Standing with Standing Rock: An Interview with Waniya Locke

Rachel Jamison Webster


In September, my nine-year old daughter and I went to the Standing Rock Reservation, where we joined the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 1200-mile pipeline set to carry fracked oil under the Missouri River and through the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. For the last few years, I have been working on a book that combines found poems “mined” from a book about geology with poems written in the voices of indigenous ancestors. What began as a project of experimental poetry turned into an awareness of how mining—and our dominant culture’s exploitive relationship to the land—underwrote the genocide of Native peoples and attempted the erasure of their culture and stories. The work sometimes felt like exhuming voices, and it took me to the Dakotas several times where I entered into humble friendships with Lakota elders from the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock communities.

This time, I wanted to talk to Waniya Locke, one of the four women who began the protest in early 2016. Waniya is not an activist, but a mother and teacher who uses social media with uncommon clarity and intimacy. In her Facebook posts, she gives statistics about fracking and pipeline leaks. She shows peaceful protestors being attacked by mace and guard dogs. Sometimes she cries. I knew that I wanted to interview Waniya, but I had no idea if or how I would meet her. The camp had grown to thousands of people by the time we arrived, and many leaders had moved on to Iowa to try to halt construction of the pipeline there.

For those of us who love the earth or are environmentalists, it has been difficult to see what our dominant culture calls “progress” as anything but a wrenching narrative of loss. Loss of land and entire species of animals and plants, loss of consciousness of connection, loss of the old stories that taught us more deeply about place, loss of woods and marshes for the same Walmart or Big Lots or Buffalo Wild Wings. But even that first night in Standing Rock, I could feel a sense of return, a kind of cycling that was going to put remembrance in touch with itself. If one elder remembered a verse to a song, and another elder remembered another, and if they taught that song to a child, what more could be connected? What would change if we made our decisions with this child and her grandchildren in mind?

The next morning, we woke to shy sunlight and steam rising from the tents and cars. We ran up the hill that had been dubbed Facebook Hill because it was the only place in camp where people could get a signal and use cellphones and social media. There were a handful of people there that early—campers and journalists, looking out. It seemed almost miraculous to me, but when I got to the top, I realized that the one woman there was Waniya herself, doing a post before she left for Iowa. I asked if I could interview her, and we walked down the hill to our camp, where we sat down at the fire circle.

• • •

Rachel Jamison Webster: Waniya, one of my hopes in coming out here was that I would get to interview you. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Waniya Locke: First of all, I am one of many women. It is important to understand that, that I am one of many. It was women who initially opened camp up. It was all done by prayer. We went and had ceremony done first, where were given very specific directions that we couldn’t use violence, we couldn’t use weapons. That was specifically told to us. They told us to trust the Spirits and to allow them to guide us.

So again, I’m one of many.

RJW: And then how did this protest develop?

WL: We went from a small, humble camp of 45 people to 2000 people almost overnight. It was really incredible and moving. And what drew people here the most is that we said that we are non-violent, that we were going to hold our ground and stand in prayer. I really believe that when the Spirits originally gave us the advice back in February which steps to take, this is exactly what they were leading us up to. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were leading up to an indigenous revolution for climate justice.

RJW: So you see this movement as transcending Standing Rock to become an indigenous revolution?

WL: Yes, one thing that DAPL has brought is an awareness of the many issues that are unresolved in indigenous North America. I say Indigenous North American because there are many different tribes and many different people here who have had the same genocide placed upon them. So each story is unique, but the underlying story is the same. Before it was the U.S. Government taking over our land for the natural resources, whether it was water, wood, gold, copper. Then from the government it slowly moved over to industries. What’s really scary, though, is that the government can be held accountable, by law, for not to protecting the people, whereas industries cannot.

People don’t realize that North Dakota, South Dakota, a little bit of Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana is Lakota/Dakota territory. It was allotted to us in 1868 when we signed the Fort Laramie treaty. Then it was violated in 1872 when Custer discovered gold, and that’s when the infringement on our land began. But the only difference between Custer finding gold and the corporations taking oil is that Custer didn’t kill off his grandkids in taking the gold. The corporations are killing their own future, their children’s, their grandchildren’s futures. That’s the biggest difference.

• • •

By this point, people were steadily joining the circle. I was holding up my iPhone to record, and Waniya was talking softly, but everyone was drawn to her and her words. Across from us was an elder, Eloy Martinez, who had been active in the American Indian Movement and had occupied Wounded Knee in 1973, wearing t-shirt that read “My Heroes Have Never Been Cowboys.” My daughter was sitting beside him making little dreamcatchers to give away, winding them out of yarn and popsicle sticks. We could smell the potatoes and eggs beginning to fry for breakfast, the huge pots of coffee that the grandmothers had brewed.

• • •

WL: Not everybody is awake. That is what we’re doing. We are awakening people. We are educating them. People don’t realize that this year, in North Dakota, there were 708 pipeline spills. People don’t realize that their own governor is personally invested in the oil industry. People need to realize that this is an obligation to the future. That climate change is real. That what’s going on in Syria has to do with the fact that they have no rain. They haven’t had real rain there for 20 years and that’s affecting the whole world now. What’s going on in the Middle East from their fracking, drilling and injection wells is affecting us. And we are starting to have earthquakes in South Dakota, which we have never had before, because of fracking.

