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.
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.
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.
Tracy Barnett<p>"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."</p><p>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.</p>
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard: Planting Seeds<p>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.</p><p>As the camps began to dismantle in the last weeks of the uprising, she frequently fielded the question: "What do we do now?"</p><p>Allard's response was simple: "Plant seeds."</p>
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.
Lyla June: The Forest as Farm<p>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.</p><p>"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.</p><p>"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."</p>
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."
Tracy Barnett<p>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, <a href="https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5276203.pdf" target="_blank">in Kentucky</a>, 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.</p><p>"So these people—whoever moved in around 3,000 years ago — radically changed the way the land looked and tasted," she said.</p><p>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.</p><p>"When did we start waiting for others to feed us? That's no longer going to be a luxury question," June said.</p><p>Besides the <a href="https://www.macleans.ca/society/how-crop-monocultures-are-threatening-our-food-supply/" target="_blank">vulnerability of monocrops</a> 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.</p><p>"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."</p><p>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.</p><p>"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."</p><p>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.</p>
Cheryl Angel: Creating Sovereign Communities<p>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.</p><p>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.</p>
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."