by Kelly Hayes
Native people around the country, as well as many who are not Native, will never forget the night of November 20, 2016, when the Morton County Sheriff’s Department fired water cannons at Water Protectors on the Backwater Bridge on a night so cold that drops of weaponized water froze to razor wire. It was one of the ugliest assaults on Native survival the world has witnessed in the struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, and with inadequate cellular service and electrical access in the area, many of us were left wondering about the safety and whereabouts of loved ones on the frontlines. One of the people I was deeply concerned about was a young Black woman named Julia. She had been a part of a group I rode to Standing Rock with on my last trip. It was a van full of femmes I had never met before, one of whom contacted me after reading one of my posts on social media. Everyone in the vehicle was Black or Native, and I remember thinking, during my 13-hour-long trip out there with them, that our journey was its own kind of miniature movement moment. A small convergence of the kind of power I think is our best hope for freedom.
The morning after the water cannons blasted my people, after Sioux Z lost an eye at the hands of police and Sophia Wilansky’s arm was nearly ripped off, I was hurriedly trying to make some kind of contact with my friends. When I found out no one could reach Julia, I shuddered.
Back in early November, when the van we had both rode to Standing Rock in had departed, Julia hadn’t been with us. She had chosen to stay, to see the struggle through, which meant an open-ended venture into a brutal North Dakota winter. A Native friend who voiced concern about her, the morning after the water cannons — as well as other potentially deadly weapons — were fired mentioned that Julia was the kind of person who would have been out front, trying to protect the Native Protectors. Images of her curled up somewhere by the river, hypothermic or worse, filled my head. “Love and solidarity can’t end like that,” I anxiously thought to myself. “Not there. Not today.”
Fortunately, it didn’t. Julia was alive, as well as could be expected and as angry as you might imagine. She’s still in Standing Rock today, fighting the good fight and building hand-in-hand with Native Water Protectors, so that our peoples may live.
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Of course, Julia wasn’t the only Black freedom fighter of my acquaintance who has journeyed to the front lines. I’ve lost count of how many Black organizers I’ve worked with who have made the trek, and I have felt privileged to discuss what their experiences have cultivated for them. Not all of those conversations have been rosy. My friend Sarai Bernice, an organizer with Assata’s Daughters, told me that while she remained hopeful about Black and Brown solidarity, she also felt her outlook was challenged in Standing Rock. “I was encouraged by how many Black people came out in solidarity, because our oppression is linked to Indigenous oppression,” she said, but added, “I was disheartened by conversations I had with a Native woman and a Black man, who both believed that as Brown people, our hatred for each other somehow outweighs hatred from the white majority. As though that hatred was not manufactured and validated by white supremacy in the first place.”
“That’s not to say those histories should be ignored,” she said, “but blaming oppressed people for having to participate in systems that weren’t created by or for them is letting white people off the hook.”
Ashley Williams, a young Black gender non-conforming organizer who has worked on the frontlines of the Charlotte Uprising also talked with me upon returning home from Standing Rock, saying that they now feel more grounded discussing Black and Indigenous solidarity, as though experiencing a very literal embodiment of shared struggle had added a necessary dimension to their work. “I had an opportunity to work with Indigenous folks hand-in-hand,” they told me. “I processed with them, I ate with them, I laughed and cried with them, and I labored with them.” Ashley noted that the conflicts that they sometimes witnessed also lent a sense of connectedness between our struggles. “We’re not the only ones who don’t always agree with our elders,” they noted.
As a Native woman living in Chicago, where anti-Black police violence is often front and center in my work, I find the possibilities of this movement moment quite heartening. I don’t want to romanticize the messy struggle of solidarity, but I see great hope in what’s taken shape, and the actions and journeys Black and Brown people have undertaken. On November 12, for example, The Indian Problem — a Native direct action training collective, of which I am a member — joined forced with the American Indian Movement – Oceti Sakowin Chapter, Black Lives Matter – Global Network, Brown Berets, and La Red PICO to disrupt the dispatch of equipment used to build the pipeline. With prayer wheels and a mixed assemblage of Protectors, they faced down the opposition, including a concrete worker who fired live ammunition into the air in an effort to ward off the Protectors. The action, which was beautiful and prayerful, held its ground in the face of this violence, and in that way I think became emblematic of what it’s going to take for all of us — Native and Black — to help one another get free. The power inherent in our solidarity will provoke white violence, and we will have to hold strong, with great determination, to remain unified and effective.
As we face a new chapter in this movement, wherein many believe the fight is over and that Obama has delivered us from the pipeline, cross-movement solidarity will be more crucial than ever. Rather than travelling to Standing Rock — which is now being actively discouraged, due to dangerous weather — many will have to create frontlines in their own cities by targeting banks that have backed the pipeline. Given that Trump stands poised to unravel our recent gains, we need to hit banks like Chase, Citibank and Wells-Fargo with everything we have. Here in Chicago, where a cross-movement coalition has formed to do just that, I am excited to say that Native community members are talking about how we can tie #NoDAPL related divestment to prison divestment efforts. To me, that feels like the beginning of something very important, and perhaps a path towards the kind of joined struggle that could change everything, for all of us.
Want more from Kelly? Read her work in BGD’s newest collection, The Solidarity Struggle: How People of Color Succeed and Fail At Showing Up For Each Other In the Fight For Freedom.
Kelly Hayes is a queer Indigenous direct action trainer and a cofounder of the direct action collective Lifted Voices. She is community relations associate and a contributing writer at Truthout and her photography is featured in the “Freedom and Resistance” exhibit of the DuSable Museum of African American History. Kelly‘s analysis of state violence and movement work can also be found in the anthology, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? and the blog Transformative Spaces.