Sandy Gokee is Anishinaabe—Bear Clan—and lives in Ashland, Wisconsin. For the interview, we sat outside at a park overlooking Lake Superior as a storm skirted around us, so you might hear a little wind and maybe even thunder in the recording. Sandy introduces herself in her native language, Ojibwemowin. Her Ojibwe name, Wenipashtaabe, means “She Carries a Light Load.
She shares her concerns about the invisibility of Indigenous people and how imbalanced life is between human and non-human beings. She also talks about the importance and frustrations of educating others on her community’s cultures, beliefs, and treaties, so that they can heal and restore the harmony and balance in their way of life.
“My name means “She Carries a Light Load.” In English my name is Sandra Gokee. Sandy to most people. I’m from Red Cliff and I’m of the Bear Clan. With that comes responsibilities, characteristics, things of that nature. We always introduce our clans as well. That’s our family. And I live in Ashland, which is where we’re at right now. And I’ve got four kids. I’ve got two sons and two daughters. 9, 6, 4, and 2.
It’s a busy time. It doesn’t stop.
I introduce myself and that I have those kids as a way to recognize that I am a mother, I’ve carried water. I’ve carried children in water, and because of that privilege, I have a responsibility to care for the water as well, just as I cared for the children within me in that water. There’s a reason why I say that in my introduction besides just to brag about my kids.
I just told you my name is “She Carries a Light Load.” So not much really weighs on me. I’ve got a lot of helpers. I think a lot about the past, ancient and recent. I think a lot about the future and how close they really are. How the teachings that we were given as Anishinaabe people in the past and throughout history are relevant to me today.
Even in this modern world with different technologies, different theologies, different people—and how if we make choices that we’ve been guided to make, to take care of the water, to remember our relationships to our non-human relatives—how the future can look so much like the past did and the harmony that that was, before the world became out of balance.
[I see] disrespect, greed, abuse, genocide of human beings and non-human beings. And that’s not a balanced life. That it’s a very egocentric life. And that’s not how we are intended to be as humans, as part of an ecosystem, as part of the world. Not only part of the world, but the most pitiful part of the world. We can’t survive without everybody else, but they all can survive without us. They continually give us this kindness and this generosity to keep providing, even though we’re foolish at times, and many have been malicious. None of us are perfect and we all make mistakes, and we all sometimes act out of character, out of what we know to be right. But these nonhuman relatives—our trees, our animals, our land, and our waters—all are so forgiving of us and continue to provide.
And that’s what I mean by pitiful. I mean, without our animals, we freeze. We starve without our plants. We don’t breathe without our water. We don’t live for more than a few days. And with that pitiful—and in English, it sounds kind of funny, but in Ojibwemowin, we have this word—Zhawenim, and it means like unconditional love. That’s what’s practiced by these other beings. And that’s what we were taught to practice as well, and a way to live our life. And many of us have faltered. We have a story of creation and when we were put on this earth—how we were put on this earth, who did it, and the history of how we got to be where we are, ancient history, beginning of time history—we’ve got these stories, I imagine, worldwide.
We all had a beginning like that, with the same core values, the same teachings of humility, love, bravery, truth, honesty, worldwide. I believe these values were instilled in us in the beginning of time, in the beginning of humanity. In ours, we are the last ones created, which is why we can’t survive without the ones before us. Just as the animals can’t survive without the trees and the plants, like the trees and the plants can’t survive without the earth. It’s not a hierarchy, though, that’s not our understanding of it. It’s a relationship. It’s siblings almost. We don’t have this hierarchy of beings. That’s what that humility is about. It’s not putting yourself beneath others. It’s putting yourself as, “I’m no more important than anybody else. No one else is more important than me.” We are all important. We are all sacred beings.
The Book of Genesis used that to justify dominion of beings and people, non-human people and human people. To have something so little as one word be able to turn around an entire way of being. And they use that worldwide, that book to enact genocide, to do land grabs, to do with what they want. And it has brought us to where we are today, worldwide.
