A Yup’ik woman, originally from Lower Kalskag, recently returned from the Oceti Sakowin Camp at Standing Rock, North Dakota where she went to demonstrate against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Bedushia Nicholi now lives in La Jolla, California. She hopes to be back visiting Alaska for the holidays, and she also hopes to return to Standing Rock.
On November 20, the evening that Bedushia Nicholi arrived at the Oceti Sakowin encampment, police attacked demonstrators in sub-freezing temperatures with rubber bullets and fire hoses. She was part of a group called the Bernie Sanders Brigade and though she was not part of the clash, had she known about it she would have been.
“The Bernie Sanders Brigade was 28 people strong, plus nine vehicles and trailers and RV’s – so it was massive. We were all getting ready, and I didn’t know some people went to the front lines so I did not go. Had I known, I would have gone, even though I’m a grandma. I’m 57 years old; I would have gone. This is historic. This is our civil rights movement," said Nicholi.
Indeed, that night is headed for history.
Bedushia Nicholi's group came to deliver donations to Standing Rock and stayed in the camp from November 20-24. She says she loved being at the camp.
“What I love is everybody is friendly and they’re trying to, especially the white hippies - they are trying so hard to comply with the Native ways and the Native dress and be respectful, especially towards women, and there is conviviality there that is heart-warming. It is cold, but I don’t think it’s a problem for Alaskans," said Nicholi.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and a growing number of supporters, have been occupying Army Corps of Engineers land along the path of the pipeline since April. Members of the tribe claim that they are the rightful owners of the land under an 1851 treaty, and that they were not properly consulted about the project.
On Sunday, the Army Corps denied a key easement that Energy Transfer Partners needs to drill under the Missouri River to complete the pipeline – a huge victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Then, just as thousands of veterans had converged on the camp to support demonstrators - or, as they call themselves, water protectors - a huge blizzard hit the camp, shutting down roadways and dropping temperatures into the single digits with wind chills below zero. News reports estimate that around a thousand people fled the camp due to the brutal conditions, but thousands of others stayed.
The people occupying the camp are passionate about protecting the water of the Missouri River from the chance of a pipeline accident.
“The water supply, it’s water for 18 million Americans," said Nicholi.
Nicholi says the encampment was, in some ways, like an Alaskan village, and that it inspired her.
“I’m just amazed, I’m just amazed. It changed my life. You know, there are a lot of people that care about our country. We need to take back our country. I’m just blown away," said Nicholi.
As a grandmother, Nicholi says she was treated with respect.
“It didn’t matter if you were white or if you were Native. If you were a woman and you were an elder, people treated you with respect. And I really liked that," she said.
“People think I’m an immigrant here in La Jolla, and they treat me as such. At Standing Rock, I think people were more respectful; not like here. Even in our Bernie Sanders Brigade where there were a lot of Natives going to Standing Rock, they called me an elder and I joke with them and tell them, ‘You had better recognize!'" said Nicholi.
While at the camp, Nicholi was asked to wear her traditional Yup’ik headdress so it could be seen in news media photographs from the scene. And, like all guests, she helped out.
“I was not on the front line, but I did give a blessing on - they asked me to do a blessing on the food. I did that at one of the mess camps, I washed dishes. It was multicultural, it was not just Natives, and when I did my blessing I said, 'You are the first Nation of the seventh generation. You are the first nation of the rainbow tribe. You are part of history and you are vitally important.' It’s a Native prophesy," said Nicholi.
Although the Chairman of the Stranding Rock Sioux Tribe has requested that people leave the camp as the harsh winter approaches, she hopes to be back there after Slavic, which is Russian Orthodox Christmas.
To support Daysha's work in North Dakota click here. All proceeds allow her to stay and report a little longer about the protest as she took some time off work to be there.