How the Women of Standing Rock Are Building Sovereign Economies
By Tracy L. Barnett
Sources reviewed this article for accuracy.
For Sicangu Lakota water protector Cheryl Angel, Standing Rock helped her define what she stands against: an economy rooted in extraction of resources and exploitation of people and planet. It wasn't until she'd had some distance that the vision of what she stands for came into focus.
"Now I understand that sustainable sovereign economies are needed to replace the system we support with our purchasing power," she said. "Our ancient teachings have all of those economies passed down in traditional families."
Cheryl Angel leads a group on pilgrimage at Black Elk Peak, one of four Lakota sacred sites that were visited during the Sovereign Sisters Gathering.
Together with other front-line leaders from Standing Rock, including Lakota historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard and Diné artist and activist Lyla June (formerly Lyla June Johnston), Angel began acting on this vision in June at Borderland Ranch in Pe'Sla, the grasslands at the heart of the Black Hills in South Dakota. Nearly 100 Indigenous water protectors and non-Indigenous allies met there for one week to take steps to establish a sovereign economy.
The first annual Sovereign Sisters Gathering brought together women and their allies to talk about how to oppose the current industrialized economy and establish a new model, one in which Indigenous women reclaim and reassert their sovereignty over themselves, their food systems and their economies.
"When did we as a people lose our self-empowerment? When did we wait for a government to tell us whether or not we could have health care? When did we wait for them to feed us?" Allard asked. "When did we wait for laws and policies to be created so that we could have a community? When did that happen?
Sovereign Sisters drove to Rapid City, South Dakota during the gathering to join a protest and court hearing of the Riot Booster Act, a bill introduced by Governor Kristi Noem aimed at criminalizing pipeline protestors.
"We've given our power over to an entity that doesn't deserve our power," she added, referencing the modern corporate industrial system. "We must take back that empowerment of self. We must take back our own health care. We must take back our own food. We must take back our families. We must take back our environment. Because you see what's happening. We gave the power to an entity, and the entity is destroying our world around us."
Allard, June and Angel shared a bit about the work they've been doing to establish sovereignty, each in her own way, since the Standing Rock encampments.
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard: Planting Seeds
As the woman who established the first water protector encampment at Standing Rock — called Sacred Stone Camp —and issued a call for support that launched a movement, Allard learned a lot about sovereignty and empowerment during the battle against the Dakota Access pipeline.
As the camps began to dismantle in the last weeks of the uprising, she frequently fielded the question: "What do we do now?"
Allard's response was simple: "Plant seeds."
Lakota Elder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard joined a van full of fellow Sacred Stone Village residents who made the five-hour drive from Standing Rock to join the Sovereign Sisters Gathering.
Planting seeds is what Allard has been doing since the Standing Rock encampment, as she's worked with her neighbors and with those who stayed on at Sacred Stone Camp toward a vision of a sustainable community.
"I tell people that our first act of sovereignty is planting food," Allard said. "Our first act is taking care of self. So no matter what we do, if we're not taking care of self, we've already failed."
These days, self-care is more important than ever, she said, with the accelerating climate crisis, something that Native people are acutely aware of and have seen coming for a long time. "We're not worrying — we're preparing," she said.
Sacred Stone Village has installed four microgrids of solar power and have two mobile solar trailers used to connect dwelling areas that can also be taken on the road for trainings, and the neighboring town of Cannon Ball has opened a whole solar farm. They've been planting fruit trees and growing gardens, fattening the chickens, stockpiling firewood. And in some ways, life on the reservation is already a preparation in itself.
"On the Standing Rock reservation, as you know, we are below poverty level, and many of the people live by trade and barter. A lot of people live in homes without electricity and running water. We burn wood to heat our homes," Allard said. "What I find in the large cities is people who don't know how to live. And their environment — if you took away the electricity and the oil, what would they do? We already know how to live without those things."
Lyla June: The Forest as Farm
A Diné/Cheyenne/European American musician, scholar and activist, June has gravitated toward a focus on food sovereignty through her work to revitalize traditional food systems. Currently, she's in a doctoral program in traditional food systems and language at the University of Alaska, where she works with Indigenous elders around the country to uncover the genius of the continent's original cultivators.
