In this episode, Amelia travels to North Dakota and the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to speak with Ladonna Brave Bull Allard, the founder of the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock, and Wiljar Ojuro, Ms. North Dakota United States.
In this episode, we hear from marginalized voices that find strength in the soil of North Dakota. Ladonna Brave Bull Allard is a grandmother, historian, and activist who founded the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and now travels around the world building indigenous environmental movements. Wiljar Ojuro is a young, African American woman who works at North Dakota’s only women’s health clinic offering abortions and represents North Dakota as Ms. North Dakota United States.
- Standing Rock + Mni Wiconi around the world [8:20 – 10:30]
- The role of women in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests [11:00 – 13:00]
- “I’m old now, which means that I can be more daring, more brave, more fierce than anything that ever walked this earth.” [18:30 – 18:50]
- Being African American in North Dakota [22:30 – 24:45]
- Pageants as a tool for empowerment [25:00 – 26:30]
- Support Fifty Feminist States with a donation or buy a t-shirt!
- Dave Barry’s North Dakota column
- Dakota Access Pipeline protests
- Red River Women’s Clinic
Wiljar as Ms. North Dakota United States on Facebook
Sacred Stone Camp on Facebook
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Amelia: This is Fifty Feminist States a roadtripping, storytelling podcast visiting all fifty US states to interview feminist activists and artists about their work for gender justice.
I’m Amelia Hruby, and this week we’re in North Dakota and the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Ladonna: Everything came out of the camp. Standing Rock became an anomaly. Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, Paris. They have signs in their yard in every country. Everywhere I go, people say Lakota words. Mni Wiconi. Water is life.
Amelia: Hi everyone, Amelia here, your tour-guide, host, wanderer, listener guiding us on this Fifty Feminist States journey. I am so thankful for all of you who have listened to the first episodes of season one of Fifty Feminist States, and I wanted to let know you that I’m actually back out on the road doing interview for season two. Over 100 amazing Kickstarter backers helped fund season one, but I could use more listener support to help cover expenses as I’m traveling and producing for season two, so if you have anything to share, you can do that at fiftyfeministstates.com/support. I also have some kickass t-shirts and tote bags available. You can find those at fiftyfeministstates.com/shop and those purchases help me stay on the road and keep doing this work as well. Thank you so much for listening. This week, we are in North Dakota, and we’re gonna get back on the road!
Whenever I think of North Dakota, I think of iconic humorist Dave Barry’s 2001 column where he talks about North Dakotans petitioning to remove “north” from their name. He says they want to do it because the word “north” makes the state sound too cold and undesirable, particularly in comparison to the sunny sounding shores of South Dakota just below them.
I know it’s meant to be a joke, but jokes tend to be funny because there’s a little bit of truth in them, and, to be honest, I definitely do think of cold weather and flat, barren land when I think of North Dakota.
I’m here to say though, that that impression is totally wrong. In fact, North Dakota is the nation’s largest producer of sunflowers, so if you go there during the summer, it becomes this huge expanse of beautiful yellow blooms reaching toward that sky. That’s how I’ll remember North Dakota from now on. Not cold weather or flat land, but beautiful sunflowers.
And this association of North Dakota with its crops makes sense. The North Dakota coat of arms reads “Strength from Soil,” and the women we’ll hear from in today’s episode have grown strong by planting themselves in that land.
This episode is maybe a little different than previous episodes, in that I didn’t speak to anyone who identifies as being “from” North Dakota.
Our first conversation is with LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who was the founder of the Sacred Stone Camp during the recent Dakota Access Pipeline protests. While her people’s land straddles North and South Dakota, they are a sovereign nation that works to maintain little contact with the white world that surrounds them so as to preserve their cultural heritage.
The second conversation of this episode is with Wiljar Ojuro, an African American woman from New York who moved to North Dakota five years ago and is now the current Ms. North Dakota International [correction: United States]. She also works at North Dakota’s only women’s health clinic offering abortion services and will tell us about her experiences there.
In the last episode about Montana, I discussed how people often perceive that state and I think this general region to be completely white, erasing the people of color who do live in these areas. This episode brings them to the forefront, perhaps rightfully eclipsing the white populations of this state with these stories of the strength of indigenous and African American folks there. We’ll hear from Ladonna first.
