Standing with Standing Rock as an Ally

By: Brynn Powell-Córodva

Disclaimer – I do not claim Native or Indigenous identity. I went to Standing Rock as an ally and accomplice and I understand the nature of my resistance as looking different from that of my Native peers. I seek to speak from my own experience alone in my recollection of my time at Standing Rock. 

Article was originally published in April's Ecofeminist Issue.

While people might not mean to, they pose a loaded question when they ask, “How was Standing Rock?” I prefer the conversations I have with people I met at camp. There’s a shared understanding of both community and trauma that we all seem to struggle to express to those looking from the outside in.

There are some of the images that pop into my head – “Good morning, relatives! Remember what you’re here for!” – Our tarpee with wood burning stove and piles of blankets heaped in every corner – “Water is our rst medicine.” – #FreeLeonardPeltier #FreeRedFawn – My friend AnaYelsí sitting in the California Kitchen, dry milk of magnesia staining the brown skin around her eyes after being pepper- sprayed on Bloody Sunday – Listening to Etta James’s “Sunday Kind of Love” in a truck named Maggie on our way to an action in Bismarck – Cuts on my hands never healing in the cold – Serving vegetable curry out of a pot big enough to crawl into – Braiding Jolie’s hair – Palestinian and trans ags ying alongside the hundreds of tribal ags – Teargas and all thoughts leaving my head except the desire to breathe – Not being very good at chopping wood–GrandmaDianeand Ray’s teepee catching fire at 4:30am–BraidingMahlija’s hair.

I do not claim Native or identity. I went to Standing Rock as an ally and accomplice and I understand the nature of my resistance.

This wasn’t a vacation. This wasn’t so I could “be on the right side of history.” This wasn’t me proving what a good activist I was. This was me trying to learn, trying to mobilize my able-bodiedness and my resources to actually help. This was me trying to decolonize my mind and body in the greatest classroom with the greatest teachers.

Decolonization was inherent to fighting the pipeline at Standing Rock, even as the issue of water affects everything that lives. Decolonization is what activists seek to do as we critically view our own work and lives to examine the ways that we are complicit in racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism and other –isms. The triumvirate of colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy form the backbone of our collective oppression. The erasure of Native identity and sovereignty is a primary goal of capitalism, as evidenced by the entire Standing Rock movement. As a non-Native ally at Standing Rock, it was my job every day to critically examine and decolonize my mentality, and to be grateful for the generosity of the Natives who sustained the struggle at camp, who helped me to learn and save my undeserving ass from the cold. It was also my responsibility to not expect patience or forgiveness when I messed up, and to step in and advocate when I saw a white or non-Native POC acting in colonial or oppressive ways. Finally, and most importantly, it was critical to take care of myself so I could continue to do all of this work. After all, you can’t help anyone when you’re hypothermic or frost-bitten in the medic tent, taking up time, energy and resources when you could have just been more prepared or not come to camp at all. 

In my time there, I recognized Standing Rock as a place for organizers and activists to continue to address our shortcomings, to acutely understand the pipeline as a Native issue even though it affects many non-Natives, to allow for Native voices to have priority and to amplify those voices in every way we can. This includes owning up to the ways we have been complicit in the oppression of Indigenous folks. For myself, I realized that I had erased Native identity from my own perception of many people by assuming they are Latinx or Xicanx. I denied people their Indigeneity by not reading Latinx/Latino/Latina as an Indigenous identity, or erasing Natives that do not identify as Latinx by naming them as such. I also recognize that I have failed to work towards indigenous liberation and resistance in the Paci c Northwest. Our own greenwashed and whitewashed state’s history of Native repression goes as far back as violated treaties to the recent incident of a law enforcement of cer grabbing a Native activist during her testimony in a public forum last October. Despite the way that Native place-names occupy our mouths on a daily basis – Willamette, Klamath, Tualatin – the erasure of Natives and Native struggle is as Oregonian as having white dreadlocks and overpriced organic food available to you. 

