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Environment and Energy

KCBX Two-Way: Erin Inglish recounts her time at Standing Rock

Erin Inglish
Her experiences at Standing Rock inspired Inglish to create a series of acrylic sketches, such as this one entitled "Mni Wiconi."

On Dec. 8, 2016, KCBX’s Greta Mart welcomed Erin Inglish, a life-long San Luis Obispo County resident, musician and engineer, to the studio. Inglish recently returned from a trip to North Dakota to see for herself the gathering of native and non-native Americans trying to stop an oil pipeline from being built near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Greta Mart: So, Erin, tell me about the trip itself, when did you leave?

Erin Inglish: We departed on November 16th and about a month before, when I made the decision to go, I put out a call to San Luis Obispo County and said I know that a lot of people want to go and you can, you can go in spirit at a minimum through donations and through supplies. I wanted to fill my RV - a small RV about 9 feet by 21 feet - I wanted to fill the whole thing. And it happened. We actually delayed our departure by a day because it took an extra 12 hours, it was like the best version of adult human Tetris I'd ever played. Getting all these supplies into the van. We had solar panels, wool blankets, subzero sleeping bags, winter clothing, wool socks solar chargers for phones, solar lanterns, propane, canned food and an ice chest of frozen beef jerky, that was a hit. You know, basic things just for living and surviving. And I was fortunate enough...I knew would be quite a journey and I wanted to attempt to share it with at least one other person, because it's a lot of driving. It's a lot of work and there's a lot to document. I mean, I'm just a slice of one experience. And so I was joined by Brittany App. She's a local photographer and now a documentarian. She's been working on a project called "Where There Once Was Water," based here locally. She's been traveling all over our great state of California talking to people about water use, the lack there of, what's happening next. And although this was an out-of-state trip, it resonated so much with what's going on here in our state, which is a passionate desire to protect the resources that we do have and to honor our relationships with them. [Brittney App] did a number of interviews that she's publishing right now online. So I highly recommend - if you want to hear from six inches away, the story of our native allies and our non-native allies who have been living on the ground at Standing Rock, if you want to better understand why they are there why they've stayed and what their intentions are - her videos are a wonderful way to do that. 

Mart: Why did you go and what did you find once you got there?

Inglish: What's happening in North Dakota...which is an incredible movement, an amalgamation of movements, one really should say, has been going on since April, but I personally hadn't heard about it. And it wasn't until a couple of months ago in October on social media that I started seeing posts about this No DAPL - that stands for Dakota Access Pipeline. While there’s been a lot of activism and campaigning for the environment and for basic human rights over the past you know 40, 50 years in our country, this was the first time in my lifetime - I'm 30 - first time in my lifetime I’ve truly seen a call to action that was bigger than the particular project itself. And it became quickly apparent that although the main hash tag - welcome to 21st century, right? I even laugh at this, I remember before cell phones - the main hash tag of this movement is #noDAPL, no Dakota Access Pipeline...not no easement, not a little bit of change to the project, but no pipeline. The call was for action on the ground. I mean, I watched my indigenous brothers and sisters saying, "we need moccasins on the ground." I don't have any moccasins, but I was very curious and and I wanted to go see for myself because there were reports not just of a peaceful prayerful action on behalf of what people are calling water protectors - not protesters - but protectors. And so that already struck me as different, but then I was seeing evidence of brutal and inhumane and just basically inappropriate behavior by what appeared to be a militarized police force. Something one might unfortunately expect to see in the news regarding this exact type of an event in a third-world country, but as is a privileged white person, I had never seen that in my own backyard before. So while that's heavy, it's real. But what I saw when I went there - and the way I knew that was the right decision - was I joined a camp of 12,000 people who were gathered in the most well- intentioned and good way I've ever seen a gathering of people, it was not a music festival, it was a nexus of positivity and prayer in a way that I had never heard of. Over 300 indigenous tribes are represented at Standing Rock.

Mart: From what I understand, in early September the company building the pipeline hired a private security firm whose guards used pepper spray and attack dogs on the water protectors...who were the other police forces there who are confronting the gathering at Standing Rock?

Inglish: A Vietnam veteran who's been self-stationed there as a photojournalist for the past three months, John Wathen - a beautiful Southern accent - he told me that 'this is the most lawless state I've ever seen' and he calls them the "DAPL gang." OK, that's one perspective, but what's become clear is these are state and local police standing on federal land that's actually unceded treaty territory, holding lethal weapons and shining lights 24 hours a day on the camp and basically intimidating people that are there. I would say the biggest transgression is psychological warfare. And that's not to excuse the hundreds of people who have been injured during peaceful protest. So it's intriguing. There's been a lot of questions as to, why has it taken so long for the federal government to step in and to stop the interactions to make that not possible for state police to be behaving in that way?

