Joe Hill

Joe Hill is from the Seneca Nation. He traveled to northern Minnesota to a Water Protectors camp north of Palisade, to protest an oil pipeline that will cross the Mississippi River and many others. He spent the winter there living in a yurt and said he had come to support an Indigenous women-led movement, to live simply, and to exercise his obligations under the Great Law of Peace.

“There are very few opportunities to come together and do something selfless and beautiful and loving and compassionate and respectful with humility. This is it, right here.”

-Joe Hill
Joe Hill interview

“I live in the city of Buffalo. My reservation is 30 miles give or take southwest of there. Originally we were located over near Rochester, but we got pushed westward by  the Sullivan Campaign. After the revolutionary war George Washington needed to pay his soldiers. He was angry with us because we wouldn’t choose in that battle between the United States and Great Britain. Because we chose neutrality. He decided that our people would be annihilated so that our lands could be given to those soldiers as payment among other reasons. But that was a primary motivator, you know, getting back at us.

Over a thousand years ago, my peoples were just having a hell of a hard time. Strife, killing, for whatever reason, there was even talk that there were cannibals amongst us. There were very difficult times and the Peacemaker brought us a new way to live together and brought us to  principles that we call the Great Law of Peace and that Great Law of Peace is the model for the United States constitution. But they left out the best part, [which is] the women chose the leaders.

We are a matriarchal society and we talk about that a lot, but not enough of us do that anymore. We’re not taking direction from the women anymore. So, that’s the one thing I’d want you to know is that I can do that and am doing that and will continue to do that.

When I see that this is an indigenous women led movement, maybe we don’t get that opportunity to actually do it anymore because of colonization and the way the nuclear family is set up. But back in our DNA, it’s there and in our history, it’s there. And for those of us that follow the traditional ways, as much as closely as we can, it’s there. They are certainly principles to strive toward.

We’re all imperfect human beings. But I came out here to exercise my obligations under the Great Law of Peace.”

“Our agreements [were on] wampum belts. These are clay beads or a replica. The purple is the quahog shell. And the white would be a whelk shell, and our most solemn agreements were made into these belts. And we would say that every now and then, we got to polish these up and what polishing them up meant was that we would take them out and we would read them. And as we read them, we would tell the story contained in them. Because that’s how we remembered our histories. As oral tradition. You don’t have it written down. It was the mnemonic device, which triggered that memory.

The museums in New York state took our belts, said they were for safekeeping and kept them for a hundred years. Those institutions are nothing more than trophy cases there. They were never going to understand what these meant without the oral tradition that goes along with them. Maybe they thought that we would forget. And as we forgot, we would lose our way. We weren’t supposed to be around anymore. I’m not supposed to be sitting here talking to you about any of this. I’m not supposed to have that kind of memory. Sullivan tried to wipe us out and every attempt to do so has not succeeded. So that’s why I say it’s in our DNA. It’s in the stories.”

“Well, I’ve watched [the pipeline] now for four and a half months.

They’ve got the pipe all buried. We watched all the trucks come and go, all the machinery, come and go all while staying in my yurt. And I take a walk out there at night. And I saw the pipe come in. I saw the matting come in. Saw the machines come in. Then one day we went back and saw the pipe was joined together. And a few days later we went back and the pipe was gone because it’s in the ground. Right now they’re just waiting because they can’t work in this mud in the spring mud. They also couldn’t work and drill into the river while it was frozen.

It got so cold didn’t bother any of us. Cause it slowed them down.

You know, I mentioned Washington and Sullivan. We have called every president since Washington, “He Destroys the Village.” So when Trump was elected, people were freaking out. I said, we know this man. His name was the same because he’s still doing the same thing. This is nothing new to us.

I learned a lot from the river. Being here has taught me how little I really need. In the winter, I needed warm gear. It had that. I don’t need fancy clothes. I think maybe the biggest lesson is simplicity. I need food. We have learned how to really care for each other here because in the severe cold, when there was only a handful of us here, we did whatever it took to keep each other warm and fed.

And that’s a beautiful thing. That’s love. That’s what brought me here. Love of mother earth and love of my people. Not just the Seneca, but all indigenous people. We’re still here. We haven’t gone anywhere. They have tried. They have tried so hard and we’re still here.

There are very few opportunities to come together and do something selfless and beautiful and loving and compassionate and respectful with humility. This is it, right here. We are doing the best we can to protect the water, not just for us, but for everybody downstream and for everybody along the Great Lakes.”

Discussion Questions:

-Do you know the history of the land you live on? What Indigenous communities used to be there?

-What other matriarchal societies are you aware of?

-What wisdom do you hold “in your DNA” that may not be practiced but should be?

-Can you think of stories that live in your family history through oral tradition?

-When have you lived simply?

-Joe says, “There are very few opportunities to come together and do something selfless and beautiful and loving and compassionate and respectful with humility.” Can you think of a time when you did that? Or witnessed it? Why do you think it is rare?

-What are the ways you measure success?

-What is your opinion of direct action (protest) to make change?

-If you are opposed to new pipelines, what are the ways you are reducing your use of oil?

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