menu Menu
Conversations with LaDonna and Cheryl
From the Sovereign Sisters Transcripts, in honor of a mighty matriarch
By Tracy L. Barnett Posted in Indigenous Peoples, Lakota on April 17, 2021
Esperanza is the Antidote: A Year Later Previous LaDonna fights on in the resistance of Native youth Next

Many thousands this past weekend were hit hard by the news that we had lost a living treasure on Earth, the inimitable and irreplaceable LaDonna Allard. The Lakota historian, water protector and Standing Rock movement founder had been struggling for a long time with brain cancer. And even though those of us who love her knew that she was ready to go join her beloved Miles, it was still heartbreaking to lose her. She had a way of turning the colonized mindset on its head and inside out, perhaps more than anyone I have ever sat with.

I was instantly reminded of the unfinished business I had with her; I had been planning a trip to her ecovillage on the Standing Rock reservation when the news came of her cancer diagnosis, and then the pandemic. So it was never possible. I had the privilege of spending a couple of very fleeting days with her in the sacred Black Hills in June of 2019, surrounded by a small group of amazing women convoked by fellow Lakota Water Protector and Standing Rock stalwart Cheryl Angel. The gathering was called Sovereign Sisters and was a rare meeting of indigenous and non-indigenous women, an indigenous-led exploration of the concept of sovereignty, in all its dimensions.

I gathered some audio at that event, and some of it went into the three stories I wrote featuring LaDonna (see below for links). As always, there were random bits of conversations that didn’t make it into any story. I share some of them here, in honor of LaDonna and also of Cheryl, who created this space and opened the door to other ways of thinking and seeing the world. It’s such a tiny fragment of what could have been. But I join those giving gratitude for her legacy, and give thanks for what was and for what remains.

Cheryl, from the road on the way to LaDonna’s funeral, shared that the next Sovereign Sisters gathering will be held in remembrance of LaDonna and other matriarchs that have led the way. For more information, contact her at her Sacred Activism page on Facebook.

Cheryl and LaDonna on borders, sovereignty and the ancient trade routes

Cheryl: The trade routes were established long ago, and also the routes of culture – and it’s against our laws to close those borders because people from the top of America were trading with the people of the bottom of America – and that’s our right to do that, because that’s our sovereign economy.

LaDonna: So, as I said before, all of these have been continued but they’re quiet. The round that me and Miles used to do with all these spiritual leaders everywhere we go, they have this network, but it’s so quiet, as one man said – we don’t have to pay tariffs and taxes and such – we just trade. So when we go down to New Mexico, we bring sage because they really like our sage – and we trade the sage for piñon nuts or green chile or that amazing oven bread they have.

My point is that it’s always been going on – it’s just become this covert thing so the United States wouldn’t know. So we trade medicines, we trade paints, we trade constantly. So when my son took me to Santa Fe he said, Mom, this is where all the Indians trade. This is where they go to the market. This is where you get the Indian discount.

So I went there and I sat among all the Pueblos and the Navajos and everyone. And you can just see them; it’s a back room over a restaurant – and only they go in there, and they sit there and they’ll order their food because this restaurant has big plates of food – and they’ll lay out their jewelry and start trading. Then they all go down to the market to put their stuff out. But they spend their morning trading, and it’s so cool. Food, herbs, medicines, jewelry…

Cheryl: What I want is for the indigenous people to protect that. We need to say, we shouldn’t be stopped at these borders, because our trade industry is older than any governmental institution on the Americas.

Tracy: Do you know if anyone is working on a legal case about this?

Cheryl: I don’t know. But that’s what we need to do, we need to stand up and say we’re exempt from your border control, your border laws, and as tribal people we have the right to continue to go back and forth from the top to the bottom without being stopped by these borders.

LaDonna – There are several groups that are organizing now and filing lawsuits and working. And then there are also my relatives from Colombia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador and are all working on this.

The Tohono O’odham, whose lands are on both sides of the border, are saying …

Cheryl – The National Congress of American Indians had a meeting where the Tohono O’odham came and they talked about national security – homeland security was working with the local people to give them new passports – and there they came up with a passport and they wanted the tribal people to accept it. And they said, “Oh no, Hell no, we don’t need the passport. Now you’re trying to enhance the passport? No!”

