During one of my visits to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, an elder of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe explained to me that their traditional term for water roughly translated to “the first medicine,” meaning that it serves as a wellspring of health and livelihood for those in the tribe.
As protests in South Dakota continue into November, the rhetoric of many recent discussions of the Dakota Access Pipeline often overlooks the symbolic and practical value of water. As is evident in Flint, Mich. and Newark, Calif. — and other locations in the U.S. where water sources have been compromised due to drought, pollution or oil spills — the value of water should not be overlooked.
To comprehend what the term “first medicine” means, one must understand water’s significance not only to those living on the Standing Rock reservation, but to all Americans. The protesters, who have been active since the summer, are not only advocating for conservation. They are advocating for protecting a way of life and the livelihood of those who rely on this water. The pipeline not only runs through sacred burial grounds, it also runs close to water sources such as a significant aquifer.
Considering President Barack Obama’s recent comments expressing concern over the problems the development of the Dakota Access Pipeline faces, the peaceful protests and mobilization of activists around the country are making an impact. However, the issue has become increasingly polarized, with not all Standing Rock Sioux supporting the protest.
Voices of all American citizens need to be heard, and the ability for civilians to use their smart phones and other technologies, such as Facebook, Twitter and Periscope, to broadcast violent encounters with law enforcement gives the protesters a shield against the officers. It forces the press and media groups to see the physical evidence of attacks involving pepper spray and vicious dogs. It also provides people a first-person experience of what the Standing Rock Sioux are willing to fight for: their way of life and livelihood.
For Americans, what happens at Standing Rock may set a precedent for future protests and responses to other issues of Native American rights and conservation. Obama’s suggestion for rerouting the Dakota Access Pipeline has been met with criticism from Standing Rock Sioux protesters for being soft on oil companies and from pipeline supporters who view rerouting as redundant, expensive and ineffective.
However, Obama’s thoughts on the issue push us to see that this is more than just a Native American issue, but an American issue that mobilizes citizens to voice their opinions. In a time of technologies that allow for the struggles over Standing Rock to be shown all over the world, the protests should make us reflect on what values and principles we wish to hold as Americans. The ongoing protests are symbolic of struggles against other injustices, and thus citizens should seek to engage in the issues actively and learn from the Dakota fight.
At their core, the protests in South Dakota pertain primarily to the value of “the first medicine.” The fight for clean water is a fight for a way of life for the Standing Rock Sioux, as well as a symbolic battle for all Americans who are underrepresented and overlooked. Protesters at Standing Rock come from all around the country and are fighting not just for water but also for justice, livelihoods and for their voice to be heard by both their government and the world.
Lucas Chan is a junior in the College. He is a member of the Native American Student Council.
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