"I think there's a huge mythology that Native people here were simpletons, they were primitive, half-naked nomads running around the forest, eating hand to mouth whatever they could find," she said. "That's how Europe portrays us. And it's portrayed us that way for so many centuries that even we start to believe that that's who we were.
"The reality is, Indigenous nations on this Turtle Island were highly organized. They densely populated the land, and they managed the land extensively. And this has a lot to do with food because a large motivation to prune the land, to burn the land, to reseed the land, and to sculpt the land was about feeding our nations. Not only our nations, but other animal nations, as well."
Musician, public speaker, and scholar Lyla June on recovering traditional food systems: "What we're finding… is that human beings are meant to be a keystone species… what [we're] trying to do is bring the human being back into the role of keystone species, where our presence on the land nourishes the land."
June is intrigued by soil core samples that delve thousands of years into the past; analysis of fossilized pollen, charcoal traces and soil composition reveals much about land use practices through the ages. For example, in Kentucky, a soil core sample that went back 10,000 years shows that about 3,000 years ago the forest was dominated by cedar and hemlock. But about 3,000 years ago the whole forest composition changed to black walnut, hickory nut, chestnut and acorn; edible species such as goosefoot and sumpweed began to flourish.
"So these people—whoever moved in around 3,000 years ago — radically changed the way the land looked and tasted," she said.
So did the colonizers, but in a much different way. The costs to the food system as a result of colonization, she said, is becoming clear, and the mounting pressure of the climate crisis is making a shift imperative.
"When did we start waiting for others to feed us? That's no longer going to be a luxury question," June said.
Besides the vulnerability of monocrops to extreme weather events, these industrial agricultural crops are also dependent on pesticides and herbicides. Additionally, pests are adapting, producing chemical resistant insects and superweeds.
"We're running out of bullets in our food system, and it's quite precarious right now," she said. "The poor animals that we farm are also on the precipice … so we're in a state where we should probably start asking ourselves that question now, before we're forced to, and remember the joy of feeding ourselves."
That's June's intention: to take what she's learned from a year of apprenticeships with Indigenous elders in different bioregions, then return home to Diné Bikéyah — Navajo territory — to apply it, regenerating traditional Navajo food systems in an interactive action research project aimed at both teaching and learning, refining techniques with each year.
"I'm hoping at the end of three years, or four years, we will be fluent in our language and in our food system," June said. "And we will be operating as a team — and we will have a success story that other tribes can look to and model and be inspired by."
The long-range goal, she said, is to create an autonomous school that teaches traditional culture, language and food systems that can be a model for other Indigenous communities.
Cheryl Angel: Creating Sovereign Communities
To Angel, sovereignty is best expressed in creating community — the temporary communities created at gatherings, like at the Sovereign Sisters Gathering, but also more permanent communities, like at Sacred Stone Village.
Part of being sovereign lies in strengthening and rebuilding sharing economies, she said. And part of it lies in reducing waste, rejecting rampant consumerism and the harmful aspects of the modern industrial system, like single-use plastics and toxic chemicals.
Cheryl Angel in a late-night talking circle, sharing reflections about her Lakota ancestors: "We were never into entitlement; that's why we didn't have kings. We were into revering, honoring, relating to everything around us. All of these living spirits around us… That's the system nobody is talking about, that needs to be protected."
"I saw it all happen at Standing Rock; everybody came with all of their skills, and they brought [their] economies—and they were medicating people, they were healing people, they were feeding people, cooking for people, training people, making people laugh — they were doing everything. Everything we needed, it came to Standing Rock."
Despite the money the pipeline company spent to repress the uprising, she said, water protectors around the world stepped up and pitched in to create an alternate economy at Standing Rock, and millions were raised to support the resistance.
"We could do that again. We can gift our economies between each other. We're doing it right here," Angel told the women assembled in the Black Hills — women who were gardeners and builders, craftswomen and cooks, healers and lawyers, filmmakers and writers — and, above all, water protectors. "These few days we've been here prove to me and should prove to you that we have the skills to create communities without violence, without drugs, without alcohol, without patriarchy — just with the intent to live in peace."
Tracy L. Barnett wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Tracy is a freelance writer based in Mexico and the founder of The Esperanza Project. Interviews with Cheryl, LaDonna and Lyla June are featured in the magazine's Women of Standing Rock series.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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