What is now called North America was once inhabited entirely by indigenous human cultures nestled into natural communities. White settlers have been waging a campaign against these human cultures and the land for the last 500 years in countless actions which can only be understood as insanity.
As a descendant of these settlers, and because my skin is white, I’ve been born into societal privilege afforded to some at the expense of others. Yet, I see the blatant perversion and inherent wrongness o the dominant culture, and choose instead to ally myself with the natural world and indigenous communities striving to maintain their traditional ways of life.
This is what led me to recently join a caravan to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to stand with the Oglala Sioux tribe of the Lakota people in opposition to an ongoing genocide faced by their people at the hands of predatory liquor sellers in the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska.
Whiteclay has a population of 14 and consists of one short road lined with four liquor stores. Collectively, the town sells around 12,000 cans of beer every day, primarily to the Native population of Pine Ridge, which has banned alcohol within its borders. Now, one in four children on the reservation is born with Fetal Alcohol Disorder and the general population’s life expectancy is the lowest in the United States.
Lakota activists have been taking action against Whiteclay for years, but some wanted an escalation in the battle and chose to invite members of the radical environmental movement, Deep Green Resistance (DGR), to join them for an act of civil disobedience.
My journey started with a gathering of activists who traveled from around the country in the Southeastern part of the state of South Dakota. There, we prepared supplies and excitedly discussed with each other the possibilities of what was to come. Before leaving, we were seen of by a leader in the local area’s chapter of the American Indian Movement, who offered us much encouragement and wisdom.
On the Pine Ridge Reservation, we met at the site of Wounded Knee. It’s a place of much significance, seeing a massacre of several hundred Lakota people by the U.S. 7th Calvary in December 1890, and later a 1973 takeover by the American Indian Movement, which lasted for 71 days. Eventually, caravan members and local Lakota activists traveled to a campsite where we shared meals, prayers, and time for planning.
The next morning marked the day of the action. We’d organized and prepared beforehand and were anticipating how events might unfold.
The scheduled march was a commemoration for Wally Black Elk and Ron Hard Heart, who were murdered in Whiteclay in 1999. Strong hearted individuals encouraged participants to take the whole street, which we did. Along the way, we stopped four times to hear song, history, and prayer.
In Whiteclay, giant 30-day eviction notices were placed to cover the entrances of the liquor stores. Energy was high when the blockade began.
Several activists locked themselves together with u-locks and a chain and sat down in the middle of the highway. This lasted for around four hours, significantly impeding business and traffic within the town.
Despite our expecting arrests to be made, none were and police presence was generally minimal. In fact, the Sheridan County Sheriff, after initially being confronted by fiery activists, began discussing compromise, clearly not expecting this type of action to be taken. The legal team organized by protesters, in conjunction with some of the Lakota women organizers, wrote their demands on paper which the Sheriff eventually conceded to signing in agreement to. He promised to sit down with the Lakota women in the coming weeks to talk seriously about how the tragedy of Whiteclay, Nebraska could be halted. Blockaders were able to leave without arrest or repercussion.
Pine Ridge Tribal Police, before getting word from the Nebraska Sheriff to stand down, were waiting to arrest some of us on the other side of the border. Ironically, as we approached them they informed us of another march, organized by an elderly Native woman from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, was about to begin and she wanted us to join her. These same Tribal Police now escorted us back to town, the march taking up a full lane.
During a debriefing about the action, later, some of the Lakota activists shared, in an act that felt incredibly honoring, some of their people’s history, traditional ways, and now their gratitude for those of us who came to show support for them. Their words resonated in me and I knew they were spoken by real human beings who, despite their ongoing struggles to survive, know how to live in a good way with the land and with each other.
These Native friends spoke of the important truth that all living beings are related and that all of us, Lakota or not, can and should join in communion with the natural world. And upon listening to the land, they said, you’ll find that she needs warriors to fight for her. Resistance to destruction of the land and human communities is the heritage of the Lakota people and so many indigenous cultures: think Crazy Horse. Contemplating the action taken against Whiteclay the day before, they said that we reminded them of modern-day warriors.
For the earth’s sake, I want this to be true. Too often people of privilege back away from this fight, retreating into isolation and embracing the toxic mythology of the dominant culture. Meanwhile, those who have been on the frontlines for centuries are forced to remain there, oftentimes sacrificing their lives in efforts for justice.
To shut down Whiteclay, and ultimately this life-killing system, the privileged need to begin to step outside of comfort and offer our bodies to the struggles of the land and indigenous communities. I’m so honored by the Lakota activists from Pine Ridge who invited me to stand with them, reminding me once again that this battle—to save the planet and stop the ongoing genocides—is a long one, and it is with strong hearts we can win.