Alejandro A. Alonso Galva
Before an afternoon gathering at Standing Rock in North Dakota, members of the Grand Traverse Band of the Ottawa and Chippewa Tribe marched from the entrance of the protest camp to the main fire pit.
It was 3 in the morning on Sept. 23 when Jessie Brown and Selina Martinez finished rounding up donations from the Madison area to take to demonstrators in Standing Rock, North Dakota. In just a couple of hours, the two college students would join other volunteers to make the 12-hour drive to the banks of Lake Oahe. There, four impromptu camps have swelled to more than 3,000 people, all of them resisting the construction of an oil pipeline under the lake and nearby Missouri River.
“I want to make sure they know that the people in Madison are in solidarity with them and we stand with them, though far away,” Brown says of the trip. “It’s important for everyone to understand the severity of the situation. Without our water we are not able to live anymore.”
Brown immigrated to Madison from Guatemala when she was 11. The 21-year-old Mayan now feels called to help out fellow native people at Standing Rock. She organized the trip, raising more than $900 in donations in just a few days. An anonymous donor Brown connected with on the “Brave Wisconsin” Facebook page assisted with renting a van, and donation stations were quickly set up across the city where people could drop off much-needed winter supplies for members of the camps.
So when we pulled up to camp after dark, she was nervous. Her two contacts at the camp had left, and she was not sure what to expect.
“I’m here to learn, to listen and understand,” said Brown, “I’m coming to hear them.”
The Standing Rock Sioux tribe is fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,100-mile pipeline intended to pump frac sand oil from the Bakkan formation underneath parts of Montana, North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to refineries in Illinois. A Texas-based oil company received permits to build through hundreds of waterways, including the Missouri just upstream from the Standing Rock reservation. When the tribe saw this threat against its land and water supply they vowed to stop it, and on April 1 established a resistance camp. Five months later, the tribe is in the midst of a massive court battle, and support has poured in from across the country.
“I’m here to see how people are fighting for their land and water, because this may happen to us,” said Pearl Foster from Decora. “We need to learn from them what works and what doesn’t work.”
“It’s just a complete disregard for human life,” said Ryan Wherley from Madison, “To me it’s all part of the same thing, whether it’s happening in northern Wisconsin or North Dakota. It’s profit over people.”
At the main camp the expanse of tents, teepees and flags from around the world was overwhelming. Over 280 tribes are now present.
“It’s the strongest thing I can honestly say I’ve ever witnessed,” said Martinez, “I’m hearing people speak in their language and doing the best that they can to keep this from happening. I don’t want to leave.”
On Saturday, the Wisconsin volunteers walked the camp, and Brown found herself in the presence of LaDonna Brave Bull, the native land owner who called for a stop to the pipeline and was invited before the United Nations general assembly.
“That is what the seventh generation is today,” said LaDonna of Brown’s work, referencing the prophecy that the seventh generation after the colonizers arrived would save the tribes. “She is the seventh generation. That’s why we’ll live.”
At the evening gathering, the group offered the donations to the camp. After some reluctance, Brown was convinced to give a speech in their name. She gave thanks to the crowd of a few hundred in English and Kaqchikel, a Mayan language, before holding up a fist. After many cheers the crowd silently held up their own fists before lining up to greet her and others who’d come a long way to represent their people.
“This woman is of me, she is of my blood. She has touched my spirit,” said tribal council chair Phyllis Young to the crowd. “I want a warrior song for her.”