How did a nice, well-intentioned, white lady like me find herself sobbing over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) during a layover in an isolated corner of the Denver airport? Frequently traveling from my current home in California to my original home in North Dakota means I’ve flown in and out of the Bismarck, North Dakota airport more times than I can count. My favorite feature is a mosaic on the floor with an inlay of the Missouri River that stretches from one end of the tiny airport to the other.
The Schomberg Center for Black Research in Harlem also has an inlay on its floor, in which some of Langston Hughes ashes are buried. It’s a cosmogram featuring several rivers, evoking lines of his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
When I saw the Schomberg mosaic, I was reminded of the Bismarck airport. Although visitors to Bismarck and visitors to the Schomberg Center are typically worlds apart, we all have a deep connection to water, a connection flowing through our veins, our hearts, our souls. We are formed in water; we are made of water; we wouldn’t last more than a week without water. Water, quite literally, IS life.
Mni Wiconi, Water is Life is the banner thousands of people are rallying under on the rolling plains of southern North Dakota. They are at Sacred Stone Spirit Camp near Standing Rock Reservation to protect the Missouri River from the pipeline, which is being called “the black snake” in a reference to a Lakota prophecy about a black snake that will come to America with the power to either destroy the world or unify it.
North Dakota has been experiencing an oil boom since 2006 when fracking was first used to extract crude from the Bakken shale formation in the northwestern corner of the state. I remember feeling both a sense of relief that the high rates of employment the boom brought with it meant the recession wouldn’t devastate my entirely rural home state, and still being terrified of the environmental degradation it would also bring.
Since then, oil companies have been left unregulated to accidentally spill oil and illegally dump toxic wastewater while Williston, ND, a city of 12,000 has become an area filled with dangerous working conditions, man camps and sex slaves.
More than 36 oil companies, largely from Texas, Halliburton being one of them, rushed to North Dakota to benefit as fast and as much as they could from this newfound source of crude, despite a lack of infrastructure to wisely capture and transport the oil and natural gas. Because it was not in their economic interests, the natural gas was burned off, making the sparsely populated region glow brighter than major metropolitan areas in nighttime satellite images.
The crude was initially transported primarily by rail, but with a recent decline in oil prices, companies’ margins are now too slim to continue high cost methods of transport; so, ten years later, they’re trying to convince us that they’re building a pipeline because it is safer. They’re trying to convince us they care about our safety. Let that sink in. Oil companies care about our safety, that’s why they’re building a pipeline. They care about our safety as much as they care about this country’s energy independence, a claim they make about Bakken oil, when, in fact, the crude is being transported to Illinois to be processed and sold overseas. This newfound concern about transporting crude shows a deep and abiding respect for only one thing and it is most definitely not our safety, it is their bottom line. Their pocketbooks.
The $3.7 billion pipeline they have started to build is 1,172 miles stretching across North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois and will transport 470,000 barrels of Bakken crude a day. The company responsible for the pipeline is Enbridge, an energy delivery company based in Canada that is still reeling from a scandal in which they have been unable to account for miles of faulty pipelines and valves. There are assurances of a monitoring system (in Texas) that turns valves off in case the DAPL leaks. They have no assurances in case of an explosion. According to the US Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration, oil from the Bakken reserves is one of the most flammable types of oil.
This is not a new story: “Oil Company Destroys the Environment to Make a Profit.” So why has this pipeline elicited such a high profile response? Why have I been so deeply moved by this and not the Keystone pipeline, which was roughly the same length moving similar dirty oil? My entire life has been constructed around an unwillingness to own a car as a revolt against our fossil fuel dependency. So what moved me to tears about this particular environmental disaster? Why has this situation caused a gathering of a handful of Lakota to turn into what Cheryl Angel, one of the water protectors (not protestors), is calling an Indigenous Global Summit, as tribes who have remained enemies for centuries conduct sacred ceremonies of unity with each other for the first time in 200 years?
For me, this pipeline is close to home. I spent my childhood swimming in the waters of the Missouri River. I may be a California transplant of 20+ years, but my heart belongs in North Dakota, and I travel there at least twice a year, spending weeks at a time under the endless blue skies that seem to always be dotted with large, fluffy clouds. I need to go there and fill my soul with those wide-open spaces in which you can see thunderstorms that are miles away. I need to jump in the lake fed by the Missouri. My rural hometown of 1,100 has always seemed like a place untouched by the changing world. A place where I can ride my bike one block to the pool, in my swimsuit and leave it resting on its kickstand without even locking it, as if I were a kid. It’s rare to have your childhood home remain this preserved and unchanged, and I knew it would all be shattered when the oil boom’s black snake slithered closer to Garrison.
