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American IndiansPeacemakingPublic Commentary

Saving Grandmother

By April 9, 2012February 24th, 2018No Comments

I remember the day my grandmother Smith died: The stunning call, before dawn, saying that she had been taken by squad to the emergency room. The instinct to get there now. The delays, arrangements needing to be made to cover workplace obligations. The second call, while I was packing my bag, saying not to hurry, she was already gone. The sickening grief. The long, aching drive. The sight of my mother as I pulled into my parents’ driveway, she and my father just arriving home from a trip, as yet unaware. The look on her face when she saw me. The god-awful telling: her mother dead, far too young, of causes that would never be known. Deeper grief.

More than 20 years ago, that day still haunts me as if it were yesterday.

And now, another of my grandmothers–and the most important–is dying. Her decline is totally unexpected. She is ancient, to be sure–many are the “greats” in front of her name, all of them earned–but by the miracles of nature, her health has been remarkably robust until these latter years, when suddenly she has begun to suffer a number of significant ailments. The calls come, updating her condition, worsening by the day. “Multiple systems failure,” say some specialists gloomily. Others, meanwhile, say, “Nothing at all to worry about.” I’m dumbfounded by their rosy reports. Which patient are they looking at? I don’t know much, but even I can tell that Grandmother is in bad shape.

I’m speaking of Unci Maka, “Grandmother Earth” in the language of my native neighbors, here in eastern South Dakota. My Grandmother–your Grandmother, too. And she is in distress. Just this morning, I read how government geophysicists believe that a series of recent earthquakes from Alabama to the Northern Rockies have “almost certainly” been caused by drilling for oil and natural gas. Then, this afternoon, I watched a video about the “clean-up” by the Enbridge corporation of a tar sands oil spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Enbridge had, among other things, deposited clean sand on the riverbottom, clearly visible through water that the company claimed was no longer polluted. But stick a little shovel into that sand and dig around a bit, and guess what happens? A sheen of oil instantly appears atop the river. I guess you can judge a clean-up by its cover-up.

Pollution, habitat destruction, destabilization of the land, climate change…. Grandmother trembles. Grandmother moans. Not for herself only, but for all her grandchildren, even for those of us who live off her without acknowledging it, or without caring; those of us who, in our ignorance or our indifference, are slowly but surely killing her off, and ourselves with her.

Some among her grandchildren do understand what’s happening, however, and they are raising their voices and offering their bodies to protect her. Native people have been particularly inspiring. Consider their resistance to tar sands oil mining and related pipelines–remarkably strong, yet it has gone largely uncovered by the mainstream media. Their witness, their struggle in defense of Grandmother Earth, should not be ignored. We in the majority culture could take a lesson or two.

Here in South Dakota, the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council and the Oglala Sioux Tribe both passed legislation opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. They also adopted the “Mother Earth Accord,” calling for a moratorium on tar sands oil extraction because it is so destructive to Grandmother Earth and her inhabitants.

White Plume outside the White House

Words are important. Declarations matter. Especially when they are reinforced by significant actions. Last September, Debra White Plume, an Oglala Lakota, was arrested outside the White House while participating in a nonviolent protest against tar sands mining and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Then, in March of this year, White Plume was among 75 Lakota who set up a human road block to prevent a convoy of two enormous trucks and a dozen other vehicles from transporting oil pipeline components across the Pine Ridge Reservation. The trucks were en route from Houston, TX, to Alberta, Canada, the site of tar sands mining. The roadblockers also included Renabelle Bad Cob Standing Bear, defiant in her wheelchair, and 92-year-old Marie Randall, who eloquently reminded the tribal police of native values.

Roadblock on the Pine Ridge

Though the six-hour road block was peaceful, five Lakota, including White Plume, were arrested for disorderly conduct because they refused to leave when the police finally cleared the protesters. But the police also escorted the trucks, which were too big to turn around and force back the way they had come, off the reservation and denied them access to any other reservation roads.

White Plume commented, “We stood our ground for our land, our treaty rights, our human rights to clean drinking water and our coming generations. We did this in solidarity with the First Nations people in Canada, who are being killed by the tar sands oil mine, which is so big it can be seen from outer space. It is as big as the state of Florida.”

Tar sands hunger strikers in Eagle Butte

As a final example of native defense of Grandmother Earth, a group of Lakota in Eagle Butte, SD, held a 48-hour hunger strike against tar sands pipelines in early April. Eagle Butte is located on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, close to the route that TransCanada has proposed for its 1700-mile Keystone XL pipeline. The Lakota fast was undertaken in solidarity with native children at the Bella Bella Community School in British Columbia. Those students had done a hunger strike to protest a plan to move millions of barrels of tar sands oil through the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. Who would build and operate that pipeline? Enbridge. Yes, of Kalamazoo River infamy.

Unci Maka. Grandmother Earth. We know that she is sick. Desperately so. Even those of us who want to deny this are now finding it difficult to dispute. The evidence is all around us. We can all see the extreme shifts of weather, from mountains to plains. We can see the rising seas swallowing islands. We can see the snowcaps disappearing from the Alps, the gigantic icebergs breaking off Antarctica. Though we may not recognize or understand all the causes of Grandmother’s suffering, there is much that we can say:

It is not good for Grandmother that we poison her.

It is not good for Grandmother that we disrupt her natural systems.

It is not good for Grandmother that we act as if she exists simply to serve us.

It is not good for us if Grandmother dies.

Please. Let’s listen to our best instincts, and join the struggle for her life. We need to get there now. We can no longer afford to monitor Grandmother’s condition from a distance. Direct intervention is needed. You and I must step up, ask the tough questions, make the tough decisions. No more delays. This is the only grandmother we have who is meant to live forever. And she will live forever, if we can only save her from ourselves.

Give us this day that we may see the beauty before our eyes
Give us this day that we may cherish the earth before it dies


Note: The verse above is the refrain of the beautiful choral anthem in this video. You can read the rest of the lyrics here. If for some reason you can’t see the viewer above, please click here to watch the video.

Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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