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Sovereignty and connection: lessons from Standing Rock

Recently, someone told me they went to college to study the meaning of being an Indian. It does pose a funny question: what is the meaning of being an Indian? I’ve always felt I needed to create spaces where there have been none for someone like me. Many Indigenous people feel this way – navigating colonialism is difficult.

I belong to the Oglala Lakota Tribe. I was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, not too far from the Standing Rock Nation. When I was twenty I went to the Standing Rock Tribe to help protect the water against the pipeline that was being built.

My Grandfather told me that water was the first medicine the Creator gifted to humans. This is why I went to protect the water. I spent a lot of time with my elders there and remember some pinnacle moments from that time. One day in September I was a part of a group of protectors attacked with mace and German shepherd dogs. That day was hard for a lot of people, and it was important for the camp to regroup after that.

I would pray every night with my family. We would be in intense prayer for hours, and the Creator could feel how much we wanted to protect the water. A lot of healing went on inside me, as well as a lot of hardship, all of which aided my growth and my sense of what it means to be an Indian.

I remember driving away from Standing Rock feeling many emotions all at once. I cried as much as the rain fell over the plains that evening. Everything I absorbed at Standing Rock impacted my choices at The Evergreen State College.

I spent much of my time at college studying Indigenous sustainable agriculture. My research began as an intern in the Pacific Northwest at the Nisqually Tribal Garden. I learned how the community benefits from locally grown and harvested food. I also strengthened my connection to medicinal plants. Later, when I studied agricultural education for nine weeks in Aotearoa (New Zealand), my understanding of what it means to be Indigenous and decolonize my lifestyle grew even more. If I hadn’t followed my family to Standing Rock, my education at The Evergreen State College would have been much different. I’m not sure I would have studied decolonization as much as I have because of that experience.

Decolonization is an interesting subject, delicate and complex. In fact, studying it for two years has been a lifesaver for me. My professors frame colonization as not a period of time five hundred or so years ago. However colonialism is a system that we all live in. Decolonization for Indigenous peoples means complete sovereignty. I control how I live and embrace my culture. Decolonization also means that I go back to the land and break away from capitalism. I realized that the more disconnected I am from my traditional ways of living, the harder it is on my mental health and overall well-being.

I’m not suggesting there is only one way to be Indigenous, I have just noticed that for me, there is a disconnection and that, as I decolonize, I see a difference in my quality of life.

I love talking about decolonization because I always learn something new, and it can help open the doors for discussion and change. Which is what we all want as humans, I think. We are always evolving and progressing. I believe issues imperative to Indigenous nations are important to everyone because every human being should care about compassionate topics. In future articles I hope to discuss the relationship between certain governments and Indigenous people, two-spirit identity, and what it means to be an Indian.

Living under a capitalist system is complex for Indigenous people and our voices and perspective aren’t often heard. I’m grateful to be able to share my perspective with WIP readers. Wopíla (thank you)!

Rafael Plentywolf will graduate from The Evergreen State College in 2020 with an emphasis on Indigenous Studies.

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