The Standing Rock Awakening

By Maya Acharya

Leo Yankton (aka Totem) is a radio DJ, a community leader, a Lakota Native American, and an activist in the resistance against the North Dakota Access Pipeline. The 1172 mile oil route, stretched out under the Missouri river, threatens to devastate the water supply and cultural heritage sites of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. In aid of the resistance, residents of Standing Rock have set up the Sacred Stone camp, where the water protectors and their allies are making a stand. Leo recently spoke in Copenhagen, at an event organised by the environmental organisation Klimakollektivet, in collaboration with Lory Dance who is a visiting researcher at Lund University, to raise awareness of the current situation.

As this article is being written, indigenous people are facing off against armed police, tanks, being shot with water hoses in sub-zero weather, tear gas, rubber bullets and percussion grenades near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in Dakota. The core message of their struggle – Water is Life – is one that has rippled across America’s borders, and into the global consciousness. The huge mobilisation around Standing Rock’s fight against oil conglomerates is something that Leo hopes will be a catalyst for awakening and change.

“Standing Rock has created a global awareness, a global awakening, and a lot of us Natives from the area see it as a beginning,” he says. “There’s a saying going around right now that goes ‘they tried to bury us but they didn’t know we were the seed.’ So we’re feeling that the resistance is an urgent and meaningful thing that needs to happen right now to not destroy the water, but it’s also a starting point to gain equality around the world as a group. Coming together as a mass to start making changes to the corruption and cooperate governments that are surpressing the people and destroying the earth; destroying our natural resources – resources we should be coexisting with, not consuming.”

Although the NoDAPL resistance has gained unprecedented media attention, complete with solidarity hashtags and music videos, the narrative of Native American struggle against US forces is not a new tale. The 3.78 billion dollar pipeline was originally planned to cross just north of Bismarck, a majority white area. However, the crude oil pipe was rerouted as it was considered dangerous to Bismark’s water supply. Many critics of the pipeline have pointed to this as a glaring example of environmental racism, in which racial and income based discrimination dictate people’s access to fundamental rights such as drinking water, and their proximity to hazardous environments.

Still from the Music Video Stand Up/ Stand N Rock #NoDAPL, directed by Johnny Lee

Still from the Music Video Stand Up/ Stand N Rock #NoDAPL, directed by Johnny Lee

Leo knows first hand the struggles of living in a country in which his identity and his people are marginalised, disenfranchised and oppressed. Not knowing his father and with a mother struggling with substance abuse, Leo was brought up by his grandmother, the strong woman to whom he attributes his articulated and soft spoken manner. Today he is respected in his community, and gives a platform to Native American issues through his radio show, Inter Tribal Beats, where he features music by Native American artists. He talks openly about his past though; the hardships he’s faced, his journey in overcoming alcoholism and what he calls his “Dysfunctional-Warrior Complex.”

“The warrior aspect is about power.  Many people think of power as control, but what power really is, is about feeling safe, loved and being able to nurture those around you, “ Leo explains. “The dysfunctional part is when you’re brought up in a system that deprives you of that feeling. I was born in Compton, California, which is a primarily Black ghetto. Right when I was seven years old I moved back to Pine Ridge South Dakota, a Native American reservation where there was also a lot of exclusion, segregation, colonial history and dysfunction. So I had this void and conditioning that created a need for me to feel powerful, valuable. I became an alcoholic and I became violent. I targeted bullies - predator type men - because when I was young I used to get picked on a lot. So I had this reputation of being a tough guy who everyone liked because I was picking on people who were picking on people. But what I didn’t realise at the time was that I was just re-enacting a lot of my own anger and my own bitterness. Slowly, there was a shift in my paradigm. It changed my world around and quickly made me necessary to a lot of people. I didn’t ask for any of it. I didn’t go out and study how to become a pubic speaker, I didn’t ask to become a radio host, I didn’t ask to be involved in all these things, but it’s necessary.”

Leo’s story highlights the inordinate challenges that First Nations people face in America. As Leo says, “When you think about America's story of civilisation and development, it’s written in the blood of the Natives.” Throughout North American history, Native people have faced more than land infringement; they have faced genocide, brutality, anti-native polices and erasure in what can be seen as an continuation of colonial violence that has been on-going for centuries.

“People don’t see it this way though,” Leo reflects. “They would rather see it as a glorious democracy. This is partly why I have a feeling of bitterness about the military in this country and the way in which people are forced to stand up and honour a system of control and bullying.”

