Amid the Standing Rock movement to protect the land and the water that millions depend on for life, the Oceti Sakowin (the Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota people) reunited. Through poetry and prose, essays, photography, interviews, and polemical interventions, the contributors reflect on Indigenous history and politics and on the movement’s significance. Their work challenges our understanding of colonial history not simply as “lessons learned” but as essential guideposts for activism.”
This interview was conducted on January 10, 2018.
Nick Estes: I’m here today with LaDonna Bravebull Allard, who helped found Sacred Stone Camp in April 2016. Can you introduce yourself?
LaDonna Bravebull Allard: My name is LaDonna Bravebull Allard. My real name is Tamakawastewin, or “Her Good Earth Woman.” I’m an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. I come from the Ihanktonwan Pabaksa, Sissintonwan Dakota. On my father’s side, I’m Hunkpapa, Sihasapa, and Oglala Lakota, and I’m Dakota on my mother’s side.
NE: What I find inspiring about your work, LaDonna, is that you started as a historian and continue to be a historian. I knew your work through the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO). Of course, that work evolved into community activism. Can you talk about how your experience at THPO informed Standing Rock’s struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)?
LBA: My life has been in history. I have a degree in history and historical research, and I spent about twenty-five years compiling the history of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Oceti Sakowin. In the 1990s we created the Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and I’ve been working with historic preservation since then. I was working as a Section 106 Coordinator of the National Environmental Policy Act for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office when the DAPL proposal came before us.
At that time, and I have to tell you the truth, I never considered myself an activist. I’ve always considered myself a historian and researcher. But when I realized that DAPL was outside my back door, where my family lived, and where we grew up, it seemed too close to me. The fact that I know every historical site, sacred site, burial site, village site, traditional cultural properties, and ceremonial sites in that area, I couldn’t believe they were going to put an oil pipeline through it! The whole idea of what the land is has been put on the sidelines through this whole process from 2014 until the present. Nobody is talking about the Arikara village site DAPL went through, the Arikara burials, the destruction of the effigies that were laid out in rock on the hill. . . There is so much stuff out there, and it breaks my heart that they destroyed our cultural patrimony. As I tell people, they took our footprint out of the ground. And who has the right to do that?
Our people and our histories have a right to live. We have a right to share that history with the next generation. Our history is amazing. Our history enhances the American history. For me, it hurts my heart that they destroyed these histories. If you don’t stand up and protect what your ancestors put in the ground, what are you doing on this earth? Our grandfather Tatanka Ohitika had sun dances down on the Cannonball River with Wise Spirit. At that time, they put medicine in the ground. Everybody who came to the camps could feel that medicine. They put that medicine in the ground to pray for our water and to pray for our earth. Who has the right to take that away?
So for me, it becomes personal and spiritual. It’s also about preservation, protection, and, first and foremost, the water, which is our first medicine. If we don’t stand up and protect those things, we are ending the future for coming generations.
NE: There is the prophecy of Zuzeca Sapa, or the Black Snake, that became prevalent around the struggle to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. But it’s an old prophecy. Can you talk about what it means?
LBA: When we were kids, our grandmothers used to talk about this Black Snake that would be coming to destroy the earth. I remember them all sitting and talking at the table, and, you know, the kids weren’t supposed be listening but we always were. [laughs] They were talking about whether this Black Snake in the prophecy was the interstates, because they were building all these interstates back then. The interstates were covered with black tar. “Well, maybe this was the Black Snake?” I remember them saying, “But how could that be? The interstates are covering the Indian trails and the Indian roads. How would that destroy the world?”
I remember that as a child. As you get older you don’t think about things like this anymore. Then we started seeing the oil. When they have an oil spill, it destroys the water. It kills the animals. It kills all the microorganisms and the insects. It kills the grass, the plants, and everything that grows. When we saw the pipelines being built that pushed this black fluid through, then we understood: this is what is coming to kill the world. The prophecy says that when the Black Snake comes, we will stand up and stop it. We have no other choice but to stop the Black Snake to save the world. People may think that is a farfetched idea. But it is a reality because we must stop destroying what gives us life.
