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The Board of Directors of the ELLA BAKER ORGANIZING FUND and our supporters from the Korean American Community just finished a four-day visit to Standing Rock, North Dakota. We were an ethnically diverse, multi-generational group with complex and long involvement in movements for civil and human rights, labor organizing, immigration rights, Black liberation and other critical issues of our time. We went to offer a donation demonstrating our solidarity with the Dakota Access Pipeline Water-Protectors’ struggle against the U.S. government and greedy corporations attempting to invade and contaminate the sacred lands of the Lakota-Sioux people of the Northern Plains and their precious water sources. We presented a letter to Indigenous elders inviting the Lakota-Sioux people to a collaborative project to liberate our peoples. We proposed that Native leaders use their reservations to offer refuge to Black, Brown, Red, and Yellow people and immigrants who are victims of murder, imprisonment, and institutional violence. In addition, we proposed to use the reservations to grow medical marijuana to sustain funds for this revolutionary work. We hope to build on a historical relationship between Native People and African Americans that began during our enslavement. Despite our vast and variant experiences with other mass protests and the mobilizing of responses to basic human needs, few of us were prepared for the sheer scale of the encampment we saw at Standing Rock reservation on the banks of the Cannonball River.
We did not visit only a group of protesters and water protectors, but also a highly organized, self-made and self-sustaining town of 12,000 inhabitants. It was huge, astonishing, and it was developed in an incredibly short period of time; a testament to the superb organizing of the First Nation People. The campsite was complex, subdivided in various areas that functioned like small neighborhoods. The community contained institutions and centers that provided all of the basic needs for a people’s survival, including: food, clothing, winter supplies, shelter, medical care, healing therapies, education, orientation, childcare, communication, (solar-powered) energy, governance, and spirituality spaces. All of these centers were innovative and creative; for instance, the housing options ranged from RV trailers, to yurts, to traditional tepees and wigwams, to “tarpees,” made out of tarp that built upon the tepee structure, and improvised Quonset huts. Moreover, all of these necessities and goods were offered for FREE. The way the camp was run envisions the world we want to live in.
This "town" was a gathering of folk of almost every race, age, gender, hue and culture on this earth. People from all over this country and the world came to support this struggle. We even encountered folks from Indigenous Nations of Brazil, from Palestine, and from Lebanon. The best of humanity was present. Folks would often walk around the camp offering donated goods to people in need; an elder in our delegation received snowshoe-nets from a passer-byer who noticed he was having difficulty walking on the uneven snow and wanted to attend to his need. The air of the camp was infused with a spirit of love, generosity, and concern for our fellow water-protectors, for nature, and for the earth. People stayed and worked despite the bitter cold of North Dakota that averaged 27 degrees Fahrenheit. For some of us, the community of the Standing Rock encampment revived memories of Tent City in Washington, DC, The Poor People’s March, the Gwangja Uprising in South Korea, and a massive civil action when plantation workers were thrown off the plantation in Mississippi. This experience reawakened our belief in a “beloved community.” Through bottom-up organizing, Standing Rock has laid the groundwork for an alternative community, showing us what is possible for our movement work. We, lovers of freedom and justice, DO have the ability to create a new world based on love and justice.
At the core and leadership of this great demonstration were 700 Native Nations from all over the Americas who kept their culture, their history, their leadership, and sentiments of love and respect at the center of all activity. Orientation, which occurred daily for new and old volunteers, emphasized the need to respect the Native’s decisions and decision-making processes. Volunteer leaders would explain the history of this struggle, the core principles and values of the First Nation People, and what allies - non indigenous people - may or may not help them with. This meeting serves as the bedrock of education for allies to understand what it means to be “indigenous-centered” and to reflect upon “settler-colonizer” attitudes and the ways even well-meaning allies may often impose on the indigenous people. We were also often reminded that this is a peaceful protest and that the spirit of the warrior is motivated by and fights with love. Various speeches made at the Sacred Fire, a communication center of prayer, offerings, and announcements, reiterated the importance of respect for the Lakota-Sioux people’s decisions. Speeches also spoke to the various ways in which Native People have struggled against and suffered at the hands of the United States, naming various massacres and genocides, such as Wounded Knee and the Sand Creek Massacre. In these speeches, they would note how they continue to suffer today, and also remind water-protectors how to conduct themselves at this camp in a way that respects Native traditions, especially the need to respect elders. This constant communication and repetition helped this movement stay strong and not be “colonized” and hijacked by protesters acting on their own agenda. To you our Dear Native Brothers and Sisters, we bow to you, we honor you, we respect you for teaching us the power of love as the most powerful weapon for freedom and justice.
Spirituality held ample space at Standing Rock, particularly Native American traditions, but other religious traditions from across the globe were present, fully respected, and welcomed. Native American spiritual traditions were present in the commonplace activities of the camp. Everyday began with a prayer ceremony by the water in which people of all faiths were invited to participate and pray in their own way. The Sacred Fire was kept burning day in and day out, 24/7 by Fire-Keepers. The sacred fire was a place of prayer where people could burn sage, and offer tobacco and other herbs to the fire. Evenings were filled with chanting, the beating of drums, and dancing. On Sunday December 4th, there was an Interfaith Ceremony where people, of various religious and spiritual traditions from around the world, from Christians, to Quakers, to Buddhists, came to express their deep solidarity with the Lakota Struggle. Every speaker lead a prayer, chant, or whatever method is utilized in their tradition to pray and give thanks for and power to this movement. This ceremony continued with ease while U.S. drones and helicopters zoomed over our heads. It was an incredible display, with prayers in various languages, in which spirituality was not only present in a political community but actively utilized to support and give power to our efforts.
After the interfaith ceremony, a prayer circle was being formed, where all water-protectors would make a circle, holding-hands around the entire camp to pray. Before the circle was completed, the camp received an announcement that the Army Corps of Engineers were halting Pipeline Construction. It was a powerful moment receiving such a message with the spirit of prayer among us, and as thousands of U.S. Veterans of all ages and ethnicities were arriving to protect the waters. One member of our delegation arrived in North Dakota on a plane full of veterans who were so moved by the resistance at Standing Rock that they came to flip the script of history and shield First Nation people from attack from the very government they had put their lives on the line to serve. Some accredit the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to stop the pipeline to the power of prayer and spirituality. Others believe that the government did not feel comfortable attacking thousands of former U.S. soldiers. We were blessed enough to be at Standing Rock, a historical event for our people’s movements, at the moment we all received this exceptional news.
Standing Rock demonstrated the powerfully ways in which spirituality can be used as a tool to support our movements and move our people forward. The leadership and superb organization of the First Nation People has shown what is possible for our revolutions. A self-sustaining community lead by the most oppressed that not only provides all of the needs necessary for a people's survival but actively focuses on fighting for freedom and justice. This is a unique and powerful example of revolutionary work. This is the kind of work that makes us believe that revolution is possible in the 21st century. To the leadership of Standing Rock, we honor you and hold you close.
We have had a fruitful and successful encounter. Several Native Nations have expressed interest in our collaborative proposal. We hope to move forward in the upcoming days and weeks visiting various Native Nations across the country to speak about the prospect of investing in the Medical Marijuana Industry and creating a haven-refuge for oppressed people of color in U.S. We, The Ella Baker Organizing Fund, promise to continue using what we learned from our visit to one of the greatest gatherings of freedom fighters in modern times. We will continue to nurture our relationship with Native People and will share our experience with everyone we come in contact. We vow to always use the “power of love” as a centerpiece in our work.
We give thanks and honor to all those who participated in this demonstration, particularly the Native People who have brought us together and welcomed us into their lands and their struggles for justice.