by Thomas Tonatiuh Lopez Jr.
I remember walking across that stage like it was yesterday. I had finally completed six years of college at Metropolitan State University of Denver. I had jumped through every hoop, dotted every I and crossed every T. I was ready to be the man I had worked hard to become. I come from a family of educators. Aside from a scorched driving record (stemming from my teenage wasteland days) I kept a clean record. I was involved in my school’s media outlet and had attained two Heartland Emmy Awards for Student Excellence and Achievement. I wanted to be an entertainment talk show host. I knew that Indigenous people and people of color were underrepresented and I wanted to change that. I had an entire plan in place, but, I had no idea how my life would change over the course of the next six months.
Six months later…
Monday November 21st, 2016. I found myself living on the Great Plains in Cannonball, North Dakota defending the Cannon Ball and Missouri Rivers against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. I had spent close to two months with indigenous peoples from around the world sharing our knowledge, stories and pain. We had experienced a violent attack on our water protectors (both indigenous and non-indigenous alike.) An attack that we now refer to as the Attack at Backwater Bridge. The last of the explosions vibrated the ground at about 5:45 am. The helicopters continued to harass us, flying at dangerously low elevations, 200-300 ft. off the ground. The images of frozen blood, severe burns, cardiac arrest and potential loss of limbs kept playing over and over in my mind. I saw what war looked like. I saw the true spirit that is AmeriKKKa.
The sun had finally begun to shine, but the clouds weren’t ready to move as a cold frost crept over the camp. I found myself in a caravan headed into Mandan, ND. What should have been a day of self-care and community healing quickly turned into a day of retaliation through non-violent direct action (NVDA). I took the two-hour drive into town after an almost sleepless night. As a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council (IIYC) we were often put in positions to speak or pray and this was no exception. Within moments of arriving I was asked to lead the opening and closing prayer for this action.
The plan was to walk from Main St. to Wells Fargo, then to the Justice Building and then to Morton County Sheriff’s Office to demand the immediate resignation of Sheriff Kirchmeyer. So, I prayed and we set off to Wells Fargo where they denied meeting with us. Then we walked to the Justice Building where we were denied, again. The building was surrounded by national guardsmen. The same national guardsmen that had brutalized us hours before. The very men I wanted to be far away from I had then come face to face with.
I looked these uniforms in the eye and I told them about our connection as human beings. I shared with them, my knowledge of the Earth. I knew that these men were following orders, and I remembered where I had heard that once before. I remembered my high school teachings about the Jewish Holocaust and how the captured Nazi’s excused their own actions with a simple, “I was just following orders.”
We kept it classy as we gracefully marched back to Main St. We stayed within our legal parameters to ensure the safety of our people. When we reached our final destination, we refocused and began the final prayer that would conclude our action. I was 45 seconds into my prayer when I was grabbed by two men, kicked to the ground and zip tied. It was the longest 45 seconds of my life. I knew the risks that came with resisting. I had seen it unfold too many times before and end in blood. I felt hundreds of years of forced assimilation surround my wrists. I heard the cries of children being taken from their parents and shipped to boarding schools. I felt the pain of our hair being cut, our languages beaten out of us.
Our Existence is Resistance
In that moment, I asked myself what my mother and father would do. My parents never taught me to fight but they did teach me to pray. Through the unsettling fear that flooded my heart I told myself that 300 years of oppression was ENOUGH! I would no longer be moved by these governments and corporations or the people who defend them. I would no longer be a product of their misguided expectations. They could have my physical body but they will never have my mind, my heart or my spirit. I finished my prayer, I was thrown into the back of a cop car and booked to Burleigh County Jail on alleged “disorderly conduct” charges. It was in that dark, cold cell that I dedicated the rest of my life and everything I learn, earn and do to my people. From that moment on I let go of this colonized dream, I let go of being part of the media, of becoming rich and successful out of selfishness. I let go of all the bullshit stopping me and I dove head first into fate.
This moment will forever be a pillar of change in my life’s story. This moment defined much of my past, my present and my future. I was the perfect kid. I did everything this system asked of me, yet I still ended up on the bottom of Liberty’s boot. I’m not sure what would have happened to us if we wouldn’t have stepped up in that moment. Maybe we’d be here, maybe we wouldn’t. Regardless of answers we’ll never know, it would seem to me that I found a calling and a true warrior was born. I am proud of myself and our people. I am proud to be a part of the International Indigenous Youth Council. I am proud to be a Water Protector! No one will ever stop me from holding that pride for the world to see; OUR EXISTENCE IS OUR RESISTANCE!
The fire that was started in Standing Rock burns brighter today that it ever has. The four winds took that flame and spread it to the hearts and souls of peoples around the world. We started a fire that cannot be put out. We are living in the Seventh Generation and we are prepared to make the change. We stand with our hearts towards the sun, fearless of a new day. WE STAND WITH OUR SISTERS AND OUR BROTHERS!