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So Much Bigger Than Standing Rock

A conversation with Kandi Mossett

We are pleased to share a new, syndicated series of interviews by Sarah Jaffe. INTERVIEWS FOR RESISTANCE will introduce you to some of the key figures in the growing movement(s) against our reactionary new federal government. We hope you will find comfort in knowing the crucial work of fighting back has already begun in many (sometimes unexpected) places, and find tools in these conversations for your own part in the struggle.

 Sarah Jaffe with Kandi Mossett:

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed, and what is still the same.

Kandi Mossett: My English name is Kandi Mossett. My name is Eagle Woman. I am a Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara woman from North Dakota. I work with the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Sarah Jaffe: Last week, there was a march on Washington and an encampment. Can you tell us about that?

KM: The whole Native Nations Rising March came out of the Standing Rock camps and what was happening in North Dakota. When we started planning, we didn’t know for sure what was going to happen at the camp—it was prior to the forced removal. But we thought something bad might happen, so we wanted to make sure that we were following up with something positive and with the next steps beyond just the camp and into other people’s communities.

It was actually the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Indigenous Environmental Network putting our heads together and saying, “Well, what should we do?” Then, the idea was born and we just started having all of the calls and different working groups and everything that you need to make that happen. Then, the camps were raided and it was a really horrible thing. We were really having a setback with planning because of everything that was happening at the camps. But we just still continued to move forward because we had already picked the date. It was just a really busy, hard time to do the planning, and also to see just how bad it did turn out when the Army National Guard and the police did move in by gunpoint and forcibly removed everybody.

At the same time, once the event came and we were all together in D.C. last week, it was like a family reunion. It did really lift up everyone’s spirits again because the whole idea was always that what we did at Standing Rock was much more than just a physical encampment. It has been ongoing for over five hundred years anyway. It is about sustainability and about not continuing to take and take and take from the earth without ever giving anything back. The idea was, “What is next? We are all together, we are here in D.C. What are the next steps?” It was helping to ensure that people were connecting with each other who maybe didn’t connect in Standing Rock. That people understood how to lobby their congressman and congresswoman on the Hill in D.C. And that people understood that the power lies in the people. I think we were really successful at all of that.

The whole idea was not to just do a march and rally, but to do a four day event with a tipi encampment which included lobby visits and speaking, panels, performances and song and arts and culture, ceremony. All of that rolled into a four day event. We had originally been expecting maybe five hundred people to make it to D.C. for the march. Then, we thought, we are going to get a couple thousand. When it was all said and done, we know there were at least five thousand people at that march with us on Friday. I don’t even know the full numbers yet of how many came through all together during the whole four-day event.

It is so much bigger than Standing Rock and one pipeline.

I feel like it was a great success and it led people to work on all the other pipeline sites, because we do have Keystone XL back on because of Donald Trump. There are already camps. There is a camp in South Dakota already near the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. They are fighting, again, the same way they did before because the Dakota Access Pipeline encampment, all of that was a result of the success we had with Keystone XL. Now, all the people are going back to Keystone XL to continue to fight that. But there are people going to the Two Rivers Camp in Texas to fight against the Trans Pecos Pipeline, which is [built by] the same company, Energy Transfer Partners. To continue to the Dakota Access Pipeline fight, a lot of people are going to Louisiana where a camp is being set up against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. The Bayou Bridge Pipeline is the one that will connect to the Dakota Access Pipeline in Illinois so that the oil can continue to go down to Port Arthur, Texas where it will be refined and then shipped to foreign markets. It is all part of the same project. A lot of people didn’t understand that until they went to D.C. and saw the different information and made that connection that we need to continue to fight.

It is so much bigger than Standing Rock and one pipeline. In addition to that, we are arranging toxic tours and having people come to North Dakota to see the Bakken and the shale oil formation so that they can see where the oil is coming from and to help push more bans and moratoriums on fracking. We have the economy on our side, too. As we have been saying all along, the price of oil has been dropping. There is going to be a slight increase, we know, here in 2017, but not what they have been touting for the last two years. For the last two years they have been telling oil industry folks, “Wait until 2017 when everything is going to be great again.” We know that not to be true.

But we still have to continue to push and fight back, because there is a new shale oil formation that was found in Texas. I don’t know how new it is, but it has been recently released that there is a lot of oil in Texas. That means it will take the pressure off of North Dakota, but it is not a NIMBY issue. It is not going away. It is going somewhere else. In the big picture, that doesn’t help any of us. That is why I really want to go personally myself to Texas. I want to go to the Two Rivers Camp.

