By Cathy Cain
In September of 2016, I started going to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to support the water protectors and the #NoDAPL actions. I still wax nostalgic when I smell burning sage; it reminds me of nights where I would stare at the campfire sparks floating sinuously into the darkness while people drummed and sang their prayers for the river.
It was an emotional experience for me, a student of political ecology. One of the things I studied in South Africa as a graduate student was the human and ecological effects of colonial dispossession of land during apartheid. I remember in one of these township communities there was a funeral, where family and community members sang gorgeous elegies for their lost comrade. And it was powerful to hear how, despite generations of oppression and all the social problems that arise from poverty or at least alongside it, people come together to create something beautiful and meaningful to their lives.
Through music and prayer, the #NoDAPL camps embodied that same power, and this was, at one point, central to the movement. Moreover, it was the actions of the indigenous youth that inspired this struggle for water and environmental rights. But all the ensuing political fights and internal struggles would often deafen the voices of these youth. This is why it was so important for the Babel Project to go back to Standing Rock and try to preserve their stories after the camps closed.
In June of 2017, filmmaker Alice Obar and I went to the reservation to collaborate with several youth from Cannon Ball and Fort Yates, North Dakota to make films about their stories of #NoDAPL. While taking residence in these communities, we did not fail to experience the sense of community and warmth that I grew to appreciate at Oceti Sakowin and Sacred Stone camps. We learned so much from the youth in the process, such as the continuing struggles of their communities against: a.) exploitative oil companies like Energy Transfer Partners; b.) longstanding social problems like drug and alcohol abuse; and c.) the ubiquitous epidemics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. Their personal connections to these struggles made their stories so rich and complex.
Tyrel offered so much insight into what it was like growing up a Native American and facing the overt racism of white dominant North Dakota communities. He talks about what it’s like not to be able to walk away once the protest is over.
For Aliya, the camps were a transformative experience that helped her face her own depression, an illness that so many native youth her age encounter.
Gracie has such strong emotional connections to the #NoDAPL camps, as well as to the animals and wildlife of her ancestral lands that she feels are under threat because of the pipeline. In her story, she talks about how #NoDAPL was formative to her becoming a youth activist, but also how she wished that there were more Standing Rock youth who wanted to be active. Her eyes lit up when she brought up the river.
While Gracie was the only youth to complete her film, the others still did such important work that we want to showcase on www.blacksnakekillers.com. We are so proud of their work and the people they are.
As we watched our last sunset at Standing Rock, and the prairie winds undulated through the ocean of grass, we recounted the pulsating drums at a powwow we attended, the sweet smell of frybread, and the meals and stories local people shared with us. Having finished the workshop, we knew we were leaving a sacred place of paradox where struggle and nurture feud next to a river that brings forth and takes away; a river where a people’s hopes are anchored by the visions of their youth.