Saturday, December 10, 2016

Reflections on Standing Rock @susancerulean

LUCY BURDETTE: Today I'm honored to introduce my sister, Susan Cerulean, who is a nature writer and a fierce advocate for the environment. When we heard that she was going to visit Standing Rock Reservation to support the Sioux protest of the Dakota Access pipeline, we all agreed we'd like to hear about her experience. I asked some questions (in bold) and she'll be happy to answer questions and comments from you as well. 
SUSAN CERULEAN: On the snowy, stinging cold prairies of North Dakota, encampments at Standing Rock have evolved into the longest running protest in modern history.  The main camp—Oceti Sakowin--sits on Federal lands that legally belong to the Standing Rock Sioux under the terms of an 1851 treaty.  On that site, thousands of Native Americans and others are seeking to halt completion of the 1172-mile Dakota Access pipeline, which is being constructed to transport fracked oil from the Bakkan shale oil fields of North Dakota, to southern Illinois.  The concern about an oil spill upriver from the tribe’s water source has resonated with groups across the country.  Militarized law enforcement has responded to the nonviolent prayer marches and actions with road blockades, illegal eviction notices, arrests, tear gas, rubber bullets, attack dogs and water cannons.  This is why the Sioux people invited us to come stand with them.
What made you decide to go to Standing Rock, and what did you hope to accomplish or offer?

In the first days after the devastating Nov. 8 election, like so many others, I searched for a larger context of hope, and for personal direction.  I have worked my entire life as a wildlife biologist, an environmental advocate and a writer, and it’s clear that we have entered a time when we can no longer count on politicians or the government to protect our life-giving planet Earth.  We must find a way to wake up ourselves--and every other human being--to the utter gravity of our situation.
I saw a Facebook post from Tallahassee-born Caitlin McMullin, who had just spent 7 days at Standing Rock with her 3-month old baby boy, Clay.  Should I go, would it be helpful? I asked Caitlin.  ABSOLUTELY! she messaged in return.
So, hoping to support Native Americans, and on behalf of the river, and very much hoping to understand the disconnect between most people and our climate crisis, I traveled to North Dakota for a week with my niece, Erin Canter.  We went because what is happening on the banks of the Missouri River and all along the pipeline path is a one-sided war.  We went to witness, to learn, and to work, however we might be needed.  With us we brought $3000 in cash contributions from generous friends, and two enormous boxes of wool clothing to give to people there.
What expectations did you have about the camp and the protesters, and how were these either met or changed? What surprised you most?

I didn’t expect there to be so many young, white people at the camp, eager to contribute and to risk doing direct action on the front lines.  A good thing, because it meant support and media attention; and a challenging thing for the Native Americans, because it required a steep training curve for the influx of newcomers.  There were orientation meetings every day led by Natives, reminding us that we were there to pray, and in no way to bring violence to the struggle.  The camp swelled to about 10,000 occupants during the first week of December when we arrived, and although people were asked to provide for themselves, many were not prepared for the cold, and the primitive conditions.  We were asked to be mindful of our status as “allies,” that this was a Native struggle, and that their thinking needed to always be central.  As white people, many of us don’t realize how front and center we put ourselves (which perpetuates colonization).
Don’t we need that pipeline as a step toward energy independence?

We’ve got to look at a much bigger picture.  If we’re going to have any hope of slowing climate change, remaining fossil coal and oil deposits– and carbon dioxide they would generate– need to stay in the ground.  In precisely the way we hope Brazil guards the Amazon rainforest, that massive sponge for carbon dioxide absorption, we need to slow our mining and fracking, and invest in true energy independence—meaning cutting back our consumption of fossil fuels, and investing heavily in renewable sources, such as solar and wind.
The day that you left North Dakota, the permit for the pipeline was denied. That's a great step. Now we can all breathe a sigh of relief, right?

Ever so briefly.  I take my cue from the Standing Rock peoples, who are cheered, but know this is just a respite. Every single Cabinet pick made by the Trump administration this week is ready to dismantle all the protections we have in place for clean air and water, wildlife and public lands.  I’d say we are looking at some rough times ahead.

