Voices from Standing Rock: Mick Waggoner and Bonnie Wykman
“It feels good to know even though [our friends are] not indigenous they know about our struggle and they are donating because they feel connected to it. And if it’s through me, that’s fine – but eventually it’s going to be because they care about their water, and they’re going to start caring about what’s happening in their environment and how it’s being impacted, and that’s the point.”– Mick Waggoner
Mick Waggoner and her partner, Bonnie Wykman, were running the kitchen at Southwest Camp at Oceti Sakowin in December. Mick is a Diné educator and roller derby coach and champion (currently on the third-ranked team worldwide). Her homeland in New Mexico was contaminated with mining wastes since long before her birth, and she worried about the high cancer rates and other health problems among her relatives. In 2015 she was shocked by the massive Gold King Mine spill, which contaminated hundreds of miles of the San Juan, Colorado and Animus rivers and wiped out the livelihood of Navajo farmers who used the water for irrigation.
For her, Standing Rock has been an igniting force, something that has helped her raise awareness and build community around indigenous issues in Melbourne, Australia, where she currently lives with her partner, Bonnie Wykman, Long before she decided to come to Standing Rock, she was posting on Facebook to her legions of roller derby colleagues and fans. Eventually she held an auction and auctioned off her jerseys, raising $600 for the Standing Rock Legal Fund.
She and Bonnie found their way to the kitchen crew because of their passion for food. But their stay had a profound significance for them on all levels.
Mick: I’m from Dinétah, (the traditional Diné homeland) near Shiprock, New Mexico. I’m here with my partner Bonnie and my sister Athene. Since first reading about what’s going on here at Standing Rock I just felt connected to it. The same thing happens all over on indigenous lands all around the world, but – last year there was the Gold King Mine spill that happened on my lands, and that spill of that gold mine ran into the river system and it contaminated the San Juan, Colorado and Animus rivers. The state didn’t alert farmers for more than a day so no one closed their irrigation ditches. It’s like a couple thousand miles of contaminated river water now, in lands that are already decimated by environmental terrorism.
There’s like10 open uranium mines within a 70-mile radius of where I grew up. There’s the Arizona Public Service Power Plant, it’s so close I could probably walk there in 30 minutes, it’s like a mile away. Just a couple miles from that is a coal strip mine.
So I just grew up in this area that’s just devastated and being contaminated and mined. And that really concerns me, because I have a lot of family members who have cancer and other health concerns. And of course you can trace it back to those things. You can’t run away from your water, and where you’re getting it from. You’re drinking it, you’re bathing in it, you’re cooking with it, you’re watering your plants with it and then eating your plants.
We always had a garden growing up, and while I’m proud of my mother for always having that and always instilling it in us, all of the water she was using for the garden was contaminated water. And you don’t really think about that impact until you’re older and see what’s going on in the world.
So that was on my mind, and I coach roller derby so I did a few boot camps and I was raising money for that. So I would give a boot camp and the proceeds would go to the cleanup of that. But it’s still not cleaned up, and there’s no plan, there’s no way for them to really clean it. We don’t have a system in place for that at this time. But again, it’s already contaminated by uranium and the river pollution of the mining companies.
IC: Aren’t the mining companies required to do a cleanup?
Mick: No, a lot of those gold mines were abandoned after the gold rush and the silver rush in Southern Colorado, so those deeds have changed hands so many times that it’s even hard to track down who owns them. And so the state isn’t taking responsibility, the BLM isn’t taking responsibility, no one’s taking responsibility.
So that was kind of the first thing, and I said, I need to start paying attention to what’s happening on indigenous lands. And specifically mine. I love where I’m from, I love the landforms I’m connected to; we have stories where our deities are the landscape, and everything I learned growing up about the culture is about the land and our connection to it, so I think that just woke me up.
Then this year I met an indigenous woman when I was living in Australia, Amanda Lickers, and she does a lot of activist work and trains people in direct action where she’s from, which is Northeast Canada. So I went to a panel and heard her speak with some folk from Melbourne – they were all from the Kulin Nation, which is around Melbourne.
They had gone to her nation and were learning how they were resisting environmental terrorism [in Canada], and they did a skill share. And then they raised money to have her go to Australia. Then they had this panel and it was so amazing. I was having a hard time getting in with other people of color in Australia. And when I went to that panel the first thing that I saw was this huge mural that said, “Nothing about us without us.”
And that just really spoke to me. Especially there, because so many people – it’s like non-indigenous people are really trying to find a soul connection to the Earth, to the land, to something that’s other than Christianity; and so they attach themselves to indigenous ways of living and spirituality; but their way of doing it is the wrong way. And so sometimes that can feel very confronting. It’s another way of colonizing. And to see that everywhere – to see it in the stores, to see it in pop culture, to see it everywhere – to see, like, fashion runways with models wearing headdresses – it’s just confronting and it feels awful. And so seeing that mural I said, ok, I’m in a place where I’m going to feel connected and I can feel safe here.
