Why We Are Singing for Water—In Front of Men With Guns and Surveillance Helicopters
We are singing for water and for the protectors of Earth’s waters. We sing for water. Long-legged birds stand at the edges of lakes and rivers to watch for fish, their nests hidden in the rushes. A doe crosses land and stands guard as her little one drinks. All our brother and sister animals follow their worn paths to needed waters. Trees and plants subsist with the rain, snow, and groundwater in a place where living Earth supported large herds of bison for thousands of years.
We sing for those who pray to protect the wide, long Missouri River on its elemental journey.
As for us, we were water beings from the beginning. We rained from the broken waters of our mothers to enter this world. We drank from our mothers to thrive. Water is our life-blood, and like all creations on this blue planet, we were born to its currents and passages. So we sing for those who pray to protect the wide, long Missouri River on its elemental journey.
Near the Cannonball River, a place of chokecherries, Indiangrass, and other plants, thousands of people are camped. They know that by legal treaty rights the Missouri River and the land of this region belong to the Standing Rock Sioux. Water flows beneath the skin of this Earth body, and vast clear aquifers lie deeper in the near ground, with rivers and tributaries above. The “Plains” may be the wrong word to use for places existing in the midst of all the ground water and watersheds that support life here: animals, birds, food and medicine plants, expanses of wildflowers in the spring and then the harsh, cold seasons of winter. The tall grasses live because of waters from snow and rain.
My own nation, the Chicaza, lived with the Mississippi River throughout much of our long history. We called that wide rush of water The Long Person. She was our Grandmother and supplied everything we needed to survive. With great sorrow, we were removed from our homeland in 1837. We left in order to avoid future genocide. The U.S. government planned to place all of the tribes into Indian Territory and build a wall around it, opening the rest of the country to settlers. Large numbers of Native peoples were chased toward what is now Oklahoma, but many of the Plains nations managed to remain, avoid capture, and try to return to their beloved homelands.
While many Northern Plains nations escaped life in Oklahoma, continuing actions by the federal government resulted in a shrinking land base for the Dakota and Lakota, including the Dawes Act of 1889, which opened most land for settlers throughout the country. The Fort Laramie Treaty is the only treaty that remains unbroken by the United States. Now it is a corporation breaking the heart of the people, ignoring the treaty rights and the water guaranteed to the Sioux by that 1868 treaty. The state government of North Dakota also has not upheld the treaty and backs the corporation, Energy Transfer Partners/Sunoco.
Even those who had earlier disputes came together with one another in kinship.
Most Native peoples and others are hoping the Standing Rock Sioux Nation will hold steady to all their treaty rights to the Missouri River, that the land and water will remain healthy and intact, and that the Dakota Access pipeline will never pass beneath the river nor cross the land in any way.
Thousands of water protectors have arrived to show their solidarity. The chiefs and leaders of over 300 tribal nations have appeared to speak of their own concern for the water and land. Others have sent water, money, and supplies.
Along these waterways, many negotiations decreased the land base, but the river system has grown even more important as trail and trade, especially for survival and subsistence for people who refused to give up their land for any hundred million dollars offered by the United States.
Storm clouds over Lake Oahe near Sacred Stone Camp. Photo by Rob Wilson Photography.
Other states are also affected by work on the Bakken crude pipeline. Citizens in Iowa have had their homes condemned by the Texas company that began fracking the Bakken fields. Fracking makes the land more vulnerable and more likely to shift and move, affecting tectonic plates. Water is removed and injected back into Earth with secret chemicals, their exact toxic ingredients protected by patents. This makes for a vulnerable Earth. The lawsuits in Iowa have at least slowed operations.
Bakken crude comes from one of the most dangerous work sites now in operation. Working men have been charred to death by explosions and fires, electrocuted. Native women near these “man camps” have been subject to abuse, rape, and sometimes have disappeared, often into the sex trafficking business, sometimes murdered.
Standing Rock, this part of the Plains, is the world of well-known leader and holy man Sitting Bull. It is land crossed during the time of the Fort Laramie Treaty, signed in what is now Wyoming. In my mind’s eye as I’ve studied the history, I see the many leaders of nations crossing this land to participate in negotiations with the American government. Wearing beautifully made regalia, most traveled on horseback or with wagons, the chiefs and the women ambassadors of nations who thought the Fort Laramie Treaty would be a resolution to their problems. Even those who had earlier disputes came together with one another in kinship, camping together, sharing meals, and creating new relationships.
What drives this hatred is impossible for me to understand.
Now the chiefs of many tribal nations and other representatives have arrived again, this time to join in common protection for the water of this Earth and in solidarity with the Standing Rock and Lakota. This is still the land of the Standing Rock Sioux and other Lakota Nations, still held together by the words and memory of Sitting Bull, who loved and protected his people. No company or state has the right to take a thin, dirty business through it, a pipeline certain to break, destroying the water and contaminating the future.
But the Dakota Access corporation sent its private, aggressive militia to declare its own war on the people. With that amount of harassment, the water protectors could certainly be in danger. We already saw on the news that, after being told where the burial sites and sacred lands were, the bulldozers went to those areas and tore through the earth, the opposite of what was expected. What drives such hostility is hard to imagine.
The planes and helicopters have been flying over the vulnerable past and future of the land. What look like SWAT teams and men with assault rifles are set loose to aim the weapons of their anger or use attack dogs on the people who are only protecting the water, or were chopping wood or cooking for the others when the armed men arrived.
It stays with me. What drives this hatred is impossible for me to understand.
I think of the pilots and these men and I wonder, do they go home at times to happiness, to their own families? Do they carefully tend gardens or gently touch their loved ones? Do they protect their children from bullies? Do those with such fury on their faces think that the others are human beings like themselves? Do they realize that flying over the lands of the First People causes fear? Forever I will think of one picture, quickly removed from a website, showing a man point an assault rifle too near a crying girl, maybe 8 years old, her hair neatly French braided, her clothing impeccable.
This is our body, and perhaps we are a part of its soul.
I am a Chickasaw woman no longer on the waters of the Mississippi, but my daughters and grandchildren are Oglala Lakota. We know how many tribes in the South became extinct centuries even before the fur trappers and gold seekers journeyed to these Northern Plains. We’ve all survived massacres and hunger from the loss of our food sources, from freezing winters, even before the time of Custer’s wars in this region.
Photographs from space reveal that Earth is a water planet. No living thing survives without water. It is for that reason space explorers search for planets that may contain this element; it is a sign of life.
Most First People have chants or songs about the sacred nature of water. Water is even used for baptism in Christian religions. I hear that even the waters have their distinct songs as they journey toward the oceans.
We live on a single globe of water, all of it one entity. It is alive, this elemental force, this yearning sacred creation, longing to reach an ocean. This is our body, and perhaps we are a part of its soul. It is always moving away, traveling and then returning, in its glorious circle. And we know that when we sing for water, we sing for ourselves.
At this time, we need to pray and sing for water in other locations as well. To name only a few, the San Juan River and its Animas tributary is still too polluted for use by the Navajo after the great wall of pollution from the Gold King Mine spill. The Menomenee are fighting a mining site at their water’s source. California tribes have had water taken by bottling companies and their sacred springs have dried. The Amazon and other rivers in South America are under duress from mining, oil, deforestation, and mega-dam builders.
Linda Hogan is an award-winning and internationally recognized public reader, speaker, and writer of poetry, fiction, and essays. She is the Writer in Residence for the Chickasaw Nation, as well as a writing coach and literary advisor.