Red Bird at Standing Rock: A Thanksgiving Message

Standing Rock

On the day of the 2016 presidential election, Energy Transfer Partners announced that it would begin the final phase of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which involves drilling under the Missouri River.  The pipeline is intended to carry a half million barrels a day of fracked oil over 1,000 miles from the Bakken oil field in North Dakata to Illinois.

The intended path of the pipeline runs through the Great Sioux Reservation.  In addition to violating sacred burial lands of the Sioux people, it threatens the drinking water of 18 million people, including residents of the Standing Rock Reservation, located just a half mile to the south.  The pipeline was previously planned to run north of Bismarck, but was relocated, in part, due to concerns about the safety of the drinking water of the (white) Bismarck residents.

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Thousands of indigenous and non-indigenous people have now gathered to Cannon Ball, North Dakota to protest the pipeline.  Standing Rock has become home to the largest gathering of American Indian tribes in over a century, with over 300 federally recognized tribes present.  Over the past several months, peaceful indigenous rights activists and climate change activists have clashed with a militarized police force and private security contractors.

Protests began in the spring of this year, but for months, the protesters received little attention in the media.  Numerous celebrities have since helped draw the media’s attention to the protest, including Shailene Woodley, who was arrested.  Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, also visited the site and now faces criminal charges for spray painting the blade of a bulldozer on the site with the words, “I approve this message.”

In the meantime, former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton failed to take any stand on the matter, even after being confronted by Standing Rock youth at the New York headquarters of her campaign.  President Obama also adopted a cowardly wait-and-see approach to the matter.

Meanwhile, the pipeline construction has been rushing toward the Missouri River.  The pipeline company has refused to halt construction, despite “requests” by the federal government to voluntarily delay the project while other routes are considered.  Police and security contractors have used pepper spray, rubber bullets, teargas, and dogs on peaceful protesters and journalists.  More than 400 people have been arrested.  This past Sunday, police used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters in a confined space, as well as a water canon in below-freezing temperatures, resulting in several hospitalizations for hypothermia.

As of last week, the Army Corp of Engineers has halted construction pending additional study of the situation.  While it is a small victory, it may be little more than an attempt by the Obama administration to pass this political hot potato off onto the new Republican administration.  President-elect Trump has been uncharacteristically silent on the matter, but he has close financial ties to the pipeline, an intolerance of protests, and a blind spot for conflicts of interest, not to mention being a climate change denier, so the outcome is predictable.

This is a rapidly changing situation, and by the time you read this, it may be old news.

But you may not realize just how old.

Red Bird

This story has been repeated over and over for hundreds of years.

I want to tell just one small piece of it.

Zitkala-Ša (“Red Bird”) was born a century before me, in 1876, on the Yankaton Reservation, south of what is now the Standing Rock reservation. When she was eight years old, she was taken away from her mother and sent to a boarding school in Indiana, where I live now.  The game upon which American Indians subsisted had been driven to extinction by whites, and the land reserved for them was often of such poor quality that harvests failed, leaving many dependent on government rations for survival.  Like many others, Zitkala-Ša’s mother was compelled by federal officials to let her daughter go to the boarding school under threat of cutting her rations.

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At White’s Manual Labor Institute in Indiana, Zitkala-Ša had her braids cut. “I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blade of the scissors against my neck and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids,” wrote Zitkala-Ša, “Then I lost my spirit.”  This was the beginning of the work of trying to “civilize” her.  In Zitkala-Ša’s case, they only partially succeeded.  In spite of feeling the loss of part of her indigenous heritage, Zitkala-Ša did value the education she received.  She became an accomplished orator, author, musician, and composer, but she was never completely “civilized” by the colonizers.

After spending three years at White’s Manual Labor Institute, Zitkala-Ša returned home to her mother on the reservation.  She found her mother living in poverty.  Her brother, who had also been educated in the boarding schools, had been fired from his job with the Indian Bureau and replaced by a white man, because he had stood up for his people in some small matter.

Zitkala-Ša also discovered that white settlers were occupying her tribal lands through a policy called “allotment.” In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, which redistributed tribal land, which had been held communally, to individual American Indians.  This had the effect of weakening tribal unity, which of course was the point.

In addition, land was only granted to “competent” heads of family.  “Competent” was interpreted by white officials to mean those American Indians who had abandoned indigenous dress and customs, spoke English, farmed, and attended Christian church.  The land that was not redistributed to American Indians, could then be sold to whites.  A combination of fraud, bad harvests, and unemployment led many American Indians to sell their allotments to white settlers.  As a result of this policy, 138 million acres reserved for American Indian tribes across the U.S. was reduced to 47 million acres.

In 1890, conflict broke out between the Sioux and the United States government over the the tribes’ practice of the Ghost Dance, which was believed to call up the spirits of the dead to fight the white colonists. Sitting Bull, who was believed to be the leader of the Ghost Dance movement, was killed by an Army officer.  Two weeks later, one hundred and fifty Sioux were massacred by the U.S. Army, most of them women and children, at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.  Zitkala-Ša would have been 14 years old.

