THE BUZZ 2: Water is Life

By on September 14, 2016

In a time when American corporations wield unchecked power, the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters are proving the potency of activism.


Thousands of people, including Jackson resident Mark Henderson, have joined the fight to protect sacred Native land and drinking water at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. (Photos: Mark Henderson)

Jackson Hole, WY — When Jackson resident Mark Henderson showed up at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota last Thursday night, he didn’t know what to expect. It was 11:30 at night. He pitched a tent and tucked in for the night.

Henderson was one of thousands of people streaming into Camp of the Sacred Stone from all over the country. The movement to support the Sioux tribe’s lawsuit against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has garnered international support. Tribe officials say pipeline construction has already disrupted ancient burial sites and threatens drinking water for myriad people. Stretching underneath the Missouri River, the pipeline would transport about 470,00 barrels of crude oil per day from North Dakota to Illinois, down to Gulf of Mexico refineries for export.

When Henderson awoke that Friday, he found himself amid an event many are calling an unprecedented intersection of the climate movement with indigenous communities. “It’s not just about Natives,” Henderson said. “They call themselves ‘water protectors’ and they are protecting the water for everyone.”

Henderson traveled to North Dakota ignited with passion for Native rights and conservation. Though not Native American himself, he wanted to show his support for a cause he cares about deeply. “We would hope for clean water in a first world country,” he said. “But look at Flint, Michigan. The government needs to step up and protect people.”

In a momentary victory for the water protectors, the federal government did step in when a judge ruled against the Sioux on Friday. Within minutes of the judge’s decision, the U.S. Army, the Department of Justice, and the Department of the Interior issued a joint statement that underscores the power of grassroots activism in America: construction of the pipeline is now on hold and they have promised meaningful discussions with tribal leaders.

According to Jason Baldes, executive director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center in Ethete, Wyoming, the state of North Dakota failed at their relationship with tribal government. “In Indian Country, we are familiar with this,” Baldes said. “We expect to meet one-on-one with U.S. government officials. When that doesn’t happen, you get people out there holding the federal government accountable.”

Baldes helped organize a delegation from the Wind River Reservation to carry supplies and tribal flags to the Standing Rock encampment. Both tribes on the reservation, the Eastern Shoshone and the Arapaho, signed letters in solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux. “The camp has been growing in number, and one thing people are asking for is supplies,” he said. “One caravan took 17 people.”

Numbers at the camp swelled to more than 1,000 over this past weekend. Henderson estimated 3,000. Baldes had heard 7,000.

When Henderson awoke on the first morning of his trip, he said, “There were tipis everywhere.”

This is the first time since 1875 land treaties that all seven Sioux nations have come together, Henderson said. “It was incredible to see this historical event happen in front of me.”

Henderson joined a group of 300 people who marched to the burial sites disrupted by bulldozers earlier in the week. “They wanted to do a ceremony to bring in the ancestral powers and give blessings to their grandparents buried there,” he explained.  

Traveling into the town of Bismarck later in the day Friday, Henderson greeted a group of young people who had run all the way from Washington D.C. to be at the event. “When they were 100 yards from the capitol building, it started raining,” he said. “It was an amazing symbol.”

The judge’s decision came during the gathering at the capitol. A teenage girl received a report on her cell phone and announced the news to the crowd. According to Henderson, moments later the same girl announced to the disheartened crowd that the federal government had stepped in. “We won, people, we won,” Henderson remembers her saying.

“About a minute after that happened, the rain stopped,” Henderson remembered. “We all broke into dance in a Native American circle. The energy went from sadness to exhilaration and joy.”

That exhilaration has stretched across the globe, according to many reports. Baldes says he has heard of indigenous people from New Zealand, the Philippines and the Hawaiian Islands sending their prayers and support.

“I think that indigenous people have been waiting for something like this to happen,” Baldes said. “In conjunction with social media, we can communicate with people on the other side of the planet. Indigenous people have understanding about the fundamental need to take care of the land, air and water.”

Baldes said an unexpected result of the #NoDAPL solidarity movement is a thaw in relations between the two Wind River Reservation tribes. The traditional enemies may reside on the same reservation but they do not share a government, and rarely come together, according to Baldes. “The issue at Standing Rock is helpful for the two tribes here because we are supporting the efforts there based on the principle of self determination,” he said.

There is no guarantee that the Dakota Access Pipeline will not be built, and people continue to pour into camps near the construction sites to display their opposition and bring supplies to protesters. What is clear, however, is that a historic movement to protect Native rights and precious resources is taking shape in America. PJH

Learn more about the movement and ways to get involved here.

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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