But here as well, we have a whole history of federal Indian policy from the federal government, the United States government. And the United States government worked in conjunction with the churches to eradicate us. And when they couldn’t kill us all, then they decided, “Well, if we can’t kill ’em all, then we should assimilate them. And once they are us, then they are no longer them, and they no longer have the lands and the rights to those lands. Our treaties no longer are valid with them because they are not them anymore.”
And the church did a good job. You can do a lot to people with fear, using fear and abuse. And they did a lot. A lot of our people are suffering still today because of it. You know, we can trace back this loss of identity to one generation ago. It is very recent. Within my lifetime is when the boarding schools closed. I was born in 1990, last one was closed in ’96.
So, you know, the finding of 215 kids in a mass grave that was undocumented in Canada just recently. And I don’t have sources, but I heard they found a hundred more in British Columbia just in the last day or two. That’s not an unheard of story, this side of the border either. That’s very real. And we know this. We feel this. We live this. This is our truth. And it hasn’t stopped. The hands have just changed. We’ve got police murdering 14 year olds on the reservation outside of his grandma’s house almost four years ago in 2017. He was a kid. And there was no accountability. I can’t even say the hands have changed because police have done that to us a lot throughout time. And that’s part of what they were invented to do in this land.
Being Bear Clan, part of the responsibility of ours is—I guess, for lack of a better word right now—policing, protecting our people. You look at Bears and you look at our responsibility, we would be the ones walking the perimeter of our communities, just making sure everybody’s okay. Checking on everybody, taking care of them when they’re not okay. That’s what policing should be, is when you’re not okay, then we’ll find a way to make you okay. Oftentimes it doesn’t have to be done through force.
Instead of making that be the last resort, oftentimes if interventions are made prior to that need, you wouldn’t have that problem in the first place, when we make sure our needs are met. Most crime comes out of poverty. We’re not taking care of each other. You’ve got homelessness, you’ve got substance abuse disorders. You’ve got mental health issues that are being left untreated when we have the resources for it. We just got a new police building here in Ashland, and how many people could those resources have served? We have a homeless issue here just as we do nationwide. How many homes could have been built or how many homes could have been bought for people? How many people could get paid to do something they love to do instead of working to make somebody else rich, breaking their back for somebody else’s profit?
When we live in a community that values each other’s skills, values each other’s gifts, knowledge, and really utilizes that…each and every one of us was born with interests and gifts and skills that contribute to a whole community. When we utilize those, people flourish. When somebody is interested in building things and we say, “Hey, you’re really good at building…I’m not, but I’m really good at cooking. Maybe I could cook for you in exchange for you helping me build something.” Really going back to this system of valuing each other as human beings and not as capital labor could be a much more fulfilling life for each and every one of us.
I offer my tobacco. That’s one of the main things we’re told to do every day is just give thanks. Gratitude for the world and the gifts that were given. I try to use as much knowledge as I can that I’ve been gifted. I try to then gift that knowledge in return. I’m learning to speak my language, so then I can understand more of how we got to be where we are, who we are, our roles, our duties, how the maple tree became the maple tree. That’s built within the words, how our world came to be, so that I can better be a part of it instead of apart from it.
Peace is balance. And I say that because life isn’t always good. Circumstances aren’t always good. People aren’t always good. But when we bring things back into balance—you know, each and every one of us has bad things and good things about us—and when we try to perpetuate the good and understand the bad within us, we can more balance that out. You know, tragedy happens, natural disasters happen. But there are good things that come of it.
So when we have these huge floods that happen—we had two of them in two years—it was very much both destructive and constructive. What happens is that distributes that silt and those nutrients from way in the ground into these garden areas, which would be natural garden beds. In the immediate, it really wreaked havoc, but down the line, you’re going to get some really good food out of that, and the downed trees from those floods too, you’ve got enough firewood to last you if you need it. Seeing the good in seemingly bad situations is a kind of balance, to try to make these bad situations better is balance. And I think that’s what my idea of peace is. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies and sunshine, because we need the rain too. That means life.
