Monday, December 30, 2019

Recommended: Standing Strong by Gary Robinson

Standing Strong
Written by Gary Robinson (Choctaw/Cherokee)
Published in 2019
Publisher: 7th Generation
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Status: Recommended

For many months when we were adapting Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People, Debbie and I followed what was happening with #NoDAPL activism on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, in spite of the generally poor media coverage. Eventually, we had the opportunity to add a chapter about Standing Rock/NoDAPL to the book, showing how themes of sovereignty and resistance that ran through the rest of the book were expressed in that 21st century situation. We hoped it would not be long before we could recommend books for young people about that Indigenous fight for environmental justice.

Debbie has already urged readers to pre-order Carole Lindstrom's gorgeous We Are Water Protectors (illus. by Michaela Goade, out in March 2020). Now, I'm pleased to recommend Gary Robinson's 2019 short novel Standing Strong, a work of Standing Rock-related fiction for teens. Robinson's main character is Rhonda Runningcrane, a Blackfeet high school senior. Rhonda struggles with grief and outrage over how things are in her family and her community; when we meet her, she's recovering from her own suicide attempt and the loss of her best friend to suicide. She's not isolated. She has friends and two strong allies (her hard-working handyman uncle and her therapist) but it's hard for her to envision a realistic way to make a better life for herself.

When she hears that clothing and supplies are being collected for a pipeline protest at "Standing Stone" reservation, something sparks her interest. She talks her friends and her uncle into helping gather donations, and the girls soon fill a pickup truck and take off for the newly forming camps a 12-hour drive away. Once Rhonda gets there, she begins to feel a sense of purpose. Much of the rest of the book is about her involvement in the life of the camp, how it affects her, and how her know-how with tools and with social media contribute to the well-being of that activist community.

This is fiction, not a Standing Rock memoir, and it should be appreciated as such. The events described -- daily standoffs, racism of pipeline workers, attacks on water protectors by trained dogs,  the overly-enthusiastic destruction of the camps by law enforcement, and so on --  don't necessarily follow the exact chronology of the actual Standing Rock water protection effort. Young Native people have been centrally involved in many such actions, and will continue to be.

Robinson pushes back on some stereotypes. Far from being a wise and thoughtful elder, Rhonda's grandmother is just generally a rotten human being. The wise and thoughtful elder Rhonda does meet later in the book is no quiet old dear sitting by the fire making pithy statements -- she kicks butt, tooling around the camps at high speed, providing encouragement to the community (especially the youth), and taking a central role in the camp's direction and energy. Robinson also avoids the trap of focusing only on the valor of headline-makers. As more than one of his characters suggests, the work of putting bodies on the line in physical protest is important, but so is the the behind-the-scenes work of keeping a camp running and getting the word out to the wider world. There are many ways to be a water protector, and Rhonda finds hers. She will fight for environmental justice -- maybe not as someone who makes headlines, but as one who brings all her courage, commitment, and knowledge to that fight.

I hope many young people find this book. Among its strengths is its portrayal of resistance not as some exceptional life choice, but as a "normal," rational (even necessary) response to injustice and oppression. Robinson dedicates the book to the Standing Rock water protectors, and to Native teen suicide survivors. He weaves some mental health messages into the story (such as if your medications are helping you, keep taking them and making a positive contribution to something larger than yourself can be a healing act). He also includes a page with links to the Indigenous Environmental Network and related Web sites, as well as suicide prevention resources.

Note: Robinson is of Choctaw/Cherokee descent, and his main characters in Standing Strong are Blackfeet. I'm not able to say for sure whether his description of life on the Blackfeet Reservation are what citizens of that nation would describe, though nothing leapt out at me as problematic.

Non-Blackfeet readers of Standing Strong might want to find out more by going to the Blackfeet Nation Web site. From there, they can find out about Badger Two Medicine and how the Blackfeet Nation is handling its water resources.

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