What are Our Lives Worth? Standing Rock & Charlottesville

White nationalist demonstrators walk into a park to protest the pending removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend.
Steve Helber/AP…from NPR

Guest Commentary

Published August 15, 2017


Full Disclosure

I am the third of six children, now ranging in age from 54 to 66. We fall on every aspect of the political spectrum and we all identify differently between our Native and Caucasian blood. Of the six, I identify most strongly with the Native blood from my father’s side; Metis’, an unknown bit of Cherokee from an itinerant preacher from Arkansas; and Taidnapam (Upper Cowlitz); and Cowlitz from Western Washington. My siblings and I are enrolled with the Cowlitz Tribe. My younger sister is an employee of the tribe and identifies tribally, while I identify both tribally and traditionally. I am the only one left in the Ladue line that has any familiarity with our spiritual traditions. When I go, that knowledge goes with me.

It is difficult for me, as I am sure it is for many, many people to see the terrifying turns our country has taken in the past seven months. It isn’t that the racism and hatred, sexism and xenophobia, and the mindset of manifest destiny is unfamiliar to us. It is that the racist in chief has not only made hatred and violence acceptable, but in the world of the POTUS, violence, hatred, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and white supremacy have been elevated to the level of virtues.

My older brother, who fled the “left” coast (his term) for the Dixie calls of Alabama, believes Trump is a hero; that there is no oppression or racism in America; and that only the regaining of a history that was never his or anyone’s in the first place, will save this country. I know I am not alone in my struggles to reconcile my values of inclusion, equality, dignity, and honesty with those that are in direct opposition by family members, but the last few days have pushed that struggle to a place I hoped existed only in my nightmares.

Standing Rock

I carry a water protector tattoo on my left shoulder in honor of my beautiful sisters and brothers, from my tribe and hundreds of others, who withstood the water cannons, deprivations, grenades, and “guard dogs” in their fight against the black snake of the Dakota Access Pipeline. I have listened to the stories of those returning from the battle ground of Oceti Sakowin. I have written thousands of words on the reasons we Stand with Standing Rock.

I have lived in a growing fear and dread of what Trump and his merry gang of racists and Nazis (and, yes, I use that word very deliberately) are wreaking on our civil rights, our immigrant population, our LGBTQ people, our women, and our children. I do not have any question as to what the government is capable of. After all, I grew up with the phrase and the knowledge that in the eyes of this country, its government, and the world that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Despite the knowledge of the brutality to be found in this world, I sit here on a beautiful night, high up on a mountain in a very rural area of the Cascade mountain range, with the worm of destruction winding its way through my insides.

The saga of Standing Rock was more than a hundred and sixty years in the making. It is a story of a genocide so awful that it is rarely spoken of outside Indian Country. It is a story where the cowboys (the DAPL and the private and public henchmen at the beck and call of Kelsey Warren) and the “Indians” (the thousands of water warriors) still battle for the land and its resources; the “cowboys” to destroy, and the “Indians” to protect.

America did not blink at the sight of men, women, and children being sprayed by water cannons in 26-degree weather. America did not take note when our elders were arrested while praying. America yawned and turned the channel when Red Fawn was arrested and accused of attempted murder. America shrugged when hundreds of water warriors were arrested and placed in dog cages. America did not care when the water warriors were removed from Oceti Sakowin and the black snake made its way under Lake Oahe, only to leak within days of its completion.

Brennon Nastacio protected man that pointed a loaded assault rifle at people in Standing Rock, North Dakota. The man, Kyle Thompson, who entered the camp claimed to be a water protector, was actually a Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) worker.)

The violence perpetrated against the water warriors was cheered by the people of North Dakota. Despite Kyle Thompson, an employee of Leighton Security, bringing an assault weapon to bear against unarmed and peaceful water warriors, it was the water warriors that were arrested. Mr. Thompson, who deliberately placed himself in conflict with the water warriors, came in disguise, stating he might have to make a decision to take another’s life. Mr. Thompson had no right to be at Standing Rock and, by all reports available, he was never in harm’s way. Yet, he and his minions paint himself as a hero, standing up to the people of Oceti Sakowin, a narrative all to reminiscent of the soldiers who slaughtered hundreds of innnicent people at Wounded Knee.

Chemical weapons were used on the peaceful water warriors of Standing Rock at the very same time the United States government was protesting the use of such weapons on the Syrian population. Militarized police were used to move the water warriors without regard for the age, gender, or health of the people protesting the black snake. The might of dozens of police departments, many from out of the state of North Dakota, was brought to bear against people standing for their land and their treaty rights.

New era of racists – they took the sheets offl

And, then came the “election” of Donald J. Trump. He had run on a campaign of hatred, white resentment and fear, sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and fascism. He pandered to the anger of people who hated the water warriors and the race of President Obama. He encouraged violence and encouraged his followers to chant “lock her up.” When confronted by opposing views and protestors, he encouraged his followers to “knock the crap out of them.” He promised that he would pay the legal fees for anyone that beat up a protestor. And those of us who had cried for the pain of the water warriors and the completion of the black snake sat in horror as 53 percent of white women and 63 percent of white men voted for him, allowing him an electoral college victory, while still losing the popular vote.

