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A thousand-year-old Lakota prophecy tells of a Black Snake that would one day rise from the deep and move across the land bringing destruction and great sorrow. The Sioux believe that the Black Snake has arrived in the form of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the most powerful economic and political force in the world—the fossil fuel industry.
Not long after our group of travelers arrived at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota for a weeklong stay at the native-owned casino hotel, we began to meet Water Protectors, who were suffering from a police attack a few days before our arrival.
From home I had watched the horrifying scene on live stream. Blocked from escape, hundreds of unarmed Water Protectors on the bridge across the Cannonball River were blasted with water cannons for six hours in sub-freezing temperatures. I could see clouds of tear gas and hear people screaming and calling for a medic as the cameraman expressed disbelief that this was happening to unarmed civilians. Later we got the full report that exploding percussion grenades had severely damaged a native woman's eye and blown off most of the arm of a 21-year-old woman from New York. Several hundred were hospitalized for hyperthermia and injuries. In earlier confrontations, non-violent Water Protectors defending sacred sites from bulldozers were beaten with batons, bitten by vicious dogs, arrested, stripped searched and locked up for days in jail cells or held in dehumanizing dog kennels.
Now we were meeting victims first hand. The native-led Water Protectors, as they call themselves, rather than protestors, are living in nearby encampments to defend the land, water and sacred sites of the Sioux. There is no running water in the camps, so as other hotel guests were doing, we offered our rooms for hot showers. A young native man still covered with tear gas residue sprayed on him three days earlier, was suffering from a deep cough. Another had a broken hand. A native woman who worked on camp security fell asleep from exhaustion on one of our beds. Before taking his shower, a non-native ally who served as a medic showed us a blue colored rubber bullet about the size of a golf ball, one of many that had lacerated heads, broken bones and knocked people unconscious, including an elder. The medic had been thrown backward when he was hit squarely in the chest. He thought that surely, the large red cross he wore on the front of his jacket had been used as a target.
When I first caught sight of the law enforcement officers a few days later, I felt a chill. Dozens of helmeted policeman stood in a row along the high ridge of Turtle Island, a place of ancient burial sites sacred to the Sioux. Dark figures silhouetted against the sky loomed menacingly above the peaceful protestors gathered at the base of the hill holding a large banner reading Indigenous Sovereignty Protects Water. Behind them along the banks of the Cannonball River sprawled an encampment of teepees, tents, yurts, trailers, horse corrals and old school buses. Guarding the bridge where the recent attack had taken place, another row of police officers in riot gear wearing black helmets with face guards held bully sticks across their bullet proof vests as they stood behind shining coils of razor wire and concrete barriers flanked by armored vehicles.
These armed forces were protecting what lay out of view behind them—the construction of the oil pipeline headed toward the nearby Missouri River. The original route of the pipeline had run to the north near the city of Bismarck, a largely white community that had insisted the pipeline be rerouted down stream to cross the river next to the Sioux reservation. If successful the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) would bore under the river, threatening the source of drinking water for the reservation and millions downstream in its mission to carry 20 million gallons a day of crude oil fracked from the Bakken oil fields. With the frequency of oil spills increasing, including two major recent spills in North Dakota, the danger is real. If the pipeline does succeed in bringing the oil to market, it will produce the carbons equivalent to 30 coal power plants every year for 20 years or more.
Mni Wiconi—Water is Life— is the call from Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), the largest of several camps at Standing Rock, named for the seven tribes of the Sioux nation, which include the Lakota. Located next to the reservation and preserved for indigenous use under the 1851 Treaty of Laramie, this land was never ceded by the Sioux. Oceti Sakowin and the first camp called Sacred Stone were started in the spring of 2016, and joined by several other encampments, all run by volunteers. Non-violent and spiritually centered, the Standing Rock movement honors the sacredness of the natural world. Throughout the camps Defend the Sacred is printed on banners and on t-shirts proudly worn by native teenagers. All seven tribes of the great Sioux Nation, some former enemies, have joined together at Oceti Sakowin for the first time since Little Big Horn. Along the camp's main road wave the colorful flags of some 300 tribes who have journeyed across the Americas, from Argentina to Alaska, bringing traditional dress, ceremonial pipes and drums to join the Sioux in the largest gathering of Native Americans in recorded history.
In support of this native-led movement tens of thousands of non-native allies have joined the camps swelling them at one point to as many as 10,000. Many more have visited to bring supplies and resources to support Standing Rock. Our group of 35 traveled to North Dakota to cook and serve 2,000 dinners on Thanksgiving to express our gratitude to Native Americans for protecting Mother Earth, as they have throughout history. The Wopila (thank you) Brigade, as we called ourselves, spent two days at the Standing Rock Community High School kitchen, preparing the dinner, which we served in the school gymnasium, as well as distributed in the camps. Our brigade worked hand-in-hand with the school staff, who brushed away tears when they thanked us for coming, explaining that for so long the native community had felt unseen and forgotten.
Our dinner began with a prayer by elder Jesse Taken Alive who had given a Lakota name to the event that translates Because We Believe Them, We Are Feeding Them. In continuous loops from the camps, the Water Protectors arrived in school buses and were offered hot showers in the locker rooms before heading to the buffet. Jane Fonda appeared and asked me how she could help. "How about dishing out the mashed potatoes," I suggested, which she happily did. With their plates heaping with turkey, potatoes and gravy, and an array of vegetable dishes, our guests made their way to the gymnasium to take seats at long banquet tables we had covered in the Sioux colors of the four directions - red, yellow, black and white. Displayed on the tables and along one wall were colorful thank you cards made by Philadelphia area school children drawn in crayon with messages such as, "thank you First Nation People for helping the air and water and earth. Ethan, third grader."
