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Still Standing: Resistance and Resilience of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation

Water Protectors. Still from Awake, a Dream from Standing Rock, 2017. From

A message was carried to us from those
ancestors who met the giant sturgeon in the time
before they knew legs, when we swam with the
salamanders and lizards.  I give my water spirit
to the river and learn the language of water.

Lois Red Elk*

Water has many qualities in addition to providing life—flowing, freezing, rushing or crushing, a calm abiding or gentle movement—but one quality we don’t often think of is the power of water to galvanize. In 2016, the power of Mni Sose (“Turbid Water” or “Big Muddy”) as Lake Oahe and the Missouri River are known, galvanized local and international people toward the Standing Rock Sioux Nation protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Untold numbers of First Nation people and the world at large beheld an unfolding scene of coercion and violence brewing at the Standing Rock Sioux Nation over water rights and tribal sovereignty. Violence meted out by police and government entities was met by peaceful, prayerful, and nonviolent water protectors.

At that time, I worked for a small nonprofit organization that, among many things, advocates for indigenous rights. I was a logistical supporter for the events that unfolded at the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota in their protest of illegal trespass onto their sacred lands (2016–17). Although I did not travel to the Lakota Sioux Nation during that time, I supported people on the ground, both native and non-native, with communications and technical assistance as they carried out resistance activities and journalism. The images, videos, and experiences from that time remain fresh in my mind. I feel fortunate to relate to the Lakota—leaders, teens, and elders—through their activism for our planet and Indigenous healing. These are symbiotic. And we are all, ultimately, indigenous to—and dependent on—the Earth herself. So, this resistance and prayer are for us all to engage with.

Oceti Sakowin and Rosebud camps, 2016. Photo by Alessandra Sanguinetti

There are several important films about Standing Rock, especially by Indigenous directors. Native crew and cast members both model and educate to expose the larger world to ongoing resistance activities that are so vital for the survival of our whole planet, not only the people affected in the Dakotas. All of us, globally, are subject to the downsides of capitalism and ongoing extractive colonial settler activities. No matter who we are, we benefit from and suffer from the effects of this mentality and the actions that are degrading and harming our Earth, putting all its systems, peoples, and creatures in grave danger. Film is an essential medium for educating and communicating these kinds of stories. Without video, film, and journalism, we might never hear of these vital issues and events. I recommend these films for raising awareness, for meditating on peace for all, and for enjoying beauty, poetry, and wisdom in moving form. Indigenous peoples are here now, alive and active, and deserve our support and respect.

From Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock, Floris White Bull, co-writer and narrator:

I put my five little ones to bed, smiling and squirming.

In their eyes, the usual recognition: gratitude, peacefulness, love. They asked me to tell them the stories of the stars—the beginning of life—‘til they fell fast asleep. Dreaming their Lakota dreams . . . That’s when the Dream began . . .

A long dark moment unfolded. As if I was traveling across hundreds of years. All things became afraid. All living things fought to survive. Trees became fearful of being chopped down. Rivers ran scared of being poisoned. Even the air ran for its own breath. It was the fear that had contaminated the world.

I looked at my five children sleeping in their beds—

What would they do? If their water was ruined?

How would they live?**

Still from Awake, a Dream from Standing Rock, 2017. From

In Buddhist lore, the dark age in which we find ourselves now was foretold. And in many Indigenous cultures, they have such foretelling. For the Lakota, Sioux, and other First Nations, they have the story of the Black Snake, in which it was foretold that the Snake would come and destroy, bringing sorrow and suffering. This is how they refer to the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as many other pipelines throughout the US and Canada. These pipelines go in quickly, without proper oversight, and many end up leaking, destroying soil, water, and wildlife, as well as food and food sources for millions of people. Engaged activism means allying with those whose lands, waters, air, and soils are threatened by extractive methods. Our ecosystems have been pushed to the brink and none of them exist in a vacuum. This affects us all.

In the Standing Rock protests of 2016 and 2017, one of the rallying cries was Mni Wiconi, “water is life.” It could not be plainer than this! The people call themselves not activists or protesters, but Water Protectors. This nonviolent, defensive position was emphasized to great import because the energy companies, Big Oil and Gas, and the government want to portray anyone who is protecting the Earth or the climate as troublemakers, as violent instigators, or aggressors, when in fact the opposite is true.


From a non-dual perspective, from a Buddhist perspective, in the bigger picture, we are all, each of us, both aggressor and victim. We have both sides, internally and externally. If we acknowledge this, then we can use our energy, our intelligence, and our good hearts to advocate for the Earth and for all of its inhabitants for a more peaceful, sustainable coexistence. This is meditation in action. It requires a connection with the breath. It requires feeling our feet on the ground. It requires understanding that anger, fear, and grief will pass through us like the weather. Yet we need not cling to them.

What we do need is sangha—community, connection, and a common goal, which is to help heal. The healing begins inside. If we can metabolize our own inner emotional life in healthier ways, then outwardly we can work together to protect our planet and indigenous communities, who are highly marginalized and mistreated. For the benefit of all and for a future together, we must practice both on and off the cushion, and look to leaders such as the Standing Rock Sioux Nation to inspire and model our activism in support of Mother Earth. Below are links to ways to engage and receive inspiration and education through Native films.


* Two Meditations On Mni Sose, Water, Mother Earth and Standing Rock (Mountain Journal)

** Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock

See more

The Next Step to End DAPL (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe)|
Akicita: The Battle Of Standing Rock – Sundance 2018 (YouTube)
End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock (IMDB)
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
A Message from Native Filmmakers Fighting the Dakota Pipeline at Standing Rock (Sundance Institute)

Related features from BDG

The Path of Engaged Buddhism in a Divided World: An Interview with Ven. Pomnyun Sunim
Restoration and Justice: An Interview with Dr. Natalie Avalos on Indigenous Spirituality and Buddhist Allies
Buddhistdoor View: Indigenous Relations – Restoration and Restitution
Climate Justice – Activating Compassion for Peoples, Wildlife, and Our Environment
Are You Doing Enough?

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