This wasn’t a vacation. This wasn’t so I could be on the right side of history.

Even as I write this, Oceti Oyate is being ceremonially burned. The remaining water protectors are being forced and removed from unceded treaty land by our own militarized police. This land should technically be under the control and jurisdiction of the Standing Rock Lakota Sioux. Every single one of the original treaties made between Natives and the U.S. government has been broken, so the desecration of place by militarized police comes as no surprise, but is no less heartbreaking to watch. I saw my friends, Ray King sher, Frankie and O’Shea, in live streams I watched yesterday. While watching, I texted and messaged friends I made at camp who were also watching. We all wish we hadn’t left, wish that we had returned. We feel guilty and pained to see our friends and relatives in these live streams, somberly walking through a camp where we had all eaten, laughed, prayed and mourned together, now barely recognizable amid the burning structures, abandoned and dismantled camps and general atmosphere of resignation and grief. It is hard to not see defeat written on these faces we love, to understand that staying means being arrested, brutalized with rubber or live rounds, gassed, pepper sprayed, etc. Yes, it is absolutely valid for us to mourn the end of camp. As I understood it, mourning is part of the collective understanding of prayer by which the camps were ultimately run. To wallow in our mourning is not.

A couple nights before I left camp, in one of the final conversations I had, I was helping my friend Christine run some errands around Oceti. Christine is a Native from Winnipeg who does amazing organizing through Indigenous Iowa, and had gone back and forth from her home in Iowa to Standing Rock for weeks at a time since August. The conversation we had happened in December. 

From her perspective, she explained that the entire Standing Rock resistance camp was not just about the pipeline. “Of course, we’re all here to ght the pipeline,” she told me, but elaborated by saying that one of the most incredible parts of Standing Rock was that Natives reached out to their networks, to strangers, to people who had never heard of their tribe, and folks responded. Through the creation of the camps at Standing Rock, a Native issue was given a platform that resonated internationally, bringing people from all walks of life, from all tribes, and all races and ethnicities, to North Dakota. Standing Rock was as much about giving Indigenous people a platform on which to speak as it was about protecting water.

“They [allies] did that. That happened. And now we kind of need all the white people to go home,” she laughed, and I understood what she meant. At this time, David Archimbault II, tribal chairman of the

Standing Rock Lakota Sioux Reservation, had just given his public request, immediately following the initial denial of the easement on December 5th, 2016, asking everyone to leave camp and return to their respective homes--this request was met with mixed surprise, anger, resignation and agreement by those at camp. For myself, I recognized that my staying would be denying the sovereignty of a Native voice, and to deny it under the assumption that I somehow knew better would undermine all the work we had done collectively to decolonize and create new networks in the name of Indigenous solidarity. I carried water, chopped wood, cooked, constructed, went on actions, washed dishes, spoke and listened. I did what I had gone to camp to do and now it was time for me to leave. I left holding mni wiconi in my heart, knowing that I had served my purpose in the resistance camp, and most importantly, that the struggle was not over. 

I left holding mni wiconi in my heart, knowing that I had served my purpose in the resistance camp, and most importantly, that the struggle was not over.

There would be critical work to continue around water and Native struggle when I got home, including the protest of the Jordan Cove LNG pipeline, which begins in Coos Bay and threatens our water here.

Watching another live feed of Oceti burning and seeing photos of the remaining water protectors leaving or being removed, I have to remember this isn’t over. This movement has planted so many seeds for so many of us, created networks of folks who didn’t know each other existed until a few months ago. Spread out across the world, we hold our experiences at Standing Rock with us, informing our words and decisions in our communities away from North Dakota. We must continue the work of decolonization; continue our dialogues around Standing Rock, the LNG pipeline, Florida Sabal pipeline, Trans-Pecos pipeline and the hundreds of thousands already in place and threatening all of our lives. For our water and air, for our relatives and for ourselves, we will continue to fight. 

mni wiconi