I was born in Milwaukee, but moved up to Red Cliff when I was under a year old and lived in Red Cliff until I was 17. I graduated high school and I wanted to leave as fast as I could. I did not really like rez life. Everybody knew me. I was related to everybody. Everybody knew everything about my life and I wanted some autonomy. I didn’t want rez life anymore. And so I went to college. I graduated high school a year early. I knew that was probably the only way I was going to get out, is if I graduated. And I got a full paid scholarship—a Gates Millennium Scholarship—and I went to college at UW-Stevens Point.
And part of the reason I chose that—the biggest reason—was as much as I wanted to leave rez life, my uncle lived there—my dad’s brother—and he worked at the college. I didn’t want to leave that much. I wanted some connection. I wanted to be understood by somebody. I knew there was going to be some culture shock, but I did not realize how much there was going to be.
Honestly, I went to school there for three years. I went my freshman year and kind of was drunk with freedom and alcohol. My grades weren’t too good and I knew I could do better. My style was‚as far as high school goes and always has been—just enough to get where I wanna be to get that scholarship. I needed a 3.3 gpa. I got a 3.325.
In college I got like a one point something. I don’t even remember. I was on the verge of being suspended or kicked out of the college. We called it academic probation. And I was like, “Oh my goodness, I’m just gonna get sent back to Red Cliff and I’m just gonna work in restaurants the rest of my life.” That’s what I knew.
It wasn’t fear. I knew I could do better. I had people at home who were depending on me to finish, if only to say I did it. So then my sophomore year I was nose to the grindstone. I’m gonna do well. And a month in—not even a month in—I found out my dad had stage four cancer. I was like, “That’s it. I’m going home. I’m gonna take care of you.”
And he did not let me. He just said, “No, you’re staying in school. Don’t worry about it. You’re staying in school. You’re gonna finish.”
So I stayed. I didn’t want to, but I did. And by the end of my sophomore year, he had passed away. So I went home, did his funeral, and the next week finished my finals. Because if I didn’t get to go home and be with him because he wanted me to finish, I wasn’t gonna let him dying stop me from finishing, otherwise it would’ve been for nothing. You know, I would’ve just went home and stayed with him.
So I went back. I don’t know if I was clinically depressed, but I wasn’t right. I was very out of balance after he died. I didn’t want to feel the sadness is what it was. It hurt too much. So part of the reason why I am learning my language is because my dad started learning his language—our language—and he was maybe 30 when he started.
As a kid, he’d talk to me in the language and I’d respond to him in English every time. And he wouldn’t pressure me to speak, but he’d continually speak. So he was kind of my inspiration. I had decided that before I even knew he was sick. I said, “I’m gonna learn my language.”
So my closest—my best—resource that I had at hand was now gone. I continued to try to learn, but I really half-assed it. My heart wasn’t in it. I was just hurt. I would use substances to not feel. It would numb it and I’d be okay. I continued going to school. I went back to Steven’s Point after he’d passed on. My uncle was there. He was there for me and I was there for him. That’s his big brother. As I was there and trying to numb everything, I kind of came to this realization that this isn’t what I should be doing. At the time, I didn’t realize what it was, but I really had to feel that sadness in order to feel happiness again, and really acknowledge that hurt, otherwise I’d never feel happy again.
I kind of came to that point of noticing, “Hey, I haven’t been sad here, but I’m not happy either.” So I sat and I thought about what are some of the things that ground me? And I wanted to go to the water right away. We had the Wisconsin River down there, but it’s so heavily polluted from the paper industry. Cities on rivers pollute, you know? So it didn’t feel the same. It was water, but it wasn’t my water. It wasn’t the water that took care of me my whole life. So after three years, I came home. I transferred to Northland College in Ashland and I finished Northland in 2013. The summer I came home, I got pregnant with my first son and my grandpa was mad because of the same reason my dad didn’t want me to come home. He wanted me to finish school. He was only mad for about five minutes, but in that five minutes it was pretty tense.