NE: When Sacred Stone was founded, it was named after the spherical shaped stones that were once carved at the confluence of the Missouri and Cannonball Rivers. Sacred Stone, or Inyan Wakanaganapi Oti, is the name for the area. Can you talk about the significance of this name and its history?
LBA: As a child — it hasn’t been that long and most people think I’m old, but I’m not that old — the Missouri River would hit the mouth of Cannonball River causing a whirlpool action. I remember seeing the whirlpool as a child. It created these round sandstones all along the river. You could walk along the shore and see the round sandstones. They were everywhere. Some were huge. Some were small. If you live along the Missouri River, you know that Missouri has a really strong undertow. That undertow caused the sand to stir up. The Indian people called it the Place that Makes the Sacred Stones, or Inyan Wakanaganapi Oti, and the Cannonball River was called the River of the Sacred Stone. As I was going through and reading some old documents of Ella Deloria, I found the reference to the original name of my home. When they were talking about what to name this camp, I said, “Well, just call it its real name: the Place that Makes Sacred Stones.” That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Cannon Ball, North Dakota, where I’m from, was named after Lewis and Clark. When they came down the river and when they saw the round sandstones, the only things they could equate it to were cannonballs. Indian people didn’t know what cannonballs were. So Lewis and Clark wrote in their documents, “the Cannonball River.” When the community of Cannon Ball was first started, it was just called Inhanktonwan. Then it became the community of Cannon Ball after Lewis and Clark. I don’t know how many people know Cannon Ball’s named after Lewis and Clark. When Lewis and Clark came through, it was just as the large village — there was a Mandan village there of about two thousand people — had just suffered from a great smallpox epidemic. When you look at the confluence of the Cannonball River where the Sacred Stones are made, it was a place of passage, which means that the river was narrow. It was an easy crossing for many people. At one of the banks you had a Mandan village. On the other point you had an Arikara village. And then you had a Yanktonai village, or Inhanktonwan. If you go through the history, there were also Cheyenne and Pawnee. It was a multitribal area. I would always think when the camps had started, “How did the people know to camp here? Did they know this was a village site? Did they know this was a trade area? Did something happen that was beyond us start happening there? Was it our grandfathers who put the medicine in the ground?”
I want people to understand that this was not something a long, long, long time ago. It’s not ancient. My grandfather, Tatanka Ohitika, was recorded by Frances Densmore in 1910. He died soon after that. But we can hear his voice and recordings. My grandmother was born in 1908 and grew up along the Cannonball. So it’s not generations and generations ago. I grew up on the Cannonball where we got the water straight from the river and hauled it up every day. It’s not ancient history we’re talking about. It’s our history of now.
We know who we are. We know our history. We know our stories. We know our way of life. We know these sites. When you know something and the outside world comes in and tries to destroy it, you have no choice but to stand up. That’s how I feel. I never felt I was an activist, but I felt I was put in a position where I had no choice. They pushed me against a wall, and I couldn’t go anywhere. I had to put one foot in front of the other, move forward, and say, “No!” It was not something that was planned or designed. It was something that happened.
NE: These questions of history are really important. As you pointed out in September 2016, the day DAPL private security unleashed attack dogs on unarmed Water Protectors was the exact same anniversary of the 1863 Whitestone Hill Massacre. You reminded us that it was a massacre largely forgotten to even the U.S. military. In the aftermath of the Dakota Uprising in 1862 and the Dakota expulsion from Minnesota Territory, the “Columns of Vengeance,” as they were called, hunted down and killed your ancestors and my ancestors as punishment. The Whitestone Hill Massacre was payback and punishment for Dakota resistance. How do you see those convergences of history, the entanglement of past and present whether it’s the U.S. military in the nineteenth century or DAPL, Morton County, and the military in the twenty-first century? It’s like you said, “This isn’t ancient history.” 47 Most of this history is hardly history but remains unresolved. . .
