In 2011, I was stopped in South Dakota with 52 lbs of marijuana in my car. I was facing two class three felonies each with a maximum of 15 years. I spent a year in and out of court and a total of four months incarcerated in jail… and then prison.
I got off easy.
Really fucking easy.
At my sentencing, the judge told me that he was certain that he could let me go and he wouldn’t ever see me again. He suspended my sentence but, out of fairness to the state, had to give me some time. Me with my fancy education, my expensive lawyer, my articulate statement, my pressed shirt…. I got off easy. So easy I’d hesitate to share with other inmates what I was in for. Certainly such an easy sentence would mean that I was a snitch.
Nah, I didn’t snitch.
It’s called privilege.
While inside, while learning how to survive, I got to peer behind the veil of the grinding grist of institutionalized racism. On it’s surface, we can say that the Native Americans in jail have done it to themselves. Petty crime, gangs, addiction… there’s an element of personal responsibility that we have to hold people accountable for. But if we scratch just a tiny bit at the surface, the system of control begins to reveal itself. In South Dakota, Native Americans make up a mere 9% of the free population but a whopping 55% of the incarcerated population. Just outside of town that I was first jailed in, Rapid City, sits Pine Ridge Reservation a 4000 square mile area where the average male life expectancy is 48 years of age. For women it’s only 6 years more.
While inside, I read and wrote. A lot. I wrote to get the spinning thoughts and fears out of my head. I wrote to keep track of what was happening to and around me. I wrote to keep myself company because sometimes it felt like the only person I could relate to was myself. I kept my loose pages of writing in a hard bound Bible that I had pulled from the book cart. It wasn’t for reading but, in a fight, it could extend my reach by 9 inches and would protect my hands from being damaged. Besides, I needed something to hold my pages.
One day I wrote a word. It scared me to see it. How dare I name it? What right did I? Who the fuck am I?
But, still, there it was in my angled block print. The soft pencil lead smudged by my dragging pinky.
After getting out, I got on with my life. I rebuilt my salmon business. I worked to rebuild relationships and catch up with friends. I wanted to put that piece behind me – to get on with my life.
Sure I saw things that I couldn’t unsee. Sure I wanted to help but I didn’t know how. What difference would I make? Who the fuck am I?
I kept writing. To get thoughts out of my head. To move on. To heal.
But then there was that word.
What could I do? What power did I have?
Even with privilege there’s a sense of being disempowered. It’s part of the system of control. We’ve been lulled into apathy distracted by chasing comfort and security.
Now I know what I can do.
The Dakota Access Pipeline was originally routed to run North of Bismarck, North Dakota but, after a public outcry over how it would endanger the clean water of it’s population (ostensibly white), it was rerouted to run directly north of Standing Rock reservation.
This movement represents one of the most marginalized groups in our country taking a stand against corporate interests, resource extraction and FOR indigenous/human rights. Indigenous and their allies have come from all over the world to support one the most marginalized people in our country.
On November 20th, I will be traveling with a Bay Area group to Standing Rock Reservation to join the Water Protectors to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Winter is coming. We will be bringing donations of food, warm clothing, wood and shelter. We will be bringing skills to share and we will be bringing our bodies to stand in solidarity with people that have been struggling against genocide for the past two centuries. I will be bringing the support of my community. I will be bringing salmon from a pristine Alaskan river system threatened by resource extraction.
While inside, there was always some television blaring. It annoyed me. The tinny sounding speakers reverberating off the concrete walls. All day long the television would cycle. Through game shows, sports, the news, sitcoms, movies…. and, there amongst the brown faces, I realized the banality of the violence of their exclusion. Genocide does this to us. We just come to accept it as normal.
Think about it. There’s a place within America where the average life expectancy for a man is 48 years and for a woman is 54 years. Clearly, no room has been left for Native Americans in the American Dream.