LaDonna: That’s why I’ve spent the last two years not talking to any tribal government. Homeland security is in every tribal government, and Homeland Security is controlled by the United States. And there is not sovereignty there.

Cheryl: When I’m here on these lands I’m a beneficiary of the treaty of 1851 and 1868. That’s my legal status. Anytime I’m on unceded tribal territory that’s talked about in the treaty. But when I’m not – I have dual citizenship and people say, you have to be one or the other. No, you can have duality. When I’m on a state highway, I have a state drivers’ license so I can drive in that territory. But when I’m on the paths of my ancestors, following my ancestors when they were living their sovereign economy – that lifestyle we had before capitalism – that’s my inherent right to travel all the way to Alaska to get the shells that we need for our ceremonies, and the right to go all the way down to Argentina, to the bottom, and trade, like my ancestors did. Because we weren’t at war with each other, and we had this unbelievably beautiful trade system that ran up and down, all the way from the north to the south. That’s my inherent right.

LaDonna: In North Dakota we have the Arikara People. So what are their sacred feathers? Parrots. And before all the colonization, they would make a trip that was called the sacred journey, and they would make the trip all the way down – because in their oral histories, they came from Middle America and came all the way up. And so they have these feathers and when I first went up there, I was like – hmm. These are not from here. And they said, no, these are a part of our ceremonies. This is what we have in our bundles. And so they make this ceremony, and they make this trip, and they bring their bundles with their feathers.

Next Steps After Standing Rock

Cheryl: It started at Standing Rock and we put out the call – and everyone felt the ancestral call to respond. But it could have started anywhere.

We tell everyone to protect their own watershed in the place where they’re standing. Yesterday I put the four pillars in the four directions and told everyone to stand in the spot representing the direction they came from. Because in all those places we need water protectors. So if we can teach people to protect the watershed in the places that they come from, to build those relationships and to continue the ceremonies and to live in respect – we’ve had enough of these genocidal policies, this genocide must eventually turn toward justice, toward social justice and environmental justice. So what is the next step? Stay in prayer.

Ladonna: I say, plant seeds. If you live in an apartment, get a flowerpot; make a window box. Plant.

Cheryl: Because the people are all separated by the system – the acculturation or whatever you want to call it – and they start taking up the chunks of land and destroying the network of roots that were alive and connected. So every time you plant, you’re restoring the framework that supports everything that lives. All those roots – they need to talk to each other. They need to be intact. We can’t be tearing up the root system that covers the planet – because that’s like the nervous system inside of our brain. It literally enables everything to communicate with each other. And now the communication is cut off because there’s so much area that’s uncovered. So take that plant that’s in a pot and put it in a longer planter box with more plants so they can talk to each other.

LaDonna: Can you imagine what would happen if everyone on the planet would just take the initiative to plant? Just to throw seeds – that doesn’t mean dig it up, plow it up; that means, put a seed down. We would have enough food to feed the world. We have enough resources for everybody on this planet right now, we just have a small percentage of people who are holding the resources; and we need to learn compassion and sharing and all of these things. For me, Standing Rock was nothing more than a seed that is spreading across the world.

Tracy: And Sovereign Sisters is a part of that, right?

Cheryl: Sovereign Sisters is – this is a part of the language that I had to change when Gov. Noem put out that riot-boosting rule and the legislature supported her. It literally took the words from my vocabulary. I was literally speechless, and my mind couldn’t think fast enough to replace the words she had just taken away from me. The words that build peace, the words that give direction; all of those words that I’m used to using … so I was speechless, and I had to go back to the beginning.

So we had an economy that was intact and it was successful and it was flourishing all over the planet. And then the world started changing and the masculine started taking over, and the women started being put down. And now we live in a masculine world, and that’s slowly crumbling, naturally; and it’s time now for the women. There have been so many ceremonies that have pointed to that. The Earth is slowly going to restore the living aspect of this planet; whereas while the past 500 years the masculine has dominated, that’s not how this planet was designed, we are slowly moving now in the other direction, toward nurturing that which is going to sustain us. So that’s the next step; it’s like LaDonna said, plant a seed, so all those roots can be reconnected. That’s going to build the foundation. We’ve been separated for too long.