His tense relationship with the US military came to the forefront recently when several thousand veterans came to Standing Rock to align themselves with the movement. This was the precursor to the U.S Army denying a vital pipeline permit earlier this month.

“When that happened I felt conflicted inside, because I had always seen the military as a weapon. For them to be there [Standing Rock] was tricky for the American government and the American mainstream as well. If the veterans had been hurt by the law enforcement, then mainstream America would become sympathetic to the cause of the resistance and sympathetic towards the Natives. So that’s when the permit was shut down. And that’s the reason: the simple fact that mainstream America was not going to accept the same treatment that was and is being inflicted on our people, being inflicted on the veterans. People here [in Scandinavia] have been congratulating me on the victory, but mainstream media doesn’t report that, the very next day, the oil company made a statement to say they would just pay the fines and continue drilling.”

For Leo, this is just another tactic to try to disperse the people of the resistance and to keep in place the “disconnect” that condones violence and injustice against Native people. This disconnect is not just alive and well in politics, it permeates popular culture and society.

“One of the campaigns I’ve been part of was to get Halloween costumes that were offensive to Native people taken off the shelves,” Leo says, giving an example of a ‘Poca-hottie’ costume that was recently in stock. 

“In America there are a lot of costumes that mock and stereotype Native Americans, and sexualise Native American women. When demographically our women are three to five times more likely to be kidnapped, raped, murdered. This has to do with a disconnect; we are made into objects, our women become sex objects. By dehumanising us, it makes it easier for members of our communities to become victimised and for perpetrators to feel justified. It has a negative impact on our entire culture. People say, ‘oh that’s so petty of you to be worried about Halloween costumes’, but the costumes feed into a trend. That’s why we tried to get rid of Columbus Day and have Indigenous Peoples Day. It’s also why we tried to get rid of names like Washington Redskins. Redskins, a lot of people don’t realise, are what they called the scalps that were shown as evidence that you had killed a Native, back when they were paying people to kill Natives. Since it was too cumbersome to carry an entire skull, they would just cut off the top part of the scalp. That’s what the posters would say: ‘2 dollars for a Redskin’, or something like that. But there’s a football team named after it. And this feeds into the same disconnect that allows Bismark North Dakota to say ‘Oh we don’t want the pipeline here, put in down by the Natives.’”

When asked what can be done to break this disconnect, Leo stresses that indigenous people need to be recognised, not just culturally and historically, but tangibly, in the political sphere.

“I feel like the best way for the rest of the world to help us is to recognise that we are actually sovereign nations, so we should have rights to speak amongst authorities of the United Nations and be able to interact with other leaders around the global table. While travelling in Scandinavia, I was talking with the indigenous Sami people, who spoke about their parliament and the importance of indigenous communities acknowledging each other,” he says.

Although there has been critique of the international solidarity with Standing Rock as disproportionately focused on climate, rather than racial discrimination and a history of broken treaties, Leo is striving for the movement to be inclusive and with that, sustainable.

“I think the fact that they are talking about the environment, I think that does help. You know, everyone needs water, we have to protect our water, so I think is basically a catalyst to be able to change other dynamics of oppression and power structures. Everyone can relate to water and that we need it for survival. Plus, this is not just affecting us; if putting greed and energy before natural resources becomes a mainstream phenomenon, then it affects everybody.”

Despite the setbacks, and not least despite the impending reign of Donald Trump, who Leo rightly points out is “no friend of the Natives,” the testimonies from Standing Rock have so far been ones of immense energy, hope and encouragement.

“I hope that the people who are involved, those who are starting to realise that they are not satisfied with this system of control, keep their motivation and keep working towards overcoming other kinds of injustices. Corruption and greed are the root of a lot of it.”

This is a message that Leo emphasised during his trip to Sweden, while giving talks to primary school children.

"They were asking me these questions that were innocent enough but at the same time show how colonial narratives exist right now, in Sweden. Questions like, what do you ride on? I was like, I ride a motorcycle – I have a chopper at home. How do you choose a chief? I told them it's just like a government, they get voted it, we have the same system with a council and a president. They have this thought in their head that Natives are still running around shooting buffalo with bows and arrows. I told them I buy my food at a grocery store, “ Leo chuckles.

“But for me to come all across the world and be able to talk to some Swedish elementary school kids on this trip, is amazing. I told them that they have to be careful because greed causes people to be cruel and that you need to remember to stay kind and never put greed before caring for others and for the planet. And those kids were getting it. That’s how we affect change, by creating links and standing shoulder to shoulder.”