May 5, 2014 - Sacred Water Protection: Moccasins on the Ground Unified Messaging

Last weekend Lakota and allies came together from the 4 directions in Oglala Nation to participate in a Moccasins on the Ground non-violent direct action training camp. Moccasins on the Ground is led by Owe Aku International, an organization dedicated to bringing back the Lakota worldview and way of life. Land defenders from Wet’suwet’en and Secwepemc First Nations in so-called British Colombia, Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, Tar Sands Blockade in Texas, Common Stream in Boston, and many more people from diverse walks of life convened in the beautiful Red Shirt Homelands on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “Our prayers have been answered,” said one elder from Red Shirt.

Moccasins on the Ground occurred the same weekend as the Cowboy and Indian Alliance encampment in Washington D.C. With all due respect to the relatives who traveled to the nation’s capitol voicing opposition to the KXL pipeline, Owe Aku International is focused on protecting the homelands. “Why go to Washington D.C. to protest the KXL pipeline, when Congress isn’t even in session and our homelands are under attack?” asked Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Victorio Camp.

Red Shirt, South Dakota is located on the banks of the White River, downstream from the Crow Butte uranium mine in Nebraska, which is owned and operated by the Canadian company Cameco. When folks drive across the bridge into Red Shirt, they see a sign that says “WARNING: RADIOACTIVE.” While Red Shirt is the community most affected by uranium mining on Pine Ridge, all wells on the reservation have been tainted with radiation poisoning. While many Lakota stand united against the KXL pipeline, the Oglala Lakota Nation relies on the Mni Wicozani water pipeline for clean drinking water. Mni Wicozani means “Water is Life,” and that is the message Owe Aku International continues to share with the world.


While many Red Nations have suffered, struggled, and stood strong against genocide in silence due to isolation and distrust for mainstream media, stories of Indigenous resistance are finally getting out in a good and honest way through independent media outlets such as LastRealIndians. “The heart of our media work is the messaging,” said Oglala Lakota grandmother Debra White Plume, who is also Director of Owe Aku International. “The work that we’re doing with Moccasins on the Ground is real specific to protect sacred water to protect Mother Earth, and we’re using #SacredWater as one word. We’re using #MotherEarth as one word, and we’re doing that in order to try and create a paradigm shift in the minds of the people who are not on our side already.”

Moccasins on the Ground is an intensive training, which began the moment allies arrived. “Our challenge was to put some guerilla media out there, which is raw and unedited. We do it on the spot, on the fly. We do it as it’s happening, and within 10 minutes we had all kinds of guerilla media out there,” said White Plume. Moccasins on the Ground created a “NO PIPELINES” banner to honor relatives visiting from the Unist’ot’en Blockade, which is protecting Wet’suwet’en territory against 9 pipeline proposals. Wet’suwet’en means People of the Wa Dzun Kwuh River, which is still pure enough to drink from. Now the “NO PIPELINES” banner hangs in both Lakota and We’suwet’en territory, symbolizing their responsibility to one another’s homelands.

“If you take all the water that’s drinkable on Mother Earth, it’ll be a gallon, and what we have access to is a teaspoon,” said Debra White Plume. In addition to stopping mines and pipelines, Owe Aku International is working to raise awareness about how much clean water is wasted on a daily basis. “How many times do you use drinking water to go bathroom? If you have an outhouse, you become conscious of how many time you do that every day and how much water you’re wasting. It’s a correlation of everyday human behavior to what the corporations are doing to the water and Mother Earth.”

In the process of raising awareness about the sacredness of water, race relations between Lakota and settlers in the rural Mid-West make messaging a challenge for Indigenous-led groups such as Owe Aku International. “We’re really trying hard to create an alliance with the white people in South Dakota, and I’m learning about messaging to do that,” said Debra White Plume. “I don’t consider myself racist or ethnocentric. I’m just very proud to be Lakota, and I think it’s a beautiful way of life that’s worth defending, protecting, preserving, sharing, and living.”


“What we’re learning through the struggle of the Kul Wicasa in Lower Brule is that there’s a lot of misinformed people in South Dakota, and we need to reach them with our message. We really need to educate our relatives, and our neighbors, and our townspeople,” said Debra White Plume. “We need to reach them that this pipeline is not about economics. It’s not about creating jobs. It’s not about getting oil from a friendly country. It’s not about that. It’s hard to reach them when you’re a Lakota person because there’s a lot of racism that exists in South Dakota.”

How can the Lakota possibly reach those who see them in terms of stereotypes? “The words we use are really important. We talk about resistance sometimes, but really it’s sacred water protection. We’re using that term more and more, and I encourage everybody to think about the words you use,” said Debra White Plume. Sharing a universal message in English is difficult. Many Lakota believe the English language is backwards. Most English words have at least 3 meanings. Compare that to the Lakota language, which has deep spiritual meaning for each syllable, and the cognitive dissonance sets in.

“When we say Indigenous resistance, what do they think? They think American Indian Movement. They think militancy. They think everyone in camo is threatening. You’ve got to be afraid of that. That’s all brainwashing and propaganda,” said Debra White Plume. “Our people are very spiritual, and the message we put out there will be received by the receiver through the lens that they normally wear.” Spirituality is inherent in all aspects of Lakota way of life.