He said, “Well, what are you gonna do?”
“I’m gonna have a kid.”
“What are you gonna do about school?”
“I’m gonna go to school.”
And he just nodded. All right. And so I did. Had my son toward the end of my first year at Northland, finished my finals about two weeks later. It was hard. It was hard. But I did, and then went into my next year and I had to bring my son to school. Not every day, but enough. And my professors were very understanding.
One of my professors is one of my dearest elders, Joe Rose. And he helped instill a lot of these worldviews and helped me understand what I already knew—what I already felt—but be able to put words to it and understand my place in all of this.
He just passed on in February , and we lost a huge person in him. The thing about Joe is he gave so freely. He gave knowledge and love so freely that every single person that knew him—that he had touched—I think he sparked something in each and every one of us. When he passed, the people came alive. He was an old man. He was wonderful. I had hoped he’d live forever, but I’m sure he didn’t hope the same .
I feel like my dad did the same thing. He was very generous with knowledge and kindness. He was not a perfect person, but he sure tried to be a good one. Taught a lot of people. His funeral was probably the first one I remember having to be at the youth center in the gym instead of the elderly feeding center, because there was well over 200 people that came to his funeral. You know, he was just this res guy from Red Cliff. He wasn’t famous by any means, but he touched a lot of people. I hope to do half of what they did and I’d say I’d lived a pretty good life.”
“We’re invisible. Indigenous people are invisible as a whole. Then you narrow it down to Ojibwe people, and then you narrow it down to Red Cliff Ojibwe. Nobody knows us in the world, in the state. There’s even an act by the state to educate within public schools about us. You know, oftentimes they throw a little Thanksgiving party, and that’s enough.
There’s no teeth to Act 31, is what it’s called. It’s a requirement to teach about Wisconsin Indigenous communities in the public school. And I think it’s in fourth grade, eighth grade, tenth grade or something like that. Don’t quote me on that, but there’s not much. If they don’t do it, there’s not much checking the accuracy of it.
We’ve come a long ways. We’ve got David O’Connor working with the state, and he’s a Bad River tribal member. And he educates educators. So we’ve come a long ways. And the reason why Act 31 was put in place was as a result of the walleye wars and really blatant, ugly, violent racism because of our rights to hunt, fish, gather in the privileges of usual occupancy and ceded territory.
1980s, early 90s, right? It got really ugly and really dangerous. We as Indigenous people and our non-native allies within our communities—our surrounding communities within the state—saw, we have to do something. How do we do something? We educate, we teach. People don’t understand what treaties are. People don’t understand the rights within treaties. Not only our rights as Indigenous people, but your rights as non-native people, because they’re your treaties too. They’re both of ours. All of ours. And when you don’t understand agreements that were made on your behalf, then how are you to abide by those agreements? How are you to understand the rights held within that education? Was was the idea to solve that? It’s really hard to educate on Indigenous people and in on Indigenous issues when you don’t have many Indigenous educators, because then you’ve got the same people perpetuating the same things.
And now they have a law that they gotta teach about Indians. Well, all right, let’s teach about Indians. There were pilgrims and there were Indians, and all the Indians got sick and died in the 1800s, and now there’s no more Indians. I guess I’m being a little facetious, but, that’s essentially how we’re taught. When you open a history book, much of our history ends in the 1800s. People aren’t told about us not being citizens until 1924.
We didn’t ask to be citizens either. And this is my opinion—I get labeled radical quite often—let’s think about why they would want to allow us to be citizens, why they would want us to be citizens. Well, there’s no taxation without representation, right? And if we’ve got these lands, and you think about the Dawes Allotment Act and how we want you guys to be good farmers and be very individualistic.
