How the Women of Standing Rock Are Building Sovereign Economies
Food security, traditional agriculture, and local self-reliance are key to regenerative societies of the future, say water protectors taking the movement’s lessons forward.
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard: Planting seedsAs the woman who established the first water protector encampment at Standing Rock—called Sacred Stone Camp—and issued a call for support that launched a movement, Allard learned a lot about sovereignty and empowerment during the battle against the Dakota Access pipeline. As the camps began to dismantle in the last weeks of the uprising, she frequently fielded the question: “What do we do now?” Allard’s response was simple: “Plant seeds.” Planting seeds is what Allard has been doing since the Standing Rock encampment, as she’s worked with her neighbors and with those who stayed on at Sacred Stone Camp toward a vision of a sustainable community. “I tell people that our first act of sovereignty is planting food,” Allard said. “Our first act is taking care of self. So no matter what we do, if we’re not taking care of self, we’ve already failed.”
Lyla June: The forest as farmA Diné/Cheyenne/European American musician, scholar, and activist, June has gravitated toward a focus on food sovereignty through her work to revitalize traditional food systems. Currently, she’s in a doctoral program in traditional food systems and language at the University of Alaska, where she works with Indigenous elders around the country to uncover the genius of the continent’s original cultivators. “I think there’s a huge mythology that Native people here were simpletons, they were primitive, half-naked nomads running around the forest, eating hand to mouth whatever they could find,” she said. “That’s how Europe portrays us. And it’s portrayed us that way for so many centuries that even we start to believe that that’s who we were. “The reality is, Indigenous nations on this Turtle Island were highly organized. They densely populated the land, and they managed the land extensively. And this has a lot to do with food because a large motivation to prune the land, to burn the land, to reseed the land, and to sculpt the land was about feeding our nations. Not only our nations, but other animal nations, as well.” June is intrigued by soil core samples that delve thousands of years into the past; analysis of fossilized pollen, charcoal traces, and soil composition reveals much about land use practices through the ages. For example, in Kentucky, a soil core sample that went back 10,000 years shows that about 3,000 years ago the forest was dominated by cedar and hemlock. But about 3,000 years ago the whole forest composition changed to black walnut, hickory nut, chestnut, and acorn; edible species such as goosefoot and sumpweed began to flourish. “So these people—whoever moved in around 3,000 years ago—radically changed the way the land looked and tasted,” she said. So did the colonizers, but in a much different way. The costs to the food system as a result of colonization, she said, is becoming clear, and the mounting pressure of the climate crisis is making a shift imperative. “When did we start waiting for others to feed us? That’s no longer going to be a luxury question,” June said.
Besides the vulnerability of monocrops to extreme weather events, these industrial agricultural crops are also dependent on pesticides and herbicides. Additionally, pests are adapting, producing chemical resistant insects and superweeds. “We’re running out of bullets in our food system, and it’s quite precarious right now,” she said. “The poor animals that we farm are also on the precipice … so we’re in a state where we should probably start asking ourselves that question now, before we’re forced to, and remember the joy of feeding ourselves.” That’s June’s intention: to take what she’s learned from a year of apprenticeships with Indigenous elders in different bioregions, then return home to Diné Bikéyah—Navajo territory—to apply it, regenerating traditional Navajo food systems in an interactive action research project aimed at both teaching and learning, refining techniques with each year. “I'm hoping at the end of three years, or four years, we will be fluent in our language and in our food system,” June said. “And we will be operating as a team—and we will have a success story that other tribes can look to and model and be inspired by.”
Cheryl Angel: Creating sovereign communitiesTo Angel, sovereignty is best expressed in creating community—the temporary communities created at gatherings, like at the Sovereign Sisters Gathering, but also more permanent communities, like at Sacred Stone Village. Part of being sovereign lies in strengthening and rebuilding sharing economies, she said. And part of it lies in reducing waste, rejecting rampant consumerism and the harmful aspects of the modern industrial system, like single-use plastics and toxic chemicals. “I saw it all happen at Standing Rock; everybody came with all of their skills, and they brought [their] economies—and they were medicating people, they were healing people, they were feeding people, cooking for people, training people, making people laugh—they were doing everything. Everything we needed, it came to Standing Rock.” Despite the money the pipeline company spent to repress the uprising, she said, water protectors around the world stepped up and pitched in to create an alternate economy at Standing Rock, and millions were raised to support the resistance. “We could do that again. We can gift our economies between each other. We’re doing it right here,” Angel told the women assembled in the Black Hills—women who were gardeners and builders, craftswomen and cooks, healers and lawyers, filmmakers and writers—and, above all, water protectors. “These few days we’ve been here prove to me and should prove to you that we have the skills to create communities without violence, without drugs, without alcohol, without patriarchy—just with the intent to live in peace.”
Tracy L. Barnett wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Tracy is a freelance writer based in Mexico and the founder of The Esperanza Project. Interviews with Cheryl, LaDonna and Lyla June are featured in the magazine’s Women of Standing Rock series.
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