We have to continue pushing for the just transition. We are going to build the Mni Wiconi sustained community, but we are working with the tribes at Standing Rock to see exactly how big we can go with that and what that looks like, because we did have a delay with everything that happened and the community members there are really tired of the militarized police force and different non-BIA officers now that are on the reservation because of cross-deputization and jurisdiction. The project is still fully funded and it is slightly on hold. We’re having continued educational forums about what it means to have a community that is based upon grey water systems and wind and to understand that it is not another encampment, it is what we had always talked about since as far back as August and September, leaving something behind for the community. It is for Standing Rock and for their children and for future generations. So not only stopping these energy projects, but showing what we mean when we say “just transition” by just doing it, by just making it happen.

SJ: I want to go back a little bit to the forced removal from Standing Rock. I think a lot of people were paying attention very closely up around the election and then the election took everybody’s attention off, so people don’t really know the story of the removal. Could you give us a little bit more background there?

KM: What happened was the state had waged a really good campaign, for themselves, it wasn’t good for us, to cause division between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the people that were there at the camps. They did that by blocking the bridge on Highway 1806. When they blocked the bridge, that caused the casino revenue to dip greatly because a lot of people would go from Bismarck down to the Prairie Knights Casino. It also forced community members to go around to get up the hospital. Ambulances had to go around and couldn’t take Highway 1806 to Bismarck.

The other thing that happened was that because of the fight at Standing Rock, a lot of the hidden racism that was always there in North Dakota—I grew up there, I always experienced it, but when Standing Rock came about, it just became more and more blatant because of the actions that were being done in Bismarck to say, “Look, this is affecting you, too. Of all the people, you in Bismarck should care the most because you didn’t want this either.” But what that did is it pulled out the racism. School children, when they would go on their high school basketball games or boys’ and girls’ teams at different sports events were getting harassed. They actually had to have escorts follow them to their basketball games because whether or not the children said anything about the pipeline fight, they were just going to a game, they would get harassed by the other kids and by their parents.

All of these things were causing further and further and further division amongst the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe community and the encampments themselves. There were a lot of non-Native people, really well-meaning non-Native people that came to stay in the camp and there were a lot of different things that were happening in the camp.

By January 20 there was a resolution that was passed by the Community of Cannonball, which is the closest community, that was signed on by the majority of the Council. Four of the councilpeople abstained. One didn’t vote at all, and that was Dave Archambault, the chairman. He didn’t have to. Only if there were a tie breaker. He never even voted or did any of these things that were blamed for forcibly removing the camps. What it was was the community saying, “We are tired. We appreciate it that you were here. Now we are asking you to go home so that we can continue this battle legally in the court systems because, essentially, we have lost.” [The pipeline] never stopped. They continued building all the way up. They got the easement. So by the time Donald Trump was in there and by the time he was saying he was going to build it, the communities were tired. All of this, to me, was totally understandable. The people on the ground, however, were like, “How could the tribe do this to us?!” It all caused a division between the people on the ground and people in the communities. It was a battle that was waged against the people based upon that bridge being blocked and the police telling the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, “We will not remove this barricade until the camps are cleared.” I think it was kind of a Catch 22.

protestors carry a banner reading "recognize indigenous people's rights. we exist. we resist. we rise."
The Native Nations Rising March on Washington, D.C. / Vision Planet Media

At that same time, it was hard that it got blamed on the tribe when that land all along was Army Corps of Engineer land—although technically it is not, because it is treaty land because of the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty. So those that chose to take a stand, did so [using] the treaty angle, which was true. It was a moment to say, “You need to honor our treaty.” There were all these different sides and all these different angles that all of it caused a little bit of dissension amongst different groups and maybe a little bit of division. I could see that happening like, “How are we going to move forward in a positive way to continue these next steps leading up to what we are going to do beyond the camp being taken down?” The negotiations were made that everybody would have plenty of time. That is when the date of February 22 was set. It was set kind of early on to where people had weeks, two or three weeks. I know that we went in and we took down our yurts and we did a clean-up campaign, which had only been going on for two or three weeks. You have to imagine a city that was almost the size of fifteen thousand people—trying to clean that up in the snow. It was time-consuming.

