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Stolen People On Stolen Land: Standing Rock and Black Liberation

By Keedra Gibba

Note from the author: Since my visit to Standing Rock, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they will not allow an easement permit for the continuation of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Indigenous Water Protectors have been standing strong. Many people around the world heeded their call to join in solidarity to fight this pipeline. The state’s recent concession does not mean the fight is over. As Chicago organizer, Kelly Hayes, has written in her article #NoDaPL: Why the Black Snake Isn’t Slain, “In my years of organizing, I have learned that concessions should not be met with less action, but with more. When the opposition is weakened, in any way, we should swing harder until whatever we were fighting simply can’t pull itself from the floor again. This round may have been won, but there will be more battles to come, and if we do not remain vigilant, I have no doubt we will lose them.” In that spirit, forging Black-Indigenous solidarity becomes even more urgent. We must celebrate this victory and redouble our efforts in our struggles for Indigenous sovereignty and Black liberation.  

On “Thanksgiving” weekend, when I first arrived at Ocheti Sakowin, the largest camp at Standing Rock, I was struck by the highly sophisticated, Lakota Sioux-led organizing on the ground. The encampment was thousands strong, including people from more than 300 Indigenous Turtle Island nations and others from Palestine, Mexico, Kenya, and all over the world. That weekend, droves of people from the United States showed up in support. My friend Sarai and I came with donations to help with winterizing the camp, banners of solidarity from For the People Artists Collective and Assata’s Daughters and love from many in the Chicago area. I joined thousands of Black people who donated materials and labor to Standing Rock in an effort to show solidarity with this movement committed to protecting water and Mother Earth while demanding Indigenous sovereignty.

“DaPL is Leaving Standing Rock Indian Reservation” Photo credit: Keedra Gibba

What I witnessed at Standing Rock was beautiful, inspiring and absolutely complex. The Lakota, Dakota and Nakota have maintained a peaceful space on the land. Flags from hundreds of Indigenous nations stood like peaceful guards on either side of “Flag Road” where I walked and saw children kicking a soccer ball, people sorting new donations into heaps of toothbrushes, toilet paper, hats and other necessary items for daily living, tents dedicated to health care, reiki, wellness, therapy and serving as kitchens and meeting spaces. Security entrusted by the Lakota Sioux greeted every car upon entry to ensure there was no alcohol, drugs or weapons. They patrolled the grounds at night with flashlights, though the DaPL military had installed bright stadium lights that drowned out an otherwise starry, beautiful night. Everyone pitched in to keep the camps clean, fed, winterized and healthy. Meals and clothing were free and available to anyone who was hungry or cold. I felt free, safe and welcomed even as drones and airplanes buzzed above our heads, reminding us that this community is a threat to the state.

On the first night, our new neighbors at the Rosebud camp offered a warm meal to women, elders and children first, which I learned was customary for the Lakota Sioux. I wondered if I should eat the peanut butter banana sandwiches I had packed instead of the hot meal because I did not want to drain the resources from people who were staying longer than me, and I was only there for three days. I was glad I decided to join the community dinner because it was there where I saw Curly and Donna, who I learned were the Rosebud Sioux “in charge” of this camp and had been here since its inception. I made it my business to try to meet them the following morning.

That morning, in the community tent, where people often gathered for morning coffee or tea, snacks in between meals, massages, and the latest news about happenings around the camps, I met a man named Tony. We huddled next to a warm stove while he told me about growing up on the Rosebud reservation and how much the camp had changed since the beginning. White “allies” had come by the thousands, and he shared that many had a hard time decentering “settler worldviews and practices.” This left him feeling like even the camp was being “colonized.” It was the first hint I had of some of the challenges I would later observe myself. I was amazed at how well Indigenous organizers named and quelled such practices. As a Black woman, I certainly wanted to be aware of my own relationship to settler colonialism and unconscious internalization of settler attitudes within the camp and more broadly in our social movements. Tony took me to the kitchen at my request and introduced me to Donna. I asked how I could help and she pointed, “Clear off this table.” I washed dishes and thought about all of the white people on the grounds and if our presence as Black people was even visible. I decided it was not the time to talk with Donna about it and simply noted where to put the leftovers.

“Turtle Island” is a sacred burial ground and site for many actions against DaPL. Note the military presence at the top of the hill. Photo credit: Keedra Gibba
“Turtle Island” is a sacred burial ground and site for many actions against DaPL. Note the military presence at the top of the hill. Photo credit: Keedra Gibba

The Lakota Sioux made sure that us non-indigenous folks interrogated our reasoning and privilege of being there. The daily 9am orientations emphasized the importance of following Indigenous leadership at all times, conserving and sharing resources, accepting culture and ways of organizing that may be unfamiliar, and understanding this moment within a larger context of settler-colonialism. A decolonization meeting organized by an Indigenous woman was also held daily at 6pm. This meeting was for non-indigenous people to become more aware of their colonizing behavior. For example, the expectation that Indigenous folks at the encampment were there as resources for visitors was far too common among non-Indigenous people. Leaders thoroughly trained in Lakota Sioux principles reminded us to give more than we took in deed and material. We were taught how to stay warm and how to respect the sacred fires, land and water. We learned that all actions are ceremony and prayer. It was an adjustment for me to think of every single thing I did as an act of prayer. Meetings began and ended with prayer too.

