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One of the earliest memories I can recall of my childhood is of my mother taking me and my siblings to ceremony back home on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. My tribe, the Hidatsa, is a matrilineal one; meaning we draw our family ties and kinships from our mother’s line. It’s not quite the mirror opposite of the Western patrilineal style where you carry your father’s name, but that may be a good way to help people understand how the Hidatsa reckon their kin. In Indian Country, a number of tribes have clan kinship systems, and these clans were responsible for any number of spiritual, social, and the simple day-to-day responsibilities in the lives of my people.

north dakota oil field

The details of what I remember I am not at liberty to discuss publicly; like a lot of ceremonial life for Native people, it is meant only for the clan members themselves. What I can say is that each year, my mother would bring me and my brothers back to the same place on the reservation to do what our family and clan was responsible for. It is a part of my dearest and most cherished memories of home, and also what makes me, me.

Nowadays, things are different – very different. Life back home is not the same, and I believe much of the change is irreversible. My tribe is in the middle of the biggest oil boom in the country, the likes of which hasn’t been seen for a long time. North Dakota now outpaces Alaska in oil output and that fact, and everything that comes along with it, has changed the fabric of life on Fort Berthold. The place that my mother took us to when I was a child is now home to a huge oil rig, literally smack dab on the spot where we used to pray. I have to say each time I drive by that place, I hurt.

fort berthold reservation

Fort Berthold Indian Reservation (Photo: Fawn and Toni Fettig)

Yes, I can pray elsewhere; but ‘elsewhere’ back home is rapidly disappearing. Our sacred spaces and places are being bought up, gouged out, and cleared to make way for thousands of trucks, equipment, rigs, wells, flares, and people – lots and lots of people. A lot of tribal members (though not all) are making money hand over fist, which I suppose is a good thing for a place plagued by poverty. However, in the madness of the boom, much of who we are – that is, the land we come from – is being, in my mind, raped and pillaged.

To me, the costs dwarf the benefits by a long shot. We have forgotten who we are; the people of Maxidiwiac, or Buffalo Bird Woman, consummate agrarians who drew the very homes we lived in from the land, building our earthlodges along the life-giving Missouri River, our lives and lifestyles bending and flowing with the seasons. We were once the stewards of what precious little land the Federal government deigned to grant us, once they were done legislating us to death. Moved and re-moved, flooded out, boarding schooled, and literally dammed (and in a sense damned), we tried to honor those ceremonies, customs, and lifestyles we were left with, all the while safeguarding our sacred knowledge, languages, and stories of the land we come from, including those lands we were forced to adopt – still singing to our gardens, singing to our corn. This is the same land, incidentally, which was initially thought to be the ‘garbage’ land areas left over after the invaders picked over what they’d wanted. It was seen as untillable, unprofitable, unforgiving – fit only to give to an Indian.

Now they’re back; back in droves. We have something they want, and the buckets of money they bring to tempt us, are like spilling water in front of one who has walked through the desert. I despair for my homeland, and I do as much as I can, admittedly from a distance, to mitigate the impacts these changes have wrought.

In past weeks, another of the world’s sacred spaces has been faced with change; Pe’Sla, as our Lakota/Dakota/Nakota relatives call it, was to be auctioned by its owners, and notice was put out earlier this year of such. News of it reached LRI ears very late in the game; the potential auction, and Indian Country’s response to it, has received much attention from local, national, and international media. Indian Country and beyond have responded with a wave of support for those wishing to protect Pe’Sla unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Most recently, the land parcels were taken off the auction block, and details of the fate of Pe’Sla remain somewhat murky, though my Lastrealindian colleagues, and the tribes closest to the land remain ever vigilant.

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One might wonder, as a Hidatsa why I would be so concerned with Pe’Sla’s preservation for future generations; in all honesty, you need only look around Fort Berthold for that answer. I and many of my relatives and friends back home have borne this pain, watching the sacred spaces of my people disappear, bit by bit, irreversibly and irrevocably. It is essentially, the next smallpox epidemic; the second coming of the Garrison Dam. I’ve watched the places I grew up vanish, almost as though I was watching some great and terrible creature first tearing at the land with its claws, and then swallowing it up. I do not wish this pain on anyone.

I am behind the Pe’Sla movement wholeheartedly, because I do not wish a fate like that my own people will have to eventually face, for the children of the Seven Council Fires. I stated from the start of my involvement in the movement, that simply saying “I’m not Lakota” is nowhere near good enough excuse for not taking action. I cannot, and will not, sit idly by.

History tells us that the Hidatsa and the Sioux were blood enemies; we raided them, they raided us – we stole dozens of their tiny women, and they stole one or two of our extremely tall ones. I think I’m ready to move past that for the most part, for the good of the people (that was a joke, for anyone who can’t read between the lines. I like to tease my LRI brethren). I. too, like many across Indian country, and now across the world, want to see our relatives ‘score a win.’ I too have been inspired by the passion which Chase Iron Eyes, Dana Lone Hill, Ruth Robertson-Hopkins, and Dr. Sara Jumping Eagle have ignited in The People from all the directions. I too, from my small space in the world, will do everything I can to help, no matter the outcome, however the circumstances change. I hope, I pray, and I envision the best for our relatives and for Pe’Sla , and I gladly lend my voice to theirs.

Solidarity, relatives – whatever Nation you happen to be from. We are stronger together.

Twyla Baker Demaray

Maaaru hiirii maduu-hiirug nii gii weenia cakeetaara ciixa giirhug ii hiiraara (Hidatsa).

Translation: If something needs to be done, don’t wait to be told; do it.

Twyla Baker-Demaray 

Posted: Friday, 24 August 2012