But what the press did, and what they really glommed onto, was “Oh, these water protectors are polluting and destroying the river by being there.” They took all of the energy and attention away from the fact that there is an oil pipeline with carcinogenic materials running through it and said it was us that were polluting the river. That caused further division which made it really hard for us because it was like, “How can the media twist or spin this anymore than they already were before?” We were cleaning up for two or three weeks and then, when we were forcibly removed, we had to stop because they were like, “Get out of here.” Then, they said, “We had to clean this. It is all their fault.” It is like, “You forced us out at gunpoint.” All of that led up to how the military—it wasn’t just the police coming in and moving people out, it was armed vehicles and people wearing riot gear and the United States Army. [They] came in fully geared up with rifles and machine guns and tanks and came against unarmed water protectors. They had made it sound like they were going to find weapons or something. Later on, the Sheriff of Morton County, Kyle Kirchmeier, [reported that], “We did not find any weapons in the camp.” We were like, “Of course you didn’t! We have been saying this all along.” On my on Facebook page I was teasing them, saying, “Did they find my stash of snowballs?”—because that was one of the things they complained about, that people threw snowballs at them, with their machine guns pointed at us.

The whole point is that all of that still exists in this country. In the United States, still in 2017—it is not like it happened to the American people in the history books. It is what is continuing to happen. It really woke up the country. In fact, it woke up the world to see that this does exist, and that the United States isn’t just one almighty entity against the rest of the world, but that we are broken down into factions within our own country. And that [the United States] is founded upon a legacy of taking, of pillaging native lands for the gain of capitalism and colonization. Other countries were on board with us and were standing with Standing Rock. We are still getting all of these tweets and all these pictures [from abroad] because people understand that there is a [Native] population within the United States right now that still exists. They just assumed that natives were in the history books and that was it.

How do we continue that fight? It is to say: No more fossil fuel industry anywhere. Anywhere in the world. And to not allow the United States to be the bullies that we have been anymore and show that there is a better way for us to live. It is really ridiculous that all of these other countries are on board with changing their energy systems and changing their transportation systems and yet, the United States keeps holding on to oil and gas and coal and uranium. It affects other countries because of that need—or that greed—for the fossil fuel industry. It affects them in a negative way.

SJ: One of the things that everybody that I spoke with when I was out there stressed was to talk about what was going on in the camp in the context of native sovereignty and of de-colonization. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit.

KM: The way that the camp started, first of all, was with the youth. They had a vision and a goal and a dream because of the fact that suicide rates in our communities are so high. It is so devastating that so many kids would rather kill themselves than deal with the hurt and the transgenerational trauma that has happened over the years. When we talk about the camps, we have to include a history of they began and why. It was amazing to see youth like Jasilyn Charger and Bobbi Jean Three Legs and other youth that decided to do these runs, where they ran in their own community—it was just a few miles and they were like, “This is fun. We should organize another run.” That is when they called up and included the Indigenous Environmental Network. We had helped them with their first run, just for food and funding.

Then, they said, “We want to go further.” I was like, “Okay, how about Nebraska? The Army Corps of Engineers Offices?” My co-worker Dallas Goldtooth was helping to say, “Yes, let’s make it happen.” All we did was make a few phone calls for solidarity, housing, food along the way, gas for the vans that were going to be following the runners. And they successfully ran to Nebraska. Then, they said, “We want to keep running!” Then, they ran to D.C. They did it because dealing with pain and trauma was something that was always a secret, it was always kept quiet, it was always pushed under the rug. In doing this run, they were able to connect with each other as youth, [through] the pain that they were having in their own households, in their own communities, that their grandpas and grandmas experienced. When everybody had gone to boarding schools during this termination era that the United States government had, it was pretty terrible for our grandparents and their great grandparents. They were beaten. They were abused. They were stripped of clothing, even, to change the way that they dressed. Their language was stripped. Then, there was a lot of molestation that actually happened in these boarding schools. What ended up happening is that [this] degree of negativity carried on through the generations to where we had uncles or different family members that carried on that type of negativity to their own family members.

Youth started understanding that this wasn’t because of their grandparents or their grandparents. This was because of a system that was broken. This was the first generation to understand that they could potentially forgive their own abusers because of what happened to them when they were young. This movement allowed people to see the youth weren’t going to take it anymore. The millennials of this generation were going to change it by speaking out about it and not keeping it a dirty secret or not keeping it silent. It really allowed the youth something to grab onto other than suicide as they only way out. There is a whole historical context that is more than just the camps.

That is how it started. It was the youth wanting to say, “We forgive you for doing this as your job, construction workers. Here is some water. Water is life. We know that you don’t want to be here. We know that you are just doing this as your job.” They just started to gather out there and stand in front of equipment. Then, the company Energy Transfer Partners ran out of patience in May, June, and July. So, when August came, we got the forty-eight hour notice that there were going to start constructing the first road that was going to cut across Cannonball Ranch, which is also treaty land, and cut down to the river.[*] We knew that there were sacred sites out there. That is when people first started seeing the arrests. They started seeing us standing on the barricades, standing in front of the equipment, breaking down fences and running out and jumping on equipment. That is when the rest of the nation started to get involved, when they started to see violence, unfortunately.