Tracy: So part of it is about food sovereignty, and part of it is also about building alliances and creating connections, right?

LaDonna: Planting seeds is telling stories. You can’t quantify it. You can’t put it in a box. Everything means way more. So planting seeds is telling that story, telling that origination of people, telling that relationship with the land, Telling that relationship with the animals and everything. Telling story is planting seeds for the next generation.

Tracy: So it happens on many levels.

LaDonna: Everything happens on many levels.

Freedom (McLaughin, LaDonna’s son): Go back to the original encounter – the Native in this river in your mind. What was the interaction happening back at the 1851 treaty point? What was the crux of that interaction? The crux was: We’re here, and you guys want to make a big gold production. And Sitting Bull, then, made a big precedent and said, We’re going to stand up. And it hasn’t changed. It’s something that you saw with No DAPL.

I say – How can we flip it on its head and say: OK, we’re going to issue you a pass. And we’re going to retrain you as people on this continent on how it goes. It never changed – it got way less loud – like she mentioned, the trading got less loud, but they’re still there. So waterways – around Seattle, in Nisqually, around the time of the 1973 Wounded Knee encounter – that was an affirmative ruling that the waterways are a treaty area still. So all those Northwest Tribes fought and died and won their right to have — 50% was the ruling, but the custom was to have their usual and accustomed fishing grounds. And the waterways here are the same way. So if someone here is enjoying the waterways here, they’re under a legal blanket of tribal sovereignty. So there are different ways that you see that.

I just went to jail and they arrested a guy with a joint and threw him in there. He was coming up on a vacation so historically he could have fallen under that blanket of the authority of the tribes – if you go by the waterways.

Talking Circle with Cheryl and LaDonna and Lyla June

Lyla June: Anthropologists who met us thought we didn’t have a religion, but it was really just that our ceremony didn’t end. We’re here to set a good example, and what we want to do here is set a sacred agenda to create a space of deep compassion, where women feel safe… because there are very few safe places for women where they’re not going to be predated upon. This is that safe space, and we’re here to make sure that it’s a place where your feet can connect to the Earth and your head can connect to the Sky. So you can focus on prayer without having to be afraid. We’re all striving for excellence in thoughts, words and deeds, and taking care of how we walk. We want these next few days to be a template for action, compassion and kinship.

Cheryl (introducing LaDonna):  LaDonna is a very inspirational woman, she is my elder, she’s someone I’ve listened to and watched, and what I’ve learned is that we need to share – everything we’ve been given, everything we’ve been blessed with – whether it’s a language or a culture or any gift that was given to us, we should be sharing it.

And that’s what I have learned from LaDonna – specifically in a time when everyone was giving, I saw her giving the most. Her mind was always on – what can I do to make this better? Even if it was driving to town every day to buy food – what can I do to make this better? She’s still doing that today. That’s where I learned – what can I do to make life better? So everywhere I’ve gone, it’s because there was something I could learn, and it’s been about, what I can do to make life better.

On sharing stories, and colonial language

LaDonna: If you don’t have a relationship with people, they won’t talk to you. I learned that when I was doing all this history and listening to elders talk. When I first got back from college, nobody talked to me. And Grandma would say, “What’s your relationship with them?”

And I’d be like, “I don’t know.”

“Did you make them tea? Did you make them coffee? What did you bring them?”

“And I was like, ‘Oh, OK!”

So now, when I talk to people, I tell them, “My name is LaDonna Brave Bull, I’m Punchie Brave Bull’s daughter.” And then all of a sudden: “I remember your grandma.” Or: “I remember your tribe.” “I’ve been in your town.” And so then, once the relationship is established, they start telling you their story. But you have to establish that relationship. And as I was going through looking at things, that is the way Indian people react. And if you don’t develop a relationship, they will not talk to you. Mitakuye Oasin – We are all related. That means everything. 

It also matters how you talk. Because if you talk that colonized talk, people are going to turn you off. That young lady who was talking about the projects they were doing, she said some words, and I pulled away and I stopped listening.