How is this issue related to other environmental issues that you've gotten involved in? What can ordinary people do to help?
All of my life I’ve worked on behalf of the natural world, for several nonprofits, for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, on the Board of the Nature Conservancy, and now as a board member and volunteer for St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge.  I primarily identify as a writer, though, and all of my books and talks are interpretive: where do we live, and with whom do we share our space?  Why is it so hard to protect non-human species and natural landscapes, when we love them so much?  I love that I get to be a voice for birds, islands, the Earth.  It’s such a privilege.  People should sign up for my blog, and read my books.  I’ve got plenty of answers!
This election, coupled with raging climate change, offers us a wake up call we ignore at our peril.  Every single one of us needs to step our game, our activism.
And me being me, I have to ask, where did you sleep and what did you eat? What was it like physically in the camp?
As you know, we came prepared to camp, and therefore had no reservations to stay at the closest and only hotel, the Standing Rock Prairie Knights Casino (7 miles south of the camp). 
But our gear was no match for the subfreezing temperatures, so we crashed with friends who did have heated rooms up the road.  During the daytime we subsisted on peanut butter and energy bars, but at night I splurged on the buffet at the Casino.  It wasn’t delicious, but it was hot food!

And ps, for anyone in Key West on December 22, Susan will be speaking at the Key West library at 4 pm. 


  1. Thank you for sharing your personal thoughts regarding the pipeline at Standing Rock.
    We’ve had so many warnings . . . Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” comes immediately to mind . . . I have trouble understanding why people turn such a blind eye to the care of the fragile planet that is our home.
    There are so many issues and so many complications; some days I am like the Lorax, simply speaking for the trees . . . .

  2. Susan, I admire you so much for actually going to Standing Rock and participating in the protest. With the weather and the violence being perpetrated on the protesters, I think it was a brave decision to go. I've been horrified at the violent measures taken against the peaceful protesters and that, once again, Native Americans are treated as less than human. That the military was called in and used such force angers me as much as saddens me. The Native Americans are not just trying to protect their land that they lawfully reside on, but there is the bigger picture here of protecting our environment. Again, thank you Susan for all the work you've done in that area. I am fearful for what the incoming administration is going to do, the ruin and devastation that will result from their lack of concern for our planet Earth.

  3. Susan, thank you sharing your views and time spent at Standing Rock. As you said, there are ominous signs that the incoming administration will dismantle many environmental gains to protect the land, water and wildlife in your country as well as infringing on the rights of Native Americans. And I agree that the current decision is only a brief respite and the fight must continue.

    Unfortunately, the situation regarding pipeline approvals and First Nations rights is similar in Canada. Prime Minister Trudeau recently approved 2 out of 3 new pipeline projects in British Columbia and Alberta. And these will be built through parts of First Nation (FN) reservations. Some FN chiefs want the pipelines while others do not so there is not as clear a voice of dissent and protest here. Environmentalists are appalled including Green Party leader Elizabeth May and David Suzuki.

    Most of my work for the Canadian federal government was in climate change adaptation. After 10 years of inaction by the previous government, the Trudeau government has a huge challenge to move forward on this issue. VP Biden came to Ottawa this week to discuss climate change and Canada-US issues with Trudeau, and indicated he must show leadership to move forward on this issue in North America. We will see.

  4. Joan, you've got it! I know my sister will tell you how much she loves THE LORAX (once she has some tea and her fingers are coherent LOL.)

    Grace, so interesting to have your Canadian viewpoint and had no idea that your career was in climate change! Let's hope Trudeau can be a great leader on this important subject...

  5. What a great privilege to converse with all you smart and concerned women! Joan, The Lorax is the metaphor for our time, more than ever, isn't it? I could never read that Seuss to my son when he was little....just too sad. But it's at the core of all I do, and I'm so glad you are speaking for the trees, too. We have to step up and speak every single day, more than ever before....

  6. Susan, thank you so much for sharing this. As someone who does my charitable giving at this time of year, for those of us concerned about the future of our planet and feeling helpless to stop what's happening, what are some organizations you think can help make a difference? (And curious minds: How did they handle trash and sanitation and water for so many people?)

  7. Kathy, yes, that's what captured my imagination, too. I had a crash course in the history of our country from the point of view of the original peoples, and my niece and I studied every night Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz' award-winning "An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States." That should be a holiday gift for everyone on your list--very readable, and will turn your head around.

    We learned (me at age 64! finally!) the truth that all of us whose ancestors came to this continent from Europe were "settler-colonialists" and it was shocking in the Standing Rock orientations to have this spoken aloud. That's not how we learned it in public school in the 50s and 60s.