It was in one of these meetings, the subject I had been thinking about all along was brought up: Black solidarity within this struggle. A Black man in the meeting reminded us of some of the historical tensions between Black and Indigenous folk. He asked, “Given that some Indigenous people owned slaves and Black Cherokee were denied land rights, what does solidarity look like between our people?” I looked around to get a sense of reaction to these comments in the large domed tent. I was skeptical about exposing our tensions in a room full of mostly White people, that doing so would be corroborating with white supremacy. Shouldn’t this be a private conversation between Indigenous folks and Black folks, perhaps in a different meeting? My thoughts were louder than the facilitator’s response to his question, which expounded further on our divisions. I thought about how Black people also contributed to these tensions. Some of our ancestors became “Buffalo Soldiers” sent out west to kill the Apache and Comanche for white settlers interested in expanding their occupation. The fact that my people have participated in the destruction of Indigenous peoples and their communities is shameful. Of course, some might justify the actions by suggesting that we simply, desperately want to obtain freedom and access to what “we built” in this country against our will.

“Red Warriors” pumped their fists after the action at the bottom of Turtle Hill described in the article. Photo credit: Keedra Gibba
“Red Warriors” pumped their fists after the action at the bottom of Turtle Hill described in the article. Photo credit: Keedra Gibba

I also thought about how Indigenous people resisted occupation then as they are now at Standing Rock. As white settlers made this place their home, they destroyed and erased Indigenous people who were living here through Indian boarding schools, interracial marriage, mythification, and genocide. At the same time, settler colonialism used my ancestors as chattel who were kept landless. Unlike indentured servants or low wage workers, from which excess labor was exploited, my people’s bodies were the excess on the land. Instead of our erasure through intermarriage, “one drop” of African blood meant being added to the excess for use as commodities. This legacy is what set in motion the criminalization of Black people today. We are seen as criminal and thus imprisonable; dangerous and thus murderable. The same white supremacist ideology that fuels some Indigenous people’s anti-Blackness is the same ideology that was at the root of my ancestors’ actions as “Buffalo Soldiers.”

While it is important to understand these past tensions as a way of unpacking current ones, I did not want to further expose how white supremacy had successfully created divisions between Indigenous and Black people in a room full of white people. Instead, I highlighted examples of our solidarity. Even with efforts to keep us divided, the Seminoles in Spanish Florida along with Black fugitives, created a community in the Florida Everglades. Seminoles had migrated to Florida from Georgia and Alabama to move away from white encroachment. Enslaved Black people fled to Florida because the Spanish had offered them freedom in exchange for defending the Spanish crown. The community became a haven for fugitive slaves. This growing alliance between armed Seminoles and armed Black people became a threat to the U.S. government. I shared that we are seeing growing solidarity today. Many Indigenous activists have been present in solidarity within the Black Lives Matter movement. Likewise, every Black person I met at Standing Rock talked about the importance of Black solidarity with Indigenous people. I nodded to other Black people in the room as a cue to confirm these intentions and concluded, “I think it is important to build on our legacy of solidarity and build relationships to define what that means in this moment.” At the end of the meeting, numerous people of color approached the facilitator, named Quetzala, to request a meeting with just us. It seemed that they thought it was important to talk amongst ourselves too.

The author with a banner created by Chicago’s For the People’s Artists Collective. Behind her is the Ocheti Sakowin encampment. The big white dome tent is where she and others met and discussed solidarity. The banner faces out to Highway 1806. Photo credit: Sarai Bernice
The author with a banner created by Chicago’s For the People’s Artists Collective. Behind her is the Ocheti Sakowin encampment. The big white dome tent is where she and others met and discussed solidarity. The banner faces out to Highway 1806. Photo credit: Sarai Bernice

Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color created a space the next day to flesh out our frustrations, vulnerabilities and intentions. On a sunny and brisk day while people buzzed around the camp chopping wood and winterizing homes, we sat in circle together. We vented about the white “experts” who came to the camp with a sense of entitlement and the white guys with dreadlocks and guitars who thought cultural appropriation of Indigenous spiritual practices was an example of “honoring them.” Quetzala explained to all of us in that circle how the idea of traveling to Standing Rock “to learn” was another form of exploiting Indigenous folk as a resource. I did not openly admit that this had not occurred to me as a teacher who often thinks about learning as a priority. We emphasized the differences between being at camp to serve rather than to be served no matter how innocent our intentions may be. We also talked about what we as people of color might have internalized as a result of white supremacy and settler-colonialism, and we clarified the importance of recognizing it as we did the work of building stronger coalitions.

I walked away from that meeting thinking about the danger of playing “oppression olympics” as if it could be determined which is worse: anti-Blackness or colonization. As we all agreed in that meeting, this kind of thinking has not served us well, and we need to challenge ourselves to completely dismantle these contradictions. How is the violence of water contamination in Black communities in Flint connected to violence at Standing Rock?

I thought about how living, loving and respecting one another on treaty land is an act of resistance. Practicing freedom and experiencing it in that space made me more determined to fight for it there and at home. Sarai and I walked to the water in “prayerful and ceremonial” direct action with our banners made by artists at the Ocheti Sakowin camp. I could feel our collective strength and love for one another. An Indigenous leader served as a human microphone and led us in a chant. Repeating after him, we shouted in unison from the bottom of that sacred hill known as Turtle Island to men with weapons drawn and in full military gear: “We are here in peace. We are here with love. We are here with respect to our relatives on top of the hill. We are asking you to remove yourselves from the graves of our ancestors. As soon as you do this, we will go back across the river.” The dominant narrative in the media that “Indian savagery and aggression” supposedly justifies the state’s military presence is so similar to the justification of police killing Black bodies. And as long as Indigenous communities are under attack, I am determined to continue to resist in coalition with them.

As a “stolen person on stolen land,” I am rooting for Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty. The struggle at Standing Rock has reminded me that we as a people are dependent upon the land rather than owners of it, a philosophy embraced by my African ancestors nearly 200,000 years ago. This knowledge still runs in my blood.

We too understand that water is life.

Keedra Gibba is an activist, radical educator and recent Chicago resident. Much of her teaching and study focuses on historical and contemporary resistance movements for Black and Brown liberation.

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