As the police descended on the water protectors standing in prayer near the Dakota Access Pipeline’s (DAPL) front lines, I was frantically texting my student assistant, Elizabeth Rice (Ojibwa/Potawatomi). It was Thursday, October 27th, and rather than helping me direct a theater rehearsal as she’d done for the past six productions, Liz had left Wisconsin to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux. I didn’t hear from her for days afterwards, but when I did I learned that this mother, culture keeper, and College of Menominee Nation’s former AIHEC Student of the Year had been one of the 141 people arrested, jailed, and charged with a felony and two misdemeanors. When I texted her, Liz responded, “I’m ok. We were kept in kennels the first night. And shipped to different jails.” She added that she’d been “a number” to her captors and that the conditions felt like “concentration camps.”
When Liz returned to her family in Wisconsin, she continued to struggle with what had happened in North Dakota. I reached out to her after she uncharacteristically missed a production meeting. She wrote, “All the trauma has been hitting me since I left camp. We were so busy there, I didn’t have time to process it. I bawl my eyes out every time I talk about it or watch videos.” A minute later, she wrote, “Headed back out to Standing Rock—my people are in trouble.” As always, she was prioritizing the wellbeing of others over herself. Liz’s commitment cannot minimalize the emotional and psychological wounds the DAPL has already caused her and others throughout Indian Country, and those of us who care about the warriors protecting the water must do our part to help heal these veterans and fortify their fight.
There has never been a people more suited to rehabilitating its wounded warriors than American Indians. Every Indigenous culture has a healing ritual such as the Kiowa Gourd Dance that’s helped its people overcome burdens. This is because—universally speaking—American Indians have always taken care of one another. Take for instance French emigrant Hector de Crevecoeur who in 1782 lamented, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European. There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted among us.”
Almost 30 years earlier, Benjamin Franklin noted the same phenomenon, writing, “When an Indian child [who] has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs…goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return” to colonists’ society. On the other hand, Franklin noted that it was impossible to keep “rescued” white captives from returning to Indian villages: “In a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life…and take the first good opportunity of escaping into the woods.”
The “manner of life” shunned by the Native people of Franklin’s time can still be seen in the modern American over-culture which values individual wealth and prosperity above all else. This is in direct conflict with Native societies that have traditionally sought a communal wellbeing based upon ideas such as sharing in a harvest and not taking more than is needed. The irony of the DAPL protest is that its warriors are not only trying to save their water from contamination for the wellbeing of themselves and their children, but also for the loved ones of the very people who’re trying to incarcerate them.
Yet while I join AIHEC and encourage students at tribal colleges to lend their time and talents to the Standing Rock Sioux’s cause, we must remember that not all people are meant to stand on the front lines. Like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, some people are meant to lead in times of conflict and others through endeavors that bring peace. My assumption is that some students like Liz are meant to have their moccasins at ground zero, while others are meant to send prayers and supplies as they continue to earn an education that’ll help their people win political and judicial battles into the future. There’s a reason why there are war chiefs and peace chiefs, and the distinction between the people who fulfill those leadership roles cannot be blurred without sacrificing the future of both.
One of my favorite unattributed quotes about preserving American Indian lifeways is this: “We’re not trying to save our language and culture. We’re counting on our language and culture to save us.” The warriors standing against DAPL are doing just that. They’re using their prayers, their medicine, and their very being to try to stop a horrific project with undoubtedly bleak repercussions. We must all unite behind them. We must send supplies to reinforce their camps and give money to help ease their legal expenses (AIHEC is collecting tax-deductible donations for the latter at AIHEC c/o HHiT Defense, 121 Oronoco Street, Alexandria, VA. 22314).
Yet above all else, we need to help heal all of the wounded warriors like Liz whenever they return to our communities. Beyond individual cultural healing practices, we must help them find the normalcy that may now seem distant. We should ask them to talk about their experiences. We must remind them that they’re not in this fight alone and that their service to both us and future generations is not only recognized—but also deeply appreciated.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Junger, S. (2016). Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Twelve.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.