In the mid-00s, my home of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation welcomed a plague of mechanical locusts.
Our reservation is home to the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara). Our history is long, filled with generosity, bloodshed, hospitality, and pestilence. We Mandan built cities of earth and gave Lewis and Clark lodging during the winter of 1804, and the Hidatsa-Shoshone woman Sacagawea guided them westward. Without us, the United States would not exist as it does. Our generosity was repaid not with promises of peace. Lewis and Clark wrote of us, referring to us as sister-raping savages. We were gifted blankets, a cultural event that signifies unity and camaraderie, infected with smallpox. The ensuing plague hit the Mandan with a near-fatal blow; the population dropped from several hundred thousand members to 130 individual members. We were put on a reservation with the Lakota at Standing Rock. As that fractured already strained relationships, we were forced to relocate to our current reservation. On the bottoms of the Badlands, we were able to create a prosperous life for ourselves, as agriculture has always been central to our nations. Then came the Pick-Sloan Plan from the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which flooded nearly 80% of our reservation and displaced as many people. The land we knew was destroyed in the name of progress, and many members’ livelihoods were destroyed, forcing us into poverty.
With this history, you can see why we hesitantly welcomed the flood of man camps, eighteen wheelers, and Halliburton to our reservation. One of the world’s largest oil reserves, the Bakken Shale Formation, lies below North Dakota, the epicentre directly below our reservation. Below the Bakken lies an even larger reserve known as Three Forks. We were sold an idea of “sovereignty by the barrel”; we had hoped that we could change things with this money. A common joke on the Rez is that the mashíis gave us the worst land they could find and were jealous of the mineral wealth.
Desperation clouds judgment.
History is circular.
It was not long before accidents were piling up. Our infrastructure was designed for cattle ranchers spread out, not legions of tankers with freshly minted drivers. Long hours caused amphetamine-filled drivers to treat the roads as their own. Ask anyone on the Rez, and they will have stories of nearly being in a head-on collision and seeing Death’s stare in LED lights. Of seeing pickups mangled, like a jaguar’s sport hunt left for dead. Of family lost to accidents. Of sisters missing. Of bloodied clothes found in coulees and a police force with mere tens of people covering a region larger than Rhode Island. Of cattle poisoned by illegal dumping. Of boil water advisories. Of oil spill after oil spill. There are things we don’t talk about. Things we don’t want to remember.
It’s hard not to succumb to hopelessness in these interesting times. But we are the strongest of our ancestors, and we will live on.
I tend to build my personal playlists as journeys, soundtracks for long drives through the plains of home. They let me feel, but through shifting energy, I do not wallow. Emotions are never as permanent as they try to convince you they are.
The initial stretch of this playlist is an elegy. I have reached a point in my life where I dread going back to the Rez, as every time I go back, more and more of it has changed. Entire hills are flattened to make passage for trucks easier; they could not train their drivers properly, so the solution was to shave our Mother’s bones into dust. The night sky I once loved, with its blackness velvet-thick and heavy on the shoulders as those who walked before you danced overhead, is now given a sickly orange glow from flares dotting the horizon like boils. Old friends and grandfathers now bear scars across their faces as pipelines use them as hosts. Cockspurs embed in grafted skin with thistle and wormwood maggots crawl their border as the locusts vomit their necrotic venom to suck out black bile.
The road I take to the ranch, where I heard the whispers of grass blades dancing in golden winds and learned independence from the light snow and biting cold, is now black tarmac. I chase memories down that road, but they are never the same. The cold has changed. Sun dogs and light pillars don’t appear as often, as the winter was short and furious during her last visit. The chokecherries and plums are scarce this autumn.
We are seeing the beginnings of what we were told was coming. We thought we had more time than we will have moving forward. Denial can only take us so far, and it will not protect our ways of life as the biosphere will no longer allow them to exist.
I often wonder how our Mother feels. She creates such magnificent beings, from towering lizards to armoured fish to monstrous centipedes to apes that push the bounds of biology itself. Yet, without fail, there is a soft reset on her Creation. Does she mourn her lost children? Does she tire of them and want to experiment with new forms? Is it accidental or purposeful?
This latest cycle of extinction is human caused. It is known. We have placed ourselves above nature, forgetting that we are beholden to her laws. We rely on the biosphere, not the other way around. We are so egocentric that we believe that if we all die, then life on Earth will cease. Earth has survived extinctions before. We are not unique. We have killed our relatives of earth, sea, and sky. What comes next is our comeuppance for our ambition.
How dare we turn our own inventions into sacred, worshipping the dollar even as they preach respecting the truth of God’s creation. How dare colonisation destroy everything it touches in the name of its own so-called progress?
No matter the outcome, the Earth will live on.
With or without us.
iii. ash dance
Dance has always been central to indigenous cultures. It was held as savage by settlers and we were forced to give it up, but still we persisted. From circle dances that bring communities together for healing, to grass dancing that mirrors the world around us, it has always been a reminder that all is connected. We are all related.
I think back to the Ghost Dance.
In the late 1800s, a Northern Paiute man by the name of Wovoka received a vision of a dance which, if practiced properly, would bring back the spirits of the dead who would fight alongside the living to regain our home and restore our nations. It spread through the Plains as it was a message of hope. People would collapse after dancing for days; desperation coloured its movements. The white settlers, ignorant to our ways, saw the dance as preparation for war and worked to destroy the movement. Violence, as always, is the rule of beasts. So came the Battle of Little Bighorn (for ages referred to as a Massacre) and the Massacre at Wounded Knee (sometimes still referred to as Battle). The movement was largely destroyed with the murder of Sitting Bull, but it still lives on. Resilience is our trademark, if nothing else.
The world around us sucks, to put it bluntly. But always we must remember to dance. Dancing is as natural to humans as the urge to breathe. We are alive, and we must not give up the fight for what keeps us here. Otherwise, we will lose sight.
Let us use the fires of our world as a new council fire for rebuilding.
iv. hope and prayer
There will always be beauty in this world even as it changes. Hell, light pillars are not a natural occurrence. They are caused by light pollution filtering through ice crystals suspended in the air creating towers that reach towards heaven. They are one of my favourite phenomena of winter, nonetheless. Even if the world is forever changed, maybe we can learn to love it. This absolutely does not mean that we should not aim to control the impact of climate disaster, but as we are already beginning to enter the territory of irreversible change, we will need to accept that some things will never be the same. The new life that fills the voids can be magnificent and beautiful even as we remember what died for it to exist.
We must learn from our mistakes before it is too late. I will be here armed with prayer to our Mother that she may be kind, even as we have not allowed her the same.