Over the last few months, people and organizations across the state hosted community events in support of the Standing Rock Reservation. In Sitka, locals in November hosted the ‘Sitka Stands with Standing Rock’ solidarity event, welcoming more than one hundred and fifty people to Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi community house. Indigenous leaders spoke in support of those at Standing Rock; local artists offered art and gifts for a fundraising auction, and the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers moved participants with songs and dances set to the pulse of a powerful box drum. Organizers collected more than two hundred letters that asked state and federal politicians to oppose the militarized efforts of North Dakota police. They also gathered more than 30 jars of wild foods to feed the water protectors in Standing Rock. Donors also wrote cards explaining the origins, process and significance of their locally harvested foods.
These donations reflect a unique bond between Southeast Alaskans and the Standing Rock Reservation — a deeply personal and powerful relationship to the land. In total, the event raised more than $5,000 for Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council and Water Protector Legal Collective.
In North Dakota the first week of December, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it will not support the existing building plans for the final leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline. While water protectors in Standing Rock celebrate this initial victory, the conversation erupting across the nation may change, but is not over. In Alaska, the discussion of human rights, environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty is particularly close to home. As such, the story unfolding in the Great Plains moved many Alaskans to either travel to North Dakota or to take local action.
Lakota Harden helped organize the event and additional gatherings of prayer and solidarity held during the past several months for the Standing Rock Reservation. She grew up between her homeland of South Dakota and the island community of Sitka. Her family has been in Oceti Sakowin Camp since its beginning, and she traveled to join them in September and October.
“People won’t acknowledge or accept the ongoing injustice and it’s a genocidal form of racism. It’s difficult to face the atrocities of how this country was stolen here, to look at our own dirt, our own laundry, our own backyard and say, ‘How is it here?’ That was one of the first things we decided with this event, was that we need to acknowledge these difficult topics,” says Harden.
Louise Brady and Dionne Brady-Howard of the Kiks.adi Clan of the Tlingit nation pointed the conversation locally. They opened with a familiar string of words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Brady-Howard said, quoting the Declaration of Independence before pausing. “Those are great words but, that is just what they are. They are only words on paper. It has taken an awful lot of work to make those words a little more of a reality for more than just the white landholding man that they originally applied to in our nation’s founding. It took constitutional amendments, it took marches, sit-ins and Supreme Court decisions. It required people’s hard work, and that is what democracy is. It is hard work.”
That hard work is not over. Louise Brady pointed to the harbor-front property on which participants stood, reminding the audience that Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi rests on land taken from the Kiks.adi people. As recently as the 1970s the Kiks.adi Tlingit had to fight hard legal battles for the tiny parcel of land where the community house was erected to be returned to Sitka Tribe, rather than allowing a shift in land ownership from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the City of Sitka. During the Alaska Day parade in Sitka this year [http://www.kcaw.org/2016/10/26/alaska-day-dilemma-celebrating-history-without-colonialism/ ], local discussions of the repercussions of colonialism resurfaced when a sign held by Paulette Moreno thanking Sheet’la Kwaan for their care of Tlingit land was received by an organizer as a threat. At the Standing Rock event, participants acknowledged and supported those working in sub-zero temperatures to protect sacred spaces in North Dakota, while reminding us we must also make changes and look locally.
So what’s next? While those in Standing Rock celebrate the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision with concern for what the incoming Trump administration may mean for their efforts, what can people do locally?
According to Harden, the first step is having a conversation. “There’s people all over the country now who are thinking about this and we need to talk about it. It’s time. And, things are never going to go right if you don’t acknowledge what you’ve done wrong, you are never going to be in balance.”
Organizers stressed that having difficult conversations about land sovereignty, racism, environmental justice and a long history of local colonialism must not lead to division.
“This is a time to come together. This is a time for open dialogue. This is a time for healing,” said Louise Brady.