Cheryl Angel is an indigenous leader, wise (Sioux) Lakota elder woman, mother of five children, and lifelong devoted water protector who helped initiate and maintain the Standing Rock camp since April 2016, and who was vital in the nonviolent resistance to the Dakota Access
and Keystone XL pipelines. Her voice among the water protectors is one of integrating deep prayer with nonviolent direct action, guiding two women-led actions
at Standing Rock. A spiritual activist
from the Sicangu (Rosebud) tribe -- one of the seven tribes that conform the Lakota/Nakota/Dakota People in the Great Plains of North America -- Cheryl moves from a deep space of love and nonviolence as guided by her ancestors and Lakota traditions and ways of being.
Cheryl was born in the Black Hills, South Dakota, known to the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota people as The Heart of Everything That Is
. Her mother had heart problems, and was unable to care for her, even at birth. Her first baby sitter was a horse. Cheryl didn’t meet her siblings formally until she was 4 years old. At around age 5, Cheryl was taken by her father to the reservation where she lived with the Two Kettle community, and was looked after by 80-year-old elders. In third grade, Cheryl was put in St. Francis boarding school for two years. While at boarding school, she and the other kids suffered from physical and psychological abuse – her braid was immediately cut off and she was given short hair and bangs, she had to take baths in a dungeon, and she was punished for speaking her language or practicing her spirituality.
Cheryl wondered if her life was worth anything. The only thing she’d experience out of life was abuse, neglect and loneliness, until one day a friend told her, “Give it all to the Creator as a gift... Creator doesn’t care what the gift is, but you need to package it and send it over in order for Creator to help you. ... It doesn't matter if what you have to offer is only pain.” Cheryl did. She spent the entire night crying and praying. By the next day, she felt healed. This experience deepened Cheryl’s connection to Creator and gifted her with the understanding of the importance of prayer and surrender. Every morning, and in every ceremony, Cheryl prays, “Please take me to where I can do something good today.” She believes this prayer is what has set her on her journey as a water protector
One of her sons, Happi, was one of the first Standing Rock water protectors who locked himself down to an excavator to stop the DAPL construction. In an interview about this action of nonviolent civil disobedience, Cheryl said
: “Water is sacred to us. We use it every day not just to live, but for ceremonies, for spiritual cleansing, for healing and for blessing.” Later, she participated to set up a camp directly blocking the construction of the pipeline.
At Standing Rock, Cheryl held several circles around Gandhian nonviolence and she was able to find intersections with the Lakota way of life. In particular, the Gandhian conception of "soul force" (satyagraha
) or "clinging to truth" has a direct correspondence with the Lakota concept of "nagi", from Cheryl’s perspective. She often appeals to the '"nagi'" inside each and every one of us, as a way to connect with our best self.
In November 2016, at one of the peaks of resistance at Standing Rock, Cheryl left for New Mexico to attend a ceremony with other healers. After the ceremony, she went to a sacred river to pray with the water. Even though it was in the middle of winter, and the water was freezing, when Cheryl touched the water, her hands became hot. She could feel that the water and she were communicating. The water recognized her. It didn’t feel slippery, it felt of substance. She felt the sacredness of the water, and felt a deep knowing that water is life
. This empowered Cheryl to rise into her calling of being a life-long water protector. When Cheryl returned to camp, she led over 800 people in a silent women-led nonviolent direct action
to the front lines. Renowned author, activist and legend, Starhawk -- founder of Earth Activist Training
the experience: "I stood behind Cheryl [Angel] and listened to one of the most powerful moments of pure nonviolence I’ve ever experienced.”
Cheryl lives by her prayers. Whether she is on the front line, marching on the streets of DC, supporting the indigenous people in Mexico
, or with her prayer horses at home, she prays. Cheryl believes that anyone that is around her while she is praying is part of her ceremony, “The police are not the enemy. They are our brothers and sisters. They also need our prayers and they are a part of our ceremony.”
Join us in conversation with this remarkable spiritual activist and leader!
Five Questions with Cheryl Angel
What Makes You Come Alive?
Injustice, anything out of the social norms of how I was raised, and seeing people behave badly makes me come alive. When I see people misbehaving, I have an internal need to make sure they're behaving correctly because it goes back to how I was raised when I was a little kid. We were taught to look out for one another and to make sure none of us got in any trouble or did something that would endanger our little group. Another thing that make me come alive is beauty. Everyday I look around see beautiful things and it makes me love the Planet more. Watching other people help each other and especially watching strangers help each other - that really makes me happy, I come alive just watching them.
Pivotal turning point in your life?
The vision and work of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, because in the times when I was young and watching TV, their messages of economic equality and racial equality meant a lot, especially because I was living on a reservation, and feeling the injustice against all tribal people of this nation.
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
I have a story about how my brother taught me what true kindness really is. One winter he came back home to visit his friends and during that visit his friends were taken into custody. They had 6 little kids (1-6 years old) so my brother stayed to watch them for nearly a month, by himself. For a whole month he was their mom and their dad. During that time, there was a 3-day snow storm. My brother returned to our house, dragging a sled, and asked me for some food, supplies, and kids clothes. I loaded up the sled and he went back to that house and he continued to care for those kids until their parents came home. It wasn't until about 15 years later, a young lady walked up to me, shook my hand, and said, "How is your brother? Can you tell him I'll never ever forget what he did for me and my little brothers and sisters during the blizzard." My brother isn't college educated, nor a community leader, nor someone who thinks they're somebody important. He's so humble in his kindness. He goes around the community everyday just to check up on people to see if he can offer them something he has, and if he doesn't have it, he'll go out and try to find it for them. To me, that's the kindness of your heart showing people that they matter.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
The Bucket List is a new concept that my people didn't practice. For me, if everyday is a new adventure where I can learn something new, see something beautiful, help someone overcome their worries, let go of their sadness, and be filled with peace, confidence, understanding and acceptance, then we all are the same and the only difference between us all is our intent to help one another. So if I had one item in that bucket it would be to empower people to love themselves internally and allow that love to shine outwardly in their daily lives to enrich the people around them.
One-line Message for the World?
Pray hard, Be still and listen for the Water. She calls. She calls for you.