Mni Wiconi! (Water is Life)

Having visited the Sandhills in Nebraska many times, having watched pronghorns glide over its fragile hills, watched ranchers meticulously transfer cattle herds to avoid damage to the pastures and, when those efforts fail, stanch any blowouts (bare spots) that arise using old tires or dead calves as band aids, I understood the toll a project like the Keystone XL pipeline would take on the land alone. The inland “ocean” that underlies that land is just as precious, not just to two-footed Nebraskans, but to creatures and vegetation far beyond the state line.

So, when the land that overlays the Ogallala Aquifer was tapped to carry the Keystone XL pipeline, I was one of those who gathered peacefully at our State Capitol to object.

Of course among us were Native Americans, praying for water that lay under grazing land they would never inhabit. In principle, Native Americans don’t believe land can be divided by the arbitrary fences and borders erected and/or proclaimed by the Europeans who overtook the continent — nor can the water that underlies our land. Both land and water depend on our stewardship, and deserve our reverence and thanks, as we depend on them to provide for us and the seven generations that follow.

In harmony with the principal of seven generations (codified in the Iroquois Great Law of Peace that is embraced by most Native American nations and was among the models considered by our founding fathers), all major decisions must take into account their impact 150-175 years in the future.

Given current life expectancy in the U.S., that isn’t as long as it seems — the span of a couple lifetimes actually sets seven generations in motion on our spinning home.

As a biologist, as a lifetime lover of the natural world, I know that what we do to one part of the web of life vibrates and changes everything that is attached to it — for better or for worse. Much as we try to behave as if we live independently, we are ALL ONE — all interconnected. And, what is convenient for some nearly always results in harm to the vast natural world that belongs to all of us (and to the many generations we hope will receive it after our responsible and sustainable care).

We don’t own the land — a Native American chief will tell you — the land owns us.

Perhaps this core belief has always put them at an extra disadvantage where treaties were concerned. Imagine how inconsistent it would be to argue for your land when you believe it rightfully belongs to all of creation! Imagine painfully too the cynicism of a government that would take advantage of earnest stewards who embraced such a foreign paradigm.

For years, I collected my grass clippings and leaves, composted them and incorporated that compost into my raised gardening beds. I produced a wonderful crop of vegetables each summer without any other amendment to the soil. All that I needed was already in the surrounding ecosystem. With some physical effort (which also had health benefits), I could keep my yard and garden world in balance.

This says nothing about the wonderful aroma of thoroughly composted leaves and grass, the feel of it in my hands, and the satisfaction of folding it into the hungry soil — working with the earth is a spiritual practice, no matter how small that part of the earth is.

Then, I got a teaching job. Out of town. Composting tumbled off my to-do list. And within a couple short years, my garden wasn’t producing at all like it had.

That fast. Next year, I will return to composting, apologies to my patch of the planet.

The elemental nature of food and our connection to it has sometimes been conceived as a form of protest — whether boycotting grapes or apples or a particular processor’s or retailer’s products. Sometimes protest takes the form of refusing nourishment altogether. In fact, the hunger strike has served quite a few notable difference-makers as a graphic, self-sacrificial means of calling out injustice. Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind, and such suffragists as Marion Wallace Dunlop and Alice Paul.

Water is another matter. In a scant few days without water, a human life is extinguished.

Humans have good reason to be protective of their water. Humans have good reason to expect their fellow humans to respect and protect others’ water just as they would protect their own. Humans have good reason to be outraged when their water is threatened.

Consider the tragedy of the many children in Flint, MI, my mother’s birthplace.

Consider the plight of those exploited by Coyotes at our southern border.

Consider the altered  fishing/hunting grounds of more than a few Native Americans.

Consider Standing Rock.

As I did with Keystone XL (and will as long and often as needed) I have participated in public action at the State Capitol on behalf of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. I have sent them a heavy duty battery to help generate needed power there through the winter. And I will continue to write with regularity about the validity and the critical importance of their position to my state and federal representatives, as I did when I joined 29,000 Nebraskans who called for the withdrawal of our State Patrol officers from Standing Rock.

I imagine it is unbelievable to most of the immigrants who look on (and the generations they have borne), that these souls would establish and maintain an encampment for months, through every imaginable weather against an opponent like big oil and spend their time praying. For a river. We are not used to seeing this sort of spiritual courage and resolve in our culture. The Water Protectors gather to pray, because they belong to the land, because seven generations are at stake, because water is life. They gather under harsh circumstances because they are not the largely white residents of Bismarck, North Dakota who deflected the pipeline with ease when it endangered their water supply.

Not until hundreds of veterans traveled to Standing Rock did the Army Corps of Engineers announce that they would explore alternate sites for the pipeline. Knowing how revered the warrior is in Native American culture — as a protector, not a destroyer, I was moved by the promise of these veterans from all over the country. Knowing how often our military might was used to subdue Native Americans, I was moved by the sublime irony of their traveling to Standing Rock to protect them from harm. Of course many of them have served in our armed forces side by side with Native Americans. It seemed like a kind of healing, both for veterans and for the Water Protectors who were being brutalized in ways I hadn’t seen except in disturbing videos of the Civil Rights Movement.

It was not lost on me that members of each of these groups of people are more than seven generations removed from the destructive collision of their forebears. It is sobering to consider what our forebears’ choices have wrought.

As of this post, over 10,000 people in under three weeks have donated more than $340,000 to Standing Rock to help them purchase a flatbed truck and other means to enable their safe wintering over. They were hoping for $200,ooo and though the running total is displayed continuously, givers keep coming, a list of donors packed with European surnames almost half of which I can associate with people I’ve known (or known of).

They come from good Irish stock with names like McCracken, McCrory, McIntosh and McCall; they have German roots too like Steinhauer, Schwarz, Kooser and Krueger; the Italians are antee-ing up from the houses of Marcellini, Copolla, Carlucci and Cipriani; the British are present and counted led by  Bennett, Fuller, Spaulding and Hill. There are Poles and Slavs and Vietnamese to name but a few more. The list of donors reads like a global roll call. I stopped recording them in a spreadsheet after 285 international surnames — each unique, all of whom call the U.S. home.

It feels to me a little like those veterans showing up. Another wave.

Do you hear the ambassadors of the seven generations? Notice. Care. Act.

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