We want you guys to be like us. We want you to be able to say, “This is my family, my land. This is your family, your land,” instead of, “This is all of our land. And we’re all family.” It’s a lot easier to take out people and ideals when you disband them. So much of our lands, even within our reservation boundaries, have been taken illegally through taxation. There is a lot of county land in Red Cliff right now. And Red Cliff is in a dispute with Bayfield County over logging. They want to log the land within the reservation boundaries. It’s on the platt book, county land. It’s within the reservation boundaries. The tribe says, “No, you can’t log this.” The county says, “Yes we can. It’s our land.” So they’re in a legal dispute right now over that. How did the county get that land? If it is state land—essentially, you know, the county’s a product of the state—how would the state get land within reservation boundaries when the reservation was created before Wisconsin was a state, or shortly after Wisconsin was a state? How does that work out? It had to do with taxation. How were we supposed to understand what taxation was when this was a foreign concept? Y’all are foreign people.
You come imposing your ideals on us and then taking our land, and what are we supposed to do? And mind you, we had been through genocide for a long time up to this point too. And what’s kind of unique about up here is being on the big lake, it was a huge hub. You think about back in the 1700s, 1800s, early 1900s even…all the way before that, what were our roadways?
Water was our highways. And we are at the hub of this giant freeway called Gichi gami, Lake Superior. So we had contact with non-native people pretty early. Had fur traders and made families with fur traders. And we had a bit of knowledge, but most of them were French too. And that was a little different as well, in the way they operated. So we had French people, and then we had British people, and then we had the Americas, all of whom are similar enough. But they all brought in some of their ideals, and each and every one of ’em was tied to the church somehow. We had Jesuits, we call ’em Wemitigozhiwag, and that means stick waivers. They held that cross, and they’d wave that cross at you.
So we had Jesuit missions all around here, brown robes. There’s been a heavily religious influenced presence here, and we’re pagans to them. Almost satanic for not believing in this cloud guy in the sky, or that man has dominion over nature. Instead, we see that cloud guy in the sky in every facet of the natural world. That cloud guy is us, is the trees, is the water. Because that cloud guy gave us a piece of creation, every single one of us, the gift of life itself, and the power to create life. So how could the creator be separate from us, be some untangible thought in the sky when it is us, it’s all of us? So what makes us any more important than the other ones?
What makes us able to dominate those who were created and created first? That doesn’t line up. But when they switch words and are like, “Well, it’s pretty close to what you think, this is just a little different.” And then when you don’t believe that, then they beat that outta you and take your kids from you, perpetuate violence, and hurt people, hurt people. And when those people who did survive came back home, they weren’t them anymore. They were these lost people. They had something stolen from them.
We didn’t lose our languages, We didn’t lose our culture. It was stolen. And it was very intentional. When we want to reclaim who we are—when we talk about revitalizing—we’ve got to understand that the things that were taken from us were taken very deliberately and diligently and purposefully.
And we’ve got to reclaim those things with the same level of diligence and purpose. But because of the nature of what we’re reclaiming, we’re not going to do it with violence. We do have a right to defend ourself. That’s our very, very last resort. And there’s always more creative, more fun ways to do things. And they’re not really fun, actually. All of us water protectors—I can guarantee it—all of us would rather be doing something else. This isn’t what we want to be doing with our lives, but it’s what we have to do. And as long as we have to do it, well, we’re gonna have some fun doing it.
One of the pieces of advice I would give to people who are coming into our spaces is put in some work. If you’re there to help, then help. There’s always something to do around that campfire. People need to eat. Things need to get cleaned. People need wood. Instead of asking, “What can I do?” just go do something. Personally, I’m kind of tired of telling white people how to help. Y’all made this mess. Figure it out. I’m tired of holding hands with them and saying, “Well, here’s how you do.” You know, I hold hands with toddlers all the time. Y’all are grown people. Figure it out.
I get it. It’s kind of culture shock. Let’s go back to that. When I left Red Cliff and went down to Stevens Point, I got the police called on me my first day because I smudged my dorm room. I lit sage, opened the window and cleansed my room. I’m coming into this new space, and that’s just what we do. There wasn’t any thought in my mind of like, “Should I do this or not?” That’s just what we do.
