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Teacher Voice

Leaving Standing Rock Was Just as Emotional as Leaving the Bhutan Refugee Camp 8 Years Ago

Earlier this month, I spent a Saturday night camping alongside thousands of water protectors who have gathered in the Sacred Stone Camp in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. I heard of the Dakota Access Pipeline and South Dakota’s Native communities’ opposition to it for months and had always wanted to join them in person. I heard also that a group of youth from Standing Rock ran 2,000 miles to Washington, D.C. to protest the pipeline and delivered a petition with over 150,000 signatures to the Supreme Court. My Lakota students are leaders more than they realize, and I was excited to experience the activism that students helped fuel. After arriving at the campground, I met people who had come there from all over the country, representing more than 180 tribal nations. They were water protectors, not protesters, they said. One by one, they offered me a sleeping tent, coffee, dinner, and even extra sets of hands to help set up the tent. The hospitality, generosity, and kindness of the protectors was so overwhelming that I could not help but camp for the night to hear their stories and share my own.

Memories of Bhutan

As I was checking out of the camp next morning, something in the air felt familiar. Then, I realized that exactly eight years ago that day, I was leaving the place I had called home my entire childhood, in pursuit of a more hopeful future. In that refugee camp in Eastern Nepal, I had grown up playing soccer with balls made out of grocery bags, and collecting wild ferns in the nearby jungle with my friends. I still remember that one evening when a raging inferno burned down the entire camp before our eyes, displacing us to the nearby jungle for months, where all we had was a tent over our heads. It must have been the green and blue tents all over the Sacred Stone Camp that revived my memories. The thoughts I had that morning echoed the concerns that plagued me as I left my childhood home: By leaving this place am I betraying my language, my history, my culture and my people? How else could I support the effort of this community of tribal nations? Am I betraying them and their resilience by not being there in solidarity for more than just one night? I couldn't help but see the parallels between the unyielding hope of the refugee camp and the fierce resilience of the Sacred Stone Camp; the two camps I have been a part of in two different corners of the world, one for 17 years and the other for one night. Leaving the Sacred Stone Camp that morning was just as emotional as leaving the refugee camp eight years ago. But I knew, now more than ever, it was important that I showed up the next morning for school, focused and energized to help educate the next generation of Lakota leaders, as many of my own students and their families are active water protectors. The demands of the Lakota people are simple: Protect the treaty rights and stay out of the sacred lands because water is life. This land was once dominated by American Indians and Alaskan Natives. However, in just a few hundred years, tribal nations now own less than 1 percent of the entire U.S. land and represent less than 1 percent of the total population. Such decline can be attributed to U.S. government’s historic disregard for treaties in its quest for expansion at the expense of Native people, their culture, language and history. [pullquote position="left"]The Dakota Access Pipeline is another example of greed and disregard. What is at stake here is not just the lands and the waters, but history and culture—the two things that been from Native people through colonization. The year I was born, my parents, grandparents, and tens of thousands of my people gave up their homes, their land, as well as water and natural resources they had lived off of for generations to escape ethnic cleansing in Bhutan. My people might have lost that battle, but more than two decades later, I am proud to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Nation's efforts to protect their lands and waters. As an educator, I’m also proud to work with the descendants of the first people to ever set foot on this land that are leading this movement. Sometimes life comes in full circle, and I saw a rare glimpse of it that morning.
Hem Rizal is a Teach For America – South Dakota corps member. He is originally from Bhutan.

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