Alaskan women share stories from Standing Rock
Just days after President Trump signed an executive order re-opening the door for continued construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, members of a delegation of Alaskan women gathered to share their stories from Standing Rock with the Fairbanks community.
“What’s happening at Standing Rock didn’t just come out of nowhere,” Enei Begaye, Executive Director of Native Movement, said. “This history of U.S colonization of indigenous people’s lands is really where we’re at still today. We’re still dealing with all of these issues that in many ways have been widely unrecognized within our school system, within our educational system and history books.”
Begaye, a Navajo by birth and married into the Alaska Gwich’in tribe, was joined by several others on her trip, including Amanda Frank, a reporter for KUAC and Alaska Public Media, Misty Nickoli, an Athabascan and Tsimshian veteran, Jessica Girard, also a veteran and Dorothy Schokely, an upper Koyukon Athabascan.
Frank had the experience of covering this issue as both a member of the press and an Indigenous woman.
“When we were there they talked to us about what could happen,” Frank said. “The law enforcement officers were targeting Indigenous people and the media, which was me. We had to have the legal tent phone number written on our arm and were told to always have cash on us in case we got arrested.”
Each member of the delegation had a different reason for making the trip.
Early in 2016, youth from Standing Rock ran to Washington D.C with the message of water protection. The movement soon gathered a massive following.
“We’d seen this stuff happening in the news,” Frank said. “When [Enei] asked me to go, I immediately thought ‘Yes’ because Native people need to tell their own stories.”
Begaye’s calling to travel to Standing Rock arrived after the events of Oct. 27, 2016, when militarized police forces arrested over 250 peaceful demonstrators. She said she could not stand aside and observe.
“They took people from sweat lodges and pulled people out of prayer,” Begaye said. “So many that they had to put people in dog kennels.”
On the last day of the trip, a group of demonstrators handcuffed themselves to construction machinery. Eventually law enforcement began pepper spraying the crowd, Frank said.
“It was really hard for me, as a reporter to just sit there and not say anything,” Frank said. “At one point, I asked one of the police officers ‘What are you protecting?’ and he responded ‘I’m just protecting this equipment.’ And I remember it was so disheartening to me as a Native person to hear that a piece of equipment was more important or valuable than my life or the land that I have subsisted on for years.”
Nickoli spoke of meeting an elderly woman named Casey Camp. Camp had shown Nickoli her arm, inscribed with a number in permanent marker signifying when she was arrested for the first time.
“She was held in a dog kennel enclosure with 30 other women,” Nickoli said.
This often happened if prison cells were already filled with other demonstrators, Begaye said.
“[Camp] said there was this young woman, she was just laying on the floor because she was in so much pain,” Nickoli said. “Her clothes were so soaked in pepper spray that they were completely wet. It just doesn’t stop hurting.”
Nickoli comes from a long line of service in the military including her grandfather, mother, aunts, uncles and cousins.
“The military is much like my Koyakan Athabaskan culture,” Nickoli said. “It’s collectivist. We take care of each other. We share the same core values.”
On Nov. 7, Nickoli had an experience that changed her perspective greatly.
“I stood below the sacred hills of Oceti Sakowin and saw a group of people walking toward Backwater bridge to pray. I figured I would stand back and watch what was going on from a distance,” Nickoli said, “As I came close I saw the shadowed outline of a sniper, as he quickly retrained the direction of his weapon from camp to Backwater bridge.”
Nickoli paused her story to wipe away tears. It was at this moment she said she realized this man could have been her brother.
“We both swore an oath,”Nickoli said. “Yet there he lay in the grass with his weapon trained on unarmed, peaceful civilians. In that moment I realized that the fact that my ancestors, my family were the first to answer the call, who will protect and serve, it didn’t matter. Our very existence: our bodies, the space we occupy, our skin, our facial structure, our voices. And despite all odds, the simple fact that we’re still here, that’s the threat that is feared.”
Girard described her experience at Standing Rock as one of only a few non indigenous women.
“I think as a white woman who grew up in an education system that doesn’t tell full truths, it is my responsibility to find that truth and to know that we cannot just ask it of our allies of color to tell us,” Girard said. “It is a lot of baggage and generational trauma and it is not their job to hold our hands along the way.”
Girard served twice in Iraq and was shaken by her experience at Standing Rock.
“If it were 5,000 white people gathered at a place with somebody pointing weapons at them, you know it would be in mainstream media,” Girard said.
Girard found her purpose at Standing Rock as an ally and a mouthpiece for the cause.
“In this world of ‘alternative facts,’ in this world of injustice, it’s really important that we share what we’ve learned and talk to our people and share things that may not be heard from people of color,” Girard said. “It’s a shame and it’s disgusting that we still have to do that but my job is to amplify voices that won’t be heard.”
Each member of the delegation shared their piece and the gathering closed in a hopeful discussion with the community, pin pointing environmental and political events happening in the Fairbanks community.
“Indigenous people are not alone. We are joined by our brothers and sisters of various colors and religions,” Nickoli said, describing the variety of people who were present at Standing Rock. “The preamble to the constitution says ‘We the People.’ It does not say the few, the rich, the corporations, the lawmakers, or the government. Great movements like the American revolution, women’s rights, civil rights, the labor movement and the marriage equity movement all came about with the unity of the people.”
Begaye and the other members of the delegation met with Sioux Chairman Archambault during their visit. The chairman spoke of a community battling high rates of suicide in their youth, Begaye said. These rates have dropped dramatically since the water protection movement began.
“This is really key I think,” Begaye said. “This movement that we see today is really grounded from the voices of young people.”
Archambault had seen first hand the positive change in his community because of this common goal.
“The young people are finding their voice,” Archambault said.