Bringing Standing Rock home to San Francisco

Although the election has dominated the news, glimpses of an increasingly violent protest at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota have emerged. San Franciscans of indigenous and nonindigenous decent have joined the Sioux and others to challenge the Dakota Access Pipeline. Construction has destroyed burial sites and threatens the Missouri River, a water source for millions. The attack dogs, tear gas, rubberized bullets and arrests protesters have suffered for clean water is an ugly example of the brutality associated with oil.

But these “Water Protectors” at Standing Rock are also creating something beautiful. They have united an unprecedented number of Native American nations, Canadian First Nations and people around the world. Standing Rock has reminded us of a truth: Healthy people need a healthy environment.

“As human beings, we have a connection to the environment,” April McGill, a Mission resident of Wailaki, Yuki, Little Lake Pomo and Wappo decent, told me. She and her 9-year-old son went to Standing Rock. “It’s like a memory. All of a sudden, something triggers it.”

The memory is fresh for many California tribes. Before the techies, hipsters and hippies called The City home, groups of Ohlone lived in San Francisco. The Bay Area overflowed with a diverse array of plants and animals. The abundance surprised early European explorers. More wetlands, ponds and creeks flowed than today. The Ohlone built massive ceremony and burial complexes from shells they gathered in these waters.

Today, these shellmounds — older than the Egyptian pyramids — are mostly paved over. Corrina Gould of Karkin and Chochenyo Ohlone decent told me her relatives are buried in the remnants of shellmounds beneath the Metreon and Yerba Buena Gardens. She is fighting to protect the remains of one of the oldest shellmounds in West Berkeley, which is under threat of desecration and development.

Much of The City’s wetlands, native plants and animals are also lost. McGill’s father used to take her to certain places to gather mushrooms. Now, those mushrooms are gone. She gets acorns for her traditional mush in Yosemite because she says poisons in the soil and water destroyed a majority of them here. She avoids local blackberries for the same reason.

“For a lot of native people, our health is deteriorating because we don’t have access to traditional foods,” McGill said at a recent event where UC San Francisco health care activists and Bay Area tribe members described their experiences at Standing Rock.

Anita Hargrave, a UCSF medical student and Do No Harm Coalition member, said Standing Rock rooted her back to the basics of health. You can’t prescribe patients medicine and ask them to swallow it with dirty water, she analogized. Patients with asthma need clean air. Patients with heart disease need healthy food. We need a healthy environment to be healthy ourselves. But Hargrave took the link further.

“We can’t really be healthy unless we recognize that oppression affects people’s health,” she told me. “The mechanisms of how stress affects the immune system is still unclear, but there’s a connection I see affecting the health of indigenous people, immigrants and impoverished people here.” 

Of course, disease, unlike people, doesn’t discriminate. Any time any living thing is sick, we’re all at risk. Standing Rock has reminded many San Franciscans of this connection to each other and nature. It has awakened us to the danger of destroying sacred Ohlone sites and traditions. It’s time to bring Standing Rock’s message to The City.

We must support local efforts to protect native plants and animals from pesticides, invasive species and irresponsible development. We must demand Hillary Clinton clearly oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline and future extraction of fossil fuels. We must listen to our Ohlone neighbors and stand with them to protect their history.

“Protect sacred sites and water,” Gould told me when I asked what we should do. “Even after Standing Rock is done, we still have to do that.”

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at

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