In January this year I moved to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to take a position at Sitting Bull College teaching Native American Studies, including the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ language. Standing Rock is where I wanted to be because of its incredible work with indigenous language revitalization, particularly its growing PK-2nd grade immersion school. The Sacred Stone Spirit Camp, its overflow, and accompanying Red Warrior camp, all organizations protesting at the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site, are just thirty minutes from where I work and live. I am truly humbled by those who have dedicated days, weeks, and for some, months of their lives living right next to the Missouri River, becoming her protectors and advocates.
These campers, who are from dozens of indigenous communities and other allied organizations, are making great change. They are drawing attention to the treatment of Native peoples on this continent, uniting and sharing in a common anti-colonial and anti-capitalist goal, and protecting a resource not just for Standing Rock or Cheyenne River or the other Očhéthi Šakówiŋ communities who’s livelihood are put at risk with the crossing of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but for everyone who lives downriver from the protest site, and for us all as humans on this earth. So much has been written about the various lawsuits related to the pipeline, and on the philosophy behind the pieces of legislation involved. So much, although perhaps never enough, has been done to capture the spirit and stories of those involved in the protest, in the camps in particular.
Yet, as the school year begins, so many young Očhéthi Šakówiŋ people feel stretched thin. As classes have started up, students at all levels of education are feeling just how important education is for themselves and their communities.
Take my roommate for example: she is the director of the above-mentioned immersion school. She works late managing grants and striving to make our human resources meet our immersion school needs so that our little ones can carry on our language. These past weeks she has also worked late for the Standing Rock Tribal government assisting in external relations management, as more and more support from outside the tribe pours in. On top of that she is, as I write this, working on homework for her Master’s degree in Education.
Another friend, who has already been arrested at the front lines of the protest, has helped organize a makeshift homeschool for the children at the camp. On top of being a mother for two, she teaches our indigenous language at the camp during the day, and takes courses for her Master’s in Indian Health in the evenings. Our people have incredibly high rates of diabetes and low life expectancy compared to other groups in the United States. My friend knows that a better understanding of the systems of health that play a role in these statistics, will help her help her people.
Another friend and colleague, enrolled here on Standing Rock, can’t make it to the camp because his graduate classes in Minnesota begin this week. Having worked in Indian education before, he realizes the impact of having just one more Ph.D. from Standing Rock. And one of the students I met at the camp can’t make it this week either because he is getting ready to student-teach in South Dakota. For him it’s about balance, and this degree means so much. Očhéthi Šakówiŋ communities are in desperate need of Native teachers. Most teachers in Očhéthi Šakówiŋ country, even at tribally controlled colleges and universities (like Sitting Bull College) are non-Native, and this can have daunting effects on the education of our children and young adults.
This past week, a Sitting Bull College student and parent of a child in the immersion school, who has been at the camp probably every day since mid-August, reflected on social media about her discomfort in making the decision to go to class. She relayed that she feels torn, knowing that she can better herself through education in order to help her people, yet her thoughts, feelings, and spirit are with the camps and the water. On top of it all, she is worried about the safety of those at the front lines of the protest. Indeed, DAPL’s outrageous response to protests this Saturday only exacerbates that anxiety.
My colleagues and friends realize just how important this protest is to our people and to Native sovereignty in general. But they also realize how important school, and particularly a college degree is to their communities.
And that’s the rub. While protests, particularly this protest, need people. There are few young people on this reservation who can explain the history of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, what it does, and why its involved in this case against DAPL. There are few young people on this reservation who know that this is not the first time Standing Rock has filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the Missouri River.
And how could they? In an education system that’s strapped for cash, just like most education systems that serve poor communities, how could they make time to teach Native people’s history when only mainstream US history is brought up on the standardized tests? How could they in classroom after classroom that is led by white teachers, who either don’t know the history of the reservation, or refuse to address it because those histories cause too much guilt? Indeed, it makes most of America too uncomfortable to adequately bear witness to the violence of the Dawes Act, the Termination Act, or even the Pick-Sloan Plan. (And these are congressional acts that didn’t directly result in Native bloodshed.)
While living in Berkeley, it sometimes seemed like protesting on university grounds, as it was a state university, was our way of telling the school, and therefore the state, what we need, what is fair, what is right. We could partially take away from our studies, we could partially take a break from our intellectual exercises, because making our needs known was more important than that day’s class. Plus, we had the means and capability of catching up if we needed to. But here on Standing Rock students are realizing that they need that education, they need those intellectual exercises, they need those degrees and they need them quick.
I applaud those who are out at the camp every night, and deeply thank those who have travelled far to protest this injustice. I also applaud those who continue to work, behind the scenes at their desks or in the classroom, to make sure that the Očhethi Šakowiŋ have some things going when this particular fight is over. But most of all, I applaud the students, who are seriously contemplating the choice for how to spend their time. NO ONE SHOULD HAVE TO MAKE THIS KIND OF CHOICE. No one should have to feel like they are postponing their future to ensure that there will even be a future.