[Individual articles from the Winter 2018 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
I recently led college students in an exercise comparing two fascinating maps (see Learn More sidebar for links). The first, a map of the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, was created by contributors to the Decolonial Atlas website. The place names are written in the Lakota language, with the four directions represented by the medicine wheel. South is at the top and north at the bottom, the reverse of what I’m used to seeing, yet a common Lakota custom. The second is a map of the DAPL route through North Dakota created by Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of the pipeline already carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota to Illinois refineries. North is at the top. County and state boundaries are clearly marked. The DAPL path and terminal locations are prominent, with other place names barely legible. A comparison of these two maps is a compelling study in orientation and disorientation, what is being communicated and to whom and what map-makers view as important and unimportant.
This history on Lakota land, like other histories around the world, unveils the colonizing perspective: land and water are resources to be exploited and extracted
In September of 2016, I went to the Standing Rock encampments formed in nonviolent resistance to DAPL as part of a delegation of settler Mennonites from the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. Upon arrival, my map of the world was turned upside down (or perhaps right-side up). I was no longer in white-dominant space. There were different social protocols to follow as well as different understandings of the physical-spiritual world. Kitchen volunteers served food first to elders as a sign of respect, then to those of us waiting in line. The fire at the center of camp was not for chit-chatting around like a bonfire—it was a sacred prayer fire for offering tobacco.
Prayer was physical and a source of power, embodied in ceremony, daily prayer walks to the site of DAPL construction and even actions like chaining oneself to construction equipment. “They’re afraid of our prayers,” one woman told me matter-of-factly, explaining why the state police and DAPL private security forces were not disrupting the camp that week. In disarming contrast with the dominant culture where almost nothing is free, the whole camp operated by a gift economy. No money was exchanged and everything was shared, from food to supplies. When we arrived into camp at nightfall, we found that a woman had already set up a tent for us. She welcomed us, saying, “I knew people would come tonight who needed a place to stay.” We were camped on the frontlines of destruction, and yet were in decolonizing territory, a place undergoing deep healing from centuries of capitalism and colonization.
The most striking difference between decolonizing territory and the world to which I was accustomed was how people talked about water. Michael Sharpfish, a 23-year old descendant of Sitting Bull, told how he came to protect the Missouri River because water is sacred. He knows how precious water is because he grew up on a reservation without running water. Michael repeated the simple phrase that had become the rallying cry at Standing Rock, “Water is life: Mni Wiconi!” “We are the river, and the river is us,” Donna Brave Bull Allard wrote about why she founded the Sacred Stone Camp that prayed the other Standing Rock camps into existence and resistance. “Why would we hurt our sister, or our very selves, by channeling toxic oil underneath the river? We cannot be separated from water; she is sacred and very much alive, along with the rest of the earth.”
At Sacred Stone camp, I realized that the destructive disconnect between current colonizing and Indigenous perceptions of the world is nothing new to the Lakota people. They remember the long history of conquest as if it happened yesterday, just as they still remember the names their ancestors gave to the land and sacred sites. The name for Sacred Stone camp comes from the Lakota name for the river, Íŋyaŋwakağapi Wakpá, “Stone-Make-For-Themselves River,” so named because of the round stones that once formed at the confluence with the Missouri River before the Missouri was dammed. The people called these stones Iŋyaŋ Wakháŋagapi Othí, “Sacred Stones,” using them in prayer and ceremony and viewing them as enspirited, part of all our relations, like the river, plants and animals.
When European explorers and colonizers first came to the region, they also saw the rivers’ spherical stones shaped by the churning waters where they met the Missouri River. But instead of sacred stones, what did they see? Stones shaped like cannonballs. They saw stones akin to ammunition for war, so they re-named Íŋyaŋwakağapi Wakpá the Cannonball River. Sacred stones or cannonballs?
Perspective shapes practice, from the re-naming of the Cannonball River to the 1874 expedition that led to a gold rush and the U.S. government’s illegal seizure of the Black Hills (an area long held as sacred by the Lakota people) to the more recent damming of the Missouri River by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s. The hydropower dam flooded ancestral burial grounds and medicinal plant harvesting areas. The people say many elders died of heartbreak when they saw the flooded lands. This history on Lakota land unveils the colonizing perspective in which land and water are resources to be exploited and extracted. From an Indigenous perspective, land and water are living relatives to be respected and protected, sacred gifts of Creator inseparable from our very lives. Two vastly different perceptions, two very different maps of the world.
This history of difference in perception dates back to the Doctrine of Discovery, if not before, as globalized imperialism was birthed in Europe under the blessing of Constantinian Christianity. The Doctrine of Discovery was and is a profound invalidation of Indigenous cosmologies and ways of relating to the other-than-human world developed over centuries of learning how to live in life-sustaining balance. The United States, having assumed ownership of Indigenous lands through the “right of discovery,” imposed and continues to force its abstract maps and perceptions of the world upon already-named and intimately known homelands. And now profit-driven corporations like those building DAPL are given free reign to do the same, with perilous consequences. As climate change, resource depletion and the loss of biological and cultural diversity around the world testify, the colonized maps cemented upon the world are suffocating all life. Yet even cement can be cracked.
Surely one step toward dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery will be dismantling our internalized and externalized destructive maps by embracing a more life-giving way of seeing the world. For those of us who are not Indigenous, I pose the questions that my time at Standing Rock offered me: Will we wake up and perceive all Earth as sacred and alive? Will we allow ourselves to be disoriented and reoriented by Indigenous ways of seeing and being? Will we join Indigenous people, water and Earth herself in cracking the concrete of industrial civilization to make way for healing, decolonizing territories?
Katerina Friesen lives in traditional Yokut land in Fresno, California. She edited the Study Guide for the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition, available for order or download at https://dofdmenno.org/study-guide/.
Brave Bull Allard, LaDonna. “Why the Founder of Standing Rock Sioux Camp Can’t Forget the Whitestone Massacre.” Yes! Magazine. Available at http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/why-the-founder-of-standing-rock-sioux-camp-cant-forget-the-whitestone-massacre-20160903
The Decolonial Atlas—Dakota Access Pipeline Indigenous Protest Map. Available at https://decolonialatlas.wordpress.com/2016/09/07/dakota-access-pipeline-indigenous-protest-map/
Energy Transfer Partners’ Map of Dakota Access Pipeline route from North American Shale Magazine. Available at: http://northamericanshalemagazine.com/uploads/posts/web/2016/10/Dakota_Access_ND-map_14757039563483.JPG