Tu’Ulenana Iuli, better known as Tu, made Bellingen his home five years ago, and he brought to the Valley his gentle kindness along with his traditional roots.
The dad to a young son, Sefo, Tu is a well-known proud Samoan warrior, respected by many for his active and committed support of indigenous people and environmental issues.
Whether it be standing with the Tarkeeth State Forest protesters, or on the establishment’s doorsteps to fight CSG, Tu has proven to be a formidable campaigner in fighting for, and highlighting, the precious nature of our land and water against threats from fossil fuels to industrial logging.
Thus it was no surprise to many that Tu was invited to be a part of the 50th Birthday celebration of the Black Panther movement held in Oakland California in the United States, last October.
The mission of the Black Panther movement is to support oppressed indigenous and non-indigenous people throughout the world and the gathering was held to recognise the group’s many achievements.
The occasion also provided an opportunity for participants to commemorate those members of the movement who had passed. In 1966 Bobbi Seal and Hughie P Newton, among the original members of the Black Panthers, practiced armed resistance against armed police who were shooting African-Americans in the streets.
The gathering also highlighted civil liberties, political prisoners, indigenous issues and environmental protection concerns across the globe.
Tu spoke to the meeting about Bellingen, its forestry, land and water issues.
And then, in a decision that sparked a life of its own, Tu took a 48hr drive across the country to Dakota, where he attended the iconic Standing Rock protest.
It’s impossible not to have heard about Standing Rock. What started as ostensibly grievances of the Sioux Lakota people, protesting the construction of a pipeline to carry oil through their lands, has turned into a worldwide rallying cry about the environment, minorities and big business – to say the least.
Perhaps, it’s because of the universality of issues facing people throughout the world, that people like Bellingen’s Tu found a reason to stand with and for the North American tribe.
“Standing Rock is important because it is about ordinary people doing extroading things,” Tu said.
“The project threatens sacred native lands and could contaminate their water supply from the Missouri River … this is a non-violent peaceful movement to highlight the treaties between the Sioux Lakota people and the US Government and the protection of land and water.”
But despite the best intentions of the protesters, Tu said the threat of violence is real.
“A militarised police force is engaged in tense standoffs with demonstrators – and after a day when 80 people were arrested following violent confrontations, Tu asked permission to perform a Haka, a decision that brought a Bellingen local to the world’s stage.
“The footage went viral,” Tu said.
“The Haka resonates with people – it’s a natural, spiritual, peaceful way of expressing our connections, the solidarity.
“It wasn't performed for the world, it was the way in which I could celebrate the courage of those 500 or so people who came out again to rise up after so many had been taken away by the police.”
The main camp where Tu worked was called Oceti Sakowin Camp and it was the central camp. Other camps set up were called the Red Warrior Camp and the Sacred Stone Camp.
These camps formed a large tent city for the hundreds of people from around the US and across the globe during the protest.
“I was living in a big marquee, and had two baths in two weeks,” Tu said.
“It was cold, but I felt free. I was happy being around people – the feeling of togetherness.
“There were arguments, but we endure because we agree that whatever it takes, we will do.
“It’s a great feeling … and there's a freedom in that too – that I have been too radical – but this time, whatever it takes, we will overcome our fears.”
Camp life is basic. There is no running water, everything had to be heated, the act of feeding the masses, the sheer amount of work daunting.
Tu said that post-visit the government is fining people $1000 for supplying the protestors with food.
“How can you make a law like that in a democratic government? How can you fine people for giving food,” he said.
“Standing Rock is almost hypnotic.
“The tactics are similar to wartime, the brutality …
“If people stood their ground the police treated them with violence.
“People were sprayed with pepper spray and women were stripped to their underwear and crammed into cages and kept there in freezing conditions … but they did not do this to the men.
“Why are they targeting our sisters?
“And yet in spite of this, we all said prayers on the front line; ‘please protect our water’.
“It was an achievement, meaningful – it felt, that we will see this one through. Finally a line in the sand.”
“And that’s what I want the people of the Valley to know. I see my job now as spreading the word … telling people to tell their story.
“When people ask me what is so important about Standing Rock – that’s hard to answer. There are so many issues we face. But I think the legacy of the Sioux Lakota people’s protest is that we have to understand and exercise our rights. A good democracy is only as good as it we make it.
“Bellingen has its own Standing Rock – the security and health of its natural environment and the Indigenous culture and people.
“To be connected to the land and to connect the people – we have to talk. We have to learn from the Elders. We have to unite and support each other.”
Being back in the Shire, Tu’s undertaken numerous interviews and had been “working behind the scenes” to help those at North Dakota, including helping to organise Bellingen’s Standing Rock fundraiser on Friday.
And of course, he’s back on the ground with his son Sefo.
“When I was away I called Sefo and he said, ‘Dad you're famous’.
“And I replied, ‘now you can go to school and tell your friends water is life’.”
And given the Valley is now on Level 3 water restrictions, with many old timers saying it’s as bad as they've seen it, Tu’s words seem both sage and obvious.
Click here for information about the local event: Bellingen Stands with Standing Rock.
The Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) is a $3.7bn project that would transport crude oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota to a refinery in Patoka, Illinois, near Chicago. The 11,720-mile (18,862km) pipeline, roughly 30 inches (76cm) in diameter, would carry 470,000 barrels of oil per day and is a project of the company Energy Transfer Partners.
- Special thanks to Caroline Joseph.