Of Water, Starlight & Raspberries

A letter from the banks of Wounded Knee Creek

In these days of fading winter, with springtime emerging, all I can think about is the smell of the wild raspberries in their full ripeness, their red skin glowing along the banks of Tongue River in the Shining Mountains. I close my eyes and I can remember the roar of the river rolling against the rocks and banks, water splashing like little bright lights against my skin. I remember hanging my legs over the rocks to cool my feet. The river is full and bank-to-bank with snowmelt from a good winter. I can hear the sounds of our grandchildren laughing while their moms grill elk meat over the fire, their uncles teaching the boys how to make drum sticks. I have my little spot in the shade all picked out, a quiet place where I can sit and bead.

artwork depicting a woman picking berries under the stars, oil drilling machinery behind herillustration Yevgenia Nayberg

I think of the Medicine Mountain, high up above, where our ancestors walked and prayed and made war to protect our lands and waters and babies yet to be born. This is the northwest boundary of lands promised to us by the Fort Laramie Treaty. Crazy Horse went there in the days of his closing summer. I think of him when I touch ancient rocks, so many millions of years old my mind can’t handle the span of time. In the oldness of the universe, our lifetimes are no more than the shine of a firefly.

The park rangers close the mountain for us, just as we ask them to, so we can send our voice to the universe without four-track joyriders buzzing around our medicine wheel, or tourists peeking over our shoulders, taking photos and video on their cell phones. We walk up the mountain, carrying our bundles. Each with our own thoughts, yet together in a collective consciousness gifted to us by the shared memory of our ancestors. Sorrow over the destruction of Unci Maka, Grandmother Earth. Prayers for guidance as Red Nations, her children and grandchildren, on how to protect her.

The medicine wheel is wrapped up inside a fence – just like we are. On the next mountain over, the peak is topped with a telescope. The people of so-called “America” watching the stars. Or maybe watching for enemies coming from overseas? It doesn’t matter – it’s still another desecration of a sacred place. Today, the people in Hawaiʻi are standing against a telescope planned for their sacred mountain. My heart is with them.

Our delegation has four hours to be on the mountain alone, as a family, as relatives to Unci Maka, as a hocoka – part of the sacred hoop. Then we must get back on the road, a long haul to the next stop in our Tour of Resistance. Our next destination is the Moccasins on the Ground Training Camp in Montana. Water protectors and land defenders are gathering there from the four directions.

At Moccasins we bring together trained and seasoned water protectors and land defenders from all over to share their experience, their truths. Tipis are everywhere, encircling the base of the mountain. Rains come; they bless us. Drumbeat greets morning star. Ancient warrior societies keep us safe.

We are common people, but government and industry see us as a great threat. That’s because we are challengers to the tar sands, to the Keystone XL pipeline, the Enbridge pipeline, to the planned coal mining near the Tongue River, to the uranium mining in Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota, to the fracking in North Dakota. As we all gather at Moccasins, medicine people are there, offering prayers and wisdom. There’s a power in that place and time. Some people worry about government infiltrators trying to sneak into the training camp. But we have no fear, we who have nothing to lose.

Our lands have produced the wealth of “America”: the Homestake gold mine in our sacred He Sapa, the Black Hills; the uranium mines in Diné country; the fracking pads in the country of the Utes, the country of the Cheyenne. All of it has enriched “America” beyond belief, even as that wealth has poisoned the water and the land.

Crawford, Nebraska is a relatively new place for industry to extract uranium. It’s 30 minutes as the crow flies from the southern border of our Pine Ridge Homeland. The mine is supposed to use an in-situ leach mining technique to extract the uranium. It will pierce the Ogallala Aquifer with 8,000 wells, creating a toxic soup we must live with and die with, forever. Forever is a long time.

Cameco, the company behind the mine, does not care that the Ogallala Aquifer provides sacred water to two million people and waters the breadbasket of the world. They want the money, and to feed the nuclear power plants perched along riverbanks all over this big land.

Do not believe the brainwashing, President Obama – nuclear energy is not green. Forget about bragging that one walnut of nuclear materials holds the same energy-producing capacity of 100 coal train cars. We do not need all that energy. What we need is to change our idea that we as human beings are privileged and deserving of destroying our Unci Maka to have hair dryers and fast cars and electric oh-my-gawd facial hair removers. What we need is to recognize that the war-making machine is what requires all that fracked oil and uranium.

We hear from relatives in the Williston Basin of North Dakota. They tell us about babies born with birth defects, about people who can hardly breathe, about the monster taking over their home. The worst of the worst social problems are a plaque now in their lands, putting a damper on the enjoyment of royalty payments.

We hear about all of the water that is wasted to frack. We Lakota say, “Water is the first medicine.” In the fracking fields they are using medicine to make poison.