Mart: Tell me about the people of the camp themselves.

Inglish: I've never witnessed a culture, in a gathering of cultures, that celebrates women and youth so much. During my time there, that was one thing that just struck me to the core. It's openly revered as a women and youth-led movement. And women are regarded as the carriers and protectors of water starting with their own bellies, with the water that surrounds an unborn child. And to that end they are the the people who carry out the ceremonies. Every morning at Oceti Sakowin Camp, which is the main camp on the unceded treaty territory, every morning before sunrise, thousands of people gather at the sacred fire, which is a fire that's been burning since that camp was founded and elders gather and they come on a microphone and they speak, they speak about history and they speak about legacy and they speak about building a new legacy together. And they speak about pain and joy, and most of all forgiveness. And the women perform a ceremony every morning, a water ceremony, and they carry water in copper kettles and they bring them out and they pray. And then these thousands of people led by these women walk down to the river banks of the Missouri and the Cannonball River. And I heard, during this procession, the most heavy and thick silence I'd ever heard. And then people would just cry out, "Mni Wiconi!" which means 'water is life' and everybody would ring it back and before you know it, there are songs being sung in every language as people walk down to the river and that, that is Standing Rock.

Mart: I personally know people who have expressed interest in going to Standing Rock, but the practicalities prevent it. What can you say to those people?

Inglish: San Luis Obispo County has been there - in spirit, in prayer and energy through supplies - but about a month before I left, I knew to do it's not just about driving 1600 miles one way to stand there. It was about, 'how can I be the best water protector, the best non-native ally?' So the first thing I did was research what actually happened in North Dakota. How did they end up on this reservation? How did the people who used to - not own, they'll say we never owned this land - but they used to care for, and interact with what is now the whole entire state of North Dakota - how did they end up on this small reservations and in poverty? So I feel like I got the biggest history lesson of my life. You won't find any information about that, really, in textbooks or on the Wikipedia page for North Dakota. I feel like I learned more about being a human in my time there than I have in my 30 years on this planet. And that, I think, is what I bring back home here and what I'm honored to have experienced. And that's why I'm committed to going back for one more trip, at least, to help to bring supplies to help to winterize the camp and also to help carry this movement because it''s way beyond physically and figuratively, it has transcended North Dakota, which is good because a lot of people aren't prepared to live in an arctic winter. But the leaders at Camp have said if you can handle it, come, if you can't, there's a pipeline in Florida, there's a pipeline in the Pacific Northwest, there's a pipeline in Texas, which is where Energy Transfer Partners is based. It's not over. It's just the beginning. And I was told it's not even just about oil pipelines. There have been oil pipelines, there will be more. But it's about the school-to-prison pipeline. It's about the deportation pipeline. It's about the money-to-the-pockets-of-the-greedy pipeline, the ignorance-to-bigotry pipeline. All of these things that we are going to be facing, the next month is going to be critical. And so I think all of those reasons combined is why the camp is digging in and I feel prepared to go. I feel prepared to show up with enough resources to care for myself and stay warm. And I truly hope to help other people do the same as well.

Mart: You said you were going to return to North Dakota, what is your plan?

Inglish: I plan on leaving mid-month here in December and staying for at least three weeks. I want to let folks know, the supplies that are being donated to Standing Rock, if they're not needed up there - which has happened because bless you, Central Coast, we don't know what arctic conditions are. So although we're trying to send winter clothing, it can be challenging, but that the surplus is going to nearby reservations, to people who live in poverty every day. That was another facet of that whole operation that I was just amazed by. I met a woman, I helped to winterize a tent for a single mom who was there with her kid, a native woman who told me that she doesn't even own a bed at home and that she sold beadwork in order to come and be there. And so I realized that, once again, it transcends an oil pipeline...Standing Rock has connected people in unprecedented ways and, at a minimum I can say, has opened my eyes to the daily plight of what my brothers and sisters go through. I feel more prepared to never back down again. And any time that there is a call for help... a lot of people have taken interest in each other's lives and each other's well-being, and that's the beauty that's been birth out of this.

Mart: Thank you for speaking with me, Erin, and telling us about your experience. For “Issues & Ideas,” I’m Greta Mart.

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