Retrospective: Biodiversity at Sacred Stone Camp

This month marks three years since the founding of Sacred Stone Camp in April of 2016, on land just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, at the confluence of two important rivers.

These photos were taken during Prof. Linda Black Elk’s Sitting Bull College Field Ethnobotany class in June 2016. This day we did a field trip to Sacred Stone Camp, which had been established 2 months before in April. At that time, there were approximately 25 people camping out there — mostly local people, with a mix of youth and elders.

(In case you don’t recognize the camp’s name, this was the first camp to be set up on Standing Rock treaty land as a prayer camp resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline. The coming fall and winter, tens of thousands of supporters from across the world would pour into Sacred Stone and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp. The National Museum of the American Indian has a good summary of the situation online here, complete with links to resource guides, audio clips for pronunciation, and citations from relevant treaties.)

This was the entrance, circa mid-June 2016, when you first drive into camp from the town of Cannon Ball, ND:

The focus of our visit was:
1) to discuss the impacts of previous flooding in this area on the plant population at the confluence of these two rivers, and
2) identify culturally important plant species still existing in this area that would be impacted by the proposed pipeline.

One important aspect of the botanical history of this area that I learned from Prof. Black Elk was about the devastating impacts that flooding had already had on this landscape. Prior to to the damming of Mnišóše (the Missouri River) to create Lake Oahe, an agricultural irrigation and hydro-power project that benefitted the white communities downstream, the confluence of Íŋyaŋwakáǧapi Wakpá (the Cannon Ball River) and Mnišóše was home to some critically important plant species that have since been wiped out.

One plant story that Prof. Black Elk shared about the pre-dam confluence of these two rivers really stood out to me. She told us that this area used to be thick with wačháŋǧa, or sweetgrass — so much so that she said there are stories of Indian families coming from all over with their wagons, sometimes for a week at a time, just harvesting and braiding sweetgrass to take home to their communities. Sweetgrass favors a moist growing environment, so the areas along the banks of the river, especially this confluence, were an ideal growing environment. But when the floodwaters rose with the dam, those medicine plants drowned. Today, sweetgrass does not grow wild anywhere on the reservation that I know of. Some locals have told me that they have to go to Montana or Canada if they want to harvest sweetgrass in the wild. A few people tend tiny patches in their gardens, but it is not the same, and since growing conditions are not ideal, it can require a lot more maintenance.

In the flooding of Mnišóše to create Lake Oahe and the Oahe Dam, the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ peoples living along the river lost a staggering amount of land. Entire communities disappeared under the floodwaters. Some of the elders I work with talk about their homes being lost under the water, the graves of their parents and extended families, sacred sites, and much more. All told, the Standing Sioux Rock reservation lost 55,993 acres of land (according to Wikipedia), and our downriver neighbor, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, lost 150,000 acres.

In addition to just this staggering loss of land, the quality of the land lost is important to mention: both tribes lost their best farmland. The river bottom fields had good, fertile soil, which the elders still speak of fondly. They had traditionally been tended by local Lakota families, producing a significant portion of the food they would need for the year. (I received a great lesson from one of my language mentors one day about how they preserved this agricultural bounty in communal root cellars, but that’s another post for another day.) These fertile fields, combined with hunting and some ranching, allowed the local people to be food sovereign: the elders told me that there was almost nothing that they needed to go off-reservation to find, food-wise, besides coffee and sugar. But all of that good, river-bottom land disappeared beneath the floodwaters.

The remaining land on Standing Rock was much less suited for farming: you have to work harder for less yield, contending with factors such as extremely hard ground, low soil fertility, and sandy soil that does not easily hold nutrients and water without serious amendments.

Before Mnišóše was dammed, Prof. Black Elk says that nobody on the reservation was on welfare. Within 5 years, about 60% of the population was receiving welfare, she reports, and within a decade, that number had risen to something like 95%. (Note: if I’m wrong about these numbers, it is due to my own mis-remembering, not Prof. Black Elk mis-reporting. I will go back and verify when I have a chance.) Regardless of numbers, though, it is no exaggeration to say that the impact of losing this land was devastating to the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Another culturally important plant species that was lost with the flooding of Mnišóše was makȟátomniča kiŋ, the Mouse Bean (Amphicarpaea bracteata). This was an important wild food source. Some of the elders in our Field Ethnobotany class had fond childhood memories of harvesting these with their grandparents when they were children. (I will share more about the stories of Mouse Beans in another post.) Our local population of these plants was also wiped out with the floodwaters. Attempting to reintroduce and restore a local population of these plants has been the subject of Prof. Black Elk’s doctoral work.

So this is a tiny piece of the recent history of this small patch of land, and this community that has already lost so much. This was the situation into which the threat of the Dakota Access Pipeline was introduced.

This small patch of where Prof. Black Elk is standing, was maybe 2 car lengths long and one across. Our Field Ethnobotany class — including some students with very little plant ID experience — identified 16 culturally important plant species in this little piece of land, in under 15 minutes.

Here, some students search for plants to ID, while others enjoy a species that we have already identified: the juneberries that were in season.
We found plants that would help with depression, toothache, stomach ache, colds, and more, in just this area. This area is incredibly sensitive, ecologically speaking — and it is also a rich pharmacy that will care for us for generations, if we look after it, too.

Looking out into Íŋyaŋwakáǧapi Wakpá, the Cannon Ball River:

View from the top of the hill, looking out at Íŋyaŋwakáǧakapi Wakpá, as it flows toward Mnišóše to the east. Up here, we found some additional culturally important plant species up here that were not growing down below, including several fruits such as pté tȟawóte (Astragalus crassicarpus), i.e. ground plums, and some medicinal plants including ȟaŋté, or cedar.

At the top of the hill, flags were flying from some of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ bands (which are all sovereign Indigenous Nations) that were represented at Sacred Stone camp at that time.
(Left to right: Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate.)

So this is a little bit of what Camp looked like before it became known around the world. This is a little bit of the plant history of the area. And a little bit of what is at stake, should the pipeline burst and contaminate the waters, as we fear it easily could.

The following month, in July of 2016, I was in Saskatchewan for my university course, when the kind of devastation that we fear on Standing Rock happened up there: Husky Fuel spilled 225,000 liters of oil into the Saskatchewan River. Two and a half years later, the case is finally making its way through the courts, and the Indigenous communities downstream from the spill are still facing devastating consequences. At the time of Saskatchewan River spill, friend of mine who works for Health Canada dealing with situations just like this one told me about the environmental devastation that was predicted. The impacts would be felt within 100 miles of wherever the current carried the spill, in every direction — upstream, downstream and along both banks. He predicted a die-off of plants and animals, and environmental consequences that would take a very long time for the ecosystem and all of its inhabitants to recover from.

Many of the leaders of the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance are youth, as were many students in Prof. Black Elk’s Field Ethnobotany class. In the time since Camp, I have been asked to give plant walks for our local schools, and I am seeing a lot of enthusiasm among the young people in our communities on the reservation, for getting to know and make friends with their local plants. I hope that the deepening of these relationships, and the reconnection to the land that took place for so many at camp, will mean that the numbers of water and land protectors will continue to grow, for years to come.

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