As oil interests and corporate greed trump common sense and human decency, indigenous people are suffering, land is ravaged, and water supplies are poisoned: enough is enough. Essay by John S. Blake.
Remember placing your palm on a piece of paper? Remember taking a crayon, how the teacher taught most of us, and outlining our hands? Then, we used that shape for the outline of our art project every November; the Thanksgiving turkey. The turkey, that creature cooked and splayed as the center of a joyful narrative—the one where indigenous saved Pilgrims from death by showing the white people how to navigate the earth and till the land. Remember finding out it was all bullshit—how Thanksgiving was really positioned after the massacre of the indigenous? Oh, you didn’t know? My bad.
The irony is overwhelming. The hypocrisy, unfathomable. I try to imagine how two generations from now will view our existence. I imagine high school students reading how, during the Thanksgiving festivities nationwide, authorities were using water cannons on indigenous people on indigenous land in order to break yet another treaty. I fathom the single, raised eyebrow on the countenance of a teenager who has a sudden epiphany concerning how full of shit this nation has been.
I am forty-six years young. In my lifetime, I once enjoyed summer. The average temperature in New York City in the 1970s and ’80s was approximately 80°F. I remember how cool we managed to stay because drinking water was so easily accessible. Fire hydrants were left open slightly, water fountains were in abundance, and, even in suburbs, all it took to get a drink was to lift up a garden hose—while I played in a cousin’s or friend’s yard—turn the knob, and drink. That easy. I was thirteen when my mother and I were watching a comedian’s skit on how we’d someday have to go to a grocery store to purchase water. It was hilarious. My mother wiped tears away and cackled as I shook my head at the absolute absurdity. I mean, could you just picture such a disaster? Having to buy water?
I don’t know when it happened. I can’t remember how old I was when I turned on the faucet one day to experience a burst of swimming-pool stench that came with the water. It was an aroma that signified summer fun and the absence of homework. It meant I survived another school year and managed to get permission to head out with friends to the community pool. It meant my mother gave me some quarters to purchase ice cream, and we were on our own to dive where we weren’t supposed to in order to impress girls with our courage. Now, the nostalgic perfume filled my drinking glass and closed my throat at the sudden thought of drowning. I smelled bleach in my shower. Something was obviously wrong and would definitely be fixed, right? It’s been twenty years since that experience. It’s never changed.
First, water was being purchased by the gallon. Then, came the individual bottles. Restaurants began offering bottled water (to those who could afford expensive meals). The companies were showing up in commercials and on billboards; pictures of deer in streams or a sun peeking through thick wilderness—pastoral scenes of bliss in a bottle. Water. Real, drinkable water; odorless, tasteless, pure, sold cheap.
Remember when the news stories began about flammable water in the Midwest? I recall a man flicking a lighter under the gaping mouth of his kitchen faucet, turning the knob slightly, and as if witchcraft, a torch poured downward from where lips should easily ease onto a smooth shapeless stick of welcoming water. Then, there was a clarity problem in Wyoming, Montana, Pennsylvania, and other states. People began to talk about how fracking may be interfering with water supplies, causing dark coloration in drinking water.
Thinking back, how many times were we told by a neighbor or relative to “let it run for a minute, it’ll clear up” before it became habit everywhere we went? How many promises were we offered by utility companies that the problem was “temporary?” I too am guilty of living in distorted patriotic faith; our government would never sacrifice its own citizens, simultaneously pandering to corporations. I mean, not over water. It’s water!
I live in Virginia. Faucet water here is “drinkable.” And by drinkable I do not suggest it tastes enjoyable. I mean, it smells bad, it tastes bad, but I haven’t shown any signs of sickness by cooking with it or showering beneath it. We purchased a filtered pitcher for our drinking water, but I don’t have the hours in a day to use bottled water to wash with, cook with, and drink. Who has room for all of that!?
This sounds impossible to me; not that I have these dilemmas over a natural resource, but that this is truly a high-class problem should one compare it to what Flint, Michigan, residents are still experiencing since state corruption and corporate greed has signed the death warrant on children who have been diagnosed with lead poisoning there. People are dying from their water. Children—in the United States of America—have been poisoned by their water company, their governor, and a muffled syndicate of witnesses and cohorts. The discourse surrounding rights to water are steeped in intersectional atrocities; the poor, the of-color, the “others.”
