Story and photo by Karin Eagle, Native Sun News Staff Writer
PORCUPINE – With not a drum in sight, there was still a pounding of heartbeats that could be felt like a reverberation from the largest drums. The heartbeat of the women gathered on the lands of the Oglala Lakota pounded steady and hard as the women’s voices gathered to speak and encourage one another in an effort to not only encourage the men, but to call on the younger women to pick up the fight that was started generations ago by the great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mothers of today.
In Porcupine, the first of four gatherings of Native women called Winyan Ituwan, or Vision of the Women, was held this past Sunday. The Lakota leadership of Debra White Plume and Babe Poor Bear, both Oglala Lakota, pulled a wide variety of Lakota and Dakota women together in order to reestablish their power and what Alex White Plume, Oglala activist, termed “the spiritual law which men do not act on anything without, which is what women are”.
Emceeing the event were Poor Bear and Cordelia White Owl, who is also Oglala Lakota.
Each taking a turn at introducing the powerful women who, at all ages, have either stood up for the Lakota people’s human or civil rights, the preservation of culture and language and the environmental issues that have and will impact the health and well-being of the Native peoples of this land.
According to elder Marie Randall, the Lakota winyan – the women – carry the foundation of Lakota life. Randall talked about her desire to teach the Lakota language to her takoja, or grandchildren, in their schools but was initially denied because of the requirements that the state enforces, citing her lack of a teaching degree. Because she is a natural and lifelong speaker of the Lakota language, she was eventually able to obtain a teaching certificate through the state and was finally able to fulfill her own dream of teaching the Lakota language in her community school.
“I am not afraid to be Lakota,” said Randall, which incited a huge round of applause and trills from the women in the audience.
Deb White Plume, who in the summer of 2011 had been arrested in Washington, D.C., during a protest of the Keystone XL Pipeline, proposed to cross Lakota treaty lands, spoke passionately and proudly of the work that has already been accomplished on environmental issues with the leadership of Native women. The mining companies that are seeking renewal permits at the uranium mines near Crawford, Neb., a half-hour from the southern border of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, are currently being fought against.
“Our water at our home has tested so high for radiation and arsenic, which is what happens where uranium mining is being done,” said Debra White Plume, wife of Alex. “But there hasn’t been one single shovel dug in those mines since we have started these challenges, which shows how much power we as women have,” she said.
White Plume spoke eloquently about the need to stand up and have a say in any of the issues that are directly affecting Native peoples.
“I want to stand up. Who else wants to stand up?” asked White Plume. This drew a huge, minute-long response in applause and trills and whistles from the audience.
Tantoo Cardinal, a First Nations Cree from Canada whose community is at ground zero of the tar sands oil mines near Fort McMurray. She remembers not having any awareness of her language or culture, as it had been outlawed.
The Canadian government, she maintains, knew that the power of the First Nations people came from their strong tie to the language and the cultural beliefs and practices so they outlawed all of it, creating a division among the people who struggled to maintain that tie and the ones who passively went with the laws.
“I remember that my mother and I had a strong division because I didn’t get married in the Catholic Church, which she thought would put her straight in hell,” remembers Cardinal. “She was so mad at me. That’s how strong that division was.”
Cardinal, who is a very passionate speaker, unafraid of expressing all emotions, spoke about the predicament First Nations and Native American women have found themselves in.
“The women’s place has not been honored or respected by the civilization that came across the ocean,” said Cardinal. “The land itself, Mother Earth, is being treated in the same abusive ways that many of our women are being treated. It has to stop; it doesn’t have to be this way,” she said.
Kandi Mosset from New Town, ND, a member of The Three Affiliated Tribes, addressed the audience with a powerful blend of humor, emotion and energy. She spoke rapidly yet so eloquently that many audience members mentioned that she made them feel that they were going through what she was experiencing. A younger woman, Mosset nevertheless has all the passion and steel resolve to correct the environmental issues that are currently plaguing her tribes’ land, water and air.
Pulling no punches, Mosset lays the blame exactly where she sees it belongs – on her elected tribal leaders.
“Tex Hall is the current tribal leader, but he is not my leader. I am sorry if he has any relatives here, but I don’t know how that man sleeps at night,” said Mosset.
Elaborating on that thought, she explained that it is the tribal leaders who have allowed so many oil wells to be dug on reservation lands, with some rigs within a few hundred yards of Lake Sakakawea, from which the tribes receive drinking water.
There are several documented cases of spills and leaks into the lake, all of which add up to the formation of a lake filled with pollutants deadly to wildlife, as well as to humans.
“My Dad used to dip his cup into the lake when we were out on a boat and drink it,” said Mosset, “But you would never even think to do that now. And yet that is where we swim and go fishing.”
Mosset also spoke about having to throw fish that was caught in the lake back if it was too large to decrease the amount of contamination that might be ingested.
Mosset, who herself is a cancer survivor and refused chemotherapy and radiation treatment, felt that there was a calling for her, but she wasn’t able to figure out exactly which way she would be of most help to her people.
“I told Mom, ‘I’m an average volleyball player and okay basketball player, (and) I can sorta bake’,” said Mosset. “The only thing I’ve ever done was get in trouble in school for talking too much. Aha!”
Using what she termed her “gift of gab,” Mosset began to use her voice to bring attention to the environmental impact the oil mines on the reservation were having, which are many and certainly not limited to oil spills and leaks.
