December 08, 2023

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Debate on a Plane

Debate on a Plane

Water Protectors in Protest on Highway 1806 | Image source: Ashley Nadjiwon

This story was written by Sterlin Harjo and originally appeared in the November 16 edition of The Tulsa Voice.

What kind of warrior am I?
How had I not suspected her? I was so busy deflecting shade being thrown at me from oil execs and Dakota Access Pipeline workers waiting at the boarding gate that I didn’t even notice the middle-aged woman with dyed auburn hair. This seemingly nice, quiet woman in loose yoga pants had not raised any alarms whatsoever. It was my first test. I failed.

I saw her clutching her purse as she walked down the aisle towards me. We made eye contact, the kind that says “Looks like we’re sitting together.” We were both a little relieved, for I wasn’t the wild-eyed Indian with two braids that she was afraid of sitting by and she wasn’t the khaki’d oil exec that I was avoiding. She seemed harmless. 

I let her in to the window seat, and she unwrapped a piece of gum and put it in her mouth. She didn’t look at me but she didn’t look out the window, either.

I tried to give her room to get comfortable. She snapped herself into the seat. Ok, just push play on your headphones and zone out. 

When she spoke she didn’t look at me, she looked down towards her knees like someone in confession. She asked the one question I wanted to avoid.

“So, do you live in Bismarck?” she said.

I stammered, then decided to give as little information as possible. “Uh… nope. I’m here for work.” Yeah, that sounded good.

“Oh, what do you do?”


“Well, I’m a filmmaker. I’m a part of this national project where filmmakers from across the country film a day in the life of the election. So, I’m filming in Cannonball.”

I said Cannonball instead of Standing Rock. It was an attempt to give her an out. That way, if she was not in support of the water protectors and what they stand for she could easily accept my answer and move on to some other topic, saving us both the headache of having to debate our beliefs on the hour-and-a-half flight to Bismarck. 

“Now, what in the world could be going on at Cannonball on election day?” she asked. Still not looking at me.

I began to get nervous; maybe it was worse than I thought. She seemed to be digging. Maybe she didn’t want an “out.” Maybe she wanted in. Way in.

“Well, I’m filming people that are in the middle of the pipeline dispute at Standing Rock.”

“Which people?” she quipped in that way that says, “I know the answer, but I’m gonna make you say it to me.”

Holy shit. 

The people that are against the Dakota Access Pipeline.” I felt relief. Maybe I was the one in confession.

She nodded her head, still never looking at me. Things fell cold. I tried to weigh out my options and ultimately decided to try and bridge the gap. I was going to be beside her for the next hour, I had to find some sort of common ground.

“What about you? Going home?” I asked.

She perked up, “Yes, I’m getting back from North Carolina.”

“That’s nice. Vacation?” I replied.

She glanced at me. A glance that, I know now, was one of dark pleasure. I had fallen into her trap. Like Frodo and the giant spider in the “Lord of The Rings,” I was about to be wrapped in her unrelenting web.

“No, actually, I was with a group of other congressman’s wives. We went to speak with female voters in North Carolina to campaign for Donald Trump. My husband is Kevin Cramer, the congressman of North Dakota.” She looked at me and held it. I swallowed my gum. My mouth went dry.

How did this happen? Of all the folks that I could’ve sat by on a flight to Standing Rock I’m next to Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer’s wife. Kevin Cramer the climate change denier, Kevin Cramer who wants Planned Parenthood abolished, Kevin Cramer who wants less regulations on drilling, Kevin Cramer who helped draft Donald Trump’s energy bill. That Kevin Cramer.

“Ah … ok.” Was all I could conjure.

Now we both knew we were on completely different sides of the political spectrum. Things went cold between us again. Recklessly, I doubled down on my bridge-building attempt.

“You know, I grew up in rural Oklahoma, I have a lot of friends in the oil industry. So, I have friends on both sides of the issue. My plan for this project is to stay away from the politics of it all and just follow people in regards to the election. The bad and good of the oil industry is too big to get into for this.”


She replied with the sharpness of a surgeon’s scalpel, “Well, what could be bad about the oil industry?” 

You’ve got to be kidding me.

I found my gum, turns out I didn’t swallow it. Just chew. Wipe the sweat from your forehead. Answer the question. 

Deciding to stay away from the politics, I opted to take a more personal approach. I replied, “Well, for one it seems like the oil industry only supports the people at the top. The big wigs. I’ve seen friends lose their jobs and have to scramble to provide for their families. There doesn’t seem to be anything in place for the workers. No support for them when the bottom falls out.”

Her answer, “Yes. We all need to be better at saving. I have to save. They need to save as well.”

