By Nick Napolitano
December 6, 2016 — Last month, the first-ever delegation from Red Cloud High School attended the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in Washington, D.C. While there, four students from the Jesuit-run high school located on the Lakota reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., also visited with students, faculty, and staff at Georgetown Prep and Georgetown University.
The Red Cloud students spent weeks preparing for their trip to Washington, D.C., with co-chaperones Garrett Gundlach, SJ, and AmeriCorps teacher and alumnus Gabriella Rose Fills The Pipe. Knowing they would have an opportunity to meet with the offices of elected officials from South Dakota during an advocacy day, the students identified an issue uniquely relevant to their community — the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and the overarching concern of a lack of tribal consultation on these kinds of large infrastructure projects. Given an opportunity to educate and raise awareness on concerns about the impact of the pipeline to the broader Ignatian family, the Red Cloud students unanimously agreed to develop a presentation to share during their time in D.C.
Weaving Lakota language, song and spirituality into their presentation, the Red Cloud students shared the concerns about the oil pipeline, which has united the largest tribal gathering in 140 years. The students recognized that the proposed path of the pipeline is just the latest in a long line of injustices in American Indian history. In spite of that, their call to be protectors of the land demanded that they raise their voice on this environmental issue. Students shared a Lakota phrase Mní Wichóni, which means water is life. They believe it is extremely likely that the oil pipeline will leak over time, contaminating the Missouri River — a water source upon which 18 million Americans depend. For Native peoples, children are sacred, and they believe the land is borrowed from future generations. The students expressed their gratitude and awe of their elders who are using the power of nonviolent protest to try to alter the plan for DAPL.
Students and chaperones from Red Cloud High School advocate for change on behalf of their Lakota, S.D., community.
Georgetown Prep has a long-standing relationship with Red Cloud, sending summer immersion groups to Pine Ridge each year. When they heard Red Cloud students were coming to the area, Georgetown Prep welcomed their delegation for a visit and tour of the school, as well as to share their presentation on DAPL. Seniors from Georgetown Prep who went to Pine Ridge last summer hosted the Red Cloud students for lunch, where they shared their different perspectives as high school students.
Religious Studies teacher Bill Haardt called the Red Cloud students' visit a privilege and blessing for Georgetown Prep. Haardt added, “Georgetown Prep has been sending students for many years to the Pine Ridge Reservation and Red Cloud High School, so it was fitting to open our doors to their community.” Haardt hopes the visit will deepen and strengthen Georgetown Prep’s connection with the Pine Ridge and Red Cloud communities and said, “Philámayaye, Red Cloud!” ("Thank you" in Lakota).
Georgetown Prep students who completed immersion programs in Pine Ridge, S.D., invited Red Cloud students to lunch at Georgetown Prep.
Following their participation and presentation at the Teach-In and advocacy visits on Capitol Hill, Red Cloud students headed to Georgetown University. Welcomed by the Center for Social Justice and Campus Ministry, the Red Cloud students joined Georgetown students for a campus tour and meal and to inquire about academic programs, religious life, and student activism on campus. Hannah Wingett, a Georgetown University student who led the tour, shared her impressions from their time together, saying, “The Red Cloud students were so incredibly passionate, kind, curious, and engaged — spending a few hours with them was an absolute honor.”
During the tour, Wingett took the Red Cloud students to Red Square — a campus free speech place where students stage protests and advertise for events. The Red Cloud students broke into a cheer when they heard Wingett was planning a protest to raise awareness about and advocate against the DAPL project. Georgetown students are engaged in a number of environmental justice issues, but the Red Cloud students’ personal connection to DAPL has led them to be knowledgeable and effective advocates. “They care so incredibly much,” Wingett noted, “and while that passion can be difficult in activism, it can also be a huge asset. Activists who care deeply about their cause often do more for their cause.”
On December 5, the Department of the Army announced that it would not allow the pipeline to be drilled under the Missouri River and that it would look for alternative routes, a positive response to concerns expressed by thousands of Native people and environmental activists. It is unclear how this decision will be impacted by the Trump administration. Several campers said there were too many uncertainties surrounding the Army’s decision for them to leave the camp. For those looking to learn more, Garrett Gundlach, SJ, has compiled a document of news coverage on the issue.
Nick Napolitano is the assistant for social ministries for the Maryland and USA Northeast Provinces of the Society of Jesus.