How the Women of Standing Rock Are Building Sovereign Economies

 YES! Magazine Aug. 24, 2019 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.Tracy Barnett

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.

Tracy Barnett

“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.

Tracy Barnett

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.”

Tracy Barnett

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.”

Tracy Barnett

“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.”

Climate Nexus 34 minutes agoPOLITICSEmma Cassidy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A Nebraska court has granted a victory to the owner of the Keystone XL pipeline, removing one of the last major challenges in the project’s way.

The state’s Supreme Court on Friday ruled unanimously that the state’s Public Service Commission had acted in the public interest in approving an alternate route for the pipeline in November 2017. Challengers to the project say that the approval of an alternate route did not include appropriate input from landowners and tribes, who filed a motion with environmental groups to intervene.

“The Nebraska decision to approve the KXL route is not a surprise, but we had hoped they would be courageous to protect the earth, water, and wishes of the indigenous people and our allies,” Yankton Sioux member Faith Spotted Eagle said in a statement released by 350.

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Independent presidential candidate Mark Charles speaks at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum on August 20, 2019 in Sioux City, Iowa. Charles, a tribal citizen of the Navajo Nation, spoke about the Doctrine of Discovery and other topics facing the Native American community. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)


At First-Ever Native American Presidential Forum, Candidates Answer to Centuries of Injustice

With Indian country’s electoral power growing, presidential hopefuls pledged to honor treaties and enact structural change.BY STEPHANIE WOODARDShareTweetReddit0EmailPrint

“We need a president who can lead a thorough re-think of the federal-tribal relationship, so we can become fully self-sustaining nations.”

“‘We the people’ has never meant ‘all the people,’” said Independent presidential candidate Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo Nation, at the first-ever Native American presidential forum, held August 19 and 20 in Sioux City, Iowa. 

Charles was enthusiastically received as the only member of a tribe currently running for president, and his remarks echoed a theme of the night: the mistreatment and neglect of Native Americans by the federal government.

Named for the revered Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, who died in June, the event presented a series of serious, hour-long discussions with Charles and ten 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D.–Mass.), Bernie Sanders (D.–Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D.–Minn.), Kamala Harris (D.–Calif.), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Marianne Williamson, former Rep. Joe Sestak, former Rep. John Delaney and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

“History-making” was how event organizer and Rosebud Sioux tribal member OJ Semans described the rare spotlight on Native issues during a presidential primary.

Semans, who runs the voting-rights group Four Directions with his wife, Barb, believes the candidates took part because they understand that Native Americans are an increasingly powerful voting bloc. Voter turnout is growing in Indian country, and “in an election that’s likely to be close, there are several states where Native American voters can provide a winning margin,” Semans says. He cites Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina and Arizona, which have substantial Native populations that Four Directions is seeking to register and get to the polls (as it did on North Dakota reservations in 2018 when the state imposed ID voting requirements that were particularly difficult for Native people to meet.)

Each candidate was individually questioned by some six to eight panelists. They sat on a stage lined with tribal and U.S. flags, before an auditorium filled with members of tribes from around the country. 

After panelists offered greetings in their traditional languages, they shifted to English to ask about topics of interest to Native people, many related to historic injustices: the struggle to renew traditional languages decimated by the boarding schools, protection of Native children’s right to stay in their families and communities, upholding voting rights, protecting sacred sites threatened with desecration, federal-tribal consultation and U.S. Census undercounts of Native people. Other high-priority topics were economic development, housing, education, healthcare and climate justice.

The new president must support tribal governments’ sovereignty, said De Blasio. As mayor of New York City, he well understood, he said, that “the governments that are closest to people serve them best.”

Marcella LeBeau, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and recipient of the French Legion of Honor and other awards for front-line service as an Army nurse during World War II, asked many if they supported the Remove the Stain Act. This proposed Congressional legislation would rescind medals given to soldiers for the Wounded Knee massacre. Each candidate wholeheartedly agreed.

Charles, for his part, highlighted how, despite the expansion of some rights—like suffrage for women, Native Americans and African Americans—prejudices that date back to the country’s founding remain woven into our political and legal system. He said that the next president must understand how U.S. law remains skewed by the U.S. Constitution’s protections of the rights of white, Christian, land-owning men. 

For example, the high rate of murder and other violence against Native women is compounded by the Supreme Court’s denial of Indian nations’ right to prosecute non-Indians for on-reservation crimes. Charles also noted the ongoing power in U.S. law of the Doctrine of Discovery, a centuries-old papal policy encouraging the subjugation and seizure of non-Christian lands and people. Many may be startled to learn that as recently as 2005, the Supreme Court cited this doctrine in deciding against a tribe in a lawsuit it heard.

Manny and Renee Iron Hawk, who attended the forum from the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, appreciated candidates’ thoughtful responses but wanted more detail in some areas. They wanted to know candidates’ specific plans for protecting water sources and for cleaning up already-contaminated tribal ones. “It’s great to talk about water rights,” Renee says. “But let’s hear something tangible.” 

She also wonders about candidates’ declarations that they would “honor the treaties.” It’s not a simple concept, in her analysis. Some treaties must be honored—full stop—and others may need reconsideration.

“Some treaties had purposely misconstrued and mistranslated provisions and were not upheld anyway,” Renee says. “We need a president who can lead a thorough re-think of the federal-tribal relationship, so we can become fully self-sustaining nations.” 

The New York Times and NPR led their pieces on the forum with Senator Warren’s apology for trying to prove Cherokee ancestry via a DNA test. Her mistaken assumption that test results might convey identity or even tribal affiliation—and end the current president’s Native-oriented slurs against her—became controversial in Indian country. 

But the panelists and attendees seemed not to focus on the misstep by Warren, who was greeted with a standing ovation. In introducing her, first-term U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland (D.–N.M.), from Laguna Pueblo and one of the first Native women elected to Congress, described her as a valued collaborator on numerous bills and initiatives, and “my sister in the struggle.” 

Haaland added that centuries of displacement mean many Natives spend generations finding their families and tribes. “What I’m saying is, she has found us,” said Haaland, who described media focus on the issue as supporting the president’s racism. Other Natives present described Warren as consistently involved in Congressional Native matters and referred to her with traditional honorifics like “grandmother.”

Warren described a series of plans unveiled Friday—yes, she has plans—for solving the many systemic challenges in justice, economic development and other areas that continue to plague Indian country. “Big structural change, that’s what Congresswoman Haaland and I are fighting for,” she said, “so that everyone has a chance to build a strong future.” 

“We don’t need to hear about the DNA test; we need discussion of the president’s slurs,” Renee said. “Are we invisible people? Our feelings matter. We are still here. In fact, we wouldn’t be if we weren’t such determined people. We will decide this election. Try telling us we can’t, and you’ll see, we will.”

As Native people both vote and, like Haaland, get elected to office themselves, “we are going from protest to power,” says Judith LeBlanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance, a co-host of the forum.