After staying with her mother for a few years, Zitkala-Ša returned to the boarding school of her own volition and became a teacher there.  She went on to teach at several boarding schools for American Indian children, including the the U.S. Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which was run by Colonel Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt became infamous for advocating the forced cultural assimilation of American Indian peoples and is best remembered for his saying, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Eventually, Zitkala-Ša realized that the boarding schools were not intended to truly educate American Indian children, but merely to prepare them to be laborers in the lowest strata of white society. She also intuited that her own success in school did not really make her equal in the eyes of whites.  Rather, she served as a kind of token, an “accomplished savage,” to prop up a system of white supremacy.

“I remember how, from morning till evening, many specimens of civilized peoples visited the Indian school. … these Christian palefaces were alike astounded at seeing the children of savage warriors so docile and industrious.

As answers to their shallow inquiries they received the students’ sample work to look upon. Examining the neatly figured pages, and gazing upon the Indian girls and boys bending over their books, the white visitors walked out of the schoolhouse well satisfied: they were educating the children of the red man! They were paying a liberal fee to the government employees in whose able hands lay the small forest of Indian timber.

In this fashion many have passed idly through the Indian schools during the last decade, afterward to boast of their charity to the North American Indian.”

zitkala-saZitkala-Ša resigned from the school and took a new name.  Her birth name was Gertrude Simmons, and she had never been given American Indian name by her mother.  On her own initiative, she assumed the name Zitkala-Ša, which means “Red Bird.”  She then began to use the language which had been forced upon her to attack the very institutions which had imposed it on her and so many like her.

Zitkala-Ša joined the Society of American Indians and later founded of the National Council of American Indians. She lobbied for American Indian people’s rights, including the end of allotment and (controversially) the extension of the right of United States citizenship to American Indians. She published articles in Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly.  And she criticized the boarding school system she had previously worked for, bringing her into conflict with her former employer, Colonel Pratt.

One of Zitkala-Ša’s most influential pieces of writing was titled “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes—Legalized Robbery,” a political pamphlet which exposed the systematic theft of oil-rich land from American Indian peoples of Oklahoma through both legal and illegal means.  Under this system, American Indians who refused to sell their land to whites were declared “incompetent” and assigned white “guardians.” These guardians stole from their wards, many of whom then starved.  When “legal” means did not work, whites resorted to kidnapping, rape, and even mass murder.

In 1917, almost a century ago, Zitkala-Ša moved with her husband and child to Washington, D.C., in the hope of increasing their political influence.  There, Zitkala-Ša would testify before in Senate wearing traditional native clothing.  Though she despaired that she was not having an impact, her work paved the way for FDR, several years later, to pass the Indian Reorganization Act, also called the “Indian New Deal,” which ended the policy of allotment and strengthened tribal governments.

“Why I Am A Pagan”

The same forces at work in Zitkala-Ša’s life are at work in the Dakota Access Pipeline: white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism.  White supremacy was at work in the forced assimilation of American Indian children through the boarding school system, and white supremacy is the reason why the U.S. government values the health of the white residents of Bismark over the health of the residents of the American Indian Standing Rock reservation.  Capitalism was the driving force behind the theft of American Indian lands in the Dakotas in Zitkala-Ša’s time, and it is the driving force behind the violation of the sacred burial lands of the Sioux people today.  Colonialism, of a physical variety, forced American Indians onto the reservations and then stole even that land from them, while a spiritual colonialism was perpetrated in the boarding schools and corrupt guardianship systems.

While American Indians have been physically colonized, the forces of capitalism and white supremacy have colonized all of our minds and hearts.  These two forces have such power over our thoughts, so deep rooted are their assumptions, that it is nearly impossible for us to imagine any other way of being.  And when whites feel those assumptions being challenged, our fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, and we react as if the foundations of our very world were being undermined.

How to resist such an insidious invader is the question. Short of complete withdrawal from Western civilization, how are we to be, as the Christians say, in the world, but not of the world? This question is particularly acute for contemporary Pagans and Polytheists who strive to live a counter-cultural life within the modern Western overculture.  Zitkala-Ša’s life suggests a possible answer.

If there were a theme to Zitkala-Ša’s life story, it would be liminality.  She wrote that she was “neither a wild Indian nor a tame one.”  Throughout her life, she struggled to reconcile the value of preserving her native tradition with the benefits of assimilation to white culture; she strove to be in white culture, but not of white culture.  She was mixed-race, a child of a Sioux mother and an (absentee) white father.  She was only given an English name by her mother, but adopted an American Indian name at the age of 23.  She was taken by force to a boarding school, but later returned to that boarding school as a teacher.  She valued learning how to read and write English, but she questioned the cost, “whether real life or long-lasting death lies beneath this semblance of civilization.”  She did not idealize American Indian people, but called out white hypocrisy, observing that whites had been as “savage” throughout history as any American Indians. She worked for one of the most infamous promulgators of assimilationist policy, but she later challenged the system which he represented.