Driving south now, we continue on the Tour of Resistance. Traveling to Gila River in Arizona, we drive through many mountains. Blizzards in the south push us to drive through north country. Chinle is flooding. What is wrong with that picture?

detail from artwork, depicting hands picking berries

Arrival in the desert comes as a blessing. The desert air is different from on the plains, and the warm temperatures are good for my bones. Watching a cactus flower is so beautiful. I rise while the starlight shines, wait for daybreak sitting under the trees while it is still blue outside, drinking hot, hot coffee, watching the fog come out of the mountains when that first sunbeam hits. Insects stop singing, the birds flutter in. Gila River folks are fighting a major highway nearby, proposed to “enhance the economy.”

We travel on to Oak Flat, meet the Apache medicine man who prays with us. Apache greets us, welcomes us. We offer tobacco and water for our time in this territory. Ahhh, it is so good that natural protocol can be enacted.

The big monster machines of Rio Tinto are plunked down on the next hill over, a reminder that copper is under our feet. Apache nations’ sacred places are to be destroyed so Rio Tinto can get richer? Government and industry must be in bed together. How else can it be explained that a people’s destiny – their religion – is not as important as the quarterly bottom line?

The Thin Red Line

Across North America, Indigenous communities are often on the frontlines of efforts to halt extreme energy projects, massive mines, and other ill-conceived “development” projects. Here are just some of the fights currently underway.

four-corners graphicIn Alberta, the Beaver Lake Cree are using the Canadian courts to challenge tar sands development on the grounds that the large-scale strip mining violates their treaty agreement, which guarantees their rights to hunt, fish, and gather foods “as long as the sun shines.” In 2013, a provincial appeals court ruled that the Beaver Lake Cree’s lawsuit could move forward. The case is now headed for trial.

four-corners graphicThe Lummi Nation is in the vanguard of a battle to stop a planned coal-export terminal at Cherry Point, WA. The Gateway Pacific Terminal is key to the coal industry’s plans to boost flagging sales by sending coal to Asia. The Lummi say the port would harm traditional fishing grounds and violate its treaty with the US.


I take a good look at the Apache sacred lands, and think of the lands in British Columbia ruined by the Mount Polley copper mine, whose toxic dam broke and flooded, ripping trees out of the ground, leaving poisonous sludge everywhere. Millions of dollars later, and still it cannot be cleaned up.

We get back on the road and drive through the beautiful lands of the Diné, ravaged by uranium mining and coal mining and greedy tribal leaders. Looking for water, we see instead the rock beds of the dwindling rivers and creeks and streams. They are all running so low. The Colorado River is being sucked dry by the fat-taker cities of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Too many dams are still standing, trapping the sacred water and giving Americans their electricity while Unci Maka is suffering drought. So do we all, suffer drought.

Our friends in the South send an email. They are preparing prayers for the oceans, and the surface and ground waters, because the death has not left from BP’s mistakes.

We drive for hours, hoping to rest, but there are no hotel rooms. “Halliburton is in town. All the rooms are rented out. Go to the next town.” The frackers are everywhere, it seems. So we drive on deep into the night, bright starlight glistening so calm. I think about the star-nation shifting now, spring equinox coming and our people sending delegations to Hinhan Kaga Paha in our sacred He Sapa, to welcome the thunders, the lightening that gives life through rain and destroys through fire.

The thunders are coming back soon. On the plains the plants are peeking out now, filling the air with their sweet perfume. Earth Day is all over the news – like it’s news that we live and die on Earth. Human beings destroy Unci Maka then create “Earth Day,” a tool to create awareness about human beings destroying the earth. Everyone is supposed to plant a tree. I wonder about that. I wonder about all of the missing and murdered Indian women in Canada. I wonder about the stolen Lakota children ripped from families by the government of South Dakota. I wonder about how all of these things are connected.

The cell phone in my pocket beeps with an invitation to come to Manitoba. Grassroots people there want out from under the thumb of tribal governments flirting with industry over diamonds, coal, oil, uranium.

Walking along Wounded Knee Creek, I see a beaver peering out from his dam. The cottonwood trees wear big fat buds, ready to pop soon, teasing me, making me think of those hot summer days when the sunlight flashes off the cottonwood leaves. The chokecherry trees are in full blossom now, and their sweetness fills my head and heart. The scent of the blossoms reminds me of raspberries. My feet trample the baby blades of grass as I walk the miles back to my house. The earth is soft from recent rains, and I sink in a little bit, and recall little-girl days of springtime home visits after a long winter at the government boarding school.

I want to go back to the Shining Mountains when the raspberries are ripe and glowing in the summer sunshine, and cool my hot feet in the Tongue River. I want to gather medicine like my great-great-great-great grandmothers did, and the generations before them. I want to give wopila – our word for the thanks we offer to existence, the feeling of gladness for each and every moment. Like those grandmothers before me, I remember the sacredness of water, starlight, and raspberries.

Debra White Plume, or Wioweya Najin Win (Oglala Lakota), is a founder of Owe Aku, or Bring Back the Way, an organization dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of the Lakota way of life, and the protection of treaty rights, human rights, ancestral lands, and water.


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