    Why that's important to the environment, is that everything was about the theft of the land, and the taking of resources. That's playing out in exaggerated excess today. But the good news is, once we really get what's going on, we can move forward more powerfully.

  8. Susan, it takes courage to stand up to the bullies, and I'm impressed and awed at the bravery so many have shown on this crucial issue. Thank you for shedding light on the situation from the inside.

    I simply cannot understand why the financial greed of a handful is seen as vitally more important than the health, welfare and very existence of the many. We see this in so many ways and areas these days. Do you think it's partly a function of the sheer volume of human beings on Earth now? As we sprint towards an unprecedented eight billion population, providing for the needs of so many is a daunting and probably impossible task for our poor planet. As a friend says, population is the elephant in the room; without the need to keep finding new resources, we would not be in this situation in the first place.

    One of my daughters works in the renewable energy sector, and is an expert on SmartGrid. I hear a lot about the problems, and have done so since the early 2000's when she was a college freshman trying to choose a career path. There is a lot going on to foster alternative energy and to edge even further from the reliance on fossil fuels, but not nearly enough.

    As a traveler, one of the most striking--and jarring--differences between citizens of the US and everyplace else I've been in that most other people not only accept the fact of human-caused climate change, but they are taking steps to help slow the process. So many Americans seem hellbent on doing exactly the opposite.

  9. Grace, thanks so much for sharing your story. Your wonderful Mr. Trudeau is a lot like our Obama, very principled on many counts. The thing is (and of course we don't have Obama anymore), both are heavily dependent on corporate donations, and we suspect that's why even our good president didn't wade in much sooner on Standing Rock.

    I hope people like you, Grace, who understand the backstories regarding science and government, will advocate and teach and lead us! We need you.

  10. Wow, thank you for going. I'm a person with bad circulation in my feet, and I can't imagine living (or even standing around) in those frigid conditions. Please do tell us, as Hallie asked, what organizations you might recommend for monetary donations.

    I'm another settler-colonialist, alas. And will go order that book right now.

  11. Hallie, I just discussed your question with my husband, a climate change scientist, and we agree that an important organization who will help us fight intentional misinformation about climate change (and hopefully protect the scientists the Trump people are already targeting in federal agencies), is the Union of Concerned Scientists. There are many more, but I'd also look for local nonprofits.

    I'm a fan of the Indigenous Environmental Network: they seemed to me one of the most helpful organizations for Standing Rock.

    Also, everyone of us should subscribe, if we don't already, to important, reliable news sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, Tampa Bay Times, New Yorker, etc.

  12. Hallie, it felt pretty chaotic there on the ground. They told would-be helpers to bring everything needed to be self-sufficient. So we hauled in water, food, etc so we wouldn't impact the folks on the ground.

    There were/are 6-7 kitchen tents, which I explored. They served up everything from big stews and salads, to bologna and peanut butter sandwiches.

    Propane was a big issue, and firewood. Especially because the local law enforcement had blocked the main access road to the camp. But all kinds of folks were hauling in trucks from small access roads from the south with virtual trees to cut up for wood fires, and a full sized propane truck managed to pick its way in from somewhere. People were heating their yurts and tepees and army tents and little plywood structure with wood stoves, etc. You simply couldn't camp without one, we were told.

    The bathroom situation was your standard porta potty. At least the waste matter was frozen solid. I did not enjoy those :(

    Trash was a problem, mostly because it was layered up with snow, but there were so many people eager to be useful, that I'm confident it was handled.

  13. And by the way, Grace, aren't you lucky to have David Suzuki advocating for Canada?

    As we enter this Trump era, many people are feeling like our best avenues of making change and standing our ground, are going to be at the local level.

    What do you all think about that?

  14. Karen, isn't that weird about the rest of the world, and us? You are right about the population problem, for sure. I'm glad your daughter is leading the way, and that you are supporting her and thinking along with her.

    Most scary of all are the large corporate entities like the Koch brothers, who are finding ways to promulgate misinformation to mislead the masses. I have a sense that they are a hyper-powerful version of us original settler-colonialists, who believed we/they had a right (a manifest destiny!) to take anything they wanted.

  15. Hey Jungle Red writers and readers, I'm curious as to how your personal awareness of climate change, especially in this dangerous political climate, might be influencing possible life changes for you as individuals?

    That was one of the key messages in Standing Rock, "Bring it home!" They hoped we would take what we saw and learned back into our own lives in very tangible ways.