This Thanksgiving, I'm going to Standing Rock with a delegation of more than 50 people from across the U.S. to cook and serve dinner for 500 Water Protectors, as a small way to give back to Native Americans on our national day of thanks.
Looking back on history, Native Americans saved the lives of newly arrived Europeans in what is now Massachusetts by sharing their harvest in the winter of 1620. The Wampanoag, who had lived in the region for some 12,000 years, taught the settlers to grow native crops. The Wampanoag were not the only tribe to be generous. In the earliest days, many tribes throughout the Americas helped new settlers survive.
The foods the natives shared with settlers were not just growing wild. They were cultivated over many generations by native people who had a deep connection to the land. Today, many vegetables and fruits in our diet were first cultivated by Native Americans, including foods found on the Thanksgiving table—potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, corn, tomatoes, squash, pumpkin and cranberry. The turkey many enjoy on Thanksgiving Day was first domesticated by Native Americans.
The idyllic traditional story of the first Thanksgiving in which the settlers shared with the native people in 1621 is largely a myth. Tragically and shamefully, what followed the European arrival was 500 years of genocide and betrayal of Native Americans. To this day, treaties are being broken for the benefit of white expansionism. In North Dakota, survivors of the genocide are taking a stand against the construction of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, planned to carry highly flammable crude oil under the Missouri River, endangering the drinking water for millions downstream and threatening sacred burial grounds. If successful in eventually reaching refineries on the Gulf and East Coasts, the project will become the source of carbon emissions equivalent to nearly 30 coal plants every year for the next 20-30 years.
The Standing Rock Sioux, joined by native people belonging to some 300 tribes from across the Americas, are camped along the Missouri river to protect their water, land and way of life. Rather than protestors, the natives call themselves Protectors and are risking their own safety and comfort to non-violently stand up to corporate control and the militarism of armed police in riot gear. The Protectors say they are working for a healthy future for all of our children and grandchildren, including those of the pipeline workers and police officers.
Native leader Dallas Goldtooth explains, "The best part of the work we do is that it's not what we're fighting against but what we're fighting for. We advocate for localized, small-scale renewable energy production. The same with food production, localized and sustainable."
I'm going to Standing Rock because I share this vision for our future. A localized economy will not only decrease the power of large corporations and cut down on the carbons of long distance shipping, but will also make our communities more resilience and self-reliant. At the same time, decentralizing our economy spreads business ownership and wealth more broadly and creates meaningful local jobs, building a more just and sustainable economy.
I'm going to Standing Rock in hopes that this stand begins a new era in American history when the rights and sovereignty of indigenous people are defended, as well as the rights of nature. As our country reels in the aftermath of a divisive election, now is the time for all people to stand together and become the America that we are meant to be.
I'm going to Standing Rock because the native people are spiritually evolved with a deep reverence for nature. In observing their leadership, I recognize the values needed to move our country forward—respect for Mother Earth and all species, cooperation, generosity, non-violence, humility and love.
I'm going to Standing Rock to give back to Native Americans for first cultivating many foods that nourish me and for helping the early settlers survive, including my own ancestors who were aided by the Wampanoag in Massachusetts and the Lenape in Pennsylvania.
I'm going to Standing Rock because I want to tell the story of the Protectors' courage and love of the land to inspire other communities to defend our watersheds—to stop fracking, drilling, pipelines, refineries and all fossil fuel infrastructure that is leading toward the end of life on Earth as we know it. Standing Rock is a call to all of us to protect what we love.
I'm going to Standing Rock because our civilization, addicted to oil and the wasteful life-style it supports, is racing blindly toward our own extinction by climate chaos and toxicity. Yet again, Native Americans are leading us toward our survival.
A Lakota prophecy speaks of a Black Snake crossing the land, bringing with it destruction and devastation. The Black Snake is now inching toward the Missouri River. The Black Snake is a monster driven by greed, destroying all of life in its path and even devouring the children of tomorrow.
I'm going to Standing Rock because I hear a voice saying, "Follow the Indians. They know the way."
Judy Wicks is an author, activist and entrepreneur from Philadelphia who is best known as founder, in 1983, of the White Dog Cafe, a pioneer in the local food movement. For 15 years, Judy held an annual Native American Thanksgiving Dinner to which she invited leaders of the Lenape tribe, first people of the region and gave thanks for the many foods in our diet first cultivated by natives.
Judy is leading the delegation to Standing Rock along with Jodie Evans of Code Pink and chef Jeremy Stanton of Fire Roasting Caterers in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Jeremy will be cooking 30 pasture-raised turkeys from Bill Niman's ranch in California, BN Ranch, on spits over an over fire, along with vegetables cooked in caste iron pots. Ben & Jerry's is donating ice cream for dessert. Actress and long time activist Jane Fonda will be among those serving the meal. She is also contributing five butchered bison and four Mongolian yurts to the camp. The dinner is called the Water Protectors Community Appreciation Dinner and will be held on Nov. 24 at the Standing Rock Community School on the reservation.
The delegation is also helping to build an all-weather straw bale community center for tribal meetings at Standing Rock organized by Winona LaDuke of Honor the Earth, Tom Goldtooth of Indigenous Environmental Network and Bob Gough of Intertribal COUP. Contributions are being collected here.
Funds for the Wopila Feast are being collected here.