by Bethany Hughes


Oceti Sakowin Land

In 2016, water protectors joined together near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota to protest the installation of an oil pipeline on tribal homelands. The Sioux, known in their own language as Oceti Sakowin, led what became an international protest movement combining Native American rights and environmental activism. #NoDAPL and "Water Is Life" became hashtags and rallying cries for Indigenous-led protests against resource extraction, environmental racism, and disregard for Indigenous sovereignty. A historic gathering of tribes, nations, and peoples, the water protectors at Standing Rock awakened the United States to ongoing maltreatment and injustice within Native American communities and on Native American lands. Successful in bringing together a multitude of supporters but ultimately unable to stop the laying of underground pipe carrying crude oil from the Bakkan/Three Forks area to its destination in Illinois, these protectors created a movement. Art, performance, music, and story shaped the movement and the ways in which larger non-Native and non-activist communities encountered the #NoDAPL cause.

Folksinger Raye Zaragoza (multiracial, Pima) contributed to the protest movement through her song, "In the River." Reminiscent of folk protest songs from the twentieth century, Zaragoza forwards an Indigenous understanding of kinship relations among people and water. She calls on her listeners to recognize their relations in the water itself, singing "[i]n the river are our sisters and our brothers." She calls out the violent suppression of water protectors and pleads for humanity to not "poison our future away."

Raye Zaragoza, "In the River" video:


(courtesy of Raye Zaragoza) 

Three months after the release of her protest song, Zaragoza again performed "In the River" while at the water protector camps near Standing Rock. The Facebook live stream of her acoustic performance in –20°F weather calls again to listeners to locate the stakes of protecting water and the specific location under threat. Filmed with the camp as backdrop, the distance between the live-stream viewer and her live performance reminds viewers of their own distance from Standing Rock, even as it challenges them to take up the cause of their relative, the water. We are separated from Zaragoza by distance and time. However, we are all still in relation to the water that sustains us and requires our care. The multiple flags blowing in the wind behind her live performance remind viewers of the multinational and multi-tribal nature of this fight. At least 280 separate Indigenous tribes supported the water protectors, displaying their flags at the camps as markers of solidarity and scale. The protection of water is not simply a Standing Rock Sioux issue, but a human issue, and it requires us, as Zaragoza's live stream invites us to remember, to come together and care for both our present and future.


Inuit and Innu Land

Only a month after Zaragoza posted her music video on YouTube, farther north and east another Indigenous nation protested the poisoning of their water relative. Inuit and Innu governments in Labrador, Canada, objected to Nalcor Energy, a Crown (government-owned) corporation, building a hydroelectric dam in their territory. Nalcor did not plan to clear the land to be flooded of vegetation and other organic materials. As the organic material decayed in the flooded land, it would create methylmercury, a central-nervous-system toxin, which would negatively impact the water quality of communities downstream of the dam. Methylmercury is a neurotoxin that impairs enzymes, cell-membrane functions, motor functions, vision, and has fatal effects on the brain development of fetuses.2 It accrues as it moves up the food chain, causing larger animals like humans increased exposure and damage. As the Indigenous governments worked with scientists from Harvard to create an environmental-impact study that adequately addressed the downstream impact of the dam's creation, protestors actively shut down the dam's construction site.

Thirteen-year-old Allyson Gear joined these protestors at a blockade in October 2016 and performed a drum dance. Captured on video and later in a prize-winning photograph by Ossie Michelin, the dance that Gear performed bore witness to the Inuk past, present, and future. Wearing an atigi, or dickie, a traditional Inuk garment, she performed a dance that formerly was done only by men, as women sang. Gear's dance, like Inuk lifeways, was not static, but active and interactive with its surroundings. She enacted tradition with a twist to protest the current threat to her and her community's future, demonstrating the interdependency so often forwarded in Indigenous knowledges and practices. She relies upon the knowledge of those who came before her and speaks for those who are yet to come. Protestors chanted "Make Muskrat Right," the cry and hashtag of the movement, while Gear embodied a connection with the past that demands a relationship to the future. Dancing on a road to stop vehicle traffic, she performed to prevent the construction that would enable poison to seep into both her body and her nation. 


Figure 1. Shyla Lefner (Choctaw) and Kyla Garcia (Taíno) in the world premiere of Mary Kathryn Nagle's Fairy Traceable at Native Voices at the Autry, Los Angeles, March 2017. (Photo: © Craig Schwartz Photography.)

