Against the backdrop of the encampment at Standing Rock in 2016, author Carole Lindstrom and illustrator Michaela Goade created We Are Water Protectors, a picture book in which a girl rallies her people to fight a pipeline project. Their tradition considers water not just precious, but sacred: “Water is the first medicine,” are her story’s opening words. The girl stands against the “black snake” of the pipeline to defend the land, the water, and the living beings who depend on them. Lindstrom is Anishinaabe/Métis and tribally Ojibwe, while Goade is of Tlingit descent, tribally enrolled with the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. PW spoke with them about the significance of the events at Standing Rock, the role played by young water protectors, and how they arrived at the words and picture they felt would best tell their story.
How did you come to write this story?
Lindstrom: I heard about the camp at Standing Rock in the summer of 2016. The camp had formed in the spring. I immediately felt connected to it. My tribe is also in North Dakota, north of Standing Rock. I really wanted to be there, but I had family issues. I had written a picture book before, in 2013, and I thought, okay, well maybe I could contribute that way. I needed to do something.
It started as a novel, but it needed to be told quickly, faster. Small children get it. It’s like they already know.
Did it emerge in the form it is now?
It wasn’t poetic at first. It was a little more like a narrative. When I showed it to my agent [Kathleen Rushall], she said, “Could you think about maybe making it more lyrical?” And I said, “I don’t know if I can do that. I’m not sure I can.” And she said, “Well, give it a couple of days.” She knows what works best for me.
So I waited, and then a couple of days later, I sat down and wrote it just the way it is now. It was all there. It just needed some coaxing.
I’ve always been a sparse writer. I don’t like a lot of words. I like the reader’s imagination to conjure the details. It’s very important to let the illustrator have room to let their imaginations go, so having words that are slightly lyrical was the perfect way to write the story. And Michaela’s work is amazing. It’s a work of art.
Goade: Thank you!
The girl who stars in the story, the leader, the warrior—maybe that’s not the right word—she is very young. Can you talk about what was behind the decision to make her a child?
Lindstrom: The camp at Standing Rock was a youth-led movement. You saw so many children there. It wasn’t just grownups fighting for clean water. The youth organized a run from Standing Rock to Washington, D.C., to bring awareness to the situation. Babies were born in the camp. Children will be the face of the future. And a warrior is never a bad thing! I see a warrior as a protector.
Goade: She’s a water warrior!
With all her people gathered behind her, she holds the feather up in a gesture also seen in pictures of other Native activists. What is the significance of that gesture?
Lindstrom: It is sacred. Literally sacred. She is facing down evil.
Goade: It is sacred, like Carole said. It is a symbol of peaceful protest. One of the essential principles was the need to stay peaceful even though they were going up against awful forces. It is one lone person trying to hold back the pipeline, the black snake. In front of her were the the authorities and the power. There are other photographs that show the person with the feather face-to-face with the power, but you don’t see who is behind them and who is supporting them. I wanted to show everybody who was with her, everybody who was behind her.
The voices of women are powerful in this story. Can you talk about that?
Lindstrom: In the Anishinaabe culture, women are the Keepers of Water, so it was a natural for me to envision it that way.
Goade: It never occurred to me not to have her as a young girl. In the Tlingit culture there’s not such an obvious female-water teaching, but there’s a link and a connection between women and life, and water and life. Feminine energy just felt right. And the more I read about Carole’s inspiration and culture—it was pretty beautiful to have it be female energy.
Michaela, how did you work out how to approach the story visually?
Goade: For me, approaching the book, there were so many options. It didn’t need to be specific to any one nation, and with over 500 Indigenous Nations represented at Standing Rock, where would I start? Native peoples have a long history of being misrepresented or left out. I didn’t want to go blindly into this project without first connecting with Carole. Her story represents her personal journey and her own unique and vibrant Ojibwe culture. While I am Native, her experience is outside my own. I read and watched as much as I could, while looking at a ton of imagery.
Lindstrom: It helps that we were able to talk. Michaela didn’t know that picture book authors and illustrators don’t customarily talk to each other, but I shared with her cultural resources from my tribe so she would know more about who we are.
Goade: I decided to root it in Carole’s culture because it’s her story. So the girl wears her traditional ribbon skirt, there are little turtles to represent Turtle Island, and the woodland floral motifs are from the Anishinaabe tradition.
Who was your editor? Did the story’s shape change in big ways, or small ways?
Lindstrom: It was Mekisha Telfer, and she was wonderful. And there wasn’t much to change. The only thing she asked me to do was flip the first two lines.
Goade: I worked with Mekisha and [designer] Aram Kim. Looking back on it and having more experience now, it was such a smooth experience. When I was offered the book, I was like, “Oh yeah, I want to do this.” No debate at all. And the sketches, with the exception of a couple of spreads, came very easily.
Can you talk about the spreads that were more challenging?
The sequence of spreads where it goes, “We fight for those / who cannot fight for themselves: / the winged ones, / the crawling ones,” the way it starts close up and then pulls back— that sequence of [those three] spreads seems natural now, when you look at it—“Oh, of course we should start with this little stream and then zoom out…”—but that took a little bit of work.
Another tricky spread was the spread with the pipeline, looking down on the pipeline with the bird and the fish. I struggled with the perspective. We’ve all seen the consequences of drilling on the natural world. I wanted to show what it meant to the animals.
There’s a technique that looks like stenciling, where white patterned areas appear like lace over the regular painting, and it looks as if there are two planes, or two worlds—a spirit world and a real world. Was that the intent?
That was a new technique I tried out for that book—negative painting. There’s definitely a more spiritual world and then a realistic world [represented in the artwork], but it’s not really a formal division. Everything has spirit. Water has spirit, and water is alive. I live in Alaska, so that’s obvious to me.
How long did the illustrations take? Was it a period of months?
Goade: The sketches, yeah, they took months. But the art itself, once everything was approved and it was go-time, the paintings took about a month. I didn’t leave our property or go into town for 21 days. I only talked to a few people during that part of the process so I could churn it out. I work in isolation.
What reactions are you starting to hear?
Lindstrom: It’s been nothing but positive reactions: “We need this book!” People are ready. They know. We’re anxious to get this book into their hands. We were definitely hoping to go to Standing Rock. We’ve had to cancel, but we’ll work out something. They deserve this book, and it’s definitely going to get there.
Goade: The reception so far has been incredible to see. When I was making the art, I worried that I would make a mistake, or misrepresent, or exclude, or offend, and that was really a challenge. So to have it be received well by different communities, Native and non-Native—that really means a lot. Standing Rock is not an isolated event. There’s land defense in so many places; it’s still ongoing in Canada. We’re only going to be seeing more of it. That’s the reality. We’re fighting the money and power. I hope it makes people proud. It will be part of Standing Rock, and they’ll feel pride and they’ll feel seen.
Lindstrom: And young people will see themselves as Water Protectors. The story is a call to do something, whatever it is. You can do something.
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illus. by Michaela Goade. Roaring Brook, $17.99, March 17 ISBN 978-1-250-20355-7