At least a century has passed since the last time so many tribes gathered for a single cause, but the reaches of the Dakota Access Pipeline have pulled support from Indigenous peoples across the Americas, even uniting historic enemies. Thousands of people have gathered near the banks of the Missouri River, which runs into the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico, to protest a crude oil pipeline under construction that they argue puts drinking water at risk for millions.
The pipeline narrowly misses the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s reservation, but would run underneath the Missouri River, the reservation’s key drinking water source. Tepees and tents crowd a field near the river, and a row of tribal flags face the road where traffic has been forced to stop for marchers.
You can live without money and you can live without oil, they say, but you can’t live without water. Each morning, tribal members gather at the banks of the river and pray that the pipeline will never be built.
“It’s all they have to make a difference, and there’s solidarity in that, and traction by the sheer volume of people,” says Cannupa Hanska Luger, a Santa Fe-based artist who was born in a clinic near the river. After his brother, who still lives in North Dakota, alerted him to the growing camp, he traveled back to the state with his family to deliver truckloads of supplies to the protesters.
“They’ll stay through the winter; they’ll stay for as long as it takes,” he says. “The intention is for the long haul, as long as it takes to prevent this thing from happening.”
Hanska Luger and his wife, Ginger Dunhill, and mother, Kathy Whitman, drove the 18 hours from New Mexico to North Dakota to take blankets and coats—and money, which then turned into supplies, food and water. A police barricade now stands between the camp and the closest town, Bismarck. Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union have arrived to observe the protest and defend those arrested.
The Dakota Access Pipeline Project, also known as the Bakken Pipeline, would string a 30-inch diameter pipeline for roughly 1,172 miles across the northern Midwest from the Bakken shale fields to a distribution center and more pipelines in Illinois. The $3.7 billion pipeline, slated to be in service by the end of 2016, would traverse North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, moving up to 570,000 or more barrels per day of “light sweet crude oil” on its way to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
"It’s the Keystone pipeline, literally what America said they don’t want. They’re just doing it under the radar and changed the name of it. It’s just a slightly different route."
“It’s the Keystone pipeline, literally what America said they don’t want. They’re just doing it under the radar and changed the name of it. It’s just a slightly different route,” Hanska Luger says. “Nobody wants this, except the companies that are going to make a killing.”
People knew enough about the Keystone XL pipeline to fight it, but Dakota Access slipped through the permitting process largely unnoticed.
That is, until protests ground construction to a halt. Dozens of people have been arrested in recent weeks as protests have shut down construction of the pipeline and brought together members of more than 80 tribes. That’s thought to be more than have assembled since the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe argue the US Army Corps of Engineers didn’t give sufficient opportunities to assess the pipeline’s impact on cultural sites and potential environmental effects of a spill and collect feedback from the tribe. Federal officials say they did give the tribe a chance to survey the pipeline’s route, and tribal members declined.
A federal judge is expected to rule by Sept. 9 on the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s requested injunction after reviewing whether the US Army Corps of Engineers followed the National Historic Preservation Act. If this effort fails, tribal members have said they’ll turn to environmental arguments.
“The people who are there on the ground are, if it doesn’t go their way, they’re going to stay and continue to protest and try to prevent this pipeline from going through,” Hanska Luger says. “It’s why there are so many nations gathering, because it’s going to take bodies to stop this pipeline.”
“For them to … unite together in the same camp, that’s a testament to progress that’s being made. The fact that they’re unifying is really setting an example for what people should do across lines,” says Albuquerque-based Navajo artist Vanessa Bowen (creator of the “Make America Native Again” hat), who also traveled north to document the protest. Having watched the Navajo Nation suffer its own water crises, including the gold mine spill last summer, and ongoing concerns from uranium mining, fracking and coal mine slurry, she says, she knows how marginalized and poor communities often bear the brunt of these environmental issues.
“When destruction or disaster does strike, normally in places like Flint, Michigan, poor places and Native lands are often pushed to the wayside, so I wanted to take a stand,” Bowen says. “I needed to be there to show support, and just to document and educate others and try to get more people involved.”
Hanska Luger and Dunhill are doing what they can to draw more attention to the issue as well, through social media and recordings Dunhill made for her podcast, Broken Boxes. They brought their kids, ages 4 and 6, along, too. They hope that the experience shows them, Hanska Luger says, that “you can do something, and something is amazing, no matter how small it is.”
Environmental organizations objecting to the Dakota Access Pipeline contend it’s not a question of if a pipeline will leak, but when. If there’s no pipeline, oil will continue to move on trucks and trains, and those trains have been seen to explode. But on a per-barrel basis, pipelines have a higher rate of incidents.
“This isn’t a protest against oil. It’s not a protest against this pipeline. It’s about accountability and environmental effects,” Hanska Luger says. “They’re going to dig a hole right underneath the Missouri River and run this pipeline, and there’s better ways to do this. Where they’re trying to do it, they could do it above ground.”
In coming weeks, Hanska Luger will be traveling to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, to complete a mural that draws its inspiration from this latest experience: a large format drawing using thread that illustrates the connection between a river and its people. It won’t focus directly on the question of the Dakota Access Pipeline, but on the broader point that we are all downstream from somewhere. It’s not about stopping this one pipeline, and it’s not about this one tribe’s problem.
“This is all our responsibility—it’s not my responsibility, it’s not Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s,” Hanska-Luger says. “It’s a human issue.”