She’s tough. She seemed like she wanted a fight. I decided to dig in. This was becoming a battle.

“I’ve always wanted to ask this, and I sincerely want to know. Do you think we can keep taking things out of the Earth without putting anything back in? You think there won’t be problems? Like not even in a hundred years, but say in five hundred years? You think there won’t be damage to our planet?”

Nodding as if she’d been asked this before, she said, “I believe the good Lord has put it there for us to use.”

It felt like the air left my lungs.

I replied, “So, you think God is cool with us doing it even if it has a negative effect on the earth?”

She said, “I truly do.”

I let out a slight chuckle and said, “We should probably change the subject then.”

We both went silent. My chest felt hollow, breathing became laborious. Lines had been drawn in the sand.

This is the issue. The one, big, glaring issue. It is a complete divide in a way of being, a way of existing on this planet. I thought of all the wars fought over the centuries, of all the atrocities that humans have inflicted upon themselves; war, slavery, genocide. All of them justified through an interpretation of what being a human is, an interpretation of what makes me better than you, or me better than that. An interpretation that breaks any harmony between humans and the natural world around us. An interpretation spawned from flawed human beings. No politician, religion, status update, meme, or conversation on a plane can change something so rooted in our fellow humans. If you think it’s ok to harm someone or something as big to our existence as the earth in order to have more for yourself, then there is no changing you. Nothing can stand in your way; not God, armies, animals, the earth, and certainly not other humans.



View of floodlights, DAPL construction, security and snipers in the hills beyond the Missouri River and Oceti Sakowin camp | Image Source: Joseph Rushmore

I thought of the Trail of Tears, I thought of pictures of Chief Spotted Elk (Big Foot) frozen dead at the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890, I thought of those old pictures of black folks hanging from trees, I thought of pictures of the Holocaust, I thought of my grandpa getting hit with shrapnel in World War II, I thought of pictures of Indian children with short hair and school uniforms in front of boarding schools, I thought of wars fought in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, I thought of any number of environmental catastrophes throughout time, and I thought of the friends that I saw maced by militarized police and private security teams at Standing Rock for trying to protect our water from being polluted. I thought of all these things. All of them seemingly unconnected, but at that moment, to me, they told one story.

We spoke again, not anymore about oil or Standing Rock. We talked about our kids, about her daughter’s wedding video business, my film career, anything but our ideals that separated us like day and night. Both of us want happiness, but we totally disagree on how one should go about getting it. 

I told her bye and good luck. As I rented a car I saw her talking with her family. She was laughing with them, and I imagined that she just told the story of the silly Indian she sat next to that thinks there are issues with the oil industry. Just like later when I would laugh and tell my friends that I sat next to a right-wing congressman’s wife who thinks God put oil in the earth for us to use for as long as we want.

I rented a Jeep and drove another hour to Standing Rock. As I pulled into the entrance and passed the hundreds of flags planted by different tribes from across the nation, I began to hear familiar sounds of the drum and singers coming from the main fire. I rolled down my window. The singing got louder, and I began to breathe again.

For more on Standing Rock, read Liz Blood’s article, Mni Wiconi. For more on Sterlin Harjo, read Molly Bullock’s interview with the filmmaker.

sterlin-harjo-headshotHarjo, a member of the Seminole Nation, has Muskogee heritage, was raised in Holdenville, Okla. He attended the University of Oklahoma, where he studied art and film.

He received a fellowship from the Sundance Institute in 2004. His short film, Goodnight, Irene, premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and received a special jury award at the Aspen Shortfest. In 2006, he received a fellowship from the newly formed United States Artists foundation.

His third feature film, Mekko, a thriller set in Tulsa, premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2015. Mekko paints the portrait of a homeless Native American parolee who seeks to save his chaotic yet beautiful community from the darkness that threatens it.

Harjo has also directed a number of short-form projects. His 2009 short film Cepanvkuce Tutcenen (Three Little Boys) was part of the Embargo Collective project commissioned by the imagineNative Film + Median Arts Festival.

He has directed a series of shorts for This Land Press in Tulsa, where Harjo is the staff video director. He was a member of the 2010 Sundance shorts competition jury.

Harjo is a founding member of a five-member Native American comedy group, The 1491s.

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MUSKRAT Magazine

MUSKRAT is an on-line Indigenous arts, culture magazine that honours the connection between humans and our traditional ecological knowledge by exhibiting original works and critical commentary. MUSKRAT embraces both rural and urban settings and uses media arts, the Internet, and wireless technology to investigate and disseminate traditional knowledges in ways that inspire their reclamation.

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