To the One who is Possessed by Freedom: Ghost Dancing the Black Snake

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February 22: NYC high school students rally at Foley Square to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline and the eviction of the camp at Standing Rock Photo credit: Lily Gordon
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February 22: an Indigenous activist speaks on top of a trashcan amidst the smoke of burning sage at a rally at Union Square Photo credit: Lily Gordon

Lily Gordon, ‘17

I first met Michael at Grand Central Station. He was holding a blue banner that rustled in the evening air like water. We were a small troop of protesters (mostly fresh-faced college students and organic-looking women with flowing clothes and grey hair) with just our voices to ring against the cool marble walls of the banks winding into Rockefeller Center.

Michael is an Indigenous person from the Phillipines who has lived through the aftermath of Spanish, American, and Japanese colonization. He has been involved in the Black Lives Matter Movement, Occupy Wall Street, and most recently the anti-pipeline movement in solidarity with Standing Rock. I bumped into Michael again in anarchist Dumbo late at night by the East River, helicopters flying low by the Williamsburg bridge. He taught people how to resist arrest, how to dress inconspicuously so police can’t recognize you (all black, maybe a face mask), how to carry vinegar soaked towels with you at a protest, how to protect targeted groups in a crowd, how to survive tear gas, dogs, mace, brutality.

Michael was my introduction to anarchism and acted as a window into the tensions between pacifist activism and uprising.

The battle against the Black Snake—the Dakota Access Pipeline that threatens the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux and follows a long history of US violence against the Sioux as well as a disregard for Native sovereignty—straddles peaceful and non peaceful warriors. As the US corporate and governmental sphere brought in militarized tactics (biting dogs, tear gas, water cannons, bullets, tanks, etc.) Standing Rock became a war zone. One of the tensions lies in that some protesters have approached this battle with prayer (many say that they even pray for the police who attack them and for anyone who drinks water because of how water connects us all), while others have approached this battle with more rebellion.

In terms of the role faith plays in social justice, Michael says, “I am an atheist, but for anyone who follows Christianity, Jesus was an activist.”

Spirituality, culture, and ideals around pacifism occupy a contentious space among activists as they determine how to best fight the Black Snake.

I’ve been in a prayer walk that went from one end of Manhattan to another, faced each of the 7 directions and inhaled the sage as a shaman led a water prayer.

I’ve met a warrior named Matene Strikes First at Foley Square by the NY branch of the Army Corps of Engineers. Matene sang old Indigenous songs and ones he’d written. He broke down crying in front of us, “I remember Wounded Knee. I remember Little Bighorn. When did people stop caring about the world? I’m seventeen. I shouldn’t have to be doing this.” The last time we spoke on the phone, he was at the Supreme Court in Colorado fighting to make fracking illegal in the state. I keep thinking: he’s seventeen and carrying 500 years of colonized history on his shoulders. He’s fighting with a new ghost dance as he wears his tight braids down his back and wails the music of his ancestors, as he takes up his place in the US court system and travels across the country speaking for Indigenous rights. He’s so young and yet so weighed down by all the years of this inherited battle.

I’ve watched an Indigenous man climb up onto a trash can wearing a rainbow bandana over his face as he recounted the stories of the Cochabama Water War and the Bolivian gas conflict. I’ve listened to Lee Courtier moan the aching war songs of Crazy Horse and implore for a “diversity of tactics,” to protect life and water by any means necessary, to go to battle if necessary.

Michael explained, “My grandmother taught me, ‘we are the reflection of what we want the world to be.’ We have to leave this earth the way we found it—better than how we found it. We’re living on borrowed time…on borrowed land.”

As a man in the crowd began to spout sexist vulgarity, the crowd encased Michael and like a protective cocoon—an armory of human flesh—we shielded him from at least this invasion. Michael said, “Women is light. Women is direction. A womb is like a river.”

Monte, a student at NYU, lit a bundle of sage and exhaled until grey clouds swooped in around us, told a photographer to stop filming, and said a prayer in an Indigenous language. Sage and smoke filled the air.

Michael told the crowd that he was going to say something in his native language. We listened quietly. He fumbled with his words as emotion took hold, lips trembling at the old language until he broke down crying—unable to finish.

A woman stood beside him and finished his words for him. She spoke in the hybrid mixology of four languages—in Native, Spanish, English, and Japanese words she spoke. And she said, “I’m also Indigenous from the Philippines. My mother named me Malaya. It means ‘the one who is possessed by freedom.’ Inside me is the blood of a colonizer and a rapist. Inside of me is the Indigenous woman he raped. We are all healing from being born. It’s not truth but comfort that people seek. It’s all about marketing and tapping into the American psyche. We often turn our eyes on the smoke, but only in the light of the fire can we even see the smoke rising. I had no choice in my name. But we have the choice. We can either defend and conform to what we are afraid of, or we can cherish what we love. What will you do?”

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