Ladonna: My name is Ladonna Brave Bull Allard. My real name means her good earth woman. I’m an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. I am Ihunktonwan Siksikan Dakota. I am Hunkpapa Oglala Lakota. I was born about four blocks from where I’m living right now, and I grew up across the street from where I’m living today. And we are on Standing Rock. We’re 2.3 million acres. We’re the fifth largest land based tribe in the United States. We are encompassed of the Lakota and Dakota people. On the North Dakota side we have the Ihunktonwana … and the Hunkpatina. And on the South Dakota side of standing rock we have the Hunkpapa and the … Lakota. We are divided between two counties, Sioux and Carson county, and we are some of the people that have not had contact for a very long time. I think our contact has been 125 years. And for me, so you’re sitting here in this little community called Fort Yates, North Dakota. We’re kind of in a peninsula, I guess they would call, we’re covered by water on all three sites and one road in that happened because the Army Corps flooded us in the 1950s and ‘60s. I remember the land and what it looked like before. And, and if you’re not from here, you don’t know that the Cheyenne were camped over here in the 1400s, you know that your Iriquois were down there close to the Grand, and they came in in the 1500. We know that we have been on this land for 10,000 years. Of course, we were here in the Americas longer, but 10,000 years here in this spot. Before 10,000 years, this was all a great sea called Lake Agassi from the glacier melt that extended from Winnipeg all the way to Kansas. So the middle of America was underwater and as soon as the water subsided, we moved into these areas.
Amelia: The history of the Standing Rock Sioux nation, as LaDonna attests, is rich, deep, and strong, but until recently many people on and off the reservation didn’t know much about it. Hear LaDonna speak to her work recovering that history and sharing it with her community.
Ladonna: I’m a tribal historian and genealogist. I’ve really spent majority of my time in documents and books and research. I worked for the tribal historic preservation office, the tribal tourism. I did historic tours, historic lectures, and just compiled history for people. And so that’s basically what I did mostly all my life or 27 years. When I was in college I just had so many unanswered about my own history. And so I started just digging, digging and just became obsessed. And when I graduated from college I came back to the tribe here and they had a job opening called the cultural resource planner and so I applied for it and to from there developed the tribal historic preservation office, Native American graves protection repatriation office, and just started compiling history. Standing rock Sioux tribe, we have amazing history where the people are Sitting Bull and Gaul and Grass and Rain in the Face. We have a very strong lineage, and when I looked at the kids in the school, because there was a time when we had a high suicide rate, I would ask the kids, “ do you know who you are?”, and it seems like when they realized who they were, what their descendancy was, they went, “Oh,” and a whole different attitude came out of them. And I realized that helping people find out who their center is, who are they, is the key to solving a lot of the problems we have. If you know your history, your culture, your language, your traditional way of life, again, you are a whole person, and so my dream is my people become whole people again. And once you know those you can follow it or not follow it. It doesn’t matter. You’re already a whole person.
Amelia: This sense of being whole is as deeply rooted in the Standing Rock Sioux’s tribal history as it is in their land. Or perhaps I should say that their history is a history of the land as much as it is a history of the people. Either way, both were threatened in recent years when an underground oil pipeline was approved for construction only half a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux lands, putting their water supply at risk of devastatingly adverse effects. In April 2016, LaDonna established the Sacred Stone camp as a space of cultural preservation and spiritual resistance to the pipeline. This camp attracted thousands of people, including representatives from more than 200 tribal nations, and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests gained national and international attention. Hear LaDonna speak to how it changed her life.
Ladonna: Everything came out of the camp. Standing Rock became an anomaly where everywhere you can drive down in a road in Paris and an old farmhouse and they have many Mni Wiconi, we stand with standing rock in their windows. They have signs in their yard in every country. We went to Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, Paris. Everywhere I go, people say Lakota words. Mni Wiconi. Water is life. So yes, even though we only had 15,000 people on the ground living at the camp and we only had 100,000 that came and stood with us. Every keyboard warrior, everybody across the world heard us. Standing Rock became a seed and that’s all it was, was a seed. Everything that happened here was supposed to happen and all it is is seeds spreading across the world knowing that we have to change things and the vision is to create this big tree of life so that we can live again on this earth. And so now as we’re in the courts were fighting in the legal perspective now, but we’re still fighting and we’re winning. And then with our divestment program, we said, well, what do you do with corporations? Oh, their lives are money. So then we started having grandma divest from any bank that finances fossil fuel. And so then we went to the countries and asked them to divest and then we went to the cities and asked them. As you know, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Dallas, have all divested. We went to Norway, Sweden, Finland — Switzerland, we’re still fighting — asking them to divest Germany. And then now as the Mexican president just announced that he will no longer endorse fossil fuel in Mexico. Woo woo! And Portugal just announced their offshore drilling and fracking and will go to be a totally green environment. So is Greenland. Norway is heading that way. Finland, Paris in France, China made a, uh, a declaration that they will no longer allow fossil fuel cars in their country. So things are changing even though they said it wouldn’t happen. Even so they said we couldn’t fight a corporation. Even though they told us big money wins out all the time. Even though they told us we were fighting the government. All we need is one woman to stand up and say, no.