Throughout all of this, nature was Zitkala-Ša’s touchstone, rooting her as she moved back and forth between her two worlds. “In the process of my education I had lost all consciousness of the nature world around me,” she wrote following her resignation from the U.S. Indian Industrial School,

“Thus, when a hidden rage took me to the small white-walled prison which I then called my room, I unknowingly turned away from my one salvation. … For the white man’s papers I had given up my faith in the Great Spirit. For these same papers I had forgotten the healing in trees and brooks. … Like a slender tree, I had been uprooted from my mother, nature, and God.”

And so, in 1902, after spending two and half years at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Zitkala-Ša returned to the reservation in South Dakota again.  There, she published an article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Why I Am a Pagan.”  In it, she writes about how the water, sky, and sun “bespeak with eloquence the loving Mystery round about us” and how her native people “recognize a kinship to any and all parts of this vast universe.”

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In the essay, Zitkala-Ša describes her joy laying out in the grass on a river bank on a sunny day, and then returning to her mother’s log cabin to find the “solemn-faced” native Christian preacher waiting for her.  The preacher, who is a converted American Indian, observes that he has not seen her at church.  He says he is confused, because he sees no “unbecoming behavior” from her and hears only good reports from others about her, and yet she is not a Christian.  He urges her away from the “folly” of her ancestral beliefs and to belief in the “one God,” and he warns her of the alternative: hellfire. Zitkala-Ša listens respectfully, though it seems to her that “he mouth[s] most strangely the jangling phrases of a bigoted creed.”

When the preacher leaves, Zitkala-Ša reflects on the differences between Christian and indigenous belief.  “A wee child toddling in a wonder world,” she writes,

“I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.”

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“Pagan” Anti-Colonialism

“Pagan” is a contested term today, as are most words relating to identity.  What made Zitkala-Ša Pagan was more than her resistance of conversion to Christianity, which she calls “the new superstition” (she seemed to have little more respect for the “old superstition”). Being “Pagan” meant for her being conscious of the voice of the divine in the natural world, and feeling kinship with all the living beings in it, human and other-than-human.  The same is true for many contemporary Pagans today.

But for Zitkala-Ša, at least, being Pagan also seemed to be about something more.  It seemed to be about resisting white imperialism, specifically colonization by white “civilization,” not just of her land, but also of her soul. She seemed to understand that there was a connection between these two forms of colonization, that a vital connection to the land was necessary to resist colonization of one’s soul.  She felt this when she was separated from nature by the walls of her dormitory at the boarding school.  And she witnessed this when she returned to the reservation and saw her people’s connection to the land broken by racist government policies and the opportunistic greed of white settlers.  She saw the material effects of that disconnection in the poverty of her people and the spiritual effects in poverty of the countenance of those of her people who had converted to Christianity, whom she likened to “shadows” or “echoes.”

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Today, the Dakota Access Pipeline is both a physical manifestation of that colonization, as well as a spiritual symbol of the colonization of our minds and hearts by capitalism and white supremacy.  This pipeline carrying fracked oil not only invades the sovereign lands of the Sioux, but also non-indigenous lands on both sides of the reservation.  All our land, all our water, and all our bodies are being invaded by this “black snake” of capitalism, guided by the hand of white supremacy.

But even more insidious is how these same forces have colonized our minds, weaving their way into thoughts and words, both individual and collective. Consider how the pipeline is justified by reference to its comparative “safety” in relation to bomb trains, but the underlying assumption of our need for fossil fuel remains largely unquestioned.  Consider how easily the pipeline protest is ignored by many whites who see it as an indigenous rights issue that doesn’t affect them, rather than a human rights issue.  Consider how easily the path of the pipeline was moved from Bismark, which is 92% white, but how it now slouches implacably forward through the Sioux reservation.  Consider the disparate treatment of the (white) Bundy militia which occupied a federal building in Oregon, but escaped unpunished, and the treatment of American Indians who are defending their sovereign land, but have been met with disproportionate state force.  Consider the silence of our cherished institutions in the face of this threat, from our supposedly free press to the Democratic administration.

Perhaps, as in Zitkala-Ša’s time, being Pagan today is also about resisting colonialism.  Capitalism and white supremacy begin by alienating us from the land and from each other, and in the spiritual vacuum thus created, the way is paved for a colonization which is both physical and spiritual.  This colonization is closely related to another phenomena with which Pagans are familiar: disenchantment.

We decolonize our minds and hearts and re-enchant the world by reversing the process by which we were colonized and disenchanted in the first place: by reconnecting to the land and to each other.  By challenging narratives that “other” people of color.  By opposing policies that alienate us from our mother earth.  By standing in solidarity with American Indians whose lands have been invaded by an oil company.  By fighting all encroachments of Big Oil on our lands and our souls.

That is why I stand with Standing Rock.

To support the Standing Rock protest, click here.


John Halstead

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


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