AZ Tribes At Standing Rock Explain Cultural Significance Of Water

The Army Corps of Engineers has ordered thousands of demonstrators near the Standing Rock Sioux Nation to leave by Monday. They’ve been camped on federal land for months, trying to stop a massive oil pipeline project they believe will contaminate water sources and destroy sacred sites. Most of these “Water Protectors” are members of Native American tribes. And they believe the federal government and the mainstream media don’t understand the true purpose of their mission: that water has deep cultural and spiritual significance to indigenous people. In this audio postcard, we bring you the voices of two Arizonans who went to Standing Rock to protect the water they believe embodies life itself.

Water Protectors at Standing Rock
Credit The Center SF


Dagoteh! My name is Jandi Craig. I am a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, and I am a member of the I Dishchiidn Clan. I am also a proud member of the International Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas.

There’s all of this tension that’s happening up there at Standing Rock, and I have a lot of friends and family members who are up there working with the Water Protectors. And I see them, and I see their experiences, I see the challenges that they’re facing there, and all they’re doing is expressing something that’s really powerful to them that there’s still a connection between us as Native peoples and the ground that we live on, Mother Earth.

For example, in our culture, the White Mountain Apache Culture, it’s the same word for “your land” and “your mind”: Bi’ni’ Bi’ni’gozhóó, the blessed place. It tells you a lot of about the indigenous paradigm. What you plant there, how you treat it.

To me being a Water Protector is like being an advocate for something that has sort of lost its voice, which would be the water. What’s happening up at Standing Rock with the different ideas that people have, especially the people on the other side — the police who had their guns out and they had their drones hovering above our heads all morning. It brings up some feelings of trauma. I think that it echoes that colonial violence that continues to exist in our world right now, in our experience as indigenous people.

And the thing about that historical trauma and colonial violence is that it’s something that is so deep right now, especially for indigenous people who have experienced it, that’s it’s actually imprinted on our DNA. Some of our people have talked about how in the past it was about gold and now it’s about oil. So it’s always about sort of taking away from Mother Earth without considering the ramifications of what happens when Mother Earth is all used up.

I’m Shonto Begay. I’m from the community of Shonto in the heart of the Navajo Nation. I think with the whole idea of protecting the water in a peaceful sense, not in a confrontational sense, not in a confrontational sense, the whole peacekeeping water protection journey. Water is so important to us, that you know every name — we have place names with water. Even my name, Shonto, is water.

I think in this case it is people putting themselves between the sacred element of water and those that are planning on a possible destruction of it, or change, or fouling, desecration of it. Because it’s not just for the tribe. You know, from where we sit, from where we camp, there’s 18 million water users downstream. Where I live — I was born and raised where my mother lives, you know, we still have to haul water miles away in barrels.

In our stories, there’s reference to water everywhere: the Water World, the former world that we came out of into this world, into the Fourth World. The water is always the element that is transportation; that’s the reason, everything a culture floats upon.

Unfortunately, a lot the news, especially the local news around there, is being fed by the sheriff’s department, by law enforcement departments. They’re being fed a different reality than what we see.

I would say a huge percentage of the campers are young people under 30, under 35, young people — and for that reason the energy of that, the passion of that, it also arouses hope.

While they know that this is a very historic moment — movement — where all the tribes are getting together, and all the tribes from everywhere, and even non-Natives who are there, they’re all tribal members — you become a tribe that’s blended into one, a water protection tribe.

A lot of people, the extent of their association with water is just turning on the tap. Know where it comes from and the life of it, and the possible pollution of it, that we all need water.

All my life, I’ve been tied to that. My name, Shonto, Shaan’ toh’, is again, reference to water; a reference to the light that plays off the surface of moving water, reflecting back onto the wall of the canyon. That little sparkle of light that plays on the canyon. That’s what it means, so that’s kind of a signature. I guess, a signature of that spirit.

Toh’ ei’ iina’: Water is life, in my language.