Amelia: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to LaDonna was to learn more about the role of women in the Dakota Access pipeline protests and the indigenous environmental movements that have grown from the camps. I couldn’t tell from media coverage whether the emphasis on women in the camps was intentional on the part of the indigenous communities organizing the movement or whether it was a projection of Western feminists onto the events. LaDonna explains,
Ladonna: We live in prophecy. We live in prayer and ceremony and so we were told, we are now stepping into the age of women and it is time for the women to stand up. Why? Water is life. What does that mean? Water is female, and so it is our requirement to stand up for water. Through water we bring children into this world. Through water, we feed our families to water. Life comes with the trees and the plants and the animals and the medicine to water. The rain comes through plenty. The earth, our mother, everything about water is female. It is our obligation to defend it. It is our obligation to fight for it. So we don’t have a choice. We have to stand up for water. And so when we spread the word about water, it is women who stood up everywhere, because we have that connection to water. And so when we stood up, there was a lot of other people saying things. We have a lot of military people. We had a lot of veterans. We had a lot of churches from all over the world that came with different ideas, but we had some of the most amazing, strongest women you’d ever want to meet. I seen them everyday in ceremony and prayer and singing and standing at the front line, young ones, little girls, teenagers. I seen amazing warriors. So yes, there was a lot of movement by women.
Amelia: I learned from LaDonna that the movement certainly was lead by women. But she was also very adamant that that leadership didn’t come from the sort of feminist motivations that certain media coverage — or even my own project — might see in it. She attributed this to a fundamentally different construction of gender roles in indigenous communities, and she centered this in the role of the grandmother.
Ladonna: I think, you know, in my whole life, my grandmother was the most important person. And no matter what I did, my grandma was always there to support me. And if you go around to talk to native people who went to college, it was always the grandmas and grandpas who encouraged him. And so in Indian country it’s a big thing. And, and so being out there, standing up for purpose, the grandparents’ duty is to support the young people. Grandma’s first job is of course, making sure everybody eats, making sure people have food and making sure they’re warm and comfortable. You know, most of the native tribes, I would say almost 90 percent are matrilineal, matriarchal. And in my tribe, we are patrilineal, which means that children go down to the father’s line, but the women owned the homes and the property and they own the produce. The men have their clothes and the women make those clothes, but the men have a, um, a very important part in our society. I didn’t grow up with the idea of one sex better than the other, or sex and injustice or any that. I grew up with the idea — I remember when I was young and I was complaining in my house, my father and my brothers all ate dinner. We would get their plates, we would cut their food up, we would get everything ready and my dad and my brothers would sit down and eat and then we were cleaned their plates and then us girls would eat and I would say, grandma, “why do we have to do this?” And she’d say, “you be respectful.” And she started telling me, she said, “a long time ago in our villages when a male baby was born and a female baby was born, the female baby would live, and the male baby would die. When these boys that lived would get to a certain age, we would more likely lose them. Whether it’s through hunting or just because our lives are rough. Then you get to the age where they become warriors and hunters, we’re more likely going to lose them, and then you get a man to be middle age, he is more likely going to die of illness, and so you if you have a man that makes it to elder stage you honor them because they don’t live long.” And so my grandma told me this and I was like, well, okay. And she said, “a long time ago in a village, an old man and old lady would come out of their, their home and he would sit her there in front of all the peopl. He would comb her hair and braid her hair and then when he was done, then she would get up and comb his hair and braid his hair and all the young people would walk by and say, Oh, I want to be like that.” And the object of that story was grandma said, “everybody deserves respect. If you don’t give respect, you don’t get respect. So if you honor and respect the men, the men will honor and respect you.” And so that’s how I was taught. I wasn’t brought up in, in the area where men dominated the families, men controlled, men did the discipline, men owned the properties. So I wasn’t growed up in that kind of society. And so when I became a teenager, people were saying all these things, you know, Women’s Lib, you got to stand up for your rights, you know. And I kept on thinking, well, what is my rights? And so it’s a different whole different culture of, of things. No Man has a right to tell a woman about her body, she knows that. And so I grew up with different, a different culture. There’s still a lot of requirements, how we dress, how we act in public, how we do things. It’s all about respect what our positions in ceremony is compared to the men’s position at ceremony. And they’re not right or wrong. They are our positions.
