So Much Water So Close to Home by Cara Moulton Tweet
August 2016, I left the reservation, where I have lived almost four years, to pursue a law degree. I was not the only to leave the res to pursue more schooling this semester; a brilliant Lakota young man and Dakota young woman who took some classes at the same college as non-Native me headed out for Yale and Dartmouth, respectively. Not long after we all started Fall classes an oil company with ties to state politicians began construction on land along the northern border of the reservation, without the tribe’s consent or acquiescence. The state’s law enforcement soon replaced the private security for that company, and it wasn’t long before my Facebook feed began to fill with videos of horses shot with rubber bullets, the wires of taser gun remote probes hanging off shirts, friends singing songs of prayer and pleading.
Meanwhile, I was sitting on the left side of the second tier in Criminal Law class trying to focus not on a former colleague, a young woman like me, who was frantically trying to find her elderly mother after the police had pepper-sprayed a protest and transported the dozens arrested to jails across a giant state, but instead on the legal concept of accomplice liability taught by a great professor who’d catch my eye on occasion and never have a clue where my mind was. Anyone who’s been to law school will tell you that accomplice liability is neither the most exciting topic in the world, nor the most clear.
The waters of the river being protected by the protests are slightly murky, and the law, I’ve found so far, is similar. Everyday we learn a concept still in development- today in Torts, for example, we learned of landowner’s duties to those on their land which have evolved from lessor/lessee, to invitee/licensee/trespasser, to states that have done away with part or all of that language to general principles at what, our book says, has led to no significant change in liability of defendants. During the break in class, I listened to classmates discussing their plans for getting wasted at Halloween while I sat thinking about trespassing, about all the charges of trespassing currently levied against over a hundred Dakota and Lakota, native to the lands, and how few or none have any idea all the info I’m learning and how I’d like to share it.
What bothers me about law school is not that my classmates haven’t shared the same experiences, or that professors are occasionally bent on teaching humility through humiliation, but that the more I learn, the more I realize people without access to justice often don’t receive it. I believe in the courts, the laws and precedents, and having lived abroad I believe deeply in the United States, yet I struggle to reconcile the fact that the judicial system has so frequently failed Native American communities. Take these protests, for example- those against decry the actions as too late in the game, proclaim that the water protectors should have gone through the court system beforehand. The court system is complex to me, even in the early throes of understanding the law, and I am not sure how, without lawyers or legal knowledge, any can be expected to handle things legally, let alone in rural communities without grocery stores much less private practices. That is foundational to the country though, that we fix what is broken through the law, but treaties are like law and enough of those were broken to form a foundation of mistrust in the process. As unclear as the law is today, it will be more clear, and that process will be shaped by folks like my classmates, none of whom went to a Tribal College and few of whom represent communities that suffer the most injustice from lack of access to legal information.
History has shown protest to be an effective manner to have a voice for all people, law degree or not, and we have become a better country because of it. Along with human rights, the protection of the environment is surely among the most godly causes and to be encouraged, not pigeonholed as anti-authoritarian. Power to those judicial entities that do not so quickly disparage protest as an unlawful act, and for those involved in protests to further move towards way for communities to gain access to learning about the law. All protests, on any side, tend have merit as expression of earnest angst. As my former fellow students now at Ivy Leagues would perhaps similarly attest, it is hard not to be on the front lines of fights for a brighter future. It is hard to see the people you love suffer because justice isn’t being or wasn’t served. It is hard to get up and go to class and then sit at home trying to study when concern pours out of your heart but there is power in the delayed gratification of education too.
It’s November 2016 now and I am still not again used to having more than a dozen stores within a fifty mile radius, I am still not again used to seeing almost exclusively faces I don’t recognize. There’s a lot to do in the city but I wish I was back in the country, back where there’s more buttes and buffalo than Starbucks and starless skies. What I do not wish, though, is for a Facebook stream that is any calmer, for any fewer feelings to consume every moment not studying (and even often during). Every day when online I see people fighting for causes nobler than brand new boats or bigger houses I not only study harder to protect those protecting the land and water but fall more in love with the law because the law is not about money or status either, it also is about justice. As it evolves I pray it becomes more about Native justice too.
by Cara Moulton