LBA: Unresolved to this day! I can tell you my story, which is my grandmother’s story, which is my great-grandmother’s story. That is what I know.
Nape Hota Winyan, Grey Hand Woman, was in Minnesota. They came and arrested her father. She and her mother took off across country — running. They were unsure of where to go. As you know, her father was one of the thirty-eight men hanged in Mankato. They came all the way to James River Valley for asylum. They came into the camp of Big Head, and he welcomed them. There were many refugees that came from Minnesota into the Inhanktonwan camp.
For a whole year, the people in this camp got ready. The spiritual leaders gathered everyone saying, “We have to prepare for a hard winter. We’ve got to hunt.” They called all the tribes to come and hunt. Our grandfather Tatanka Ohitika was there because he could call the buffalo. The people went out and hunted, and they brought in a lot of buffalo. It was a great fair where all the tribes came together. Everybody was trading and gathering. They had ceremonies, dances, songs, and even gambling. They had fun. It was getting to the point when everyone was starting to break the large camp to start moving back to their homes for winter. It was because of this event that all the men were gone from camp. The women that were still there were getting hides ready and drying meat.
My grandmother, who was nine years old, talked about this. The reason why we know is because she was one of the few people interviewed about the White- stone Massacre. She said, “That day the men all rode out to meet some soldiers, they said, were coming, and they never came back.” She was sitting there playing. At just about dusk, all of a sudden people started screaming, and people started running. She got up and she started running. People were in the middle of chaos. People were running in all directions. She fell. Something hot hit her, and she fell down. She didn’t realize at that time she was shot. They shot her in the hip. She laid there in the field just as the sun was going down. It was dark. All she could hear was people screaming.
We are talking just about her, but in the meantime all the tribal people, Big Head, his people, and Tatanka Ohitika, went out. They took a white flour sack and put it on a stick because they were told that the white people had a truce if they put up a white flag. They took this flour sack and went out and met the soldiers. As they got there, the soldiers surrounded them, took them hostage, and wouldn’t let them go back to the camp. Two battalions stood on each side of this ravine. The women and children ran down the hill through the ravine. As soon as they got into the ravine, the soldiers started shooting at them. There was no escape because nobody had weapons. There was no firing back. This was out and out, pure massacre. Finally a warrior was able to break through the end to try to get women and children out of that ravine. There was a man named Little Ghost who was a child. His mother tied him to a horse, roped him on that horse, and hit that horse to make it leave. He was able to get away. The mother and daughter ran. The family was separated, and I don’t think they found each other until a few years after. The young boy ended up in Spirit Lake. The mother and daughter ended up in asylum in Sisseton. The mothers put their babies on the little travois of dogs and sent the dogs out to take their babies to safety. People were making their children run. Everything was chaotic. People were screaming and hollering everywhere.
My grandmother said she laid on that field calling, “Ina! Ina!” (“Mother! Mother!”). All she could hear was screaming and gunfire. All through the night the soldiers went and killed the wounded, tracking them down, men, women, children, and babies. Then the order came out from the soldiers, “Kill every dog.” The soldiers went around and killed every dog. Did I mention the dogs were carrying the babies? They killed every dog. I was listening to the military reports, and they said they shot two thousand dogs that day.
As the morning sun rose, there was death everywhere. You could see what had happened. There was, what you could call, “friendly fire.” In all the chaos, the soldiers shot each other. So there were some casualties from friendly fire. I don’t know why, because they randomly killed the wounded, they picked my grandmother up and threw her in the back of a buckboard. They didn’t kill her like the rest of her family and everybody else. Then they marched the men who they had taken hostage and any other remnants they could find. In the meantime, the soldiers were given the order to burn everything. They took their time. They poked holes in every cooking pot. They destroyed everything so nothing could be of use again. They piled it in huge piles, all the buffalo meat, the robes, the homes, everything, and set it on fire. As the fire burned, the tallow ran like rivers down the prairie.
