Moving heaven and earth: The Ihanktowan Dakota meet adversity with strength

A version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in July 2008.

Marty, So. Dak. — Unity within the community and an expanded sense of responsibility have flowed from the intrusion of a large-scale hog farm into the Yankton Sioux reservation, amidst their homes and sacred places. Recent prayers and ceremonies have underscored the Ihanktowan Dakotas’ commitment to each other and to the larger global community, said Ihanktowan Dakota elder Izzy Zephier. “We pray for the world.” 

In all ages and in all parts of the world, the divine has welcomed help from mere mortals, so the Ihanktowan are fighting the hog farm, shown above, in practical ways as well as praying. In April, their tribal court issued an exclusion order, which the farm’s owner, Long View Farms, of Iowa, continues to defy as it persists in constructing the facility.

Tribal members then staged peaceful demonstrations along BIA Route 29, the tribal road that Long View Farms must use to access the building site. More than 30 were ticketed or arrested.

Also in April, parents of children at a tribal Head Start near the farm’s building site initiated a federal-court lawsuit, alleging the site is within the reservation’s 1851 and 1858 boundaries and must comply with federal laws protecting the environment and children’s health. On June 18, a federal judge turned down the parents’ request for an injunction against construction, saying the farm is on private, not tribal, land; he did not rule on the access road.

As the Yankton people have confronted these issues and events, their confidence has increased. Recently, tribal members described a sense of accord within the community that’s been matched by support from outside. Visitors to a permanent protest site near the farm have arrived from around South Dakota as well as from countries worldwide. Other indigenous nations have sent their flags to be flown above the protest site along with the red-and-yellow Yankton flag.

            The hilltop row of tribal flags overlooks the landscape that the Ihanktowan Dakota want to protect against the vast amounts of pollution produced by large-scale animal confinements. Grassy fields and cottonwood-lined gullies slope down toward grey-brown crenellated bluffs along the north shore of one of the Missouri River’s few remaining wild stretches.

On a summer day, movement pervades the scene. Breezes stir purple-flowering echinacea and prairie grasses. The pale scents of mint, sage and wildflowers waft by. Deer and coyotes disappear into thickets, around boulders and down draws, while eagles, hawks and vultures wheel overhead, surfing the thermals and diving close to the ground.

Even the land is in motion: Because the heavy clay soil of this region is malleable and susceptible to erosion, its soft brown folds change shape, collapse and re-emerge from year to year.

At this time of year, the great inverted bowl of the Northern Plains sky is remarkable not just for its size, but for its unpredictable drama, as blazing sun alternates with ferocious thunderstorms that drive immense, crackling bolts of lightning into the earth.

The incursion of the hog farm into this animated place is a reminder of why seers world-wide have predicted a great purification in the near future, according to Zephier, who spoke to Indian Country Today about these prophesies.

“The Mayans, the Lakota and Dakota and many other people have said we’re getting closer to the time when the Creator will cleanse the earth, and there will be nothing but good. The Koran, the kabbalah, the Bible, the pipe, the kiva all tell us this,” Zephier explained.

“Each day, ordinary people look at earthquakes, typhoons and other natural disasters and say they’re terrible. But many of us feel happy for those God has taken to safety with Him. What will happen when the earth is cleansed will be terrible — far worse than anything that has occurred so far — and the Creator has taken those people out of the way of what’s coming.”

At the moment of reckoning, the fate of each person will depend on how he or she has conducted his life and prepared for that moment, with the worst torment accorded those who have caused suffering and death to others, said Zephier. “There are many, including leaders, who will have to answer for what they’ve done. All we can do right now is pray and prepare to meet our Maker. Each person must love the world and cleanse him- or herself. Then when the Creator comes, He’ll say, ‘I’ll take you, and you won’t suffer.”

Zephier recalled a conversation with a priest. “He asked why we Indians are always laughing, after all we’ve been through. He said that if he’d survived what we have, he could never be that happy. I told him that no matter what happens, we know the Creator will take care of us.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photos by Stephanie Woodard.