Tracy: Which words?

LaDonna: Payment. Money. Profit. Just watch – we shut down, and we won’t hear another word you say. Because that’s just…

Cheryl: Like disconnecting us.

LaDonna: So words and how you say the words is really important. Because that young lady may have had a really good project and was doing good things, but she shut everybody down because she started talking colonized. “How do we take this information, how do we monetize it? How do we get the necessary funding? Speaking about money turns us off. NGOs, nonprofits, etc.

At Standing Rock, the way it worked, we brought our own stuff. And those who had, put their own money, but we didn’t all have money. We took care of each other.

On Standing Rock, and Recycling, and Self-Sufficiency

Tracy: I was there in time for the veterans and the blizzard. And that’s why I didn’t get to meet you, because it was snowing… I got there too late.

LaDonna: Nobody did. All I did was get up in the morning, fill my truck up with water, haul water down, pick up the list for groceries, go buy groceries — then they’d give me construction lists, and I’d go to town, get wood, nails and whatever else they needed, come back…. That’s all I did … and pick up garbage.

Tracy: I would have loved to have helped you with that.

LaDonna: Well, you know, there’s a large mental deficiency with urban people. They had all of these women who were sorting garbage out in the winter. But they’re sorting out — why are they doing that? For recycling. We don’t have recycling here. I have to pick it up and put it in the same bin. They said, Why don’t you have recycling? I said, They charge two times the amount and we can’t afford it. So I put the garbage in the garbage bins. But now you know that recycling is a farce. Now they have so much recycling, they’re just dumping it in the middle of the oceans. So all these people who are recycling think they’re doing a good thing, but they’re dumping it.

So the middle-class New Agers that live in cities are primarily destroying the Earth, and they’re thinking they’re being environmentally friendly. Right now they’re throwing it in the ocean because no country will take it. China used to take it but now they refuse. So now they’re putting it on barges and dumping it in the ocean. It’s like the big farce of America, how to control the people through media and tell them this. And none of it’s true. Why are you listening? That’s why I said everybody in America has to empower self, everybody has to empower self.

When did it happen when we as a people waited for the government to tell us what to do? Waited for the government to fund programs, waited for the government to feed us, waited for the government to give us medical care. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Shouldn’t people have already empowered themselves to care for themselves, plant their own food, gather their own medicines, heal themselves from the Earth? It’s all right there. So that’s why I have issues.

So that’s what we’re talking about with sovereign systems, right? Sovereignty. And the first act of sovereignty is food. Feed yourself. And one of the things that people… They sit in their little house and they eat by their self. And I was like, is that creepy? Everybody who stays with us all must eat communally.

The first act of community is sharing food with each other. And if you have food, it should be free. It should be shared with everybody. That first act of sharing food sets a community and teaches you compassion. So that’s why I always say the first act of sovereignty is food. So how do you get that food? The second you plant your own food, what does that planting do? It heals your body, it heals your mind, it keeps you in balance.

The first act of community is sharing food with each other. And if you have food, it should be free. It should be shared with everybody. That first act of sharing food sets a community and teaches you compassion. So that’s why I always say the first act of sovereignty is food. So how do you get that food? The second you plant your own food, what does that planting do? It heals your body, it heals your mind, it keeps you in balance.

See also:

LaDonna fights on in the resistance of Native youth

Women of Standing Rock: LaDonna Brave Bull Allard

From Encampment to Ecovillage at Standing Rock

How the Women of Standing Rock Are Building Sovereign Economies

Previous Next

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Cancel Post Comment

  1. What an amazing article and the quotes you chose to write Tracy are marvelous. Quiet, ancestral trade has made us who we are as much as architects, hunters, peasants, weavers… I love the traders. They’ve been a sort of vanguard in History. thanks for bringing La Donna and Cheryl close to us!

    1. Thank you for making that point, Ana — I had never thought of it that way, but of course it’s true! Traders have always been the connectors of culture, the connectors between peoples. It was fascinating to hear an indigenous view that goes beyond our capitalistic blinders to see how the world was, and still could be. Thank you for reading and commenting!