And here we are, forced to witness a Sioux Land Treaty as it’s broken, again, by our government, enabling yet another corporation to poison American citizens, while the indigenous peacefully beg for our humanity. It is two days after Thanksgiving. The leftovers impregnate most of our refrigerators and freezers. Many of us are shopping and dining out with friends and family we haven’t seen in years. We stroll malls and sit in cafes. We move in and out of establishments and grow thirsty. We stop somewhere and grab bottled water. We grab, and pay for, water without confrontation. On the Standing Rock Reservation, people are navigating water cannons and rubber bullets, dogs with bloodstained grimaces and militarized companies who serve billionaires, while our President, while our televised news media, shove their heads in the clouds for the sake of paychecks and allegiances to corporations.
How far have we come? When (white) America was forced to see how peaceful protesters were beaten and/or killed by Selma, Alabama, police, national support poured in from the Pacific to the Atlantic and beyond. But today, it’s simply become a reality show. Only the “passionate” or the “extreme” or the presumed jobless—having no serious responsibilities elsewhere—are seen being abused by state-sanctioned forces as another corporation takes what does not belong to them.
And how did we get here? We are at this point watching indigenous people being thrown off their land, seeing their sacred burial grounds dug up for an oil pipeline because the original path for the pipeline was argued against by white people who understood the impending risk to their water. So, the path was simply changed, through a reservation, and the indigenous are expected (again) to just move, get out of the way. This is what wealthy white people want. And so it goes.
It is 53°F right now in Standing Rock. The sun will abandon the water protectors soon. The water cannons will continue through the night. Hypothermia will be suffered. The elders and children, who are begging to be recognized as something other than a nuisance, may die there, waiting for us to get home from shopping, waiting for our President who jokingly pardoned turkeys but hasn’t waved a federal wand to save those who are trying to save us all—who have practiced patience for centuries, whose dead will be uncovered and moved or paved over in the name of pseudo-progress. This neoliberalism—protection of (white) property and wealth over lives. This bio-political move to keep the protest off of news outlets in order to let the Sioux, and their sibling tribes, die there without so much as a whisper from anyone who sees journalistic integrity in the mirror. And every object I purchase for Christmas supports this government. Every teeth-gleamed smile at decorations is me ignoring an atrocity. Every Christmas cartoon or movie I allow myself to be distracted by—I have had the nerve to dub them instruments of “self-care”—because I don’t want to look at the work I’m not doing to save what little water we have left.
What kind of despair am I submerged in that I’ve manipulated myself into some entitled status of “someone will take care of it?” Since when? Here, in Richmond, Virginia, Dominion Power has been given permission to begin dumping toxins into the James River, and I’ve been too busy to protest. I’ve been studying for school and spending time watching television with my family; bitching about politics and elevated tuition. I’ve been complaining for years about many things. I’ve done nothing to change any of it, except post gripes on social media. Now, I watch as people willingly put their bodies against razor wire and the fangs of dogs, while the protesters wait for the Army of Engineers to show up on December 5th to “remove their camp” to “protect lives from violent confrontation.” This will surely make room for a steel trail of black tears straight to Texas. I’m not sure what it will take for me to do whatever is necessary to save my own life and the lives of those I love. I don’t know when or how I’ve been convinced that my life isn’t worth saving, or maybe I’ve been tricked into thinking that my government still has my best interests at heart. But the truth is, I still find it difficult to swallow the reality: people will kill themselves and anyone in their way for profit. Tomorrow, in D.C., there is a march from the Department of Justice building to the White House. It begins at noon. I truly hope—for those with transportation, those who are able bodies and willing to—many will attend.
I have obscene amounts of hope, only because I’ve seen how much change can happen in my own life when people love someone or something enough to insert themselves for the sake of real change. My hope is that we will give a better history to our great grandchildren than the history our great grandparents had to hand down to us. My hope is for less blood. It’s a hope. I’m just hoping, but …