“If something isn't done, someone will die,” said Wayne Wilansky, father of Sophia Wilansky, a twenty-one-year old woman who suffered severe injury to her arm when police under the command of the Morton County North Dakota Sheriff’s Department threw a concussion grenade at her this past Sunday evening. During a press conference outside of a Minneapolis hospital where Sophia had been airlifted for vascular, bone, muscle and nerve surgery Wilansky added:
"The police are trying to hurt people. They're not trying to control the situation. They're not trying to arrest people. They're trying to hurt people—intentionally, purposefully hurt people.”
Her doctors say she will need twenty surgeries over the next several months in order to save the arm and regain 10 to 20 percent functionality.
Sophia was one of nearly 200 people who were injured on Sunday night by rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades and water cannons turned on them in below freezing weather during a seven-hour assault by militarized police forces using armored vehicles, razor wire and sound weapons.
For the past three weeks, Sophia Wilansky had been providing medical, logistical and spiritual support to thousands of indigenous and non-indigenous people camped at the confluence of the Cannon Ball and Missouri Rivers on the border of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota.
She was living and working at the Oceti Sakowin or Great Sioux Nation camp, one of three camps established by these rivers back in April to resist the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and assert the treaty and human rights of the Standing Rock people, who fear that their sacred sites and drinking water will be destroyed by pipeline construction and operation.
On August 15, 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council led by Tribal Chairman David Archambault II called on Tribal nations and Indigenous people around the world to issue resolutions in support of the Standing Rock Sioux and the Sacred Stone Camp. More than 300 nations answered the call, in an unprecedented display of inter-tribal cooperation.
This is the place where, in the 1860s, the U.S. military set up Fort Rice as the forward operating base for securing transportation and commerce routes for European Americans. It’s the same place where the Indian wars started in full force, and the place where an unprecedented indigenous unity throughout the world—not just throughout the country, not just throughout the continent or hemisphere, but throughout the world—has developed as people gather in prayer and ceremony to stand for their lives, our lives, for the life of everyone downstream.
On September 20 the city of Madison unanimously passed a resolution “Expressing Solidarity with Indigenous Resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline.” We did that (I serve on the city council in Madison) because we know that the city of Madison is located on stolen ground, and in order to build this city, many, many, sacred sites were desecrated and destroyed. We feel the pain of the Ho Chunk people and their ancestors who lost their land here. Now we have a critical mass of elected officials who are opening our hearts to try and find a way —a good way—to move forward, to forge solidarity and uplift tribal leadership, and to respect treaties and the government-to-government relationships.
On October 10, 2016, Indigenous Peoples Day, I was carrying the framed parchment with the Madison resolution to Standing Rock as a representative on the Madison Common Council. On the first morning of my visit, while attending a sacred ceremony as a legal observer, I was arrested. I was accosted by a Cass County, North Dakota deputy who ran at me, grabbed the arm that was holding my camera, and wrenched my hands behind my back. As I was trying to close the viewfinder he yelled at me,
“That’s destruction of evidence. Now you’re under arrest for destruction of evidence.”
I am facing up to two years in jail on four charges: destruction of evidence, resisting arrest, engaging in a riot and criminal trespass. I have a jury trial scheduled for January 12, 2017, and I still haven’t gotten my camera back.
During that event I also witnessed a Marathon County, Wisconsin, deputy treating a young native woman very badly, smashing her into the side of the jail transport van, after another deputy had sat on her with his knees on her neck and the small of her back.
All of us arrested that day were strip-searched and left in the cell block without socks, shoes or blankets until very late at night.
With this experience, I tapped into a tiny, tiny current of the repression and trauma experienced by indigenous people in North Dakota on a daily basis. When I think about the indigenous sisters whom we met in jail, who are carrying centuries and centuries of historical trauma from having survived genocide, I am so humbled to have sustained this wound of the arrest, and to be able to tell the stories of our sisters there.
This is not about me. This is not about Sophia. It’s about a system that has dispossessed and brutalized native people on this continent for 500 years. This is about a system that has dispossessed and brutalized African people and exploited their labor for profit for more than 500 years. The wealth that is in the banks and in the companies invested in the Dakota Access Pipeline was literally created by the blood of our native and black brothers and sisters.
That is the same wealth funding the rape of the land and the extraction of this oil that is used for waging war overseas. During her Presidential campaign, Jill Stein said there were seven countries that the United States had recently bombed. I’d update that to say we’re at war in eight.
We’re at war in 1851 Treaty territory in the state of North Dakota right now. This is becoming clearer and clearer with the escalating tactics of the police, who are clearly not serving and protecting the peaceful, unarmed people gathered to protect the water, but rather to protect the financial investments of the billionaires and corporations with interests in the Dakota Access Pipeline.
That is the foundational war of every other war this country is waging on the planet. The brutality of what people are facing in Syria, in Yemen, and in Palestine is expanding to more and more people. With the recent election results we need to understand that this is not business as usual. This is not politics as usual. We can’t use the same tools we thought we could use to struggle against injustice before.
Chief Arvol Looking Horse, nineteenth generation carrier of the sacred White Calf pipe and medicine bundle, spoke to people at camp a couple of weeks ago about Sitting Bull’s vision about defeating the 7th Cavalry of the U.S. Army. He said there was also a warning: Once you defeat them, don’t pick up their things. If you pick up their things after you defeat them, we are in for decades of oppression. And, unfortunately, some people picked up their things.
But then he told the camp,
“We are almost at the point of no return, but we have a choice. And our choice is to not pick up their things.”
What are their things? Their things are money. Their things are violence. Their things are weapons. What are our things? Our things are love and solidarity and the deep value of humanity and all living things on this planet. We need to stay rooted in that.
President Obama had done nothing to stop the brutality. To the contrary, he said that he wanted to let the situation “play out” for a few more weeks before acting in any way to affect the pipeline’s construction schedule.
In fact, he has supported the Dakota Access Pipeline by writing two executive orders in 2012 as a concession to the industry when he nixed the Keystone XL northern leg. Obama signed two executive orders promising the industry every single other pipeline construction project in this country would be fast-tracked and would not have to undergo environmental impact statements, or the usual legal processes of consultation with tribes or local people. Those orders were codified into law in 2015. When he recently met with the Chair of the Cheyenne River Sioux, he told Chairman Fraizer, “We will proceed according to law.”
In addition to deploying the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute and put an end to the brutality against peaceful, unarmed water protectors, Obama could direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of the Standing Rock Sioux and any other tribe whose resources could be impacted by the pipeline prior to taking any federal action regarding the pipeline that would harm or destroy tribal ancestral lands, waters and sacred sites.
Obama has two months left in his presidency. Does he really want these gross human rights violations to be his legacy?
Rebecca Kemble is a contributing writer to The Progressive and a member of the Madison, Wisconsin, Common Council.