For those of us who have always known that racism is what the American flag stands for, his election was terrifying as the living, breathing specter of fascism and Nazism came to life in the forms of Sebastian Gorka, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller. The dog whistles of racism and hatred were heard by neo-Nazi’s, including Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, and many others. And, to the shock of many Americans, Spencer, Miller, Bannon, and Kessler saw a dream achieved in the death and destruction in the streets of Charlottesville.

Robin A. LaDue, Ph.D.

To read the descriptions of the protests at Standing Rock (see the official DAPL website), it would seem as if thousands of “hostiles,” (a term made popular in John Ford westerns) had attacked the innocent militarized private and police forces employed by the State of North Dakota, bringing their own demise on themselves. However, a viewing of the tapes of the police presence and lack of interventions by the Charlottesville police against raging and threatening neo-Nazis would make one believe it was simply a ladies’ tea. In fact, while no one was murdered or harmed by a water warrior, an angry young Nazi by the name of James Alex Fields, Jr., accelerated his car into a crowd of anti-Nazi protestors, harming at least 19, and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

While people were horrified, and rightfully so, it is hard not to see the stark contrast between the apathy of this country towards people, Native and non=Native, who stood up for their children and clean air and water versus the countrywide outrage over what occurred in Charlottesville. It would be hard not to notice that the police allowed the march of neo-Nazis through the streets of a southern city, well known for its history of racism and brutality. It would be hard to ignore the police protecting and escorting the evil that is Jason Kessler as he was chased by an angry crowd. It is difficult not to wonder where was the anger over our elders being pulled from their tipis during prayers.

It would be easy to feel anger and resentment over the lack of concern about the brave water warriors who withstood tear gas, water cannons, attacks by racist guards and their dogs, and threats from people such as Kyle Thompson when there has been nonstop news coverage over the events in Charlottesville. The question that hangs over this situation is “why did the death of one white woman matter more than the terrorism wreaked on the peaceful people of Oceti Sakowin?

The answer is race. The death of Heather Heyer is horrible beyond imagination. It has spurred anger and claims of disavowal from all parts of the country, with the very marked exception of the White House. It was immensely gratifying to see Jason Kessler chased from the podium in front of the Charlottesville city hall, seeking the protection of the very same police he had denigrated on my moments before. But, it was particularly ironic that the police, without hesitation, gave him that protection. It is also satisfying to see a twitter user with the title “yes, you’re racist” tag, name and call out the (mostly) young white males whose hate-filled visages flooded our television screens. Yet, nowhere in the months long efforts of the NoDAPL water warriors was there any such concern by the media or the American public.

And this brings me full circle back to the racism of my older brother. Had he and I been sitting side-by-side, watching the neo-Nazis given a voice and a legitimacy by the white supremacist in the White House, we would have had opposite reactions. He would have cheered the actions of a Jason Kessler while I would have mourned the death of Heather Heyer, herself a peaceful warrior. In the end, what would have happened is the same battle facing this country. Do we acknowledge all people in this country as being equal and worthy or do we return, as it appears is the case, to the days of Manifest Destiny in the shape of neo-Nazism, hatred, and violence?

We, as Native people, have long known we do not have value in the eyes of this country. However, we also know how to survive. There are many lessons to be learned from both the water warriors and the anti-neo-Nazi protestors of Charlottesville. It is hoped that it is not simply the lesson of value being based on race and culture. It is hoped that it will be the value of all people to have the rights of dignity, clean air and water, and equality. Certainly, the world has no more need for the Richard Spencer’s, Jason Kessler’s, or Donald Trump’s who are bringing forth such ugliness and death. The best that could come from both Standing Rock and Charlottesville is that all good people will come together and face down what has led to an attempt to recreate the ills of Nazi Germany and Manifest Destiny.

It is, I will be the first to say, very gratifying and hopeful that people of all colors and genders and parts of the country came together to condemn what happened in Charlottesville. It is, equally worrisome that the “Nazi-in-chief” continues to support the violence, racism, and hatred expressed by the marchers in Charlottesville. Truly, our country is at a point where decisions will need to be made by individuals, communities, and our “leaders” to move in unison or in dissent. People such as Tom Garret of Virginia Cathy McMorris Rogers of Washington, and Dean Heller of Nevada, who pose in their offices with people such as Jason Kessler and other neo-Nazi marchers and then claim outrage, need to openly disavow these constituents, hold town hall meetings, and speak up without their rhetoric of division. If our “leaders” cannot step beyond their ugly partisanship, it will be incumbent on those of us who have long known how to stand in the face of intolerable odds to lead the way through this valley of death being built by those angry men and women who held tiki torches in the streets of Charlottesville.

Robin A. Ladue, PhD, is a retired clinical psychologist. She is an enrolled member of the Cowlitz tribe. She is the author of the award winning series “Journey Through the Healing Circle” and the award winning novel “Totems of September.” She taught around on historical trauma and recovery in indigenous communities around the world.

Special thanks to Alan J. Willoughby, J.D., MPH, for his thoughtful insight and freely given editing.


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