Why Afro-Indigenous Dominicana Nasha Paola Holguín is a Water Protector

Jihan Hafiz

Nasha Paola Holguín is a water protector. The Afro-Indigenous Caribbean Latina, who is of Dominican heritage, left the hustle and bustle of New York City for Standing Rock in 2016 for a total of five months, living, resisting and healing on camp. While the Dakota Access pipeline is completed and nearly operational, the 26-year-old Holguín, as with other natives, continues her fight as a water protector. Here’s her story, as told to Raquel Reichard.

People often wonder what a water protector is. Simply, it's someone who defends native land, water and people. This can look like activists building a human barrier in front of the Cheyenne River or even a prayer circle. For me, I do this first by just existing. Being an afro-indigenous Latinx woman is a defense all of its own. But I also do this by occupying spaces. The camp, for instance, was an occupation of treaty land, where we used our bodies to physically defend the water, the living source of the people.

MORE: Why Latinxs Should Support Native Efforts Against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Defense can also look like healing. For a long part of my stay in Standing Rock, I assisted in the kitchens. These were very vital community spaces, led by women elders and matriarchs, who understood the importance of feeding the people. That’s what most of my work consisted of: the nourishment of those who were there and the healing of trauma that arose from state-sanctioned violence while on the front lines – and a lot of that came from the kitchens.

Being a water protector is also a spiritual defense. Prayer, in the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota practice, was the main part of our resistance there. And when I say prayer, I mean that in a totally decolonized way, not at all like Catholic or Christian church invocations. Much of it was reconnecting with women from all over the world and learning from each other every day.

Most of this was brand new to me. After all, I’m a dominicana from the Bronx. These aren’t common practices where I’m from. So it goes without saying that my family, upon learning that I was living on camp, thought I had completely lost it. “Tu ‘ta loca, muchacha,” they’d ask me. I’d laugh and try to educate as I’d go along. I understand firsthand how much of this work is unlearning and reeducating.

When I first came to camp last year, I didn’t know what to expect. My spirit just drove me there. It’s almost like I didn’t have a choice. This fight, whether for our lives or for our land, which are interconnected, by the way, has been ongoing since the start of colonization, and the native people of this hemisphere have been fighting since then. I felt like it was my duty to be there, to join forces with our northern relatives.

Even more, as a person who migrated here and settled on native land, I felt obligated to be an ally to their efforts. As Latinxs, we’ve all been colonized, and we’ve been subjected to imperialist forces that continue to exploit us throughout all of Latin America. A lot of the indigenous people in our countries continue to fight these battles. And it’s a ripple effect. The imperialism our countries see force migrations onto this land, which is not our own. We owe that solidarity because if it weren’t for their struggle, we wouldn’t have a right to stand here to begin with. 

Interestingly, while I was more than a thousand miles away from my New York stoop, I had never felt such a sense of belonging and home than I did at Standing Rock. I believe it’s because everyone who was there, for the most part, had the same goal: to defend not only our mother earth but our indigenous women as well.

Being on camp taught me so much. For one, I learned that the earth is a living entity. It’s not something you can just place a tool in without impact. When I hear about a pipeline in our waters, I feel the way I do when my gynecologist rams tools inside of me: violated, mistreated and harsh pain. The earth is alive, and she’s an indigenous woman. Everything that capitalism does to the land is simultaneously done to native women. For example, when oil companies, and hundreds of their racist male employers, come close to reservations, they abuse the women. They sexually assault them, hurting the women’s bodies as their projects maim the grounds.

Life at camp also showed me how much critical layers of a story are left out of mainstream media’s news coverage, particularly revolving around social justice issues. Almost everything I saw on the day-to-day was missing from cable news and newspapers. The media didn’t cover the extent to which the corporatocracy went to keep us under surveillance, they never highlighted political prisoner Red Fawn Fallis, and they haven’t looked at the trauma that was triggered by all of these abuses against the people, and the PTSD many are experiencing now.

Most of all, though, I learned the meaning of beautiful resistance. These folk are woke AF. Native resistance, as we know, has a long history, but it covers every aspect of basic needs that the people have. It’s very organized, and it’s also self-governing. Even now, the pipeline is almost operational, we lost a battle in a long continuing war, but the fire is still burning within us all. There are groups of us traveling cross-country, going to universities to share stories and visiting community centers to teach other native kids that we are fighting for their future. Personally, I relocated to Minnesota, where I, along with a few native and afro-indigenous sisters, am organizing a global collective of women and femme people to work toward healing and creating a new reality for our communities.

PLUS: How Indigenous Women Lead the Fight Against Climate Change in Latin America

I don’t know if I would be doing this work if I had never gone to camp. Being there allowed me to step into my power, and once that happened, I couldn’t turn back. Here’s what I know: We, Latinxs, are bad as hell, and we can do whatever we want because we’ve survived genocide and have our ancestors with us wherever we go.