The Mythos We Live By: The Black Snake and the Row of Flags

This week we continue our series about the role of mythology in uncertain times. We’ve asked six writers who work with story  – as teachers, storytellers, anthropologists, poets, performers, activists  – to choose ‘a myth we live by’ and explore what  a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. Today we bring you Ben Mali Macfadyen’s account of the weeks he spent at Standing Rock’s Oceti Sakowin camp, helping resist the ‘black snake’ of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

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Shadows draped the tattered canvas of ‘Wounded Knee Kitchen’. Sodden figures, sheltering from the blizzard outside, clasped steaming mugs of coffee amid donated coats and clambering children. Huge pots crowded a trestle table  Diné pozoles stew and mounds of parcelled tamales. The crowd stood and removed their icy hats as an elder passed a spirit plate and shared words of hope with the attentive silence. Dorothy, an Oglala Sioux elder, sucked from Marlboro reds as she sat hunched beside an oil barrel stove, staring into some distant stillness.

‘Ask anyone in this camp and they will tell you the same thing. All the prophecies end here.’ Her melancholy pierced the murmurs of strategy and banter that filled the tent. She leant closer. ‘My ma told me about the black snake. That it would come to cross the river, poison our water, make us sick. They stole our lands with stolen hands. Now we are here to protect it.’

***

This has been a long time in the dreaming. The black snake from Dorothy’s vision lurked under the beds of Lakota children and in the flames of storytelling fires long before it visited me in Aberdeenshire dreams, slithering through mud, escaping my fearful grasp. Yet it was these prophetic threads that somehow led to the convergence of thousands of ‘Water Protectors’ from around the world on treaty land of the Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota.

Despite coming from a myriad of cultures with their own trauma and agendas of what progress looked like, they built a diverse global movement of peaceful resistance. This was led predominantly by indigenous youth and women, and united by one common goal: to ‘cut the head’ from the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The $3.8 billion project spans 1,172 miles, crossing the Missouri river twice, devastating multiple sacred sites and threatening the water supply of over 17 million people. A Hydra of desecration fed by one of the most powerful myths of progress. The American dream.

I am no spokesperson for indigenous sovereignty. I cannot attempt to unpack myths or stories which were not mine to take. What follows instead is an attempt to share some of my own learning from the Water Protectors of Standing Rock in the hope that we can find ways to deepen our approach to solidarity, and understand how the myths we live by have the power help us walk, as was so often said at the camps, ‘in a good way’.

***

In November 2016 I had the honour of spending a month at the largest of the camps, Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), the proper name of the peoples commonly referred to as the Sioux. Despite the frequent chaos of direct action as prayerful protectors were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, dogs and water cannons, as well as the looming fears of raids, poisoning, floods, arrests and surveillance (to name but a few), there was somehow still an inexplicable magic to life at the camps. A shared sense that, despite the hardships, this is what it meant to be fully alive. That we were witnessing history being made. That this was just the beginning.

After arriving with ideas of being ‘useful’, I quickly learnt that my role in the camp wasn’t to lead anything, or even to feel comfortable on indigenous land at all. I marked my hours attempting to clumsily practice humility through simple acts. Axing knotted pine logs with blue-eyed elder Ebrum; witnessing wisdom in crowded decolonisation meetings; shovelling snow with bantering Diné companions. Icy days began infused with ceremonial cedar smoke and the taste of blue corn porridge, and ended huddled in minus degrees beside the Sacred Fire, witnessing Lakota songs accompanied by the pulse of drum beats, coyote wails and generators.

The backbone of Oceti Sakowin was the flags. Left by hundreds of indigenous nations to show their support for the struggle, it was a noble row of every colour which flew in the face of sun and snow. Just beyond the camp’s limit, the lights of the pipeline construction glared, standing in parallel to the path of indigenous solidarity. One marked a way towards the health of future generations, the other towards desecration in the name of short-term profit.

Two paths. Two myths.

***

Four months have passed since those days. On February 23rd I found myself staring in shock at a very different scene. Live-feed videos depicting raids set to dismantle the world that was once so familiar. The snow, melting after the long winter, revealed Lakota treaty land choked in a mire of plastic tents. Detritus of the thousands who came and left. People like me, who were drawn to the powerful message of indigenous freedom and environmental protection but were ultimately free to fly far from the devastation the pipeline could inflict upon the land of those that call it home.

It is a travesty that the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota people still need to resist this devastating project in the wake of such high-profile peaceful struggles, but the outcome of this issue also extends around the world as a symbol to those who stand to protect their own water and ways of life. I find myself for the first time fearing that despite everything the prophecy will come true and the black snake will bring poison to the water. That the other myth won after all.

These times demand deeper questions than the present darkness can deliver. How are we to keep facing what often feels like ever-rising tide of desecration? How can we practice true solidarity with the people most affected? Is it already too late? The answers, as so often seems to be the case, lie somewhere in the realms of the mythic.

***

On one of my first days at the camp I entered the large white meeting dome and joined a crowded gathering thick with sage smoke. Faith Spotted Eagle of the Yankton Sioux stood and wove the landscape of what we were facing. ‘Remember,’ she cautioned, ‘we are all just a part of someone else’s dream.’

That day I was offered a radically different way of seeing. Growing up in a small Somerset town, the only more-than-human guides I encountered were in the realms of books and cartoons, or the invisible friends that I abandoned when the time came to don my school uniform. This was the way of a culture that offers little standing to prophecy, mythology and the dreaming, all of which exist beyond logical deduction. My days with the water protectors gave me a rare and powerful insight into the power of these qualities in action.