This was the first time that the slash-and-burn tactic was used. You would see slash-and-burn used in Indian Country from this point on at Sand Creek and many other massacres. This was the first time where they burned everything. They killed all the dogs. They threw the babies and everything into the fire and burned it. Then the soldiers were given the order to track any wounded down and kill them. In the meantime, they marched this whole group of prisoners from the James River to the Missouri River. Many were sick or wounded. When they got to the river, they loaded them on a boat. They took them down to what became known as the Crow Creek Reservation; at that time, it was a prisoner of war camp. The people were released on the banks of the river with no food, no shelter, nothing. There were many deaths, many deaths. The other group ran and continued to fight as the soldiers came after them. At Apple Creek, they were able to win a battle. You don’t hear about Apple Creek much because we won. They were able to hold the soldiers back to allow the women and children to get across the river.
Everybody in Cannon Ball are descendants of these people. I did a survivors list. We had to put together families again. Grandma took in two grandchildren.
Auntie took two nephews and nieces. They formed families again. Those are the people of Cannon Ball, each and every one of them.
On that day, September 3, if Nape Hota Winyan would have died, none of us would be here. But she survived the prisoner of war camps. When she was released, she came back to Cannon Ball where she married. My grandfather on my other side, Tatanka Ohitika, married in Crow Creek. From the documents, we know that he left his wife and child when they released him. He came back to Cannon Ball and married my grandmother, Holy Generation Woman. Because these people survived, we’re here. So September 3 is a time of memory for us.
On that morning in 2016, I was telling people about the history of Whitestone, about what had happened to the people of Cannon Ball. And they called me. J. R. American Horse said, “LaDonna, the bulldozers are here.” I was like, “What?” “The bulldozers are here.” I said, “Stop them!” I was doing an interview with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! I said, “Amy, I have got to go.” She said, “I’m following you.” I got in my truck and got up there. Just as I got up there, I watched this guy jump out of this white truck and pepper spray a whole line of women and children. At that time, the young men came and were trying to get in front of the women and children. They pushed the fence down to try to prevent them from being pepper sprayed. Then they sicced the dogs on us. I remember I was standing there in the field. It was like I froze. There was a big black and white dog with blood dripping from its mouth and a big grey-headed pit bull on the other side. I was standing there thinking, “Where am I? How could this be happening on this day? How could they attack on this day?” It’s like you go through post- traumatic stress, historic grief, all of this stuff. I was just like, “Where am I? Is this what America is?” Then I went to the road. There was a policeman standing there. I said, “Stop them!” And he said, “Ma’am, I’m only supposed to watch the road.”
In that moment, everything changed. Everything changed for me. It was no longer just saying, “No, we didn’t want something” or “Let’s follow the law.” It was, “Man, we got to stand up! They’re going to kill us all!” It’s terrible to think like that. It was shocking to me. I don’t think I slept for days after that. It’s still shocking to me.
Every incident that happened, with the police and the military actions, happened on an event of something that already happened in Indian Country. It was like we were repeating everything all over again. It was like our ancestors were standing with us saying, “You stand, and we stand with you. It’s okay.” It was really hard some days to watch people get hurt. But I saw amazing bravery. I saw who we were and who we still are.
Excerpted from “They Took Our Footprint Out of the Ground”: An Interview with LaDonna Bravebull Allard” by Nick Estes in Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement edited by Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon. Copyright 2019 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.
Nick Estes is Kul Wicasa, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. He is assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico; cofounder of The Red Nation, an organization dedicated to Indigenous liberation; and author of Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance.
Jaskiran Dhillon is a first-generation anticolonial scholar and organizer who grew up on Treaty Six Cree Territory in Saskatchewan, Canada. She is associate professor of global studies and anthropology at The New School and author of Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention.