top of page

Trauma Is My Birthright

By Brooke Waukau

October 27, 2016


It was a cold fall morning at Treaty Camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where North Dakota law enforcement and Energy Transfer Partners violated Article II of the Fort Laramie Treaty and carried out countless human rights violations. 

“Wake up! Hey, wake up! They’re coming down the road!” 

I rubbed my eyes as my heart pounded faster. My body couldn’t rouse as fast as the panic set in. Disoriented, I pulled back the canvas of the teepee; sunlight pierced my eyes. Fire had been burning for a week straight. An anxious anticipation shone in the eyes of the people scrambling around our makeshift camp. I walked up the ditch and onto the road but couldn’t see anything. 

I approached the first person I saw. “I don’t see them! He said they were coming down the road.” 

A man handed me his binoculars and calmly replied, “Here look—about half a mile up there. They’re just moving very slow.” 

They queued up in such unison they appeared as one black horizontal line. My hands and arms went numb at the sight of them. I knew what was coming next. 

“Thanks,” I said with a lump in my throat before continuing back towards camp. 

I heard another man yell “Light ‘em up!” He pointed to a pile of tires strategically set for the main camp down the road, a signal that Morton County PD was coming.  

Four men jumped into the back of a rusty pickup truck. The exhaust roared, and the men let out war cries. The sheer pitch and visceral sound sent chills up my spine. I couldn’t help thinking about my ancestors feeling the same way since 1492. 

My brain rejected the notion of fighting the same battles centuries later. I grabbed a Red Bull out of my bag and chugged it, hoping to wake my sleep-deprived body. It was survival time, and my body never missed an opportunity to be traumatized for the right reasons. 

Remaining at the camp all week, we had been able to hold off construction. We cost Energy Transfer Partners millions in losses, a little light at the end of our tunnel. Deep down, I knew the momentum would end. 

Black smoke filled the sky, and our people piled anything they could find to make a barricade in the road. An old car, wooden pallets, tires, and broken fencing—all creating a false sense of security. 

With every week that passed, with every interaction with Morton County, the violence escalated. They wouldn’t disappoint their shareholders any longer. We knew they were coming at us with everything they had. 

The rhythmic thuds in the sky from the helicopter got closer. They needed to do some recon before approaching. I imagined them asking, What do the Indians have in store for us today? Their original plan was for the Dakota Access Pipeline to go through Bismarck, but the enemies of the sun and their communities did not want an oil pipeline contaminating their soil and water. Go figure. So, they ran it under Lake Oahu, the only clean water source for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, along with countless others. No consultation, no environmental impact statement, no regard for human or animal life, and no regard for the land and the water. The path of least resistance. Well, so they thought.  

I heard someone in the distance yell, “We’re starting a prayer circle on the direct path of construction. Whoever sits in this circle is getting arrested today!” 

Without hesitation, I knew that was where I needed to be. I ran back to the teepee to grab my goggles, mask, and earplugs. The ear plugs were new to my frontline gear, but necessary to block out the long-range acoustic device sound cannons. I threw on my goggles to prevent the pepper spray from penetrating my eyes and the mask to mitigate the amount I would inhale.  

I looked around the teepee and sat down. It was so calm. I took it in for a moment, knowing the chaos that would shortly unfold. Immense gratitude emerged in that moment. For the last few nights, I had the privilege to occupy the teepee, experiencing things I never thought I would in my lifetime; watching the stars from its inside, sitting around the fire, sharing stories and lots of laughter with indigenous relatives from all over the country. There was beauty within this horror.  

Sleep deprivation could not affect the adrenaline coursing through my body. Many elders joined us on the ground. There was so much courage and uncertainty in that circle. My emotion of choice was usually anger. Anger fueled me. That deep anger, that protective anger, the type of anger that changes you. Anger at the repeated attacks on my people, anger at the lack of humanity, anger at the police who enjoyed the brutality they inflicted upon us. No one was exempt from that brutality: women, children, and even elders. This was physical, psychological, and spiritual warfare.  

That day changed everything I knew about anger and trauma. Trauma, as they say, rewires your brain in a way that completely changes your entire being. Anger was ineffectual and triggers were more than the cold metal impetus of a gun. Ironically, both can inflict lasting damage for generations to come. However, if trauma is my birthright, then so is healing.   


The Native Voices third-place winner, Brooke Waukau, is a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans and the Menominee Nation of Wisconsin. She is currently a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and holds a BA in Public Administration from the College of Menominee Nation. She also founded Women’s Indigenous Media, a non-profit media organization founded in Standing Rock, North Dakota in 2016. The organization was a result of the mainstream media blackout on the human rights violations that were happening to the Indigenous people protecting the land. Since 2016, she has continued to shine a light on Indigenous issues through digital storytelling. In May 2021, she joined the Department of Justice as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force Coordinator.

15 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page