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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

Beauty, Trauma, and Standing Rock - Part two of the interview with Holly Bird

This week’s post is part two of the interview with Holly Bird, a lawyer, judge, activist, and co-director of Title Track, based in the Traverse City, MI area. She is of San Felipe Pueblo, Apache, Yaqui, Perepucha, and European descent, and has a long history of community activism in both environmental and Indigenous issues. You can read part one of the interview here. In this post, the focus is on Bird’s words, so the body of the post below is direct quotes from the interview with her, edited for length, flow, and readability. During this portion of the interview, she talked about her experience as one of the leaders in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and what the experience of Standing Rock means for the Great Lakes and other fights for clean water. For the full interview, please see the video below.

What was Standing Rock?

A foreign oil corporation was trying to bring a pipeline through the Missouri River and had originally been slated to do it in Bismarck, which is a predominantly white farming community. The residents of Bismarck had one town hall meeting where they said, ‘Oh, we don't want that through our water.’ So, they went one mile above the only source of drinking water for the entire Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which is a very large tribal area.

With that, not only were they threatening their only source of drinking water, but there are farmers and all kinds of people downriver from that, who aren't just tribal. They were, by eminent domain, going through people's backyards. There was one lady whose parents had had a farm for generations, and this pipeline actually went between her house and the barn. It was illegal for her to cross that and in any sort of a way that she could have crossed it before. It was just insane. She had to find a special crossing for it. They were bullies pure and simple, and state-sanctioned, unfortunately.

Standing Rock (Photo by Lucas Zhao from Oceti Sakowin Camp)

Not just another incident

I first heard about Standing Rock, believe it or not, through Facebook. When you're in the native community, and you're doing the kind of work that I do, whether it's law or just Native rights, you hear about all these incidents happening, and usually, there's so many of them happening. “Okay, there's another one,” and I'll think about it and kind of put it on my radar. But, I'm not always able to just jump up and go over there or do something like that. And then sometimes we need to be invited, too. So when Standing Rock happened, I heard about it through some channels and just kind of went ‘Oh, okay, it's another one.’ You kind of feel a little tired because, in our community, it's happening all the time.

The Day of the Dog Bites

The thing that really struck me was the day that the dog bites happened. I call it “The Day of the Dog Bites,” when water protectors were attacked by dogs from one of the private security firms that were - quote-unquote - “protecting the pipeline.” This happened over a weekend when the litigation was already in place from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to try to keep them from putting the pipeline through the Tribe’s lands.

One of the things that they were required to do in the litigation was to identify the areas of cultural concern. And specifically, there were a bunch of areas that were ceremonial, or where there were people buried and artifacts. No sooner had they just done that that week (and then there was a holiday weekend), that very weekend DAPL took that information and they plowed over that whole area with bulldozers in an attempt to hide or disturb those areas, so they couldn't be used as an excuse anymore.

That was what the protesters were observing. They were running over to protect their loved ones, their buried relatives, and that's when the dog bites occurred. One of my friends who has since passed, Myron Dewey, who was with Digital Smoke Signals, was filming this, and I was just floored. The people would be the Oceti Sakowin, and roughly that's a lot of the bands of Lakota and Dakota from that area. One of my son’s Unci or grandmother was from there.

So, that was the first thing. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, look what they're doing to my son’s Unci’s people.’ I literally couldn't sleep. I cried for a couple of days. I couldn't believe it. I was so upset, and so just pissed off. And I remember turning to my husband, who was new on the Council for the Grand Traverse Band, and saying, ‘Are you guys going to get something together, like a delegation or anything? Because, if you're not, I'm just gonna go.’ He was like, ‘Oh, wait, just give me a week or so,’ and they actually had gotten a delegation together.

First Trip

We traveled with their band of elders and cultural people and brought a bunch of donations. We actually brought one of the largest donations that they had to Standing Rock, as well as supplies and ceremonial items and things like that. That was how I first got there. I traveled with my thirteen-year-old son and my husband, and right away went and volunteered at the legal tent because I knew that's what needed to be done. I think we were there for a week, and, as soon as I got home, I was already trying to figure out when to go back.

