FIGHTING THE IRON SERPENT

by Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer
Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory

When I was in Grade 2, I recall my teacher telling us a legend in class that I would hear many times later in my life. It was about this boy who lived long ago in a Kanien’kehá:ka village. While exploring around the river’s edge, he noticed two shiny things in the water. When he picked them up he discovered they were serpents – one gold and one silver. The serpents were barely alive and the boy returned home with them and nursed them back to health.

In time these serpents became healthy again and began to grow larger and larger. And as they grew, so did their appetites. The boy could no longer feed them enough so they began to consume the village’s food. The people of the village attempted to cast out the beasts, but by this point they had become too large to control and the serpents began to attack and consume the people of the village. Soon, the two serpents began to attack and plunder other villages. The people fled and made their way to the mountains. Pursuing the people, the two serpents smashed into mountains, poisoned the rivers, and ravished the earth.

The people at Standing Rock are fighting for both their lives and those who are not yet born.

As a boy, I was taught that these two serpents of gold and silver prophesized the formation of the United States and Canada who, as colonial infants, were nurtured by the Indigenous Peoples of North America, but soon their appetite for land and riches had them turn on their hosts. As acceptable as this interpretation has served me throughout my life, I now think of the story as prophesizing the coming of oil pipelines into our territories – the iron serpents.

Since April, the flashpoint of indigenous resistance has been at Standing Rock, North Dakota, where the Sioux people – joined by hundreds of other indigenous nations – have gathered to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project that intends to carry crude oil through the Midwest to refineries in Illinois. Indigenous Peoples in the United States, habitually forgotten and dismissed by the majority of Americans and the federal government alike, are already living in conditions that are comparable to that of a poor developing country. Now imagine if one of these pipelines were to rupture and spill into their only water supply? A spill would not only be ecologically devastating, it would destroy the Standing Rock Sioux as a people. The people at Standing Rock are fighting for both their lives and those who are not yet born.

( © Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer )

( National Guard checkpoint © Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer )

It is nothing new for colonial governments and corporations to intentionally target indigenous territories to expropriate their lands for development, because it is cheap and at the expense of an expendable, in their eyes, population. In my home community of Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory, we are no strangers to the injustice of colonial expropriation. In our small 12,000 acre territory, the Government of Canada, along with the Province of Québec, have commandeered lands to build three highways, high tension power lines, an international shipping canal, two railways and a rail bridge, and a major commuter bridge that connects 80,000 motorists to Montreal each day. I can’t imagine this type of blatant state land appropriation being acceptable in any other town or city in North America.

The people at Standing Rock are taking a stand to say this is unacceptable. They have made it clear that they are not there as protestors, but as protectors of the water. This means they are not there to raise awareness with the American public, or to get a piece of the action, or to curry favor with politicians to encourage them to ask Dakota Access to stop the pipeline – they are there to stop the project directly as inherent guardians of their ancestral territory. This is a situation where the right to live trumps the rule of law.

This is unacceptable and the world should be outraged.

Without weapons or using violent tactics, their peaceful resistance has been met with state and corporate violence. First, a private security firm employed by Dakota Access used pepper spray and attack dogs against Water Protectors who confronted construction workers, during a period when work was supposedly halted. Then, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple declared a state of emergency and mobilized the National Guard to create a perimeter around the Water Protectors to prevent them from accessing other construction sites. Since this mobilization, armed soldiers and police (flanked by armoured personnel carriers) have drawn weapons on unarmed Water Protectors with live ammunition – among them elders, women and children.

This is unacceptable and the world should be outraged. The world needs to know what is happening at Standing Rock and look at Indigenous Peoples and their struggle as relevant in our world today. In order for that to happen, however, the media needs to report it and make it relevant. Hopefully awareness of this struggle will prompt common people to pressure their leaders to intervene and understand that only by respecting the self-determination and sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples – through seeking their free and prior informed consent before proceeding with any project that might affect or hurt indigenous populations – will prevent future incidents like this.

( © Mary Annette Pember )

( © Mary Annette Pember )

Meanwhile, the most effective weapon in Standing Rock’s arsenal is the unity of hundreds of indigenous nations standing together with one mind and heart, defending one another against this iron serpent.

Featured image by Teiowí:sonte Thomas Deer

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