Even as water protectors stand up to the DAPL two hours away near the Cannonball branch of the Missouri River, a natural gas pipeline is in the works to be built under Lake Sakakawea, two miles away from my hometown (disregarding the Three Affiliated Tribe’s opposition and the treaties granting them mineral rights.) I know this is self-serving and human nature to be touched by events occurring closer to your heart; but there’s a sense, for me, that when my forgotten state of North Dakota is touched, we’ve reached a tipping point. The DAPL drives the fear and hopelessness I have about the impending environmental apocalypse deep into my heart.
So, yes, this is personal for me, but why has this pipeline in particular become a gathering point for over 200 Native American tribes? Why has a camp in Indian Country grown from 30 people to 3,000 people in less than a month? (The numbers of Sacred Stone Spirit Camp change daily, fluctuating from 1,500 to 7,000 people, but are expected to decline as the weather grows colder.) It’s hard to say why, when LaDonna Brave Bull Allard first put out the call on social media to come and occupy her land to block the DAPL, they just kept coming. From the forty or so she expected in mid-August, to 200 five days later, to thousands.
Maybe this explicit instance of environmental racism was the one that was finally just too much. The DAPL’s originally-proposed path crossed the Missouri River just north of Bismarck, a community that is 90% white, but when concerns were raised about the water supply there, it was rerouted south to go under river right next to the Standing Rock Reservation where 8,000 inhabitants get their drinking water.
Maybe Native Americans could not stand one more violation of their indigenous sovereignty as their opposition to this pipeline was disregarded and sacred sites were bulldozed under.
Or maybe the prophecies of Crazy Horse are coming true. Many protectors believe they are the seventh generation meant to wake up and rise against the spiritual genocide and environmental degradation of American colonization, and to lead the healing and restoration of the planet, rejuvenating a forgotten spirituality, and creating harmony among all people. This is why the camp has been open to all: tribes that have warred for generations, Black Lives Matter activists, white people.
This belief spurs the camp’s strict guidelines stating no drugs, alcohol, or firearms. This is why it is called Sacred Stone Spirit Camp and why its main form of nonviolent action has been prayer. Brave Bull Allard’s first call was for people to come and pray, and prayer has been the most important form of protection, even as marches take place at the capitol building in Bismarck and individuals lock themselves to the equipment used to scrape away sacred sites.
Prayer has proven powerful. I was dumbstruck as I watched a video of North Dakota law enforcement personnel standing over a Native American drummer as he sat on a pile of dirt praying along a long line of bulldozers stopped by people locked to them. Why are they just standing there, I wondered. There seemed to be a force around the drummer, keeping police from moving in on him and instead, they went after bystanders.
I am befuddled by the way this has played out so differently than I would expect from a major “protest” of this size. Early on, the state of North Dakota began providing water, medical services, and toilets for the encampment. This aid went on for several weeks! Some arrests were made, but not nearly the numbers that were expected. I watched actions at the Bismarck capital and videos of law enforcement at the highway near the camp, and I thought, “Oh, people in North Dakota don’t protest. These polite Midwestern officers haven’t realized they’re supposed to act like thugs in these situations.” I waited and waited for the governor, who is tied to the interests of the oil industry, to call in the National Guard. He didn’t. I waited for mass arrests. They didn’t happen. I waited for a crackdown in response to “violent protestors with pipe bombs.” It didn’t come. Because when Native Americans are called to “load their pipes”, it actually refers to their peace pipes, in preparation for an action of prayer.
Yes, the highway is being blocked to make access to and from the camp difficult (but not impossible); but the only oppressive violence has come from a private security team. Yes, law enforcement was conveniently absent when the security company attacked protectors, but law enforcement has not actively attacked protectors in a way I am used to and have been expecting since August. The National Guard has finally been called in and it appears law enforcement is stepping up their arrests for trespassing.
While protectors are on the front line stopping bulldozers, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation has used all legal means to stop the pipeline. Regulatory approvals of DAPL were based on a faulty study that failed to meet the minimum requirements of protecting historical and sacred sites, so the Standing Rock Reservation conducted their own survey, finding historical Cairns and other rare sacred artifacts never before discovered in North America. Before the state could document them, possibly impacting legal rulings, Enbridge sent bulldozers to the site to destroy them. They were accompanied by private security guards that unleashed attack dogs on protectors and their horses. The dogs were so hard to control, they attacked each other and the security guards. Amy Goodman filmed the entire thing for Democracy Now and was promptly arrested for trespassing. The private security guards were not charged with setting attack dogs on citizens.
