By: Julie Do
Ryerson held its first panel discussion for the Defend Standing Rock movement on Friday. It was led by third-year film studies student Victoria Anderson-Gardner, and included five speakers from different Indigenous Sioux tribes, such as the Lakota, across parts of Canada and the U.S.
Youth activists Cody Looking Horse, Trenton Casillas-Bakeberg, Aaron “Shawn” Turgeon or Prolific The Rapper, Erin Wise and Thomas Lopez Jr. had travelled from the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock to share their stories and experiences of the protests in April 2016. For some, it was their first time in Canada.
The evening began with a ceremony at Lake Devo, followed by spoken word poetry from poetry slam group Poetic Exchange and songs by the youth activists, before moving into Ryerson’s Student Learning Centre for the panel.
Lindsay Sinclair, a Ryerson graduate student in child and youth care who attended the meeting, said it offered insight from Standing Rock that she thinks needed to be heard.
“I think their stories are really important… Sometimes it gets lost in all the media coverage, and I’d like to get a better understanding of what really happened from the people who lived and existed through it,” Sinclair said.
Anderson-Gardner agreed, saying it was what she saw in the media last spring of the protests that pushed her to organize the panel, Mni Wiconi: Mitakuyelo, which means “Water is Life: Protect it, Defend it” at Ryerson.
“Seeing all the media, hearing it through people, it just really touched my heart,” she said.
“[This feeling] is not something I can explain. It’s something that starts in the heart rather than the mind… I just knew I had to do something eventually.”
Anderson-Gardner also decided to film everything from the panel, turning the stories into a short documentary.
She hopes that her efforts will keep the conversation going and allow people to speak about their truths, hardships and the importance of what really happened.
“I want people to unlearn the ways that settler colonialism has made them think and just decolonize their minds, their bodies, and our lands,” she said.
Protests began last year when plans for the new Dakota Access oil pipeline were announced. The pipeline would pump crude oil through the Standing Rock Reservation. It sparked anger and protests from the Sioux tribes there, who said that it would threaten their cultural grounds, drinking water and religion.
Other tribes soon joined the protests to fight the pipeline, many being youth activists as young as 19 years old, experiencing injustice and violence by police.
Casillas-Bakeberg was 20 years old when he was first arrested by police at the camp.
He said his experience at Standing Rock was traumatic, and that he felt dehumanized for fighting for a cause he believed in.
Casillas-Bakeberg and 147 others were charged in October 2016 with conspiracy to endanger with a fire or explosion and two misdemeanours: engaging in a riot and maintaining a public nuisance.
He and others were performing Inipi, a sacred purification ceremony where the Lakota will unclothe and gather in a sweat lodge for song and prayer, when it happened.
“I was arrested in my underwear and taken to jail like that… They didn’t even give me the chance to get my clothes… They didn’t even book us with our names — just numbers on our arms,” he said.
Casillas-Bakeberg said he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from his experience, and hasn’t been able to look at police the same way, regardless of whether or not they’re good people.
He says he’s glad people like Anderson-Gardner took the initiative to organize events like this, and wants people to focus on the fact that the fight isn’t over.
“When we tell these stories, it’s a way of healing. Sometimes I just want to forget it, but doing that, I lose my own power and I forget what I’m actually here for,” he said.
“Through telling the experiences that happened… I hope that the students can hear it truly with their heart and take some of that empowerment too, maybe learn and take an initiative in their own home community to stand up against the corporations and basically the colonization and genocide that is still happening today.”
The panel plans to visit other universities in Ontario to continue spreading their message and documenting their journey with Anderson-Gardner’s production team.