And the facilitator was a woman, and that kind of spurred me into taking some action and paying attention to what’s happening in indigenous politics. But previous to that, I was trying to find a way to ground myself and connect myself with what I was eating, and the food systems I was partaking in, and the first step was – I was growing my own garden for the first time, and I was making sure I was eating eggs that weren’t caged and factory, and I stopped eating chicken altogether because I couldn’t find a source of chicken that I felt good with. I kept doing research – I was in New York City at the time and it’s so hard to access good food there. It’s difficult to get anywhere in the first place, it’s an hour of transportation to get to a good grocery store, and it’s so expensive, and you’re already living your life day-to-day and working from 5 in the morning and I’d get home at about 11 at night and to fit in good food, in all of that busy New York lifestyle was just difficult.
I moved there because my partner at the time was in medical school. And before that I was teaching so I took a break from teaching and nannied for a time. I lived in New York for a bit but I just didn’t want to participate in the food systems of New York City, it just felt awful. So I said, I’m going to go vegan, it seems like probably the easiest way of having some control over what’s happening, what I’m putting in my body. But it made me sick. My body needs meat. I don’t know any indigenous vegetarians – it doesn’t quite work for me. I’ve really tried supplements and all kinds of things but it just didn’t work. I tried for eight months and I felt sick and tired the whole time.
So I went back to eating meat but I was exploring ways to care and find out what’s going on. Then I moved to Australia and I met Bonnie, and Bonnie eats very differently from anyone I know.
IC: Why Australia?
The people I was nannying for in New York were Australian and they moved back there, and so I went for a few months to help them transition their son. I knew some people already, because I’d played roller derby with some of the ladies who live there. And I went for a few months and I ended up staying. And then I met Bonnie who introduced me to ferments, which totally changed the way I eat and the way I feel about my body.
IC: So maybe this is a good segue to Bonnie. Bonnie, can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Bonnie: A lot of my thinking about the connection to the land comes from food, and how we eat, where we get food from, whether we grow it or whether we’re supporting people who grow food in ways that determine to a large degree how land is used, because so much land is given to agriculture.
So since we’ve been traveling it’s hard. In Australia I feel like I know where to go and what to look for. And here there’s maybe more supermarkets where you can go to and buy things that are organic but I don’t know if I trust this industry here…. I do believe in spending money on food and that farmers are being paid a decent wage but it’s difficult to separate that out sometimes. I study ecological agriculture so I’m interested in food systems and I did that because I am passionate about food. I don’t want to be really puritanical in being sure I only have the best food – and I can have that tendency in my personality – so being in a place like this has been kind of a struggle because …
IC: Spam for breakfast.
Mick: And so we’ve taken over. (laughs)
Bonnie: Yeah, we brought a lot of food with us. Because we knew, we were prepared for that.
IC: So fast-forwarding to present time. What was it that brought you to Standing Rock exactly?
Mick: I was just reading every scrap of information I could, every day; I would wake up and that’s the first thing I would do is grab my phone, scan for news about what’s happening here at Standing Rock, and in the early days we were furious and angry, sharing information with my friends, and I have a large number of friends on Facebook because I coach roller derby internationally.
So when I would start sharing that information I would get messages back like, wow, I didn’t know this was happening. The more I read the more consumed I became with what was happening, and it ignited my visit. The more I felt this is all I needed to be thinking about and doing. Every conversation that happened outside of indigenous rights and sovereignty and the land and the mistreatment of people — it just incensed me. I didn’t want to talk about anything else. And the roller derby stuff dropped away and became much less important. It was more about connecting people to what’s happening here. It felt like that was my purpose.
So because of that roller derby audience I had an auction of my jerseys – because I’ve been on some teams that I would say are famous in the roller derby community. So if people care about roller derby they would understand and like that. So I auctioned off my jerseys from my team and the reigning world champions, and I was on another championship team, and right now I’m on the third-place team. So I auctioned off my jerseys and donated half the proceeds to the legal fund here at Standing Rock. And I think that really got a lot of attention in the derby world. That really made people care and notice and realize that there are indigenous people in our community – and it also got all of the other indigenous derby players to start talking and writing articles and paying attention.
And now that’s all it is, my whole Facebook feed is just all of these people from around the world that I’ve met and that I’ve coached, who are posting and talking and organizing. And during the world championships, that was a month ago, our team placed third; but during the whole playoffs tournament and the championships Bonnie and I had on our bodies as we played, because it’s also broadcast on ESPN 3, “No DAPL, Water is Life,” and we got other indigenous players to also do that. And the whole derby world was like whoa, this is amazing. And the fact that it just keeps getting bigger. Our community which is pretty small in the world is starting to pay attention. That matters to me.
IC: Are there other indigenous people on your team?