  16. Susan, what an amazing experience. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. My parents raised us to be hardcore environmentalists so I'm always shocked and appalled when I meet people who have no awareness of their carbon footprint. And don't even get me started on the climate change deniers. Ugh. Given what's happened at Standing Rock, do you feel a strong environmental movement is growing in the youth of America - as in, the millennials get it even if their parents don't?

  17. Susan, you asked: "Do you think it's partly a function of the sheer volume of human beings on Earth now?" Exactly. Because we would have NONE of these problems with human-caused climate changed if there weren't so many of us. But NO ONE wants to talk about population control. It's even more controversial than climate change. I'm pretty discouraged about the future of our world... and what we're bequeathing to future generations and not that far into the future even.


  18. Jenn, I know that my husband's courses on sustainability and environmental issues max out at FSU. Many of the young people are most drawn in by food issues. I think they feel they can make a big difference in their choices regarding meat, etc.

    Also, at Standing Rock, the makeup of the crowd was 90% young white people, in their 20s and 30s. That was amazing--only 3 weeks earlier it was 50:50 native:white. It seems like for all of us, if we can find a way to engage and feel like we make a difference, we will.

  19. Still, you Jungle Reds, Hallie, have such a powerful platform to speak out on these things, as writers.

    When times are dire, the work of artists, writers and poets are ALWAYS essential. Don't stop!!

  20. Human beings are basically selfish, and we want what we want.

    To answer your question, Susan, our family has taken many steps, small ones, to help out. In 2002 I gave everyone in our immediate family reusable water bottles and shopping bags (the kind that fold small enough to fit into even a small purse or pocket). Just in the intervening years I figure we have saved a small mountain of water bottles and plastic bags among the eight of us. Water bottles and plastic bags are made of two vital components: water and petroleum. It makes me cringe to see half-used bottles of water dumped, and millions of plastic bags floating in backwaters around the world.

    We all drive vehicles that get better gas mileage, and we maintain them so they continue to do so. I've also been composting our organic waste for nearly 35 years, which keeps it out of the landfill, enriches our own soil, and reduces the need for more energy to manage it.

    I'm also concerned about water use, and the issue of stored water that is kept out of the system. In response to the population explosion, at the same time as global modernization, we now have water permanently stored in tens of millions of water tanks, toilet tanks, ice machines and icemakers, bottled water and tons of other drinks, as well as water fountains and other cachements. And another way of keeping the water out of the usual rain/evaporation/rain system is to dump it into trash bags that get tied up and disposed of, sealed forever. We should at least dump out ice and liquids before we dispose of our drink cups, etc.

    How do we manage this issue? It's so big, so complex, and already has such a hold on our society worldwide that I can't see a way to do so. I don't see the vast majority of humans swapping out their toilets or dumping their water/beer/wine/juice bottles any time soon. Susan, what are your thoughts?

  21. Susan, I'm so proud of you for doing this. I can see that there will need to be many more times when ordinary people stand up and say "Not on my land! I am lucky to live in California where we get it, and we're big and I,ports to enough to stand up to things that are bad for our planet, but I can see a grassroots movement growing across the country.

  22. Susan, I'm so proud of you for doing this. I can see that there will need to be many more times when ordinary people stand up and say "Not on my land! I am lucky to live in California where we get it, and we're big and I,ports to enough to stand up to things that are bad for our planet, but I can see a grassroots movement growing across the country.

  23. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Susan. I think the idea of "allies" is really interesting and something we're going to have to work on in the coming years. How do we best support the causes and the people who are most directly affected by them. I think sometimes people don't know the best way to help, so they choose not to get involved at all, but that's a luxury we no longer have.

  24. Karen, thanks for sharing all your hard work with your family to reduce your impact on the Earth. For others wanting to know where to begin, check this out:

    I think we need to question our way of life as individuals, and act radically. We love growing and freezing most of our own vegetables in a little community garden on our street. These things, plus the immediate and enormous threats to our democracy and our access to truth, must occupy our best thinking, all of us.....

  25. Rhys, you are so right. Both my sister Roberta and I have children in California. Maybe we will have to move there when your state secedes!

    And yet, we should all find ways to really stretch ourselves into these grassroots movements, as you mentioned, wherever we are.

  26. Ingrid, such a good point.

    Here are some interesting thoughts from Standing Rock developed to help allies find their place at the camp.

