Why We Protect

As a writer, words are often the only thing I have in moments of growth and discomfort. Over the last two years as a student, I have been called upon a number of times to get up in front of people that intimidate me to share whatever insight I have to offer. On public speaking, my elders have often given me this piece of advice: “You never want them to leave feeling bad.” And one of my best friends (a gifted storyteller in his own right) once said to me: “If you don’t know what to say, just speak the truth.” These statements are excellent advice, but sometimes it’s difficult to do both.

When I find myself walking somewhere beautiful with someone new, I find that I don’t want to talk about any of the bad things, even when I have to. My partner and I have a favorite public beach along the Lake Michigan shore where we have never seen another human being. On nice days, we like to go there to have lunch. On our last visit, we made it over the treacherous, heavily wooded trail down to the water only to find the beach eroded down to a narrow strip, dead fish everywhere. I tried to have a nice time for my partner’s sake, but it was hard not to think about the fact that the water was so high that even my favorite beaches to the south, where beaches are a staple of the tourism industry, are being totally wiped out by aberrant weather patterns (And why are there so many dead fish? And what is that weird tinge on the water?).

The Wolf River, which flows through my daydreams even now that it’s only a block and a half away from my front door, is higher and faster than it has been in a long time—also due to excessive rain. And of course there is Menikani, the Menominee River, the forest, all with their own set of dangers and symptoms that I, as a Menominee woman with certain duties to this land that I belong to, am finding harder and harder to separate from the love that I feel for them. And of course if you go beyond that, the list is never ending: Line 3, Line 5, the tar sands, Mauna Kea, the Arctic. Every beautiful place on Earth seems to have someone trying to change it forever.

When I was young, I considered myself an avid protester. If something seemed wrong to me, I wanted to let everyone know about it. But what I feel about these places comes from a different sort of emotion. There is anger, yes, but it’s the sort of anger that I feel when my partner has an injury or an illness, the sort of desperate helplessness that I’ve felt when I learned that someone brilliant and wise was slipping away into Alzheimer’s. It feels inherently unfair. Ultimately, though, it isn’t anger or frustration that gets me out the door. In the last few years, I haven’t wanted to identify as a “protester” because when I’m speaking about the water and the land and the people on it, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m not protesting something because I’m against it—I’m protecting something because I love it.

I do what I can to take good advice when it’s offered, so here is the honest truth: It can be hard—painful even—to have these sorts of discussions knowing that what you’re saying might very well ruin someone else’s day. But the other part of this is that with knowledge comes a choice. You can look at what the land and the water are trying to tell you when they ask for help, or you can look away. You can wallow in that knowledge and mourn it helplessly, or you can make a conscious decision to protect it with all of your power and with all of your love.

Jasmine Neosh (Menominee) is a student at College of Menominee Nation.

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