In the morning, with helicopters flying above and tension still in the air, Tara Houska left her tent in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to speak at the Native Roots Monologue. For her it all felt surreal.
The monologues and guest lecture started off National Native American Heritage Month and along with celebration of identity and culture came education from speakers like Houska, an attorney and activist, as well as spoken word from students of TOTUS.
“We have to start somewhere and we can start with basic education,” said Naliyah Kaya, the MICA Coordinator for Multiracial & Multicultural Student Involvement and Community Advocacy as well as a coordinator for Native American Indian/Indigenous Student Involvement and Advocacy.
“Then we can get people to start thinking critically on how everything is interconnected,” she said.
A place to start for many students could be with the video shown by Houska. The lights in the Charles Carroll room of Stamp dimmed and students watched the violent interactions with police and protesters.
For Houska, the interaction was not only a documentation, but a reality. She recalled asking officers on the frontlines questions about why they were standing there ready to attack.
“Did you sign up to do this?”
As she watched officers contemplate, a gun was pointed at her head and if her friend had not pulled her away, she would have gotten severely hurt by the rubber bullet, she said.
Over the past couple of months the indigenous group of Standing Rock Sioux have protested against the North Dakota pipeline in fear of contaminated water. Now the protestors stand right in front of police and construction sites to try and stop the continuation of the project.
Houska calls many of the interactions with police a flashback for indigenous people in the country.
“There’s this collective memory of not only a violent and traumatizing thing but there is also a memory of people being pushed off their land,” she said.
In fact, the location of the protests is the same place as the Whitestone Hill Massacre, also known by the name of Battle of Whitestone Hill.
“You are watching indigenous people being pushed back, again, by police,” she said. “You see this past and present history that is real and happening.”
The reality for Houska and the protests occurring at Standing Rock also became clear to students in Kaya’s class.
“I asked my students to think about the parallels of today with the Indian Removal Act, and they said that it almost feels like it never ended,” said Kaya. “If people don’t know the history then they won’t see that it is repeating itself.”
Indeed, the protests of Standing Rock are examples of environmental racism that continues to happen.
“Projects happen in a place that is out of sight and out of mind,” said Houska. “We don’t see it going through white suburbia, we see it going to the Indian Reservations or through communities of color or low income.”
Previous problems of environmental racism for indigenous people is not new, but the large response from people also motivate the protest at Standing Rock despite the violent interactions with officers.
“People have become confused as to why this project, this pipeline, has become the fight. I think it is because Standing Rock asked for help,” said Houska.
A response that has gathered thousands of people to protest and over 1 million of people to respond on Facebook, according to NPR.
These acts of solidarity are not only on the frontlines of the protests or online through social media but were exemplified through the spoken word of the group TOTUS.
James Marrow, a junior public policy major, spoke of cultural identifiers like hair and the parallels to resistance and preservation. His poem, “Rooting Admiration,” was an approach of positive admiration for native people.
“My poem in particular is an example of respect and admiration that the community lacks,” said Marrow.
As a person of color, Marrow said he understood the problems with cultural appropriation in the country.
“My culture is appropriated and the fact that the culture on me is not appreciated but on other people it is appreciated,” he said. “In general, I think my poem gives attention to the positive things in the Native American community that are often invisible.”
Indeed, acts of solidarity are important and for Houska the responses of groups like #BlackLivesMatter can bridge communities.
“We tend to work in columns. It becomes a black issue or a native issue or a LGBTQ issue. It is always split into sections,” Houska said. “There is so much intersectionality that happens between all these communities. These struggles are not unfamiliar.”
Such struggles like cultural appropriation are issues students are learning more about, like Misha Bucknor, a kinesiology freshman.
“I learned that it was more surreal that it is actually happening and the severity of it and how brutal the media is about reporting on it,” Bucknor said.
Regardless of the lack of mainstream media attention Houska asked students and the public to do more than just hashtag.
“We are putting on a massive call on Nov. 15 to go to your local Army Corp of Engineers office and tell them that they need to reject this project,” said Houska.
Until then she remains hopeful about the situation in Standing Rock and the general presentation of Native Americans in the public eye.
“We can keep these issues interconnected because we can’t keep fighting by ourselves, if we are then we are just fighting for little crumbs of information or attention.”
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Naomi Harris is a senior multi-platform journalism and sociocultural anthropology double major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.