‘The Medicine Wheel Coming Together’: NDN Collective’s ȞeSápa Action Camp Builds Community Among Organizers

Reflecting on 2023, the ȞeSápa Action Camp hosted by NDN Collective in May stands as a highlight of the year. Hosted deep in the Black Hills in so-called South Dakota, over 150 people representing more than 60 Tribal Nations and territories came together in community.

Known as the ȞeSápa to the Lakota, the Black Hills are comprised of rugged rock formations, majestic canyons and caves, sprawling grasslands, sparkling streams and lakes – all sacred in their own ways, with stories and ancestral footprints all around.

Protect the Ȟesápa banner created and hung by participants of the Ȟesápa Action Camp. Photo by Richard Casteneda.

The Black Hills are also a place of ceremony and even resistance for the dozens of Tribal Nations who have had spiritual and physical ties to the lands since time immemorial. What is more, the Black Hills also mark one of the longest standing land disputes with the United States government, with the Lakota nation at the center of that battle. 

“This territory is unceded territory of the Lakota people, and while we’re in this time of the LANDBACK movement, the Black Hills plays an important role in that movement,” said Nick Tilsen, NDN Collective President and CEO. “Because NDN Collective is based here in the Black Hills, it’s important that we anchor and build a strong base here in the ȞeSápa, building power from home and then moving outward.” 

The deep significance of the ȞeSápa is undeniable, making this the perfect space and backdrop of NDN Collective’s action camp. The fight for the Black Hills is one of NDN Collective’s top priorities with two active campaigns to protect that sacred space: ȞeSápa LANDBACK and Protect the ȞeSápa. One aims to prevent extractive industries like mining in the area and the other is working to return all public lands in the Black Hills to the Lakota people.

Attendees of the 2023 ȞeSápa Action Camp gather in circles to listen to the opening of the camp. Photo by Richard Casteneda.

The week-long ȞeSápa Action Camp aimed to build community and teach important skills necessary for direct action. Indigenous organizers from across Turtle Island and beyond came to participate. 

“We’ve created this space both for investing in and building the power of our people in this territory of the ȞeSápa,” Nick said. “And, we also created this space for our partners throughout NDN country to come here so they can build skills and take them back to their people. This camp is all about building relationships, and building collective power.”

NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen with Andre Perez, Jr. and Andre Perez, Sr. who came to the action camp representing the Kanaka Maoli of Hawai’i. Photo by Richard Casteneda.

Attendees began each morning with prayer and words of encouragement from respected elders, guests, and knowledge-keepers. The daily morning circle also created a space to set camp agreements, protocols, and shared accountability. 

Having so many organizers from around the world provided a rare space to share experiences, tactics, and stories. Each relative attending brought a different perspective or fight to the table. Some were trying to secure affordable housing for unhoused relatives, others brought attention to racism in their schools or by police, many also fought for the land and maintaining our communities through climate change. 

Trainer Daniel T. presents a non-violent direct action session at the Ȟesápa Action Camp to attendees. Photo by Richard Casteneda.

The camp was broken into four training tracks for participants to choose from: Creative Resistance, Tactical Media, Climbing, and Blockades. 

Trainings focused on a variety of areas including nonviolent direct action, direct action planning, creative resistance strategies, blockades, and strategic communication. 

Without art, there is no movement. There is no messaging. Art shows how unified we are, how strong we are together.

– Tyler Wade, Creative Resistance Coordinator

NDN Collective’s Creative Resistance team brings with them over 20 years of utilizing art in activism, non-violent direct action, and organizing experience.  During camp, they held a training to demonstrate that Indigenous creativity is a beautiful act of resistance and an important strategy for  defining and uplifting messaging in calls to action.

A picket sign stencil reads: “Food is Medicine” made during the Creative Resistance training of the 2023 ȞeSápa Action Camp. Photo by Richard Casteneda.

Amidst the specific tracks and trainings, an underlying goal of the camp was to build trust and community among organizers. 

“[On the frontlines] things can get a little intense and escalated,” said Terrell Iron Shell, a local organizer for NDN. “We want to make sure folks trust each other so we’re able to work together under pressure and be there when needed.” 

Terrell has been in the world of action for much of his life. He said an important part of a blockade or any action is knowing you can trust the people you lock down with and can keep each other safe. 

Terrell Iron Shell, NDN Collective Local Organizer sits in one of the sessions of the 2023 ȞeSápa Action Camp. Photo by Richard Casteneda.

His father, Andrew Iron Shell, is also a local organizer with NDN. Both attended the action camp along with some of Terrell’s siblings. He even brought his young daughter to the ȞeSápa camp. Terrell takes her along to protests and actions so she can be there when history is made and they can learn from those on the frontlines together.

“I’m really learning a lot about the different ways to mobilize,” Terrell said. “Being able to hear everyone’s stories and their experiences is an amazing energy to be around.” 

We’ve never had a space like this to fully train and prepare our own people in our own communities… So it means a lot to me to be fully present and here with people from all walks of life in all directions. It’s the Medicine Wheel coming together.

– Tyler Wade

The ȞeSápa camp was a different kind of organizing and resistance. Indigenous frontline defenders and activists coming together to plan, to build community, and expand their knowledge was a first of its kind. 

“We’ve never had a space like this to fully train and prepare our own people in our own communities,” Tyler said. “We’ve often been dependent on these bigger organizations that have held these spaces but got credit off the work of Indigenous people throughout the resistance. So it means a lot to me to be fully present and hear with people from all walks of life in all directions. It’s the Medicine Wheel coming together.”

Tyler Wade, NDN Collective Creative Resistance Coordinator, sits for an interview during the 2023 ȞeSápa Action Camp. Photo by Richard Casteneda.

Korina Barry, Managing Director of NDN Action, was among those who organized the ȞeSápa Action Camp. She said one intention behind the camp and bringing everyone together was partially to identify areas to build capacity and power for Indigenous relatives across Turtle Island, and beyond. She thought about it as an opportunity to exchange skills and strategy. 

“It was a really big priority for us and we asked, ‘how can we continue to build up the movement, both with our older generation while preparing the upcoming generations?” She said. 

“Since camp has ended, we’ve already seen the activation and utilization of newly learned and refined skills within organizing on the frontlines. This is what it is all about,” Korina said. “I am so incredibly proud of the intention and dedication that was put into the planning and hosting of this camp – and am equally thankful for those that trained, participated, and protected our camp during our time together.”

Attendees of the 2023 ȞeSápa Action Camp pose infront of the Protect the ȞeSápa banner in the Black Hills. Photo by Richard Casteneda.

One of the most beautiful things about the ȞeSápa Camp — as with many Indigenous gatherings — were the babies. They are the next generation in these spaces and learning alongside everyone else. 

Terrell, Korina, Tyler and other parents brought their children along with them to the camp. 

“We joke about it but also we’re serious about it,” Korina said. “Next time these babies will be walking and it’ll be their second action camp. They’re little movement babies.”

Janene Yazzie, NDN Collective Southwest Regional Director, plays with Korina’s daughter at the Ȟesápa Action Camp. Photo by Richard Casteneda.

Tyler said becoming a parent changed the way he showed up in the movement. The fight is stronger for him now whether it be land, water, food, sovereignty or our medicines, it all matters because of the children growing up here.

“Creator gifted me a baby and I want to leave a future for her where she doesn’t have to do this work,” he said. “Having her here, building these networks, by the time she’s ten she’ll have so much more than I ever had and be so much farther than I was at that age. This is power for the youth, this much knowledge.”

The next NDN Collective action camp will be hosted in 2025.

More Photos of the ȞeSápa Action Camp

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