LOGAN SQUARE — A group of Logan Square students packed into two vans last month and traveled more than 800 miles to Standing Rock, N.D., which continues to make national headlines for an ongoing battle over a proposed oil pipeline.
After spending a few days sharing stories and meals with locals, the 11 students, many of whom had never camped or slept in a tent before, have a new outlook on life.
"I never knew so many beautiful people existed," said Doris Salgado, 19, one of the students who went on the trip. "There was no violence. It was very peaceful."
Other students called the trip everything from a "blessing" to "life-changing."
The trip was part of a Logan Square Neighborhood Association project that began with students taking a genealogy test, which revealed that many of them have Native American ancestry — some up to 90 percent.
"It was a moment of self-discovery," said Juliet de Jesus Alejandre, director of young organizing for the association.
"What does this mean about who we are in this moment given the state of our country and the rhetoric going on? They should know who they are and feel strong about that. That's what they're going to need to survive the hate."
Armed with this knowledge, the neighborhood group launched a campaign to fund a trip to the Lower Brule reservation.
The goal was not only for students to learn about the fight to save sacred land, but also to connect with their indigenous roots.
One of the tipis at the reservation. [Courtesy/Diane Salgado]
"We learned a lot about rituals that were foreign to us because, as Mexican people, we think of ourselves as Mexican and we don't think of ourselves as indigenous," said 17-year-old Arely Barrera. "To connect with other indigenous people ... it was really great."
Many of the students said the most memorable moment of the trip was the opening ceremony, when locals introduced each student and taught them all a traditional dance.
"For them to be so welcoming and we didn't even know them ... that moment will always stick with me," Salgado said. "It was spiritual. It's moments like this that give us hope."
In between cooking meals and peace circles, the students talked to tribe members about the controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
At issue is an oil pipeline that would run just north of Sioux County and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which is home to 8,250 people. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argues the pipeline could harm sacred land and endanger its water supply.
"Some of them quit their jobs just to be at the camp 24/7. It's really cold. They have to cook dinners from scratch. It was a really good experience to see," Barrera said of the indigenous people.
A banner at the reservation. [Courtesy/Diane Salgado]
Over the past few months, the battle has drawn thousands of protesters, including Native Americans from other areas of the country, environmentalists and climate activists. It's led to a clash between protesters and local authorities, who have reportedly used pepper spray and water cannons to push them back.
"We had a lot of meetings with people to understand the level of danger and the chance students could be arrested," de Jesus Alejandre said.
But those fears went away as soon as the group arrived at the main camp, which de Jesus Alejandre described as "really safe."
"That's where all of this immense generosity is happening," she said.
While the group did see drones overhead, police only came through the reservation once during the group's stay and there was no conflict, she said.
"We didn't come here to stop" the pipline, de Jesus Alejandre said. "We're here humbly to learn what this fight looks like."
Getting a firsthand look at the pipeline fight was especially important to the group, she said, because they see similarities between the battle at Standing Rock and the fight against gentrification in Logan Square.
"There's this level of erasure that we feel is happening in Logan Square," de Jesus Alejandre said.
People say Logan Square "'was bad. It was a dangerous neighborhood and it needed fixing and people should be grateful.' But what we push back on is this was our neighborhood. We live here," she said.
"Our story is not the Standing Rock story. Our story is about a group of Latinos discovering who they are, fighting against gentrification and displacement in their community. We want to stand in solidarity with Standing Rock."
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