October 10, 2017

Q&A with Water Protector Waniya Locke

Jackie Fielder

Háŋ, mitákuyepi! Waniya emáčiyapi.  Íŋyaŋ Woslálata hemátaŋhaŋ. Wakpála ektá wathí. Wimáčhiŋčala kʼuŋ héhaŋ Mníšošekiŋ aglágla waškáte.

– ​Hello my relatives, my name is Waniya. I am from Standing Rock, I live in Wakpala. I grew up playing along the Missouri River.​

Waniya Locke is from the Ahtna Dene, Dakota, Lakota, and Anishinaabe tribes. She is a LLEAP graduate from Sitting Bull College and the University of South Dakota. A mother of three beautiful children, she currently resides on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. 

Editor’s note: answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What brought you out to the camps?

A: When I was a little girl, I grew up playing along the Missouri River. I'm from Standing Rock and I live in Wakpala, South Dakota. So when Dakota Access pipeline [DAPL] breaks, it will only take 40 minutes to reach my personal water intake along with that of my local community members.

Q: How long were you at the camps and what did you see as your role?

A: At the very beginning of #NoDAPL, I was a camp coordinator and I organized getting the [Sacred Stone] camp open. I was also a horse ride coordinator, along with two other people that are from Standing Rock. After we opened camp on April 1, I became a coordinator with Bobbi Jean [Three Legs]. She's really famous now. She organized the March 26 run in 2016 so I came up and helped her do that. At the time I was living on Pine Ridge, so I was traveling back and forth between Pine Ridge and Standing Rock trying to get #NoDAPL off the ground. We accidently shut it down. We did have permits to cross but we weren't expecting that big of a turnout, nor were we expecting that many supporters to come and follow us. So we did shut it down for an hour. It was really sweet.

After we opened camp on April 1, we did another run from Cannon Ball, North Dakota, to Omaha, Nebraska, where the Army Corps of Engineers is. We carried a “People Over Pipelines” petition. At that time, we had over 2,000 signatures on it. This was the key to getting the support of all the local tribes around us and really united the Oceti Sakowin. Along with it came an alliance with the Omahas, the Winnebagos, and the Ho-chunks. When we ran to each community, we educated them on #NoDAPL, what was happening, what was coming and how it was going to affect them. All these tribes south of us, all the way to Omaha, Nebraska—how it's going to affect their water intake. Seventeen million people drink from the Missouri River, and 10 million will be affected by Dakota Access once it breaks. It's no longer a question of if it will break—it's when it breaks. We need to be proactive—what are we going to do as a community against environmental genocide that was created for us?

Being a runner coordinator, my job was to make sure that all my coordinators were on the same page, that there was effective communication and that our press relations and photos were getting out there. We handed in our petition on May 4, and it was really touching that our runners ran 520 miles. And it was all done in prayer and strictly grassroots—there weren’t any nonprofits that assisted. We did have Bold Iowa and Bold Nebraska meet us in Omaha, and they came in with their own petitions for the Army Corps against DAPL. Since the beginning, I've always been a part of grassroots work and I really do promote grassroots because that's where real deal changes happen. Grassroots [activists] are the ones starting up the charter schools. They are the ones that are personally divesting. They are the ones getting information and educating people about what's currently going on in the community.

Q: What does it mean to you to be a Lakota woman and to act like one?

A: Wolakota is about balance. It's about having that dignified rage and realizing we have these injustices and that we can exercise our rights as human beings and as Lakota people moving forward. But, carrying ourselves in that  Wolakota manner and carrying it in that balance [means] we have to be articulate, we have to utilize our words in a very specific manner. We can do these lock-downs without any cussing, without any aggression on our side. Knowing that aggression’s going to come onto us. Carrying that dignified rage is what I really encourage people to do—to realize that we as people control our own being, emotions, and what we say.

Being a Lakota woman, we really have to embed that we are the backbone and we are the first teachers. That's why Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women [#MMIW] is so outrageous: there are over 2,200 women missing in Canada right now. It's literally a direct attack on our nation, as we only make up 2% of the population of the world, so every time an [indigenous] woman goes murdered or missing, it's a direct attack on our people. Just recognizing that we have to be the strong ones, that we have to educate and bring up young men and young women and raise them to have that compassion, to have that dignity, to have that fortitude, and that resilience to continue on.

One of the things that frustrated me—especially in my twenties—was I don't think it's fair that I have to pick up my grandmother's battle. She was fighting everything that I'm fighting now. Still fighting genocide, still fighting ongoing historical trauma, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse. The social illness can go on and on. The women in my family have been longtime battlers of this and they have taken stands in their own form. One of my sisters became a lawyer, another sister became a teacher, and another one became a psychologist, so all the women in my family have taken some form to conquer all of these social elements that we as Lakota, Dakota people have been facing.

Language is the foundation of any people. It makes us unique and true to our identity.

– Waniya Locke

Q: How do you maintain your resilience?

