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A Standing Rock Activist on the Power of Reconnecting With Her Native Roots

Laura Hinman says the Standing Rock protest was a "test of endurance" that prepared her for for a lifetime of activism.

by Linda Yang
Dec 12 2017, 7:16pm

Photos courtesy of Laura Hinman

You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.

Before a historic coalition of indigenous nations gathered in Standing Rock, North Dakota, to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, Laura Hinman was a 24-year-old Kumeyaay Native and Pratt Institute graduate living in New York City’s Chinatown and working in the fashion industry. Originally from San Diego, Hinman was raised by a non-Native adoptive family.

"While I had seen native people on TV, I had never met other native people," Hinman told Broadly. "When I heard that all these different tribes were coming together, I knew that it was a sign to go." After the Standing Rock camp was forcibly closed this February, Hinman was one of the last to leave the site. Since then, she's attempted to set up a new camp protesting the Keystone (KXL) Pipeline and met her birth family for the first time.

"Standing Rock was really an introduction for me. While there was a lot of pain and stress it really did help me open up and prepare for what I’m doing now," Hinman said. Broadly spoke to the activist about her year since Standing Rock and the Native issues she's focusing on in 2018.

BROADLY: The last time we spoke, you were still at Standing Rock. What have you been up to since then?
LAURA HINMAN: After Standing Rock, I went to a different reservation about two hours away from Standing Rock in South Dakota. There was going to be another camp for the KXL pipeline which burst maybe a month ago. But before that, our whole plan was to have this campout there and I spent about a month, maybe two months, with my boyfriend in that community in Cheyenne River Sioux land just planning for this camp. It took a lot of time to think about what we need, and we didn't have as many people with us as Standing Rock—there were about 30 people with us.

We were figuring out: Are we going to build structures, are we going to be sustainable, how are we going to get water, get energy? We were really planning for a long-term setup. The goal was to keep it as peaceful as possible just because at the end of Standing Rock, it got so tense. Every day, we didn’t know what was going to happen: Is there going to be a big standoff, is there going to be violence? So for this new camp, we were focusing on keeping tradition. The family that owns the land was going to teach us Lakota ways, focusing on songs, language, food, and ways of life. We were really excited.

What was that second camp against the KXL Pipeline like?
We went to New York for a couple of weeks, to honestly get rid of my apartment, and when we got back to the site, everything had gone awry. Everybody had left, there were only three people there. Some people left because they were sick, some needed to go back to their lives. I don’t judge them for leaving, but it was a different environment and we see what happens on reservations happen at this camp. People were hopeless, feeling like there wasn’t anything worth fighting for because we effectively lost at Standing Rock and we were losing against the KXL pipeline. Spirits were not high.

I don’t know what we could have done different[ly] but it didn’t turn out how we had hoped. That’s because of the sense of pain, a lot of people didn’t know what to do with themselves. They felt alone and everyone kind of forgot about it and went on with their lives.

What was Standing Rock like for you?
It was a test of endurance. It got to a point [where] everybody had something against them. Whether it was the weather and they were sick all the time, or the stress of the security and police harassing them. It could be the stress of inner-conflict. A lot of things were brought up because of what was around us. We were a community but any community has its issues. We saw what was happening on the outside world affecting us on the inside. Even though we tried to keep it separate, it managed to make its way in there.

In a really beautiful turn of events, you’re currently in San Diego meeting your birth parents.
They’re all from two different tribes in San Diego. One of them is Kumeyaay. I’m coming into this new. I’m adopted and I really didn’t have a change to connect with some of these details about my heritage. It’s nobody’s fault. I’m really happy it ended up this way because they’re getting to show me everything. We’re walking around together, going on drives, looking at pictures together. It’s something that is really special and it’s hard to describe because I don’t know a lot of people who can relate to that but I know that there are others that can, too. People who don’t have connections to their cultures or have been displaced in different ways. I feel really blessed because I’m getting all these opportunities to get in touch with really important things.

How has the process of meeting your birth parents been?
I’m getting to learn about the land and the individual tribal issues over here. A lot of reservations have similar problems, so I get to learn this through my family. They’re telling me stories and what they’re having to fight for every day. Tribal politics are really complex and the relationship between people and the land is always at stake. Outsiders are always coming in wanting to buy the land or use the land in certain ways. It’s always a struggle.

To me, before I knew any of this, before Standing Rock, before I knew my biological parents, I would think, "If that’s someone’s land, that’s someone’s land. Why would a big corporation touch that? It’s illegal." But it’s amazing how corrupt things are, and how it extends into everybody’s everyday lives. For example, banks that fund pipelines.

This world really does not align with the Native way of life. It’s interesting to hear that from my own family because Standing Rock was really an introduction for me. But I just feel like this is supposed to be happening. I never assumed that it would. Before that, I was so focused on my career, being in fashion, being in New York. It’s still part of my interests. I still have my friends. It’s still a part, but this is just a new chapter for me.

You’re coming back this weekend to New York to speak about reimagining the future of native women at the Working Women of Color Conference.
Yes, I’m so excited. I think if we keep going in this direction, we can fuse these two worlds of New York and Native life together. Whether it’s through media, information, or just talking to people. And it’s important to be talking about these things, as they’re not in the media, they’re not in people’s mindset.

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After Standing Rock bringing national attention to Native issues, what are you looking to focus on in 2018?
I didn’t grow up on a reservation and while throughout my life I learned about my family and what struggles they had to deal with, I didn’t really know. Now that I’m learning about life on a reservation, it’s important to me that we share the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s embarrassing. Not embarrassing for us but for the government, that they allow people to live like this and they allow First Americans to be less of a citizen than anybody else. That’s what I think about the conditions and opportunities available. I want to focus on sharing that information but I would love to find a way to connect people on reservations with people in cities.

I think about how that connection can be made through media or social media like Instagram. There needs to be a connection between the reservation and the rest of the world. The whole point of the reservation is to separate. They don’t want outside people to know about the problems. We’re all in bubbles in certain ways but reservations are something different.