Water is Life: On the Frontlines with Wanikiya Loud Hawk

Monday night Oct. 24th in Hall of Letters 100, a group of students and faculty waited in anticipation. The clock ticked a few minutes past the official start time, 6 p.m, as the Skype screen in the front of the room remained blank.

Wanikiya Loud Hawk, a junior-high teacher and Lakota activist resisting current oil development in South Dakota, would soon appear. In the following moments, Dr. Lawrence Gross half-jokingly stated that even if she was late, at least she was not arrested–lightheartedly alluding to the gravity of the situation in North Dakota and South Dakota. His admiration for Loud Hawk shone through as he introduced her to the gathered audience.

Gross quoted Loud Hawk’s statement: “I love my people so much, I would die for them.”

Soon after, the internet connection was secured and Loud Hawk, herself, appeared on screen. In congruence with Dr. Gross’s introduction, she began passionately describing her experience thus far as a protester of the Dakota pipeline.

Her people have been having dreams of the black snake, she explained. This snake embodies the active extraction of oil on Lakota land. Ten oil companies currently possess active sanction to drill on the land of the Lakota Nation. As a result, communities cannot drink their own water, because oil has contaminated the water supply. Still some community members are drinking the water, because they cannot afford anything else.

“The time to kill this black snake is here,” she affirmed.

A particular water source under threat of pollution, she said, is the Cannonball River. Oil rigs are being developed in close proximity. At Cannonball Ranch, Loud Hawk and an accompanying group barricaded the entrance, and corporation security proceeded to drive through the premises’ fence and created a new entrance. In reflection, Loud Hawk described this as a powerful moment. It reaffirmed her determination to resist the encroaching energy corporations. The event resulted in three arrests from her community: a mother, her son, and a man.

As a result of her activism, Loud Hawk has been taken to jail, given three misdemeanors, and marked with a felony. She explained that the incidents she has individually experienced, and the violence towards the Lakota community are merely scare tactics. These strategies exploit fear in order to discourage action against further construction. While detailing these events, she continually emphasized the guiding principle of her activist work: non-violent, direct action. She highlighted marching and voicing one’s thoughts as examples of this principle.

Nearing the end of the event, the audience posited a few questions. Senior Johnston student, Austin Tannenbaum, posed the first question.

“What can we do to help?” Tannenbaum inquired.

“Prayers are powerful. We ask that you pray,” Loud Hawk responded.

Loud Hawk also stated that there are locations to donate items needed to sustain their efforts.

Dr. Gross asked the second question. He prefaced it with a discussion on the extent of pollution in South Dakota. In the Black Hills, he explicated, waste from uranium mines has bled into the creeks, further polluting the water table of the Lakota Nation. In response, Loud Hawk illustrated her people’s connection to the Black Hills.

“The Black Hills are sacred to us,” she said, “It is the heart of the earth.”

If seen from above, the Black Hills form the shape of a human heart. She further explained that the creation stories of the Lakota people establish the Lakota as protectors of the earth.

It is with this cultural context that Wanikiya Loud Hawk and her fellow self-described Water Protectors stand in opposition to encroaching fossil fuel energy development.