When I first started engaging in environmental activism as a young teenager I encountered many activist groups that held noble intentions of action, but created cultures of burnout and blame which created divisions and pushed away support essential to their success. The Water Protectors at Standing Rock hoped to see beyond opposition and anger against DAPL by drawing from people’s deep sense of values and vision. Their rallying cry ‘Mni Wiconi: Water is Life’ saturated the camps. It was screen printed onto denim jackets and called through walkie-talkies. It was an approach that saw beyond opposition and attack to a deeper need that is shared on all sides. This peaceful way didn’t always go unchallenged, especially by younger indigenous groups like the ‘Red Warriors’, who frequently pushed for action above the prayerful intentions led by elders. However, the power of their call to ‘protect the sacred’ cannot be underestimated. It is the kind of approach you can use to disarm a regiment, teach children, start a global movement.

Another powerful shift for me came when I realised that being in America for the first time I was learning the lay of the land by its indigenous nations before I learnt the whereabouts of its States. This was a unique position, rare even among indigenous people. I was coming to see how this struggle was far more than one to protect water. It was also a movement to reconfigure a whole history of place that has been enforced upon a people for half a millennium. It draws from the mythic by reaching something far more universal than solely the issue at hand. It returns us to the bigger dreaming, connecting people to their shared humanity and sense of belonging.

***

Questions on belonging were held close to my chest at camp, and while at work or over meals I repeatedly met conversations on ancestry and home, and found myself reflecting on the threads of my own lineage that tie me to Scotland. Perhaps it is the closest claim I have to a deeper sense of place, being one that was in some way also taken from me. Four generations ago my ancestors were cleared from their Hebridean home as part of the brutal Highland Clearances. I’ve twice journeyed to the Isle of Mull to clamber over the ruins of Moy castle that was once theirs. Perched on mossy fragments overlooking the Atlantic I wondered what dreams their relatives held as they made the dangerous passage across that ocean in search of a better future. What they found on the land they claimed as their own was not a new world, but other people.

In his autobiographical accounts of indigenous village life in Mayan Guatemala, artist and teacher Martín Prechtel poetically portrays the devastation caused by the double displacement that is central to the American story:

Deranged and damaged from generations of violence and cultural misunderstandings in their own lands, they came in a tornado of shame, hatred, and a numbness from centuries of wars with their own people, wars that had originated with other traumatized people like themselves.

At least half of the people I met at the camps, indigenous or otherwise, could trace ancestry back to Scotland.

Close up Ben profile
 
To see the path ahead as moving towards one of two polarised myths is too neat for such a messy past. We are, of course, inextricably woven into the fabric of both. As a teenager, I found facing global suffering offered little more than a one way ticket to shame and despair. With every casualty in a Congolese coltan mine or palm oil forest fire in Sumatra I felt deeply implicated in the gross brutality of everyday choices. Colonialism is alive in the assumptions and choices we make every day. While I cannot hope to extricate myself from the cycles of trauma that has been the legacy of my culture, I know there is another way. To not turn away, but commit to more deeply understanding our entanglement in this past destruction, can serve as a great power. I spoke to so many people who had recovered hope and pride in their indigenous heritage by visiting the camps at Standing Rock, and countless others who were inspired to deepen their commitment to struggles in their own communities across the world. $4 billion has already been divested from the banks that fund DAPL and a host of other camps have sprung up in resistance to other extraction projects.

This really is just the beginning.

***

‘This land is not ours. It is borrowed from our grandchildren.’ These words were humbly declared by an elder on my final day at the camp. The concept of seven generations was one I was already familiar with from my work in Embercombe. It is a powerful approach to leadership which states that every decision must be made in service of lives in the distant future. But another concept caught my attention during my month at the camp, that of ‘the eighth generation’. I asked someone one day what this meant, thinking it some self-proclaimed indigenous group or opportunistic branding. Turns out it’s us. The people alive now whose lineage was guided by seven generations thinking are the walking realisation of those ancestral choices.

Oceti Sakowin Camp dwells now only in memory. Its flags will never again dance in those bitter winds. But the state of things reeling through Facebook feeds and media headlines will only ever reveal fleeting ripples of far deeper waters than can be imagined from the surface. The myth of progress is crumbling because it holds an empty dream, one devoid of elderhood and vision. You’ve got to look into the darkness to see it is so. Our cultural unravelling on a mythic scale requires us to re-story while we restore, to creatively embed the vast scope of memory and vision into our patterns of speech, our ways of relating to land and of working together. We are faced with an opportunity to hold ourselves accountable for the legacies of colonialism, and in doing so be part of creating new mythologies that help us to see beyond all that divides us.

Perhaps seven generations from now our descendants will be walking in the myths and values that we are dreaming for them today.

Let’s start with this one:

Mni Wiconi: Water is Life.


Ben Mali Macfadyen is a wayfarer and artist, exploring the wilder edges of activism, community and creativity. A performer, mentor and co-facilitator of the Catalyst course at Embercombe, he is currently studying with Teatr Pieśn Kozła in Poland and developing a performance on empowerment and renewable energy in Scotland.

Images by the author


Next week we continue our series ‘The Mythos We Live By’ with a post by puppeteer and Theatre of the Ancients founder Joanna Hruby: The Walk of the Moon.

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2 thoughts on “The Mythos We Live By: The Black Snake and the Row of Flags

  1. Wonderful essay, rich and deep. We are still hearing negative portrayals of what happened at Standing Rock, always from those who were never there.
    The account here is in the mode of healing….healing divisions by reminding us of how so many ancestral threads are entertwined and carry great losses. A much appreciated view from someone who was on the scene during a great moment in coming together to protect what is essential. Water is Life!

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