A: Strictly through prayer. I think it has to do with cellular memory. Just recognizing that our ancestors are literally with us and back everything that we do, and to give thanks to them for every blessing that they bring to us.

That’s where my resilience comes from, my ancestors—my relatives that have passed on. One that comes to mind is Marge Edwards. She was a fluent Lakota speaker who grew up in Little Eagle, South Dakota, and she was my main teacher in Lakota revitalization. Just knowing her personally when she passed, it took a direct toll on me. When she passed away, that's when the realization hit: if I don't speak, our language will die. But, in all honesty, with her passing, I'm really thankful that she's on the other side during the #NoDAPL fight. It was through her, along with all my other relatives that have passed on, that protected me and guided me. They're the ones who sent me the people I needed at that time. And they're the ones who worked on a whole other level that I couldn't. So that's where my resilience comes from: my relatives.

Q: What is your philosophy of change or vision for Lakota people?

A: Education—and I'm not talking textbooks or school—education of our own people in our own school systems. Creating everything within our own [culture], like equine therapy—horse therapy—that's huge. Or Háŋpapȟaečhuŋpi—that's hand games. There's different forms of healing, we need to tap into our skills and educate each other. Someone I know is a really good hand game player. I asked them to come and teach our youth—that's education right there. Or having someone who’s a good cook, teaching our young people, ‘this is how you cook’, or seamstress—that's education.

Wilma Mankiller is the one who said it, “whoever controls the education controls our future.” And that's really evident now. I really recommend and strongly urge that our own people attend our own colleges, our tribally-controlled colleges like Sitting Bull College. We really need to push our own tribally-controlled colleges because that's an act of sovereignty.

Q: What are you personally looking forward to in your work?

A: Just knowing that everything will be okay. That's what I look forward to. I pray every day. My daughter turned 16, and on her birthday I was shutting down Energy Transfer Partners. It hurt that I couldn't be there for her, but she knew what I had to do and why I had to do it. Recognizing that everything, all our efforts—not just mine, but all of ours—are vital and very key to changing our world.

Q: That's beautiful. . . What are you up to now?

A: Currently I'm working on the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) industry. They’re the largest dairy farm in North America, in the Sisseton Wahpeton area. CAFO is industrial agriculture but it's also industrial farming, with animals. This dairy farm has over 500 head cattle and pumps 1.5 million gallons of water a day from their water aquifers—1.5 million gallons of water a day. These animals are confined and they're pumped with hormones, and it has a lot to do with us—what we eat, and all the medical conditions. There are many, many layers when you take on a CAFO fight.

It's not only doing damage to our environment with all the water, but there's 249,000 pounds of manure laid down a day and this is just for one dairy farm. It happens to be the largest dairy farm, but just in North America. Think about all the other industrial agriculture out there. I don't understand why people don't talk about taking on CAFO’s a lot more because they do so much damage to the world —you see the clearing of the rainforest for agriculture, you see them clearing out and devastating the land for industrial agriculture.

Many EPA laws don't apply to agriculture. Raw sewage, 249,000 pounds of manure is being laid on our land and that's just from one farm. The EPA laws don't stop CAFOs from dumping so much on the land because technically it would be great for your land-—technically—but not at that rate. Then you have your E. coli and your staph and your MRSA from all that waste getting into the water, and people bathe in it. They wonder why they have all these skin issues and why they have all these breathing issues. I'm just like, "well yeah, you live next to industrial agriculture." That's one of the fights I'm assisting with. I'm working with Chuck Floral on that and he's from the Sota [Iye Ya Yapi] newspaper in Sisseton Wahpeton area.

Another thing that I've been assisting in is stopping seismic testing in the Black Hills, which a lot of people don't know is even going on. Seismic testing is used in the search for oil and gas in our Black Hills. He Sapa Unki Ka Wapi—the Black Hills belong to us. What they do is dig a hole that's 8 to 14 inches wide down between 20 to 30 feet into the ground and they drop live explosives in there. They use sound waves to collect data to find out where the oil and gas is. But they happen to be doing it right near Edgemont, South Dakota and that's where the open bores for the uranium are. We're still fighting the uranium battle on top of the seismic testing that's going on.

So there's two battles in the Black Hills, there's uranium—cause that's Sunco, a Chinese-based company and they put in for the permits through the EPA to come into the Black Hills and drill for uranium. Then there are the waste products. This is their brilliant idea: they're going to inject their waste products instead of creating what they're supposed to. They're supposed to create these concrete venues that encase all the waste products so it doesn't harm our environment, so this is their bright idea—they want to inject back into the water aquifers in the Black Hills. That's like, “wow.”

So we got the seismic testing that's in search of oil and gas and you got the uranium fight where they're asking to drill and then on top of that to the injection wells where their waste byproducts will come off. There's a huge fight in the Black Hills, just doing the research, getting information out there and educating people. That's definitely the key, self-education. I encourage people to start looking up things on their own, not to rely on me or not to rely on media or not to rely on someone else to do the work that they themselves need to start researching everything they can to find out what's going on in their community.

To keep up with Waniya, follow her on Facebook.