The biggest problem was that we could not identify who the people in the camps were that were not actually on our side versus the ones that were, because the camp became infiltrated with people that were working for the police and people that were working for the Dakota Access Pipeline, people that were working as private mercenaries. Even right now, there is an FBI task force, a terrorism task force, that is basically harassing some of the water protectors. There are three of us that we know of for sure that are being investigated by the FBI Terrorism Taskforce. But that is not new. If you go back to the 1970s and to Wounded Knee, this all happened then, too. Leonard Peltier is still in prison forty years later for a crime that everybody is convinced he never committed.

SJ: How can people keep up with these different camps and with the movement and be supportive?

KM: It is always important to be in the community where you are at and respect the community—even if you don’t agree with them. With the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe community, when they respectfully requested that people leave, people should have left. To respect what the community wants no matter where you go. It is like going into somebody’s house when they invite you in and then they say, “Okay, goodnight” and you are like, “Okay, well, I am not leaving. I am staying here.” I think that is first and foremost.

How do we continue that fight? It is to say: No more fossil fuel industry anywhere. Anywhere in the world.

When a call goes out, if a call goes out, for people to join, then they should. A call went out at Two Rivers Camp in Texas. A call went out at the Sabal Pipeline fight in Florida. A call went out in Louisiana for people to come and stand with them. That is great. The other thing that people should continue to work on even if they can’t go to a camp is the defund campaign and the divestment campaign. That has been extremely successful. We have which shows you the seventeen banks that are funding these projects. It goes even larger than those seventeen banks, because a lot of these large banks are funding energy projects somewhere. So no matter what a person or who they bank with, we are always still continually asking people to take their money out of these big banks and to put them into their local community and credit unions to bring back the power to your community.

That is part of the big picture anyways. We need to go back into our own communities and restabilize our own communities at that small-scale level that takes away a lot of the power and a lot of the money that the corporate interests have to use. It is our money that they are using to fund these projects. This Standing Rock thing that happened showed people, “Oh, we do actually have a lot of power. We didn’t realize it.” We are continuing to push for the divestment campaign and we are continuing to have people push back against the Donald Trump administration pushing for fossil fuel resources. The way that we want people to do that is by in your own community—having community gardens and having local community education events that talk about how you can be more sustainable. If that means not having strawberries in December, depending on where you live, then so be it. Food sovereignty and transportation systems are all tied into it.

Another component of this, another layer in addition to doing grassroots work is to get involved in politics. I know that is hard for some people because they hate it. I used to hate politics myself because I felt like they didn’t represent me. They won’t represent you unless you make your voice heard in your town, in your community, in your state, that this is what you do or don’t want.

I am from North Dakota and we are battling with all of these really ridiculous laws—they are trying to ban any wind projects from moving forward for two years so that they can bring back coal projects. I have to talk to my family and say, “Here is a letter for you. Just sign it.” Whatever it takes to get people involved and aware of the issues in your own communities. We have to impact politics. If that is not good enough, then people should run for all official positions if they want to make change. We always encourage that, too, in our communities.

SJ: How can people keep up with you and with the Indigenous Environmental Network?

KM: We have our webpages, and We have our Twitter, @IENEarth. We have our Facebook pages: Indigenous Rising Media and Indigenous Environmental Network. I have all my personal pages under my name, as well: Kandi Mossett. I am on Twitter @Mhawea.

I have to get better at tweeting and being on these pages. But, really, what I am trying to do is work my way out of a job. I really have a passion and a goal in my life to not ever have a phone again or a computer again.

In the meantime, I have a three-year-old, so every spring we are getting our garden planted again. I am teaching her how to grow food. I am teaching her where we find our own berries, where we find our ground berries at home, where we find turnips, what they look like, what the plant on the top looks like, where you dig. I think it is important for people everywhere to know that. Even in the cities, what used to be there? What could be just outside the city? What kind of resources can you find? That is my continuation and I hope one day to just be in the country somewhere with my garden and with my daughter and just living a more relaxed pace, but right now it is really urgent and people need organizers. I am going to continue the community gardens and continue the local cooperative work, getting people to invest in their own co-ops. Hopefully, one day when I am older, I won’t have to worry as much, but I just don’t know. This seems like this might definitely be a battle for my lifetime.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast. Not to be reprinted without permission.


[*] In September, the company purchased the ranch.