Last night I attended an event in support of the Standing Rock Sioux, who are opposing the Dakota access pipeline. It was my second such event.
I went to these gatherings as an environmentalist concerned about land use, about which, historically, our society has been extremely cavalier. I also attended to learn more about the possibility of threats to clean water. Water for the local North Dakota people and creatures who depend on it — water from the Missouri River that affects most who might read these words. I went to sit in a Quaker Meeting House and stand in a town square because I heard the echoing of drums. And in looking at the faces of my fellow participants, I knew that they had heard them, too.
My maternal grandfather came to this country on a boat from Sweden. He met and married a Minnesota Swedish woman and raised a family of three blonde and blue-eyed daughters. The eldest of them was my mother. My dark-haired, dark-eyed paternal grandmother was always here in America. She met my grandfather, an English trapper, and they had several children. We are unsure of the number, but one of them was my father.
Growing up in a matrilineal Swedish family, I was raised as, and thought of myself as, Swedish. My father’s heritage was not mentioned. It was not a proud thing to be native at that time, in that place.
But like all children I picked up on the vibes of suffering, of denial. My mother did not like me wearing the buckskin jacket made for me by my paternal aunt. She wanted my hair curly, which it wasn’t, and spent time and money trying to make it that way. The beaded belts, the bag of porcupine quills, the deerskin soft as butter, the drum with painted symbols, were hidden in our attic.
When my father would disappear for a week or two each summer to go to Canada, my brother and I were told he was going fishing. In fact, we later learned as adults that he was reuniting with his people. When I went to cowboy and Indian movies on Saturday afternoons, I was always on the side of the cowboys. But as my brother and I later learned, when we had grown up, we didn’t have our heritage completely right.
Historical events are now being questioned. Columbus wasn’t the good guy we were taught about in school — Thomas Jefferson, either. As the issues of rights and treaties and laws are being scrutinized, I can be, and am, proud of my native blood. Something my father, along with so many others, could not be. We are so slow to realize, to understand, that all blood is red. The blood of immigrants, the blood of those who were brought here as slaves, and the blood of natives.
I write these words in a political season of rancor and misunderstandings. A time when Americans of dark skins still suffer injustices, are being denied signing-on as Americans. I write as we are faced with huge environmental problems which presently, or will soon, threaten us all. With these words I am evoking help in honoring the Earth and showing greater care for our environment.
The North Dakota standoff is about more, so much more, than a controversial oil pipeline. It embodies people of all skin colors; it embodies values. It is important for us to listen, and hear, the drums of the past and the drums of the present. They are signaling us to stand behind, and stand up for, the native people of Standing Rock. And for all that those native people represent.
Toni Easterson lives in Northfield.