It was Thanksgiving morning at the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock — a place where the day was more commonly referred to as “Thanks-taking”— and I was listening to Germaine Tremmel of the Hunkpapa Lakota Tribe, direct descendent of Chief Sitting Bull, war veteran and international lawyer involved with modern human-rights issues.
I met Germaine, her daughter Gail, and several of her grandchildren at our campfire, after coming back from a water blessing ceremony on the shores of the Missouri River. Germaine was a fascinating story teller — as we stood on the land she grew up on, she educated me on her people’s 30,000 year plus history on the land. Germaine pointed out important land sites surrounding us, identifying burial grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux ancestors – including Turtle Island, where the police militantly stood atop the hill, shielding the pipeline development behind them.
Indigenous people have a profound connection to land. The land is intertwined with their culture, spirituality, and sovereignty. This connection is often difficult for most of us in the ‘business as usual’ modern world to understand. It’s easy to sit behind a computer screen and chide the Standing Rock Tribe and their allies for protecting their land and water, and to declare support for the pipeline ‘for the economy.’ But that’s missing the point. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fight for their land and water isn’t just a fight against climate change and the corruption of big oil politics – it is a fight for their identity as a people and sovereign nation.
White settlers commonly named places based on what they found in the area. The official site for the government of North Dakota admits the state name was taken from the Dakota or Sioux Indian Tribe. This is reflective of a larger phenomena – most people aren’t aware that over half the states in the U.S. are actually Native American words for the land or native peoples that White settlers merely adopted as they spread across the West. This taking of names from the languages of Native American tribes further extends on a smaller scale to modern day names for counties, geographic features, political subdivisions, street names. In my own home city of Denver, Colorado, “Little Raven Street” commemorates the Chief Little Raven of the Southern Arapaho. Little Raven was a principal chief who negotiated peace between tribes and initially welcomed white settlers into the region, only to see his people massacred by them less than a decade later.
In addition to forced removal from their land, the killing of indigenous languages was a common tool of colonizers used to destroy native cultures. Only 165 of more than 300 Native American languages are still spoken today in the United States, the majority in threat of extinction. Lakota (Lak?ótiyapi), also referred to as Lakhota, Teton or Teton Sioux, is considered one of three different dialects of the Sioux Language, alongside Dakota and Nakota. Originally, there was no written language for Lakota. The Lakota language was communicated orally and with hieroglyphics, until around 1840 when missionaries first put it into written form. As one can imagine, the annunciations didn’t match up and the translations were not an accurate representation of the traditional language.
I learned from Germaine that in response to the threat of Lakota language extinction a few decades ago, a movement sprung to revitalize the language, much of it focused on new youth-based programs to teach and restore the lost language and cultural heritage of the Lakota. As the Lakota youth became versed in their traditional language, they began teaching their families and elders, bringing the knowledge back and strengthening the cultural connection of all Lakota age groups. Germaine’s point was that this youth-based, cultural strengthening provided a foundation for Standing Rock movement and resistance to the North Dakota Access Pipeline as the conflict got increasingly tense.
It’s not hard to see how insulting it was for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe when Energy Transfer Partners named the project The Dakota Access Pipeline, the Black Snake that is attempting to cross their sacred lands. As Germaine described the conflict build up,
“How would you feel if someone called you up and talked rough to you? We were not consulted. We were never consulted. They never made that full effort or intent, they never wanted us to be apart of the project, they wanted us to go away.”
“’Dakota’ means ‘Allied Friendship’ in our culture. When they named the pipeline after us, that was the last straw.”
Words are powerful, they influence are thoughts, action, culture, literally shaping our reality and how we perceive history – including how we communicate about and perceive the conflict at Standing Rock. In this case, the name of the pipeline – unintentional as it may be – demonstrates the deep historical meaning of the land and its rightful stewards. If we as a society can become more reflective on the meaning and origin of words – in our own home town and when we travel – it can empower us to understand the true context and history of a place, better positioning us think critically over places in conflict and the people that have lived, suffered, and fought there before our time.