Mick: Not on my team but within the derby community, yes. There are lots. And that was important to me to bring those folks together. And it’s been hard but through this movement we’ve come together more than we ever have been. Because roller derby isn’t real life, it’s a hobby, it’s an amateur sport. But because this really matters – and it matters to all of us, because of how we were raised – it kind of gave us that extra like – all right, sister, let’s talk about this and band together and get our communities involved, and write some articles, and get the word out there, and raise some money.
So Bonnie and I got married at our championships, the day after, and we had a couple of friends, their gift to us was to donate to Standing Rock. So people were paying attention and they know what’s important to us. So I made a post about that: “This is what solidarity looks like. It’s giving to Standing Rock.” We had about 10 to 12 people after that message, to say, “Which is the place we should donate to” – because there’s so much out there and there are so many places to give and it’s hard to tell. And you see the donations pouring in here, everyone’s well taken care of and we can take care of each other because of everyone’s generosity. And it’s incredible to see.
And it feels good to know that our friends are part of that and even though they’re not indigenous they know about our struggle and they are donating because they feel connected to it. And if it’s through me, that’s fine – but eventually it’s going to be because they care about their water, and they’re going to start caring about what’s happening in their environment and how it’s being impacted, and that’s the point.
Bonnie: I also think in terms of education, what it looks like to be an ally, and connecting it with colonization, and really drawing those dots between … we live in Australia, Mick’s an indigenous person from the United States, and it’s really drawing those connections between the same thing that is happening in Australia and it’s happening all around the world. So really challenging a lot of our white, really privileged friends to really think about that stuff.
And I think it’s not just Standing Rock; it’s that bigger picture of, whose land are we living on, and what relationship do we have to them?
Mick: Something I put out there: first I challenge you to find out whose indigenous lands you’re living on and colonizing. And then I challenge you to seek those people out, volunteer, get to know them. Find out where your water’s coming from. Because guaranteed, they are fighting for your water rights now and you don’t know it.
Because this is happening everywhere and every indigenous community is fighting for their water rights, they’re fighting fracking, they’re fighting everywhere. It’s just that nobody understands and knows. And the fact that this is finally bringing attention to all the problems is so significant. That’s why it’s so important for us to come.
I kept thinking I don’t know if I can come, I have all these obligations. So I was talking with my family, with my Mom and I was kind of floating the idea and finally it was like, we’re going we have to go. Bodies were asked to come and show support and we’re here, we came, they saw, and the easement was denied. What that means for the future we don’t know but that’s a win right there. What the next step is we don’t know.
IC: Looking toward the future: How has this experience changed you, and what will you take with you, going forward?
Mick: For me it just ignited something that was already lit. I just feel like I want to continue to work in my community.
I’d taken time out to do my own thing for a year and a half, two years, and I’m ready to connect those things again.
But continuing to make sure that the people in my community that I’m connected with, that I’m a part of, know about indigenous issues and are connected to them. And that’s happened in a small way and I want that to grow. That’s important to me.
Bonnie: I think a big part of this is while it’s absolutely something I care about, it’s that I’m married to a native person. I’d have come to something like this if it were in Australia but I wouldn’t have come to the United States. Like I’m not arrestable because I’m from somewhere else.
In terms of what I take home I think it’s stuff that’s been burning for awhile, but that reaching out to the whiter part of our community and constantly challenging our colonization, and trying to do that work for myself and as I learn that, sharing it with other non-indigenous people in ways that hopefully are received well and challenges others but hopefully inspires a better way of life and a better way of thinking about things and moving on, from crippling guilt and “well what do I do about it,” to “how do I be a part of things in a good way.”
Mick: I think that’s the most important part. In that orientation meeting, when you first arrive – it’s probably pretty confronting for a lot of people, because maybe they’ve never heard that or they’ve never thought of themselves in that way. Where they talk about being a part of a system of white supremacy, I think that was very confronting for a lot of people. I could feel them feeling uncomfortable. But something I’ve learned in the last year and a bit is learning to sit with that – learning to sit with it when I’m feeling uncomfortable and working through that and really examining it and not ignoring it because it’s hard, but working through it because it’s important, and continuing to decolonize myself and my mind and my spirituality.
And the beautiful thing here is as indigenous people who were colonized by Christianity, I’ve pushed away a lot of that sense – I don’t feel any connection to Christianity whatsoever, but because it was so indoctrinated you find yourself when having to pray – not to yourself, that’s easy, connected to your ancestors it’s easy and natural. But when you’re asked to pray out loud in front of others you don’t know sometimes how to do that.
And I see other people pushing themselves to reclaim their indigeneity – and that’s really beautiful. And I did that yesterday. It’s like in Christianity they say, “When you feel this you’ll feel it in your heart…” and I never felt that way, ever. But I do feel that way all the time in my own community and in my own personal way of connecting to Creator.
This allows us a space to push ourselves in that way, and that’s really important, and I know there are a lot of other people who are also seeking the same thing as me. Because we’re all indigenous in our spirit but it’s learning how to express it that I’m looking to reclaim, and I can see other people doing that as well. And I’m glad to be here because I want to keep doing that. I’m seeking other people who are also seeking the same.