A map of oil spills from January 2010 – May 2015. Source: High Country News

RJW: That’s so many spills! When a pipeline ruptures, who pays the bulk of the cleanup?

WL: North Dakota taxpayers paid 36 million to clean up oil spills for the 708 spills that they had this year alone. To clean up a spill, they have to bake it out. They have to take all this contaminated soil out of the earth and then they have to bake it out. And then they have to run all of these chemicals and sludge through it just to make it healthy again. It will take 400 years to rejuvenate the earth, but you cannot rejuvenate water. And we only have x amount of water in the world and there is only x amount of fresh water for people to drink. So that’s why we’re here. We’re protecting the water.

The Missouri River is 12,000 years old and 10 million people drink from it. And the fact that this would be called a ‘low-consequence area,’ meaning the whole Midwest and 10 million people?

RJW: That’s ignorant.

WL: Yes. And This revolution recognizes that environmental racism doesn’t see skin color. Indigenous America is the lowest on the poverty scale. We have the lowest economic status. People don’t realize this, but Flint is also of that low economic status. So environmental racism does not see your skin color. They check to see how much money you have in the bank.

RJW: I just read on Energy Transfer Partner’s Website, that DAPL would create 5,000 jobs, which is an interesting figure considering that there have been at least 5,000 protestors camped out here.

WL: And those 5000 jobs are just temp jobs, and those people have already been laid off. They keep you on for 60 days or less because they have to start paying for your benefits.

Pipeline workers are pissed off because we were able to temporarily halt its construction. No, look at their track record and look at that revolving door. ‘We didn’t lay you off,’ I told them. ‘Your company laid you off because they want to protect their own money. They don’t want to pay you your benefits.

RJW: When I drove into the camp a couple of nights ago, I couldn’t help thinking of Wounded Knee, and the courage it takes to gather like this.

WL: Yes, my children are very much connected to Wounded Knee. My children, on their father’s side, are descendants of Bear Ribs. Bear Ribs had four children, and when Sitting Bull was killed and they were all running down to Red Cloud’s camp for safety, Bear Rib’s one son decided to stay on Standing Rock. His other three left and they were all killed at Wounded Knee. So I tell my children, you are really lucky. You are only here because your great grandfather stayed on Standing Rock.

My children have done the Big Foot Ride, which traces the walk that the people made. They have suffered in 48-below degree weather. One day they rode 60 miles on horseback just to get ahead of a blizzard.

RJW: And you think of all those miles the people walked through snow and ice. . .

WL: This is exactly why I have my children do it. Every year on December 20th, we drive back home, and we go through ceremonies the night before for protection and healing. I want them to know what our ancestors suffered physically in order for us to be here today.

So all of this applies. The only reason I went Facebook live on the first day was because there were 45 of us on the frontline, with no weapons, and DAPL pulled in with semi-automatic weapons and 60 units. That’s went I went live, because I wanted our story to be told, and I want it to be our narrative this time.

RJW: Yes, it has to be your narrative and voice now.

WL: But again I am one of many women. There’s Joy Braun, who was a protestor of the Keystone Pipeline and comes with that experience; and LaDonna Brave Bull, who owns the land on the river, where we first opened the Sacred Stone Camp; and Bobbi Jean Three Legs, who organized the cross-country run of our youth from Standing Rock to the Army Corps of Engineers Office in Nebraska.

I am one of many women, and this story is the story of every single indigenous tribe in North America. This is what occurs everywhere. It hurts that the Bay Area is fighting for their shells, that the Colorado River has been poisoned for the Dine, and that the Seminoles in Florida just had a gasline blow. It hurts that the tribes in Louisiana have to be relocated because of climate change. Their story is our story, and our story is their story. Wherever you go, whether it is Alaska Canada or Mexico, it is all our story.

• • •

“Waniya, is that you?” said a tall man with a gentle smile, approaching the circle.

“Jason! I was just talking about the Big Foot Ride!” Waniya said. “The last time I saw this guy it was 40 degrees below and he was on horseback!”

It turned out that some of the Big Foot Riders had joined the same corner of the camp. They had set up their tents in the middle of the night, under the full moon, not knowing where they were in camp but feeling that deep sense of peace and familiarity. So we all walked down to the Missouri River, so that Jason Salgado, a photographer, could get a picture of Waniya by the water. There were a few girls there, talking and swimming, wringing out their long, beautiful hair, enjoying the river that we were there to protect. I listened to their laughter and thought about my own childhood, its happiest moments spent diving and swimming in lakes and rivers, about my own little girl and all the children of the future playing in the earth’s waters. Jason had just returned from Asia and he talked about the people there, who were engaged in the same struggle, whose children could no longer swim in the rivers because of pollution. On that bank, we held a ceremony for the water, and I said a prayer meant to connect us to the ancestors as well as the descendants. That the trauma of this continent’s indigenous people would finally be recognized and rectified. That the healing would be greater than the trauma. That together we would stand up to corporations and short-sighted mining so that children could play in unpolluted rivers and lakes, so we could drink from our shared and sacred water, so we could experience the greening, the healing of the earth.

Waniya Locke (photo credit: Jason Salgado)


Rachel Jamison Webster directs the Creative Writing Program at Northwestern University. She’s the author of the books, “September” and “The Endless Unbegun.”