Voices from Standing Rock: “Fear is a Disease”

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Sarah Shomin, a 20-year-old Ojibwe, came to Standing Rock, North Dakota from Michigan.
Sarah Shomin, a 20-year-old Ojibwe, came to Standing Rock, North Dakota from Michigan. Photo: Avery White.

Photographer Avery White has been embedded with the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, documenting the efforts to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. She has been sharing with us conversations she has had with those assembled there. This is her latest dispatch.

Sarah Shomin was one of the first friends I made at Standing Rock. We met when she asked to hitch a ride with me to the casino, ten miles away from the main camp, Oceti Sakowin. We talked extensively about the struggles she’s faced as a young woman raised by staunch Catholics on an Indian reservation.

We bonded over our mutual family troubles, the exhilaration of being an activist, the excitement of falling in love for the first time, and what she wants life to be. The 20-year-old is finding a sense of purpose for the first time through the Standing Rock movement. Every time we talked, I was even more blown away by her wisdom and bravery.

Avery White: What brought you to Standing Rock?

Sarah Shomin: Social media is what kind of kick-started it for me because you got to see in detail what was really going on out here. I was scrolling the Internet. One hour turned into three, three turned into six. The next thing I know, I was up all night [reading about] Standing Rock. Also my elders kind of… well, they didn’t made me feel bad. They were just like, “Why aren’t you out there? They’re calling for all warriors.” I felt it was a big deal in Indian Country to be out here when they needed you, you know?

AW: How has Standing Rock changed you? What was your life like before?

SS: It’s definitely taught me many things — not only physically — about me that I didn’t even know about myself. For one, I can survive with no electricity. I did not know that. You know, I can chop wood now. I can do it. It’s also taught me more about my culture than I knew. I grew up really culturally detached. I grew up a product of history, they really wiped us out. My parents are die-hard Catholics. But out here, man, I’m getting a sense of who I really am, of who my people are. I really like that.

It’s really comforting to know that I am from this earth. That I belong to this earth, I don’t belong to a God or anything. Nothing against people who do, but I belong to Mother Earth and that’s as much as I need to know.

AW: So what are some of the the highs of Standing Rock for you?

SS: You meet people from everywhere. You don’t know what they are capable of, but I think that’s the coolest thing ever. You could be meeting a Hollywood director and he would just be normal, you know? It’s not something you think about all the time, but once you find out you’re like, “Whoa! What the heck?” It’s so cool to make connects like that.

I found my first love out here. There’s a sense of family. Everyone helps each other out. Everyone’s warm at the end of the night and fed at the end of the night. It’s not survival of the fittest out here. People actually care. They don’t expect nothing back; it’s a family.

AW: What was your life like before Standing Rock?

SS: It definitely kinda sucked. I did what I had to do every day. I went to work. Came home. Did my taxes. I felt like I was doing everything I had to do. Make next month’s bills. I felt like it revolved around money a lot. I don’t know. Here you just don’t get that feeling, I guess.

[Before], I was going through disenrollment with my tribe, and they’re disenrolling people because funds are getting low. So that was in the back of my mind too.

I almost feel like I had no purpose before this. Like… I was a walking zombie. Yeah.

Here I actually feel alive. I’m living.

AW: I can relate.

SS: Yeah. I’m not just like, “I’m going to work, I guess.” I get up with my man in the morning. We have a cup of coffee and we talk about what we’re gonna do all day. Not knowing what you’re going to do that day is so cool.

AW: Tell me how Standing Rock functions as a community.

SS: We all make sure everyone’s okay even if they’re not part of the camp. Like part of your camp, you know? We all make sure everyone’s okay and fed, warm. Everyone helps out…Well, everyone’s supposed to help out.

AW: Were you scared to come here?

SS: Yeah, on my way here I was going through so many emotions. One moment I would be just completely hyped like, “Yeah, lets go to Standing Rock!” The next minute I was like, “What am I getting myself into? I’m going against the U.S. Government. What the heck?” Then the next minute, I’d be sad.

When I came out here, I felt like I kissed my family goodbye. Because I know what everyone’s capable of. It’s not a secret what the U.S. Government is capable of. I was really scared coming out here… But like I said, it’s just something that has to be done. I don’t want to pass this down to my nieces and nephews, my grandchildren. I refuse to pass this down. We can fight this now, man. We can make it easier for them. It’s not even about us no more. This is way past us.

AW: What is this about?

SS: This is about the future kids. The youth, the animals, the plants. Mother Earth herself. We’re just guests here.

AW: What are some of your fondest memories of Standing Rock so far?

SS: The friends. The round dances. The family everywhere now.

AW: What is it like being a young woman here?

SS: It’s definitely intimidating, it really is. Like when you get up, you go walk around ask people if they need help. You hear some scary stuff just about… women in general. Women are endangered, you know? It’s intimidating, but you just gotta hold your own. We can’t be out here being scared because fear is a disease.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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