Amelia: And these positions don’t only look to the past, they also reach into the future.
Ladonna: I’m in a new phase in my life, which I’m not quite sure. I’ve now started this adventure of being a widow. My husband passed away six months ago, and so I’m just still trying to figure that out, because I never expected to live ever without him. But um, there are requirements that I have to follow. So I can’t speak unless somebody asked me to speak. I can’t grow in large crowds of people. I can’t go to events, festivals, music events. You cut your hair. There are a lot of requirements in this new status. And I kind of think of it like an education stage. Where are you in your femalehood? Where are you in womanhood? What happens when you get to my age? In my sixties, where do we fit in the world? And so I’ve had a lot of questions about that. And then I came to conclusion. Well, okay, I’m old now, which means that I can be more daring, more brave, more fierce than anything that ever walked this earth. That means that I can change the world.
Amelia: And changing the world is what she’s doing, whether it’s at her home in Fort Yates that is always welcoming strangers from around the globe who seek out Standing Rock or on her travels to other countries to stand with widespread indigenous communities fighting against environmental destruction.
Ladonna: How do you live on a planet? How do you make sure that seven generations from you are going to be fine? How do you make sure the next generation sees the same thing you see, lives the same way, and has the privilege to walk on this earth? Because to walk on this earth is a privilege, and I see people who disrespect the earth everywhere I go and I keep on thinking, don’t they love their children? Don’t they love their grandchildren? Or do they just dislike themself? Because the greatest love anybody could have is for your surroundings and your future generations. So when they found out they were going to build a pipeline out of my home, um, we said “No, how do we solve this thing?” So then I started looking into green energy, solar, wind, thermal, how do we do this? So today that’s what we’re doing. We developed a solar trailer that’s a wind, solar, water purification and internet, so we can pull in and plug in anywhere. We have looked at different housing structures that are more friendly than some of the structures that we live in today and telling everybody the first and foremost they have to do in this world plant something. So we’ve planted trees, we’ve planted gardens and then the second thing pick up trash and so we’ve had huge cleanups everywhere. Right now we’re in the position where there are only 22 percent of the whole world that has native grasses, native plants, native medicines, native trees, and all of these area seem to be in areas where indigenous people live. And then we go back to we are down to less than five percent clear potable water and we are in the largest extinction of animals. Up to 75 percent of our animals are going extinct as we sit here. And to me that’s a world crisis. And I tell people, “are you comfortable? then if you are comfortable than you are in the wrong. You should be standing up otherwise you’re just killing the future of the young generation coming up.” So we have all decided. We talked to each other, we try to teach people our traditional knowledge of living on the earth, living with respect from the earth and how to repair the earth, and so that is a big thing we’re doing on the global scale.
Amelia: LaDonna’s story, work, and life attest, as she says, to the power of one women who stands up and says no. The strength of that no is grounded in the long history of the land and community from which she comes or to which she chooses to belong, and it is powerful beyond measure. I want to turn now to the story of a woman who is still building her community and learning to become whole, as LaDonna put it earlier. Wiljar Ojuro is an African American woman with Haitian and Kenyan heritage who grew up in New York, but has chosen to build her life in North Dakota. I got in touch with her because she works for the only women’s health clinic offering abortion services — the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, but our conversation didn’t focus as much on reproductive rights as it did on feminist identity building and that’s what we’ll hear about from her today. Here’s Wiljar talking about her experience in North Dakota.
