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Iowa Panel Looks at Building Bridges With Native Americans

Young Horsemen at Standing Rock 2016
 Young Horsemen at Standing Rock monitor and protect the Water Protectors.   Photo: Peter Clay / AFSC

Christine Nobiss, Plains Cree-Salteaux of the George Gordon First Nation, Chair of Indigenous Iowa and founder of Little Creek Camp; Donnielle Wanatee – Bi-we-ni-wa – Thunder and Eagle Clan from the Meskwaki Nation and an Advocate for Iowa and Her People; and panel organizer Peter Clay, Des Moines Valley Friends Meeting spoke on a panel on Building Bridges With Native Americans at the Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) 140th Annual Sessions, Scattergood Friends School, July 25, 2017.

Christine and Donnielle each shared deeply from their hearts and lived experience about the need to decolonize our minds, deconstruct received history and find ways to build a healing and positive future that includes all people. The following are Peter's written remarks.

All of us now recognize Mni Waconi / Water is Life as a unifying and fundamental acknowledgement that human beings are children of Mother Earth and cannot live apart from her. The hundreds of tribes and nations that gathered at Standing Rock were there for all of us, including Euro-Americans, in defending the land and especially the water against Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

After 500 years of struggle against settler-colonialism, indigenous nations and tribes are still here and they are resilient in defending their identities, lands and waters against both actual and cultural genocide. I was led to go to Standing Rock in April 2016 because I felt that the ongoing struggle against DAPL in Iowa had to be linked with and stand in unity with the Standing Rock tribe. I still cannot fully articulate how Spirit moved me. I just knew that I needed to go and bring support from Iowans and stand with those speaking truth to power while grounded in prayer.

In April 2016 at the Camp of the Sacred Stones, I met a cluster of generous men, women and children who welcomed me and gently began helping me to unlearn the distorted and destructive version of the history of North America that I had been taught, including “The Doctrine of Discovery” and “Manifest Destiny.” Their generosity included sharing with me some of their ceremonies and spiritual practices. These will never be my own practices, but in this sharing my new friends demonstrated that we can respectfully offer one another ways of deeper connection. They showed that forgiveness and the building of bridges was possible.

I attended a public gathering at Grand River Casino where members of the Standing Rock tribe spoke directly to Col. John Henderson, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha, about the Black Snake that threatens them and everyone downstream along and near the Missouri River. Without flinching, eyes to eyes, people spoke strong words to Col. Henderson, mostly in English, but also in Lakota. The decision to move the pipeline route away from overwhelmingly white Bismarck to just above the Standing Rock Reservation was condemned as genocide. The destruction of hundreds of sacred, historic and cultural sites along the pipeline route was compared to ISIS. I began then to understand that the atrocities of our collective past continue to this day.

While it is much easier for Euro-Americans to condemn what was done to the First Nations of Turtle Island as terrible but now past history, I am learning what many of you probably already knew better than I. The violence, the continued taking of land, the annihilation of language and culture—all of this continues today. As with the racism impacting all People of Color, the racism and bias that continues to destroy lives and diminishes the vitality of communities of Native people cannot be dismissed as historic rather than current. Once we acknowledge this, we cannot continue our lives without lending our energies to dismantling these systems of oppression.

I returned in August 2016 to Standing Rock to join a flotilla paddling across the Missouri River above the proposed path of the pipeline. At that time, Oceti Sakowin, the big camp of the Seven Council Fires, had been established, along with Rosebud and Red Warrior camps. Only those who found their way there could fully understand the beautiful energy that was there.

Quakers speak of beloved community. Nowhere have I experienced it more powerfully than at Standing Rock, where hundreds of tribes and nations had come to support the Standing Rock tribe after they put out the call. One of my most indelible memories is of a group of young men, some probably not yet even 15, who rode their horses around the camps to help monitor and protect us. The fierce pride and the sense of purpose and identity shown by these young horsemen was powerful to witness.

I returned twice more in November 2016. During the week of the U.S. elections, I helped build Mongolian Yurts as winter shelter. On November 20, I witnessed the savagery of militarized police who brutalized peaceful Water Protectors with water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures while targeting them with rubber bullets, concussion grenades, tear gas and more. Hundreds of people were injured. Images of people kneeling in prayer in front of ice-covered razor wire went around the world.

A few days later, on Thanksgiving, I witnessed the beauty of hundreds of prayerful people crossing a makeshift bridge to gather at the base of a ridge already desecrated, where ancestors were buried. Along the top of the ridge stretched a long line of heavily armed police, there to keep people from climbing up to the ancestor’s graves. There was no violence that day and at the end, thousands of people joined in one enormous circle of prayer and thanksgiving.

All people who visited Standing Rock had their own experience. Many white allies were skillful and respectful. Many were not. Many indigenous people experienced being re-traumatized and re-colonized by those who had come to stand with them. Some of this was just ignorance. Some was not.

Cultural appropriation of practices and rituals that were shared with allies remains problematic for many people. Dave Whiting of Iowa City, a friend of Indigenous Iowa and Little Creek Camp, spoke to a rally at the Iowa Capitol organized by Indigenous Iowa in early July 2017. He said “Mini Waconi /Water is Life” was “more than a cause, more than a movement. It is a global indigenous renaissance.”  

I will end my portion of this panel by reading the final paragraph of Geoffrey Wolff’s review of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown. I assigned myself the reading of this book following my time at Standing Rock and urge each of you to read it, if you have not.

“It falls to a journalist reviewing the books of our days to treat the dreadful almost as though it were commonplace. The books I review, week upon week, report the destruction of the land or the air; they detail the perversion of justice; they reveal national stupidities. None of them – not one – has saddened me and shamed me as this book has. Because the experience of reading it has made me realize for once and all that we really don’t know who we are, or where we came from, or what we have done, or why.”

Click to read We Are Our Own Medicine, an AFSC special report from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s land and unceded territory.