL WATER IS LIFE” along Broadway after darkness fell. They worked hard, but appropriately placed the spotlight and attention where it belonged in an excellent showing of allyship. I aspire to similarly build capacity, then quiet my voice to amplify the voices of others.

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There were more than 200 such peaceful protests across the U.S. Tuesday in a continued effort to urge the Obama Administration to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Amplifying existing voices, adding our own, and funding the tireless efforts of on-the-ground Protectors is necessary to the preservation of identity and place.

It was clear at the rally in San Diego that we need to continue uniting to stop this demolishment of the past, our present, and the future. Once sacred sites are destroyed, they are gone. They are gone for living descendants of the land and their children, who may have oral histories and music and rituals, but not the sense of place intrinsically tied to the meanings of that active heritage. We must stop the erasure of these sites for temporary profit in a time that needs identity more than ever.

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In this Southern California corner of the United States, the Cupeño Tribe of the Pala Reservation, the Barona Band of Kumeyaay, La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, and others stand with brothers and sisters at Standing Rock. The Penobscot Tribe in Northern Maine stands in solidarity with the Standing Rock in the Dakotas.

I do, too. Do you?

We are not protesters. We are Protectors.

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