Wiljar: So at a very young age, you know, you already see what you’re facing up against and the assumptions just because of the color of your skin. And so naturally I had to kind of build that wall at a very young age to really just to set myself like “Wiljar you know, don’t forget who you are because these people see something totally different.” And I never want to play into the stereotypical stigmas or anything like that. So moving to North Dakota, back in 2014, I was alone. I don’t have family here, and I’m still alone here. Um, but I would say racism is definitely real here. But had I not had the experience growing up of being the minority throughout everything that I do, I probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Being here, it’s done two things. It’s helped me kind of express myself in a manner that surprises people because of who I am and what they see. Also, it makes me scared because I know when I leave North Dakota, I still have that wall up and it’s not fair because there’s so many other states around that are more progressive and you don’t have to think about things like that, you know? For one thing I would say here, it’s a stereotypical kind of thing, but I would say it’s good living here as an African American here if you pick and choose the right path to go down. If you fall into the, you know, I’m not going to go to school, not going to get an education. I’m just gonna, you know, follow the crowd and do my own things. Then yeah, it’s going to be tough because you’re only proving to them what they already think or assume about you. That’s why I’ve always strived in life to just push myself further. Like my mother and my father, they never stopped telling me that, “hey, you’re an African American woman. You don’t have these things that these other people have. So when no matter what you do, you always have to push it even further.” Like that’s been ingrained in me. And so that’s why I love pushing myself. I love getting involved. I love doing more than what people think I can do and it’s just, I have to, I feel like I have to here because I don’t want people to think that, you know, all African Americans are like this.
Amelia: I really appreciated Wiljar’s candidness about the reality and weight of carrying peoples’ expectations for a whole race on her own shoulders. This is one effect of marginalization and the reality of being one of few members of a group in any given place. Wiljar, however, has turned this pressure into a platform and embraced her opportunities to represent North Dakota, notably through her experience in pageants.
Wiljar: You know, because before when I looked at pageant truth, I thought, you know, you have girls who are size two blond hair, blue eyes, those are the typical winners and me, I’m completely on the opposite side of that and so, and I don’t apologize for it. So I think it took time for me to just be like, “just suck it up, breathe and own who you are and do it,” and not think about what you hear about it. The pros and cons. Just walk in it being you. And I think it works out really well in that sense because you can make it different just by you being there. So yeah, I love getting out of the North Dakota and going to like Georgia for example, and wearing my sash and it says Ms. North Dakota United States because it brings up a conversation and I already know what’s on their mind. It’s like, “wow, you know, they have a black girl. Like wow, you know, it’s like I didn’t know this.” So, you know, so it’s kind of like, yeah, let’s talk and you know, that kind of destigmatizes in a way, their idea, their, their thoughts of me and who I am and where I come from. So yeah, it’s different. It’s not something that I wear on my sleeve every day because that’ll, that that’s not a life to live, you know?
Amelia: Pageants are a controversial feminist issue with some people arguing that they empower the women allowed to compete and others pointing out that only certain women are allowed to compete and those restrictions tend to fall along pretty normative guidelines. Regardless of that fact, the pageant system has allowed Wiljar to represent North Dakota in a way that surprises other people and even herself. Wiljar also had thoughts on feminism in North Dakota and her own feminism.
Wiljar: Feminism in North Dakota, I would say it’s interesting being an African American woman here, because feminism here tends to single out the minority and we have to remember it’s not just me, it’s native Americans, it’s Hispanic Latinos or however one chooses their preference and just making sure that when you’re fighting for rights, you’re fighting for all women’s rights. The whole feminism word tends to scare people. Like being a feminist it’s like they think like anti-men kind of thing. I love being feminine. I embrace it. I walk around wearing gowns all over the place, even when I don’t want to. But it’s just about accepting who you are and not letting society form you and shape you into who they think you should be and who they want you to be. So if you are for that, then yes, accept the word, embrace it. I am a feminist.
Amelia: What I loved about the conversations I had in North Dakota is that these women are at very different stages in their lives, they come from such different places, and they have incredibly diverse perspectives. But they’re both grappling with what it means to be a woman in North Dakota. And from their insights, we get to see the expanse of womanhood today and the challenge that feminism faces in trying to speak to and perhaps even for such different women and people of all genders. This is what North Dakota taught me — that the places we think of as the most barren are often the richest and that the challenges of speaking to many becomes easier when we listen to just one.
As always you can learn more about the work Ladonna and Wiljar are doing in the shownotes at fiftyfeministstates.com/podcast. Otherwise, next episode we’ll travel south to South Dakota. Until then, I’ll see you on the road!
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Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Fifty Feminist States. You can follow Fifty Feminist States to stay updated on episodes and roadtrip happenings on Instagram at @fiftyfeministstates that’s @f-i-f-t-y-feministstates.
Our opening music is by Lobo Loco and this wonderfully sexist song that you’re listening to on our way out is a recording by Billy Murray from 1916.
Special thanks go out to LaDonna and Wiljar for meeting with me and sharing their insights into North Dakota’s feminist landscape. I also have to thank the hundred or so Kickstarter backers who made funding this season possible.
Until next time, wild ones! We’ll see you on the road.