Despite this horrific erasure of sacred artifacts, it cannot be denied there is some powerful medicine being brought forth. Even though the district courts denied an injunction filed by the Standing Rock Reservation to halt construction, moments later the Obama administration temporarily stopped construction of the pipeline where it crosses the Missouri River (it continues elsewhere.) The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the same entity that approved construction of the pipeline in the first place, issued the Standing Rock Sioux tribe a special use permit allowing the encampment, which has spread off of Brave Bull Allard’s property, to continue to use federal land. Most recently, a federal judge cancelled the temporary restraining order DAPL had issued against Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, council member Dana Yellow Fat and five others. The company argued the order was necessary to stop “protesters” from interfering with construction and costing the company business. To this I say, “Hell yes! Keep up that fine and noble work of disrupting, protectors.” Dakota Access, the company responsible for the pipeline, just stated in a brief that a temporary delay would mean losses of over $430 million and put the entire contract in jeopardy.
I view these legal wins with cautious optimism. And things change fast, so it’s hard to say what will have happened at the time this article is published. But one thing is certain: this action is having a lasting impact on Indian country. Native Americans came to protect their indigenous rights, sovereignty and water supply, and in doing so have built an alternative community strengthening ties to their language, culture, and the Indian Nation. Tate Walker of the Standing Rock Sioux says, “I can’t adequately put into words how historic an Indigenous gathering like this is; something similar happened in 1876, when many Native nations under Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and other great leaders came together and defeated Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Calvary at the Battle of the Greasy Grass (aka Little Bighorn).” The Crow Nation, treated with suspicion and mistrust by the Sioux since they acted as scouts for that same battle with Custer, were welcomed into the camp as they arrived with peace pipes and hundreds of pounds of buffalo meat.
As the encampment has grown, it’s begun to operate like a small town, and indeed, has become larger than some small towns (including my own) in North Dakota, setting an example of how an alternative community can spring out of grassroots action. When the state removed the medical services, they were provided by the tribe. The water and port-a-potties were replaced within a day. Winter lodges are being constructed. A community kitchen, a school teaching indigenous languages, a “store” with donation items, and a pirate radio station have been organized. And my personal favorite, family events such as horse races and relays.
The most hopeful sign of all is the empowerment of Native American youth. There is a sense, among the youth at the camp, that they are there to fulfill their destiny, and embrace the heritage that genocide has stripped away from them. While learning traditions from their elders, they are also using other means of resistance through social media, broadcasting live to appeal to other members of their community to get involved. In July, Bobbi Jean Three Legs, Montgomery Brown, and Joseph White Eyes, all in their 20s, organized and chaperoned a nearly 2,000-mile, intertribal relay run from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to deliver a petition of more than 160,000 signatures against the pipeline to the White House and to the Army Corps of Engineers in person. With suicide rates at an epidemic level among Native American youth, their presence at Sacred Stone Spirit Camp and in the resistance, quite literally, is a matter of life and death for them.
Native Americans have been and will continue to be the primary protectors of the environment. Nick Tilsen, Oglala Lakota, the executive director of Thunder Valley CDC, a grassroots community development corporation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota working to build energy-efficient homes on 34 acres of land, was lauded by President Obama for his commitment to sustainable community development at the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference. He most recently locked himself to a piece of machinery to stop the DAPL. Tilsen said, “This pipeline is a pipeline to the past, and we need to be building sustainable infrastructure for the future, not destructive, unsustainable industries that hurt land, that hurt water, that hurt people. Everything is wrong about this pipeline—all the violations of rights for the tribes and the people. So we’re here, standing in solidarity with millions of people from around the world that are against this pipeline.”
So even though my heart aches and I weep publicly when I read about a new development in this continuing saga, even though I want to be standing in a circle of solidarity at Sacred Stone Spirit Camp I have to be elsewhere spreading their story and standing in solidarity. I am doing what they are doing. I am praying.
P.S. I’m also sending money. Winters in North Dakota are no joke and they need supplies. Here are ways you can donate: gofundme.com/sacredstonecamp. Mail debit gift cards, cash or checks to: Sacred Stone Camp, P.O. Box 1011, Fort Yates, ND 58538
Really, really cold weather camping gear is needed, but the best donations are monetary donations. To see what they need, you can go to the Sacred Stone wish list on Amazon (I know, boo Amazon, but it shows you what they need.) For more information: Indian Country Today Media Network. Follow Indigenous Environmental Network, Sacred Stone Camp and Red Warrior Camp pages on Facebook