That was it. I went back, and I was hired as one of the ground coordinators who were essentially like the executive directors in camp. I went back then at the end of November of 2016. After that, I was there for two weeks out of every month, going back and forth, and otherwise was on Zoom the other seven or 10 hours of each day when I was gone.

“This Was Something Different”

It was something I felt compelled to do not only to protect the water of that place but also just out of pure protecting my relatives. That was my primary focus at that point.

It was pivotal for me, it really was. I had been an activist almost all my life, whether it was environmental, canvassing for water when I was in college, working with my people, working on mascot issues or on religious freedom issues, whatever it was. But this was something different.

Some Beautiful Things

One of the most beautiful things I saw was, as I drove into camp, just this entire valley of teepees and tents, and all of these people that were together. Then you went down what we called Flag Row, which was the road that went into camp, and you would see the flags of all of the hundreds and hundreds of Indian nations, plus a bunch from all over the world that were there in support. It was the largest gathering of Indigenous people for a cause, uniting together. I remember traveling in and literally being in tears, seeing that. And the elders that were with us were in tears. We all were just floored by how people came together to support that. It was really beautiful.

For me, not only did it reignite that fire that I had for my community and my people, (but) sometimes we get bogged down and living and surviving every day, whether it's having children and raising them, or having a law career and trying to do the work you have to do. It really made that stop for me. You could see a certain way of living that was sort of hinted at in camp, that was simpler, that was based on cultural values, and was about people taking care of each other. That was really beautiful, glimpsing that and being homesick for that old way of life that our people have experienced, and remembering that collectively. That was really beautiful.

A Traumatic Experience

I tend to be an idealistic attorney. I went into the law to try to help and change things, to help change the system if I could, so that it was fair and more equitable for everyone. That's not to say I wasn't aware that law enforcement could be crooked or that they could use their powers for things that didn't seem to connect with their power to protect and serve. But, to see thirty-three law enforcement agencies there trying to protect a pipeline, and a foreign oil Corporation, against unarmed innocent people that were trying to protect their water, and their ability to live, was astounding. That really hurt. That really hurt me as a professional because I really had to go, ‘Whoa.’

I had so much more faith in the people in these professions than I do now. I still try on an individual level to be discerning that way, but that was the first time I saw it, and in a broader, systemic way, where it wasn't just couched in our 1960s, “This is what happened then,” or in the 70s with the riots in Detroit, or some of the other civil rights movements that we've had. This was an action, and it was live, and it was against my people.

It really sparked a fire for me to continue working to do that stuff, and to also continue working for the water. But, it was also very traumatic. There was a lot of stuff I saw. I had to review a lot of the videotapes that were taken, review the evidence. I was out taking pictures of blood in the snow where someone was shot by law enforcement. It was very traumatic in that way, too.

I had to learn how to heal after a while and give myself some reprieves from looking at stuff, but also knowing that we couldn't stop. We're born into this. It's not something we can just stand down from. Then, I go back home and look at my children and know that this is for them, too.

The Fire Spreads to the Great Lakes and Beyond

What it did for the rest of the water fights was it lit that fire. The fire was already going, but it really sparked it back up. One of the spiritual pieces of Standing Rock was that when you came to Camp, you had to follow the cultural traditions of that place, of the Ochetty Shakoyen. One of their things was they lit the sacred fire in camp, and they always kept that going. When it was time for camp to close, it was only then that they brought that fire down. And the instructions were for us to take that elsewhere, take that to our own home fights, where the water was being threatened.

I saw that happen all over the place. It was really neat. All of that fire and the embers scattered and ignited fires everywhere else. When I say fires, I mean fires of the heart and spirit, not of the wood. We saw that come out with Line Three and Line Five, a lot of those very same water protectors who had been doing those fights, but just in a smaller capacity. Maybe they weren't being heard as well, but suddenly they got the benefit of the general public's eye. They heard about Standing Rock, and saw, “Oh, it's happening here, too,” or “Oh, wow, the same type of company is doing the same thing over here.”

That nexus and that fire were really heightened for everybody. I'm so thankful for that. There were a lot of people that were at the camp at Standing Rock that were able to take some of the lessons of camp to their fights and use them.

But, I think one of the other important parts is the fact that people did it with heart, and with a spiritual connection in mind. To me, that's what made it the most successful.

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