Q&A with Oglala Lakota Activist and Educator Mark Tilsen

On October 11, we celebrated Indigenous Peoples’ Day and honored the history and Indigenous cultures in our community and beyond. The California Environmental Literacy Initiative is striving to achieve a culture of gratitude and recognition throughout the year. In this week’s article, we interviewed Mark Tilsen Jr., an Oglala Lakota poet and educator from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Mark discusses his activism, a movement that harkens back to a 500-year long resistance, and the dire need for preserving native land.


Please tell us a little bit about yourself. 

My name is Mark Kenneth Tilsen, and I am a poet and an educator from Porcupine, South Dakota, located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Since 2016 I’ve been fighting pipelines and working as a non-violent direct action trainer and educator.

What brought you to become a pipeline fighter?

Before I was born, my mom was an environmental activist who fought Union Carbide’s uranium mining operation in the southern Black Hills and the Honeywell Corporation and their effort to facilitate open weapons testing on sacred Lakota territory. I come from a family of longtime activists, but I was immensely jaded and cynical about activism until Standing Rock inspired me to alter the course of my life.

Can you share a little bit about Standing Rock and what about that situation made you shift your thinking?

To clarify, Standing Rock is a geographical location. It’s the home of the Hunkpapa and Ihanktonwan tribes on the border of North and South Dakota. We were fighting against and lost to the Dakota Access Pipeline, which now pumps oil from the Bakken oil field traversing beneath the Missouri River, which is the drinking water of the Lakota nation. The majority of Lakota people drink water from the Missouri River, and so do 17 million other Americans downriver.

The thing that I saw at Standing Rock was that better worlds are possible. I ended up staying for the majority of five months. It was a life-changing experience. A lot of people showed up for this sense of connectedness of coming together. I have a poem called Camp Life that says, “It’s not that we were free. Not really. But on a good day, we could see what freedom looked like.” 

As an educator, what role do you see education playing in this landscape? 

The majority of Indigenous people on the frontlines of the struggle against climate change don’t have the quantifiable data of the impact of climate change in their heads. Education is incredibly important, but knowledge doesn’t inherently move people to act. It’s through connections of what we’re going to lose and what can be saved. I try to do it through poetry. We need people to experience the visceral and painful impact that climate change will have on our planet. I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of people march against climate change, and it didn’t stop anything but traffic for a day. On the other hand, I’ve seen just 20 people cost a pipeline company $500 million in damage. But we’re not going to do it with numbers.  

What role do you see your poetry play in environmental resilience work?

My poetry is about creating a sense of community for the front-liners, a little bit of healing, and grasping the incredibly dire situation we are in. As indigenous people, our role is to be caretakers of the land and take on the most damaging environmental offenders. 

For students passionate about climate change, what advice would you give them?

Try to create genuine connections and unity across classes. If we really want to create change, we have to create vast movements outside of our comfortable circles. We have to create a unified struggle. This is about humanity and the ecosystem and the future survival of that.

A poem titled “Hey Hopeless” from Mark Tilsen’s upcoming book, And We Will Know Ourselves by More than The Trail of Our Dead.

 

You on the edge

With nothing left to give 

Stay 

Stay and fight 

The old glaciers melt

The Great Forest burns

Old gods and ancient spirits turn 

Loose their rage

And we are going to lose

But don’t go

Please don’t go

Not yet

There is so much life left 

So much to save

Meet me in the ashes

Where everything turns grey