    "Our job as allies is to SHOW UP, figure out how we can HELP, and GIVE more than we take."

    Here's another one that we were asked to align with at the camp. It applies everywhere for us white people. : "Practice noticing and regulating how much space, energy, attention and resources you take up. When you are with indigenous people (also applies to wild animals and spaces, people of color, etc) listen more than you speak."

    On the other hand, if, as it seems, a coup is taking over our country, we will have to stand up in new ways to protect vulnerable life of all kinds.

  27. Thank you for sharing your experiences at Standing Rock. I have been following the stories at Standing Rock through the SF Chronicle and through Facebook. I "checked in" on FB that I am at Standing Rock because I wanted to support what you all are doing.

    And you did not get injured, right? I heard horrible stories about protestors injured by Police? I hope the protestors sue the police for millions of dollars because if Affordable Health Care is taken away, they will need the money for medical bills!!!

    Ironically, the Native Americans took better care of the environment than the white settlers who decimated the land with too much cutting down trees and not replanting them!

    Sorry if I am going off the topic here. If we stop to think about what happened with the Dust Bowl in the 1920s or 1930s, that would not have happened if the Native Americans still were allowed to remain on these lands. We have a lot to learn from the Native Americans about taking care of our environment.

    And fracking is dangerous to the environment.

  28. Walking along the beaches of Puget Sound in the 1950's I remember seeing barnacles dyed with the color run offs from the pulp mills that were making toilet paper. I also remember really abundant salmon runs during spawning season. Today, the Duwamish River is a part of the Superfund Clean up due to the waste dumped by Boeing in WWII. .... soot falls on Mt. Rainier.

    There is a web page Stand with Standing Rock. It has information and an address where folks can donate.

    I have a connection with the Native Americans; my children. My daughter and I try to live with the land, xeriscaping, recycling, and not over using water or electricity.
    We are mindful that every day we can walk in beauty.

    Susan, I am pondering attending your talk in Key West. If I can ride share with someone I will be there. Thank you for standing for me at Standing Rock.

  29. Coralee, thank you so much for your beautiful reflections, and for sharing all you do, and have observed. I sure hope we can connect in Key West!

  30. Susan, I so admire your dedication and commitment in going to Standing Rock. And it was fascinating to hear what it was like on the ground (great photos!) I had wondered about all those things Hallie asked, too! I am at least a little encouraged that so many young people chose to go and be "allies." It's also very interesting to realize how hard it is for us to step outside of our unconscious "settler-colonist" perspective.

    My undergrad degree is in biology and my dream was to be a wildlife biologist, so you are truly one of my heroes. I've always been aware of the fragility of our ecosystem but now I think we all have to double-down, to speak up, and to find ways to make our voices heard.

    Thanks for the suggestions for actions, and for the suggestions of organizations to contribute to. Every little bit helps, and the worst thing we can do is to feel powerless.

  31. Dear Anonymous... You are on topic, for sure. I think you would really love the book I recommended earlier, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, called An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States. Thanks for caring so much.

  32. PS Lucy, thanks for the great questions.

    And I would add The Nature Conservancy to the list of worthwhile organizations.

  33. Deborah: You really said it"we all have to double-down, to speak up, and to find ways to make our voices heard." And also: "Every little bit helps, and the worst thing we can do is to feel powerless." Heartfelt thanks from me!

    No matter what seems to be unfolding, and especially because of what we are hearing this week...we have to keep up our advocacy.

  34. To all of you: My writing mentor and colleague Deena Metzger advises to always let the landscape have a voice equivalent to a character, in your writing. I'd say ESPECIALLY you ladies, because you reach such a wide, wide audience. Stories are the very best way to pass on important values. Gratitude to each one of you...


  35. Susan, I am in awe. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart. Thank you.

  36. Kaye! I'm the one so privileged to do this work. Thank you so much....

  37. Running in late, but giving you a standing ovation. You are so powerful, and brave, and thank you so much for doing this. Sometimes when I look at the moon, I think 'we are all looking at the same moon! " It is all of our tiny planet, and why people are so shortsighted and according to scientists, delusional, to think nothing is happening… It is very very disturbing. And you are right, Susan, but there is no more critical time for artists and writers and those in that kind of world to help spread the word. And to keep some sort of watch over sanity.

  38. Thanks for the opportunity to share with your group, Hank. You all are some real powerhouses...