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Towards a New Future: Perspectives from the Standing Rock Reservation

By Bailey Johnson '20

In May of 2019, students from the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community, ETHOS Center, and the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega participated in a service-learning trip to the Standing Rock indigenous reservation in North Dakota. During this trip, we performed construction work on a building called the Star Lodge and constructed, stained, and planted garden beds at the Elder Center. Apart from the service work that we did, there were numerous opportunities to meet with several community members and activists in the area such as Linda Black Elk, Phyllis Young, and Father John Floberg, Standing Rock’s Episcopalian minister.

Through this experience, there were many things that I learned in regards to indigenous human rights abuses and struggles. For example, I heard about the Dakota 38, the largest mass execution in U.S. history approved by President Abraham Lincoln in which 38 indigenous people were executed and thousands more were forced to march from their own land, and that the Declaration of Independence refers to indigenous people as “merciless savages.” I also became aware of the social issues that unfortunately plague indigenous reservations to this day, such as high rates of suicide, alcoholism, and high school dropout. Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by violence, abuse, rape, and even murder- frequently as a result of police negligence, and even including instances of abuse by the police themselves. All of these human rights issues are directly connected to a history of white settler colonialism that has largely dominated Western education, knowledge, and understanding of indigenous people.

In this context, I had the privilege of traveling with a group of 14 very capable, hardworking students and 3 amazing mentors. Through our service projects, we learned to pace ourselves, find balance in our own work, and communicate openly with one another. Despite the rain and the mud that could have dampened an amazing experience, we made the best of the circumstances, worked hard and together, and laughed through it all. We met some amazing community members, activists, and mentors along the way who inspired us with their resilience and determination to make a change in their communities. We learned of larger philosophies of indigenous life that taught us about the ways in which we can relate to ourselves- remaining true to our roots and to who we are, respecting ourselves, others around us, and nature, as well as the beauty of simplicity. 

Still, we struggled with the question throughout the trip: What is it that we can do? I think that the relationships that I formed while on this journey- with others as well as with myself- helped me to answer this question. With the frustrations of feeling alone in a world where there are so many problems, it is quite easy to think that the answer is simply to do nothing. In particular, human rights abuses and struggles can create feelings of isolation for activists, advocates, allies, and others who wish to make a difference. But if we allow our feelings of isolation to turn into apathy, we would join a large population of individuals who have become complicit in colonial systems of power, social injustice, and human rights abuses. By recognizing the relationships that we can form with others and all of the work that is being done to address these issues, we know that we are not alone.. After all, whether it is starting a non-profit organization, facilitating a community event, or even merely starting a difficult conversation with others around us- all of these possible solutions require that we work with those around us to advance human rights and social justice.

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