And [it was] misunderstood to “she’s smoking pot in her room.” It was the middle of the day. I’m not gonna smoke pot in my room in the middle of the day. I’m smudging it. And instead of coming and asking me, “Hey, what are you doing?” They called the police on me. So that was my introduction to non-rez life. Like, “Whoa, this isn’t normal for these people.” Okay, begin culture shock now.
I knew there was going to be some sense of it, but I thought it was going to be more of the generic, “Oh, you’re an Indian. Do you live in a teepee?” There was some of that, but I thought it was going to be innocent like that and instead it was calling the police. Yeah. I learned real quick. Instead of getting hurt by it, I went to the hall administrator and I said, “This is what we do. This is me. This is who I am. This is part of our culture. And if we’ve gotta use your terms, this is a religion and there is an Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. This is a public institution by law. You have to respect my religious freedom, and this is how I do it.”
“So is there a way that we can do this without you guys calling the cops on me?” They wanted to designate a smudging area. I said, “It’s not good enough.” This is my room, my living space, and when I need to cleanse my room and my living space, then I’m going to cleanse my room and my living space. Honestly, the best I can do is I can notify you beforehand, and I can give you that courtesy. I don’t have to, but I will. Then they wanted to write a policy on it. And I said, “Whoa, once you start getting into policy on how I can practice my culture, my religion, that’s when you’re starting to get into muddy waters. And if you wanna make a policy, you go ahead. But I’m telling you here that that is going against this law, this federal law that was enacted in 1978. You want to, go ahead, but you’re asking for trouble doing that. And it turns out trouble was named Sandy. I was kind of a thorn in their side. Quite a bit.
I credit that to my parents and my community. My mom is a very, very intelligent person. She’s smart. She’s smart assy, and she’s very kind. She passed a tribal bar exam in Red Cliff. And I remember growing up—and mind you, Red Cliff has got a lot of poverty, a lot of traumas—I remember growing up, and my mom would do legal work for people—and this is part of where I recognized how communities should work—she wouldn’t charge people legal fees. She would trade them for what their skills were. I remember getting haircuts or highlights in my hair from our community members who knew how to do hair in exchange for legal work, mowing lawns. Anything somebody could give, she would allow that to be her payment.
She is so loved by those people and respected by those people who she helped, because most of those people wouldn’t have otherwise been helped because they didn’t have money or because they had an attitude towards them, or whatever the case may be. She helped ’em anyway. And so, she was an advocate. I credit that to her.
My parents divorced when I was a young kid, I think before I was in kindergarten. But my mom stayed in Red Cliff. She’s not a tribal member, but she stayed in Red Cliff so that we would be connected to who we are. I can’t imagine how hard that was for her. You talk about feeling awkward and not from a place…my mom’s solid in who she is. She knows she’s a good person.
She knows her values and they align pretty well with ours, as core values. She’s respectful of our ways. And when she’s in this place where there’s ceremony, she participates. Kind of knows how things go. But she’s not native. And I can’t imagine how difficult that was for her living on rez not being with my dad, staying in Red Cliff. Some people were accepting and to some people, she was just a cracker. But she was my mom. She is my mom.
And my dad ended up being in his later years, a very spiritual person centered—grounded in—who we are. He wasn’t always that way. He was a product of the extermination relocation era. He went down in Milwaukee right after he graduated. And there was still this pull to get native people into the cities to learn trades, to make something of themselves. Another assimilation tactic. He graduated in 1972, so he went down there to Milwaukee and that’s where they met, and then they come back up. So my ability to advocate and know who I am and where I come from, comes mostly from them.