Chitimacha/Pointe-au-Chien on Tongva Land

In March 2017, Native Voices at the Autry, the United States' only Equity (actor's union) theatre company dedicated to developing and producing Native American plays and playwrights, produced Mary Kathryn Nagle's (Cherokee) play about climate change, Fairly Traceable. Set during hurricanes Katrina and Rita in New Orleans, the play follows two Native American law students who fall in love, work through how best to represent and serve their communities, break up, and reunite in the wake of deep loss. Named after a US Supreme Court standard that requires a causal connection between an injury and the conduct complained of, Fairly Traceable demonstrates how that standard has repeatedly protected the corporations that profit from environmental destruction from bearing the responsibility for damage to the environment and Indigenous lives.

In the play, Erin, a Chitimacha/Pointe-au-Chien woman, earns a law degree, litigates on behalf of environmental causes, and ultimately seeks federal recognition for her nation. She is bolstered by her mother, a strong, outspoken woman who recognizes the possibilities and limitations of federal recognition, as well as the dire constraints that climate change brings to her nation (fig. 1). Randy, her love interest, is a Ponca man eager to free himself from racialized expectations of his abilities and investments. He chooses individual success over tribal interests, causing the rupture of his relationship with Erin. However, as he recovers from his own family's encounter with a natural disaster—a tornado—he rethinks his responsibility to his nation and community. His fraught relationship to his own Indigeneity is mirrored in his mother's development throughout the play, as she thinks through the consequences of supporting the extractive industries that destroy Indigenous life and lifeways (fig. 2). The play moves among the future, past, and imaginative moments outside of linear temporality as Erin pursues her twin goals of legal consequences for those who have damaged the environment and recognition of her own nation. In the end, Erin and Randy decide to join together as partners in life and in the effort to create a more-just world for Indigenous nations and the environment. Together, they witness the damage that rising sea levels cause and fight to protect the water and people who live with it and by it (fig. 3).

Figure 2. Jennifer Bobiwash (Ojibway), Chris Jorie, and Jason Grasl (Blackfeet) in Fairy Traceable, March 2017. (Photo: © Craig Schwartz Photography.)



The Indigenous women who created these performances protesting the abysmal treatment of water demonstrate what Indigenous feminist theorists Melanie Yazzie (Diné/Navajo) and Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa, Yurok, Karuk) call radical relationality. Radical relationality articulates Indigenous feminist action that provides "a vision of relationality and collective political organization that is deeply intersectional and premised on values of interdependency, reciprocity, equality, and responsibility."3 Zaragoza challenges her listeners and viewers to understand their own interdependency with water as she calls for us to take on the responsibility for protecting our relative. Gear demands that those around her remember that water and life forms, whether human or other-than-human, share equally in preserving and protecting both the present and future. To care for the water is to care for the animals and the humans. Nagle's play illustrates the ferocity and persistence of Indigenous women as they fight for their nations, their communities, and their lives. These are the life-and-death stakes of caring for the water. Looking to Indigenous women–led protests that take aesthetic forms such as song, dance, and story, we can see how radical relationality is a how, not a what. It is a making of relations and a fulfilling of obligations through a praxis marked by relationship, nurturance, accountability, action, and fierce love. 

Figure 3. Jason Grasl and Kyla Garcia in Fairy Traceable, March 2017. (Photo: © Craig Schwartz Photography.)



















1 Oka Apesvchi is a concept I develop in my essay "Oka Apesvchi: Indigenous Feminism, Performance, and Protest" (Theatre Journal 72.2, June 2020). Drawn from my own nation's (Chahta) language, it is a water caretaker/protector/keeper. The performances by Indigenous women detailed in this piece are examples of caring for water through aesthetic performances of protest—performances that show us how to care for our relations that are other-than-human as we look after our communities and our nations.

Young-Seoub Hong, Yu-Mi Kim, and Kyung-Eun Lee, "Methylmercury Exposure and Health Effects," Journal of Preventative Medicine & Public Health 45, no. 6 (2012): 353–63.

3 Melanie K. Yazzie and Cutcha Risling Baldy, "Introduction: Indigenous Peoples and the Politics of Water," Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 7, no. 2 (2018): 1–18, quote on 2.