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‘Water is the first medicine of this world’

Water Protector La Donna Brave Bull Allard revisits Dakota Access Pipeline protest, and recent leak from Keystone XL pipeline
By Alyssa Kelly
Char-Koosta News

TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone pipeline leaked an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil onto agricultural land in northeastern South Dakota, near Amherst, S.D. on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. (DroneBase via Associated Press) TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone pipeline leaked an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil onto agricultural land in northeastern South Dakota, near Amherst, S.D. on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. (DroneBase via Associated Press)

MISSOULA – Over 210,000 gallons of leaked crude oil (unrefined petroleum) from the Keystone Pipeline XL contaminated land in South Dakota. The $8 billion pipeline is projected to span 1,200 miles from Montana to Texas to transport crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

News of the oil leak comes to little surprise for 15,000 protesters who camped along the river over a span of 10 months in 2016 to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction. Calling themselves “the water protectors” the group faced the National Guard, security dogs, rubber bullets, grenades, and industrial hoses in freezing temperatures to get their message across.

Long before the leak or showdowns, La Donna Brave Bull Allard, Dakota, helped to set up the camp’s first teepee poles on a parcel of land owned by her family. “I named the camp: ‘Sacred Stone’ because there are stones made from whirlpools in the river and they have always been considered sacred to the Dakota people,” she said.

Brave Bull Allard recounted her experience as the founder of the Sacred Stone Camp during a presentation at the University of Montana entitled: “Healing the Next Generation.” “No one person is responsible for what happened at the camp,” she said. “I am not the leader, and neither is anyone else who came. We were all serving a power greater than ourselves.”

The $3.7 billion dollar pipeline was projected to transport oil 1,172 miles from North and South Dakota to Southern Illinois. The Dakota Access Pipeline was projected to cross the Missouri River on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, impacting the community’s only water source, which inspired the Sacred Stone Camp and its guiding philosophy: “Water is Life.”

La Donna Brave Bull Allard helped organize the Sacred Stone Camp in South Dakota to protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. (Alyssa Kelly photo) La Donna Brave Bull Allard helped organize the Sacred Stone Camp in South Dakota to protest construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. (Alyssa Kelly photo)

“Water is the first medicine of this world,” Brave Bull Allard said. “Babies are born in water. Water is life. That should be our first lesson. We should never do anything to harm our water because if we do, we are harming ourselves. Where did we lose this simple understanding?”

At its peak, the camp reached a population of 17,000 – nearly the size of a city in the state of North Dakota. Indigenous people from across the world poured into the camp to offer support and Brave Bull Allard said the movement was rooted in non-violence and spirituality. “Every morning warriors would go to the frontline to pray. All day people were praying and singing. We had trainings in non-violent resistance: classes on security, classes on how not to react. What I saw on the frontline were amazing warriors able to stand there in prayer,” she said.

Aside from their frontline work, the tribe filed a suit claiming the pipeline’s construction encroached on ancestral burial grounds, which are protected by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. In spite of pending approval from the Army Crops of Engineers, which required input from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Trans Canada began construction on the area on September 3, 2016.

Brave Bull Allard said the construction took the water protectors by surprise. “I got a call and they said: ‘La Donna you need to get down here they are bulldozing the gravesites,’” she recalled. “I said ‘stop them!’ No one knew what to do. We did everything we were supposed to according to the justice system.”

Arriving on the construction site, Brave Bull Allard said she witnessed a clash between the water protectors and Dakota Access LLC security guards. “People were crying everywhere. I watched as this guy got out of a white pickup and he pepper sprayed a whole line of women and children... Then I saw the dogs. I saw this woman with the dogs and she kept siccing the dogs on the people and they had blood in their mouths. I think I just froze because I couldn’t believe what my eyes were seeing.”

Flags from tribal nations across America flutter over the Sacred Stone Camp during summer, 2016. (Lailani Upham photo) Flags from tribal nations across America flutter over the Sacred Stone Camp during summer, 2016. (Lailani Upham photo)

Brave Bull Allard said the scene was reminiscent of an incident that occurred 153 years earlier to date. On September 3, 1863, a 300 man Calvary of US troops invaded a camp of 300 Dakota men, women and children that resulted in 60 casualties. Brave Bull Allard said only one member of her family, her great grandmother, survived the White Stone Massacre. “It is then I knew I was in a battle. I was in a war. Things became very violent. I learned on that day that law is not just, police men are not our servants, and justice is not something we live by anymore. That realization broke my heart,” she said.

The unarmed water protectors clashed with local law enforcement, the National Guard, and security throughout their 10-month stand. Brave Bull Allard said she witnessed travesty. “There were many atrocities, too many to name,” she said. “We all know of the young man who was shot with a rubber bullet and had his knuckles blown off. The young woman who was hit with a rubber missile and nearly lost her arm.”

The tribal historian said she also witnessed prophecy in the movement. “This was really a movement of young people stepping up to defend their future. This was what I believe to be the seventh generation. When the eagle and condor meet we can now heal the world again. When the black snake comes to devour the earth we must stop it. We’re living prophecy now.”

February 22, 2017 was the Army Corp’s deadline for the water protectors to vacate the camp located in federal tribal land. While the camp’s structure is dismantled, Brave Bull Allard said the water protectors have continued activism work campaigning for individuals and businesses to divest its funds from banks that support that natural gas extraction. “Wells Fargo has now closed 400 bank sections,” she said. “We have divested $33 billion from fossil fuel right now and we are asking everybody divest your money from banks that invest in fossil fuels. Invest your money in your own community.”

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' flag joins dozens of other to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. President Donald Trump approved DAP construction in early 2017, despite overwhelming disapproval. (Courtesy photo) Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' flag joins dozens of other to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. President Donald Trump approved DAP construction in early 2017, despite overwhelming disapproval. (Courtesy photo)

While advocating for a Native American representative in the United Nations, Brave Bull Allard has been traveling the world touring environmentally cautious communities. “You do not have sovereignty without food sovereignty,” she said. “I have seen great things going on in the world. Solar powered cities, electric cars, and sustainable housing. We have been building community gardens on my reservation and plan on hosting classes on how to grow food again. Something I learned about a lot of environmental activists is they don’t know how to live in the natural environment. That needs to change.”

The historian shared her perspective on Indigenous activism. “Our biggest act of activism as Native people is the healing of our own selves,” she said. “We are all missing pieces. I see a great journey of healing. How do we do that? We put back in the language, the culture, and the spirituality–our way of life. We put back in how we live on this earth with respect. How we live with water with respect. Water is the first medicine of this world.”

Brave Bull Allard said the Sacred Stone Camp represented the need for systematic activism. “I am labeled a terrorist and I can’t recall ever doing any harm to anybody,” she said. “That tells me that our system is sick. That tells me that we have a lot of work. That tells me that if we continue to stand and empower ourselves, become that power that tells the government how they should be instead of the government telling us, we can have better communities–better societies, and a better life for our children.”

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