BY Amanda Peters | January 23, 2017
The frigid air bites into my skin as I look around the Oceti Sakowin Camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Tribal, state, and country flags flap rapidly in the wind. Hundreds of tents, shacks, teepees, and permanent structures go on for miles. A young man walks around offering food, as the steady beat of the drum circle envelops me. Since August, when I began my year of service on the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana, I have strived to educate myself and engage in social justice issues that affect the tribe and indigenous peoples as a whole. In mid-November, my intentions manifested into action, as my St. Xavier JV community and the Ashland JV community headed to Standing Rock. The experience led me to further contemplate the immediate necessity of ecological justice as well as navigate my place as a Native ally.
Hundreds have been gathered in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline for the past nine months, fighting against both the ecological risks of the pipeline, as well as the oil company’s neglect for Native rights and autonomy surrounding the construction. The pipeline would not go through the reservation, at least as it currently stands—it would be directly on the edge of it. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, however, granted the Sioux much greater territory (including the site of construction) that was later illegally taken by the U.S. government. The treaty was never nullified. Legally, then, to whom do these lands belong? How would a potential oil spill affect the reservation and the country as a whole? Is the pipeline construction worth the risk?
These questions swirled in my head as we went on a prayer walk the afternoon of our arrival. A drum circle on the bed of a truck led the way to the barricade between the camp and the pipeline construction. Our group was peaceful. Music, speeches, and prayers floated to the cloudless sky. Yet, immediately police cars came speeding down the hill on the pipeline side—an instantaneous reaction to a pacifistic march. My hands trembled, my stomach dropped. Thankfully neither side crossed the barrier, and we returned to camp unscathed.
The next day, however, water protectors were blasted with a water cannon in 25-degree weather on the same spot we had stood mere hours before. They were shot with rubber bullets and concussion grenades. We JVs avoided the assault just by the chance of our scheduling. These people are unarmed, yet they are treated like criminals. While violence is never the answer, in the face of nonviolence, it is completely unjustifiable. But it says a lot, too. Water protectors have faced all kinds of mistreatment, yet they continue on. It’s heartening to see people care about a cause so much that nothing will deter them from their goals.
As a Jesuit Volunteer, I am called to engage in ecological justice. I have found examples of people who understand the immediate necessity of legislative environmental change. For that I am grateful.
After the prayer walk, a Sioux woman spoke to the crowds. She reprimanded those who were there just to camp on her lands. Her anger was justified and appreciated. While I was glad that I had the opportunity to see the camps and be an ally, I was once again met with a sense of discomfort. How does my being there for twenty hours compare to those who have lived there for several months? What does it mean to be an ally when you are not on the front lines of the cause? Was my being there just or merely an opportunity to make myself feel better?
This tension is not something that I anticipate disintegrating. And I don’t believe it has to. That’s what it means to live in solidarity with communities that are not your own. Navigating your place is difficult. I never want to make a move that perpetuates the dominant power structure between non-Natives and Natives. I have to be intentional in all of my actions. The most important aspect of allyhood is to listen. To hear struggles that are not your own, to build empathy, and act in order to help rectify these inequities. I pray that God humbles me. That God grants me the clarity to see my place here, and the strength to grow in ways that will allow me to be whatever my community needs.
Amanda Peters is a Jesuit Volunteer from Huntington Woods, MI. She is currently serving at Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy in Saint Xavier, MT as an Academic Aide. Before this, she attended the University of Michigan where she studied History and History of Art.