Leaky valves on holding containers, while not visible to the naked eye, can be seen leaking clouds of vapor into the air through an infrared camera. Hydraulic fracturing is being done on reservation lands, which requires several million gallons per year to accomplish. Hydraulic fractures form naturally, as in the case of veins or dikes, and are one means by which gas and petroleum from source rocks may migrate to reservoir rocks.
However, oil and gas companies may attempt to accelerate this process in order to release petroleum, natural gas, coal seam gas or other substances for extraction. This technique is often called fracking.
When the water is done being used, it is so highly contaminated that it is supposed to be properly disposed of, but several residents of the reservation have witnessed the trucks meant to haul the fracked water to its disposal location instead dumping the water on the side of the road, near the fracking site.
The trucks themselves have created their own environmental issues, as well. Crop yields have gone down due to the incredibly high traffic which generates so much dust that it creates its own haze in the air. This also leads to respiratory issues for people with asthma and allergies.
Another issue that the trucks have created is road hazards due to time-pressed drivers. A friend of Mosset, identified only as Candi, was killed due to the utter carelessness of one of the oil mine company’s trucks, who are all on time schedules to move as much water as possible in one day. A large billboard with Candi’s photo on it urges drivers to “Think before they pass.”
“You can’t taste it, you can’t see it, you might be able to smell it, but it is affecting you and will be affecting you down here in Pine Ridge,” warned Moffet, referring to the winds that blow the pollution down to the south and through the Missouri River.
Davidica Little Spotted Horse, Oglala Lakota, the founder of Independence Through Music, which was created on the reservation to help combat suicide, dropout rates and violence in the communities, spoke about her program. The ITM artists, all local up-and-coming musicians, are given mentorship geared at taking their music careers in a more productive route. They are taught how to manage their careers, book gigs and produce the music that they write, sing or perform to.
Little Spotted Horse then introduced one of the artists under ITM, Sheldon King, who performs under the stage name Lakota Samurai. King performed a rap song that he wrote about the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Madonna Thunder Hawk was invited to speak about the Indian Child Welfare Act, but she would address some information about activism. She invited her friend Phyllis Young, who is a newly elected council person for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Young called for more Wall Street demonstrations, specifically in the Black Hills.
Thunder Hawk, who maintains that she is in her seventies yet looks decades younger, works for the Lakota Peoples Law Project, which is charged with the goal of making sure that ICWA laws are followed by the states and that the tribes are made aware of their rights and responsibilities to the children they are supposed to be protecting.
“I am in my seventies, and I have been doing this for a very long time now. We need our young women to now pick up the fight,” said Thunder Hawk, looking around the room at the large number of younger women, teenagers and small children.
Troylynn Yellow Wood, Oglala and Northern Cheyenne, spoke on behalf of her aunt, Vivian Locust. She spoke with a heartfelt passion about the true roles of the Lakota women and of certain ways the women were supposed to conduct themselves. This presentation was told in such a manner that it captured and held the attention of the youngest audience members, which, due to their unexpected stillness, caught the attention of the adults in attendance.
Yellow Wood’s soothing tones, as well as the content of her presentation, were well received by the gathering of women. She came armed with a fistful of notes that she took based on what her aunt wanted to share with the Winyan Ituwan.
Due to the fact that there was a mixed crowd, meaning men as well as women in attendance, Yellow Wood was hesitant to share much of what was written out of respect for the males. She said that it’s not right to speak about those things in front of men because you never want to shame the male relatives. It was at Yellow Wood’s house in Denver that Anna Mae Pictou Aquash was picked up for the journey to the place near Wanbli where she was murdered.
Faye Spotted Eagle spoke about taking the initiative to teach the language to her tiwahe, or immediate family circle. She invited her relatives over, and they all made the decision together to learn the language and pass it on to the next generation. While attending the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Language Summit in Rapid City, Spotted Eagle was surprised when a Maori speaker pointed out that it was very sad that there were no young people in attendance at the summit. The majority of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota speakers were all over the age of fifty.
The Brave Heart Society was established and the people involved have actively worked at reestablishing the language of daily life. The young women involved introduced themselves in the Lakota language, and a prayer in Lakota was offered by one of the youngest members. The prayer offered was a prayer that was written by Ella Deloria and was offered during the time when the sun dance tree was cut down before being placed in the middle of the arbor. The prayer offers the people’s apologies to the birds for taking their home.
Pearl Means, who is Dine’ and the wife of activist and cancer survivor Russell Means, spoke emotionally about her husband’s fight and defeat of throat cancer. She shared how the different tribes across the country, as well as here on Oglala lands, offered ceremonies and medicines to Means in an attempt to change the course of his illness. At a recent checkup, Means was told by a doctor that “you will not die of cancer.”
Pearl Means offered that the power of women is to nurture and to pray for the people. Later on, Russell Means emphatically said, “I beat cancer because of my wife!”
Nearing the end of the event, a meal was served to the gathering by the youngest women in attendance. During the meal, an honoring song was sung by Tianna Spotted Horse and Autumn Two Bulls while star quilts and gifts were presented to Cardinal and Mosset. The audience lined up to shake their hands and offered them encouragement and gratitude for the help that they offered the Oglala people.
The evening concluded with words of encouragement from two of the strongest supporters of women’s voices, Alex White Plume and Russell Means, during which time it was announced by White Plume that Means would be joining forces with the Treaty Council of the Oglala to fight for the sacred Black Hills
Little Spotted Horse and one of her daughters drew the evening to a close with a musical performance.
Contact Karin Eagle at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright permission by Native Sun News, www.nsweekly.com.