For Which Little Shell so Steadfastly Fought

Reflections on pipelines and community

This morning I rise before dawn and walk maybe half-a-mile out into the prairie. I want to get clear of the floodlights around the parking lot of the Skydancer Casino and Resort, where I spent the night. It is cool, maybe 50°, and a slight breeze is blowing. I climb up onto a hill that looks out over the dark, rolling landscape below, and sit down. The moon is to the east, just a sliver, but the light of Her reflection is so bright that I can see Her fullness even in shadow. Such fullness, and so beautiful. And the stars, oh, the stars, brighter than they ever are where I live.

I wish I could say it is quiet. The hulking, brightly-lit casino is just yonder, and big buildings are noisy for all their immobility. A few cars pass on the highway below. I don't get to hear the rustle of any relatives who might be up and moving about in the grass. I hope Coyote might happen by, give me a sniff, a wink. I've not seen Him since Montana two days ago.

I am on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation in North Dakota. If I could stand, arms wide in my best shaman's-pose, and cast my vision out for miles and miles, across the plains to east, south, and west, and up north through the rolling hills and forests that comprise the Turtle Mountains, I would be placing my loving gaze on Chippewa land. But this reservation is small, 6 miles by 12 miles, 72 square miles, 46,000 acres. It was established in 1882 and was much larger, over 450,000 acres. Two years later the government reduced it 90 percent. They decided the Chippewa, and our Métis relatives we shared and squabbled with, didn't need all that land because there wasn't that many of us. The decision was based entirely on not counting those of us who used these specific lands as our base from which to travel to find the resources we need to live, to trade. There were indeed very many of us, but "If you're not on the land, you don't live on the land," they surmised. Nevermind our family groups hunting elsewhere, as far as Montana, or up into Canada, as we had always done. This decision is a large part of what made my Little Shell people landless. Little Shell was a leader of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. There is a street named after him just down the highway.

There is more to say about this, more to say about why I'm out here, representing the Little Shell people. How I've been on the road several days now, beginning in Helena, Montana, and from there sixteen hours in the car to make it to Thief River Falls to join our relatives from the Red Lake Ojibwe and the Turtle Mountain Chippewa to commemorate the 1863 Treaty of Old Crossing on October 2nd. I'm still reflecting on these events, what they meant then, what they mean now. But mostly I am thinking of community, of relationships. Of finding comrades to fight beside.

I spent a couple hours yesterday at a Red Lake Treaty camp set up in protest of the Line 3 pipeline. The pipeline runs just beyond a fence just behind where a group of us sat around the ashes of the previous night's campfire. The pipeline runs under the ground, down the hill, and beneath the Red Lake River. It is an abomination, but after the grass grows back, planted to cover the scars and destruction necessary to bury it in the first place, people won't even know it's there, if not for the dedicated defenders who keep showing up, keep raising their voices, keep making good trouble despite the absence of media and attention, even as most of the world views them as slackers, shirkers, nutjobs and fools.

These people are anything but. We talked about many things. One man is a Quaker. Another woman, there with her sight-challenged daughter, works with houseless people. My cousin Kim is a healer. These are all people living lives of service, sacrificing convenience and the "American dream" for something more important. Raising the voices of people we would typically call voiceless but who do have voices, people just aren't listening. These people are defending everyone, even the people who threaten them with violence, because pipelines and our continued addiction to fossil fuels threatens all of us. Sharing time with these people had a profound impact on me and I have been deeply reflective since. I need to know I am showing up with them, even when I am not in camp.

I am dreading in some ways my return home to the Missoula area. I love the land there, and I feel extremely grateful to live where I do, with its big rivers and big mountains. It is changing drastically and it needs its defenders and I'm not sure those of us who think we fit that role are up to it. We are happy to put signs in our windows, stickers on our cars, but we don't really have to dig in because most of us are white and have never really been threatened. We feel the impending doom of climate change when it's hot out and the air is full of smoke from burning landscapes, but my sense is that when the sky clears and the air cools off, we forget. We go back to business as usual, just as we did when COVID "ended." Now things are worse than ever.

We miss so many connections. The same folks who will find their outrage over a bakery who won't bake cakes for same-sex marriages and demand boycott don't think twice about eating dinner and getting loaded at a restaurant whose hipster white bro owners spend fifteen minutes in Mexico, just long enough to steal recipes, and then bring them home to appropriate for themselves. The two are connected. It is small colonialism made gigantic by its frequency, this day-to-day exploitation of invisible brown people by business-as-usual white people. Crowded restaurants and statements like, “But our cops aren’t like that!” are proof of my community’s disconnect.

My views about so much of this, my constant anger over it, has left me largely ostracized from the folks I have typically spent my days with. Hell, I get sick of myself. There are many other reasons as well, many of which live largely in my own messed-up head, and I need to figure out a way to get over them. That is a large part of my reflection, my minutes sitting, my time out under the moon and stars this morning.

Back to this place, this prairie, this reservation. Chief Little Shell died in 1901, far from home, "unsuccessful in his quest to bring his Montana brethren into Turtle Mountain." An article in the Minneapolis Journal that ran on July 4th, 1901, said Little Shell was prominent in the "Indian troubles" of 1895 that could have led to "the sacrifice of many lives." Finally, it said, "The chief was eloquent and never could forgive his race for surrendering title to a foot of land or leaving it without making a fight."

Of the article, Nicholas Vrooman writes:

So reads the summation in the regional American press of one of the greatest Aboriginal leaders of the reconfiguration period in American history. For all his life's efforts, Little Shell never made the economic and governmental power elite flinch in their control of Aboriginal interests on the Northern Plains. Not in his day, that is. The Little Shell Tribe of Montana, and all Pembina Plains Ojibwa, have called the government to account and continue to press for the human rights for which Little Shell so steadfastly fought.

We are still in these times, friends. Still fighting this fight. Still fighting for human rights. The "governmental power elite" are still elite, still powerful, and still manipulating us through divisive rhetoric and convenience technologies like Amazon and social media and that ilk. Maybe the fight is unwinnable, I don't know. But I need to be able to feel like I've tried, to be able to look myself in the eye, even after I leave this world. I don’t intend to leave it without a fight either, and there is less sand at the top of the hour glass than the bottom.

You should see the sun rising outside my window right now, over these plains. It is so fucking beautiful.