Every so often, I find myself lifting my head and looking around at what is going on outside my little universe of sled dogs, chickens and life in the north.
It’s a big world out there and things that happen beyond our local and state borders can — and do — impact our lives.
Over the past weeks I have been following one of those and, with the indulgence of my editor and readers of this column, would like to take a moment to broaden out from Rusty Metal Farm.
All the way to North Dakota, in fact, where some members of Maine’s indigenous tribes are taking part in a months-long protest to block construction of an oil pipeline near the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux.
This past July, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave authorization for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross Lake Oahe and the Missouri River — sources of tribal drinking water — as part of a planned $3.8 billion, 1,100-mile pipeline carrying crude oil across four states.
This proposed route is within a half-mile of the Standing Rock Reservation and crosses over hundreds of sacred locations, including ancestral burial sites.
A more northerly route for the pipeline had been looked at, but discarded by federal planners due to potential threats to Bismarck, North Dakota’s drinking water supply.
So far, members of the Standing Rock tribe have successfully blocked construction of the pipeline through sheer physical presence, as thousands of Native Americans from close to 100 tribes from around the country are currently gathered to support them.
Penobscot Indian Nation member Winona Nicola has been out to North Dakota to take part in the protest, and I caught her on the fly this past week while she was in Maine to see family before turning around and heading back out west this weekend.
“It was such an awesome thing to be there and be a part of what is going on,” Nicola, whose mother is from North Dakota, said. “To see all the different tribes, and we are so ready for our voices to be heard.”
And those voices are remaining peaceful, she said, adding about seven members of Maine tribes are currently taking part.
“We are really pushing nonviolence,” Nicola said. “Every day as we stand on the front lines we hold still and we will not engage [because] violence is not what we want.”
Because of that, she said, life at the protest camp is very peaceful, spiritual and welcoming.
“It’s so powerful,” she said. “The coming together within the community we have built around the common goal of protecting Mother Earth has made us one family.”
No one taking part is ever hungry, cold or alone, due to that community spirit, she said.
“We take care of each other,” Nicola said. “We all set up in little communities with the Cheyenne in one, the Cherokee in another and Wabanaki in another and so on, but we all come together in the larger community.”
What she has found most moving were the generations uniting for a common cause.
“There are young and old, mothers and children and elders taking part,” Nicola said. “They are all concerned about this pipeline and the damage it could do to the land.”
For my friend Barry Dana of Solon, a member of the Penobscot Nation and former tribal chief, the struggle to protect water and native land is nothing new.
In 2002 he led his tribe in a fight to retain environmental regulatory control over Penobscot River waters that flow through reservation territory.
“What’s going on in North Dakota is just like what happened with the Penobscot River,” Dana said this week. “And people really need to care [because] these are not just tribal issues, they are global issues.”
Water, he said, is at the same time basic and sacred to indigenous peoples and Dana said he just can’t wrap his head around why anyone would want to do anything to harm a water source.
“If non-Native people could for one minute adopt the idea that water is sacred, the last thing anyone would want to do is risk polluting it,” he said. “Why not join us in protecting the rivers?”
People like Winona Nicola, Dana said, are living up to the teachings of his people, and he could not be more proud.
“These are the teachings that tell us every tribe has been given the responsibility of stewardship of the land, the plants, the animals, the insects and the birds,” he said
“We are not just doing this for the Dakota and Lakota people,” Nicola said. “We are standing for all people to protect the earth [and] I want my children to know their mother fought for something she was passionate about so, in the future, they will know to fight for what they believe in.”
A federal judge is expected to rule on the legality of the pipeline later this month after Standing Rock members claimed federal environmental laws governing tribal input on the plans were bypassed in order to fast-track the project.
This week, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues declared the Standing Rock Sioux must have a say in the pipeline project’s future.
In the meantime, they go to North Dakota to stand, to protest and protect.
We should all take a moment to look beyond our own cultural and physical borders and we should all care.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The original caption for the photo with this column misspelled the last name of Winona Nicola.