I guess I’m kind of stuck in my youth right now after that conversation about my parents. You know, my parents divorced real early. I felt like I was in balance during that time, too. They loved my brothers and I. They didn’t say a bad word about each other when we were kids. They didn’t get along. They raised us. Separate households, but they both raised us. They both knew that it was important that we were with the other parent as well. And I feel like that was balance. They had their own stuff going on, they had their reasons for separating, but they had three kids to raise, too. So I feel like physically that was balance. Half the time I was with my mom, half the time I was with my dad. So that’s an example.
And I’d say they did a pretty darn good job. You know, all of us are good people. All of us are contributing to our communities. We try to take care of one another as siblings and as our communities. We’re all Bear Clan, too, so it’s pretty inherent.”
“We can’t live without clean resources. And if they’re putting those resources at risk, they’re violating our right to live healthy lives. That’s another thing about our treaties, is we’ve got to understand there was a language barrier there. So not only were they being negotiated in two different languages with interpreters, they were being written in another language. Our language does not translate well to English linguistically or philosophically. When I think of the right to hunt, fish, and gather as it’s written in English and the privileges of usual occupancy, that’s what I think of as allowing life to continue on with life in this land.
With this land, these treaties are being interpreted in English-speaking courts. They’re being interpreted by English-speaking people, by non-native English-speaking people. And that’s what’s upholding the law of the land. That’s the law of your land. That’s not the law of our land. And we can’t violate natural law. This piece of paper may say that this is the agreement we made, but you’re not upholding natural law either. And that’s what we said, the privilege of usual occupancy life, natural law. And you’re not doing it. Does that mean your lease is up?
I don’t think any of us really wanna kick all white people out. You know, you ain’t going back home. You ain’t crossing that ocean. We gotta learn to live with you. And I feel like as Indigenous people, we’ve got kind of an upper hand with that. White people don’t understand us. We’ve lived our life. We’ve got both historical trauma and historical strength. If we can have historical trauma in our DNA, we’ve got historical memories too. And I think that’s where a lot of what I’m talking about comes from. We know our ways and we know your ways. We’ve been indoctrinated into your ways. We’ve learned your language. You haven’t learned ours. I feel like we’ve got an upper hand in this world. Maybe not in the United States society yet, but in the world we live with, because natural law supersedes written law.
We’ve got a choice to make, Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. We’ve got a choice. We can remember what natural law means. Remember who we came from, who we depend on. Or we can continue to think that we are above the law, we’re above natural law and continue to exploit, to rape the land for profit. For what? Profit, monetary profit. That’s this imagined concept. It’s not tangible. Money now is all digital anyway, it’s imagination. But what’s really tangible is the water that we drink. If we choose this natural way of life, we’ll continue to be able to live. These beings will continue to provide their gifts to us. But if we don’t do that, then it’ll be certain death for all of us. We’re trying to save everybody’s water, not just Indian’s water. Everybody drinks water and we want your kids to live, too.
I said in the beginning, the future and the past aren’t so far apart. These stories that we have—prophecies—sound kind of crazy, but I can almost see it. I can almost see what the future looks like. And that doesn’t mean an absence of modern technology. It means a balance of it. We can utilize our technologies that we have without being harmful. There’s enough metal above earth now to be recycled into perpetuity. We don’t need to mine any more metal. It’s already up here. And at the very basic necessities. I mean, we’ve only got a little bit of clean water left in the whole world. I take it for granted.
You asked about what this lake means to me. I can’t imagine not having water. I can’t imagine it because I’ve always had the largest fresh water lake by a surface area—now by volume, all right, Lake Baikal, you got us—but that’s sisterhood. You know, they’re sisters. But the largest freshwater lake in the world. And I’ve never seen real drought. I’ve never seen that. We’ve experienced some dry years, but we’ve still had this great big pond right outside our house.
Well, the buffalo, they didn’t think they were invincible. They tried to kill ’em all because they were trying to kill all the Indians and the Indians depended on the buffalo. They couldn’t kill all the Indians, but they could try to kill all the buffalo. And there you go. You know, the people of the plains, their life is very much centered—at least in my understanding—around buffalo. That’s a very pinnacle being in their ways. It provides so much to them, much like wild rice and ours. That’s the reason why we are where we are. We know it’s not invincible. It’s not. We used to be able to take a cup and drink out of this lake. Ashland dumps raw sewage in the water. They dump in our water.