According to Nuca Alex White Plume, Lakota do not even pray. “Prayer is a Western concept. We voice ourselves to the universe,” Alex White Plume said to the folks at Moccasins on the Ground. Hopefully the universe will get through to those blinded by bigotry and preconceived notions of who American Indian people are.

Fortunately, Owe Aku International has been forming alliances with settler folks since the 1980s, when they defeated a uranium mining proposal in the Black Hills. Now there are plans for another uranium mine in He Sapa, and the Lakota must confront the State of South Dakota once again to defend their homelands from corporate exploitation.

“South Dakota’s always been pro-mining, since back in the day when the gold miners came here and discovered gold in our sacred Black Hills, and they took it,” said Debra White Plume. “At that time our people were very oppressed, suppressed, repressed, and sick from the genocide of small pox, tuberculosis, and even they common cold. They were weak physically. They were sick, and they couldn’t fight them, but we can fight now. There are other ways to fight now. Back then it was only militarily, and now there are other methods of fighting.”

So how can people protect sacred water in a peaceful and prayerful way? “We’re talking about N.V.D.A. non-violent direct action, but it’s still action. It’s still being in the face of the enemy, being in the face of the police, being in the face of the corporation, being in the face of the corrupt tribal government, being in the face of whoever is threatening you and your right to sacred water and to a good life. Without sacred water, there is no life,” said Debra White Plume.

Even though there is every reason for people to unite for sacred water protection, there will always be hold outs. “People usually don’t come into these kinds of groups because they’re comfortable. It’s convenient to let somebody else fight the fight, but we have to constantly be working, constantly be talking,” said Debra White Plume. Even for those who are ready to take action, transportation is often a difficulty especially for those living in impoverished reservation communities.

Many more Lakota from Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, and Lower Brule planned to attend Moccasins on the Ground, but did not have funds to reach the remote Red Shirt community. “We’re very isolated out here. We all had to drive for hours to come out here, and when we do put our moccasins on the ground, it’s probably going to be in a very isolated place,” said Debra White Plume. “There ain’t even a cell phone signal here. So what are we going to do? How are we going to get the word out?”

The above photo was shared by folks who “drove up the hill” in Red Shirt to share Moccasins on the Ground participating in the worldwide day of prayer for Mni Wicozani, led by 19th Generation White Buffalo Calf Pipe Keeper Arvol Looking Horse. “We need to know this new technology, and some people brought the technology with them that no matter where you’re at, you can get the word out there. We need allies to stand with us. We need people to get out the word for us. If you’re not on the front line, you’re going to be somewhere in the world where you can still help us,” said Debra White Plume.

The media training was an important aspect of Moccasins on the Ground. In the process of talking about messaging for sacred water protection with a group of people from very different backgrounds, some worldviews were noticeably decolonized. When people had difficulty agreeing on a messaging strategy, Red Nations women naturally took the lead. In the process of coming together, Secwepemc warrior woman Kanahus Freedom took a leadership role in directing a short film about why water is sacred.

Equally important was the training in blockade tactics. “There’s been a lot of blockades going on in our territory here, and all the way from Cheyenne River to Sicangu land to down here in Oglala country we’ve had to do blockades to stop heavy hauls, to stop these big pieces of equipment that are on their way to the tar sands. That’s part of stopping the tar sands,” said Debra White Plume.

1851 Ft. Laramie Treaty territory extends into so-called Alberta, and Debra White Plume knows the Lakota must travel north, if they are to stop this prophesized black snake. That is their legal, moral, and spiritual responsibility. “As long as they’re mining tar sands, there’s going to be a pipeline. If we stop the KXL, they’re still threatened up there. Our relatives in so-called Canada are still threatened by these pipelines. So shutting down the tar sands has to happen.”

An Oglala delegation has been invited to the 4th and final Tar Sands Healing Walk. “This is the last year of the prayer, so then we will have to talk about what we’re going to do next,” said Debra White Plume. “In our generation we go to people’s houses. We sit down. We have coffee. We visit with them. We talk with them. We answer questions. It’s not just about today’s society, the technology, the Facebooking, and the Tweeting. For our generation organizing is different. So we need to use all these methods and tools for organizing, and I want my toolbox to be so damn big that I have to drag it around and need somebody help me carry it. When we come to Moccasins, that’s what we’re trying to do is increase everybody’s tools. Our generation has a way of organizing. This generation has a way of organizing.”

Speaking about Satsi Naziel, a 17-year-old Wet’suwet’wen land defender from the Unist’ot’en Blockade, Debra White Plume said, “I’m really glad to see our young people learn to stand up and speak like this in front of people. It has to happen. It has to be a generational struggle. That’s the only way that we’re going to win. These are family-based struggles. It’s our tiospaye that’s doing this, all the generations together.”

Pointing to her 1-year-old grandson, Debra White Plume explained, “He’s just now learning how to walk. He’s here growing up in this. He’s growing up protecting sacred water. He’s learning how to voice his own need, which is to carry on the Lakota way. You can’t do that without water. You can’t do that without Mother Earth. None of us will live without Mother Earth. That’s what that means: Mni Wicozani. With water there is life, and that goes across all boundaries.”

Debra White Plume sternly concluded, “Just because you’re Lakota, or white, or black, or Asian, that doesn’t create a boundary around you to protect you from any of this contamination. For all the human beings, all the two-leggeds in a humble way, a good way, a spiritual way, a powerful way, we have to learn how to stand together.”

Last Real Indians