It angers me. And I told my little boy—my oldest—that it’s okay to be angry. It’s normal. But what we do with that anger is what’s important. We can choose to be destructive with it. We can destroy so much with anger. We feel powerful with anger. You can really break stuff out of anger. But does that helping anything? Is that helping solve the reason for your anger? Or you could be creative with your anger. You can use that to motivate creation of something. Whether it’s solving the problem that made you angry, creating art to help you feel a little better about it. Creating something—anything—a song, sculpture, building anything using that anger to create instead of destruct. I think that’s where a lot of our power in these movements is coming from is because we’re off. We’re disrespected. Not only are we disrespected, but we’re not listened to for centuries.
We’ve survived genocide and we’re angry. Well, what are we gonna do about it? Are we gonna pout? Are we gonna wreck things? Are we gonna use that anger to motivate and create something better? Even create an understanding amongst those who are enacting genocide on us. It’s important to be angry—it really is—because if this stuff doesn’t piss you off, then you’re living in la-la land ‘cuz you ain’t paying attention.
What we do with that anger is the important part.
Do something. We all have gifts. We all have skills. Trust your instinct on what you know how to do best. If you know how to organize, organize. If all you’re good at is writing letters and calling people, write some letters and call people. If you’ve got the means and ability to be frontline, go be frontline. We need people out there. If you create art, create art, Art has had a profound impact, especially with social media now. Art has made a profound impact on getting information out there. If you’ve got monetary resources, use those. If you can sing, make a song. We’ve all got a place in this movement because we’ve all got a place in society. We’ve all got a place on this earth. We are all put here for something. We’ve all been given gifts for something and use those gifts for good.
One of our values is bravery. And people tend to think bravery is not being afraid. On the contrary though, bravery is being afraid, but doing the right thing, even though you’re afraid. And that’s what it’s gonna take, is bravery and it’s gonna take some humor, too. What has gotten us through hundreds of years of genocide was being to able to laugh at ourselves, to laugh at our oppressors, to laugh at each other and laugh at our situations. If we let the world get too heavy, then we get weighed down and it feels hard to move. It feels hard to do things, but that laughter brings lightness and it’s important to stay light.
Show up. Don’t expect anything in return. I guess this is more for people who claim allyship. You might get your feelings hurt. You know, we talk about white people and it was as a general actor of genocide. You know, this culture that benefits from the genocide of our people. If your feelings get hurt over that, then you need to look at what has happened to us at the hands of white people and for the benefit of white people and understand that if you’re really trying to be an ally, don’t let hurt feelings stop you from doing the right thing. Cause we’ve had way more than feelings hurt. We continue to get feelings hurt. We continue trucking on because we don’t have a choice. We don’t have a choice to step out of this. We don’t have a choice to step out of activism or water protection or land protection. We don’t have that choice. And if, as an ally, you have that choice and you choose to step out, then you’ve never really been an ally. Then you are looking to do it for other reasons. So if you want to be an ally, then step in and be willing to stand with us. Take direction and take initiative, too. Meet us where we’re at, not where you want us to be.”
-What are the responsibilities that come with your privilege?
-Do you view the world as in balance or out of balance? In what ways?
-What is your connection to the natural world?
-Sandy talks about genocide, theft and assimilation. Talk about your understanding of that history as it relates to her community.
-Have you been able to see good in a difficult situation?
-When have you been misunderstood?
-When have you needed to advocate for yourself?
-Who has shaped you?
-Sandy says that Indigenous people are invisible. What does she mean and when have you seen that in our society and our policies?
-Share your experience with individualistic vs. collective efforts.
-Is there something in Sandy’s story that helps you understand history in a new or more complete way?
-What do you do with your anger?
-When have you needed to be brave?