Editor’s note: Sightline publishes guest articles only rarely. We publish this reflection by Zarina because we feel it highlights a crucial human dimension to the thin green line, the growing movement to obstruct fossil fuel infrastructure. Although the Dakota Access Pipeline is beyond the borders of Cascadia, the opposition movement is of monumental importance to the tribes and First Nations of the Northwest, as well as many others in our region.
In October, I spent a week at Oceti Sakowin Camp in North Dakota. Located in gentle prairie grassland on the banks of the Cannonball River, the camp is the center of resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, the controversial $3.7 billion oil project that would be built under the Missouri River, a water source for millions of people, and on land originally deemed Sioux by treaty, but later taken by the government. I went with my partner and two other women to offer healing medical services and to participate in actions on the front lines of the battle to prevent the pipeline’s completion. I returned in November, drawn back by the calls to action.
Originally planned for construction north of the (mostly white) capital city of Bismarck, North Dakota, the pipeline’s route was later moved south to within a half mile of the Standing Rock Indian reservation once the original scheme was deemed a potential threat to Bismarck’s drinking water. The new route would, by contrast, ensure that native people living nearby would be first and hardest hit by a rupture or oil spill—and we know that pipeline leaks are all too common. In addition, pipeline construction has already razed several sacred native sites, including burial sites, which is somewhat akin to an oil company haphazardly bulldozing a veterans’ cemetery, without the appropriate approvals and notifications. Many feel that the double standards in these decisions are signs that our governments and big businesses are continuing to exploit and deny not only native land, but the human rights.
The movement is led and directed by Indigenous people, and it is historic. Hundreds of tribes have come together in solidarity to protect the water, including tribes that profit from resource extraction. Women are leading as much as men are, and the movement prioritizes and respects the voices of indigenous youth. Prayer and ceremony are as integral to the work as the marches, rallies, and actions at construction sites; indeed, every action is in itself a ceremony.
Women are leading as much as men are, and the movement prioritizes and respects the voices of indigenous youth.
I continue to marvel at the immense sense of peace, safety, community, and common purpose at the camp. Although I am the type of person who sometimes feels afraid or anxious if I am home alone overnight or if I am walking alone at night on a suburban street, at Oceti Sakowin camp, this low-level anxiety is completely absent. Strolling through the camp at night is a peaceful exercise, imbued with quietness and a sense of community. Fires crackle, people gather and laugh, cries of “Water is Life” and “Mni Wiconi” echo.
I wish I felt this safe and supported on the quiet, tree-lined streets of my mostly white neighborhood in Seattle. At home, as a non-white person whose parents emigrated from India almost 40 years ago, I often feel a subtle sense of being an outsider. The progressive movement has a way of making people of color feel like either totems or tokens. And although the forms of othering in my progressive hometown are perhaps more subtle than those experienced in more conservative areas, they are no less there. The feeling in the camp is completely different.
In the two weeks between my visits, as violence by the police escalated and the mainstream media began at last to cover the movement, the camp seemed to have more than tripled in size, with more people arriving every day. The camp has welcomed and held them all in a sacred and well-organized container of prayer, ceremony, and peace. As more non-native folks arrive, there has been greater emphasis on understanding and dismantling colonialism and white privilege, as well as grappling with what it means to be a guest on indigenous lands under the leadership of indigenous elders. I believe these steps towards disrupting ingrained norms are a generous gift to non-natives, one that will continue to benefit our own communities after we leave camp. These teachings are themselves an act of resistance to our dominant American culture of whiteness and patriarchy.
These teachings are themselves an act of resistance to our dominant American culture of whiteness and patriarchy.
Attending an action at the county courthouse in Mandan, the closest city to the camps, people sang, chanted “peace,” played drums, and held signs in front of a line of police in full riot gear who were threatening arrest for the slightest provocation. We had gathered to support Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, who had filmed police violence towards the protectors and was subsequently charged with rioting. I finally saw for myself what many native and Black people have long understood to be true—that the institutions that are ostensibly charged with protecting us are used as violent, heavily militarized enforcers of corporate will. We are told that some of these police officers are so distressed at being ordered to escalate aggression toward the water protectors that some have turned in their badges, sacrificing their livelihood for this cause.
Thousands of people from around the world, Native and non-Native alike, have come to the camps to help protect our natural resources. While there, they find deeper meaning and purpose in the marriage of prayer, ceremony, activism, and simple living. If they are white or non-indigenous, they are also introduced to the sometimes foreign concept of de-centering colonialism and whiteness, and re-centering indigenous culture and norms. For those who are receptive, it can be revolutionary.
This is a moment in history that will help define the norms of our democracy moving forward. Will corporate interests and manipulations win out over the common good? Will US tax dollars be used to arm a militarized force and mobilize it against citizens in protection of seemingly nameless, faceless big business? Will the fate of our natural resources be abandoned to the likelihood of disastrous pipeline failures?
If you feel called to the site of this movement in North Dakota, if you can stand on the front lines and protect the resources that every one of us needs to survive, if you want to learn how to live harmoniously and in balance with one another and with the natural world, please go. Fly, train, or drive. Bring supplies for yourselves and others to stay warm in freezing temperatures and biting wind, and spend as much time there as you can. Plan to go to the front lines or, if you cannot, then plan to support the running of the camps for those who do. If you can’t go in person, there are other ways you can support the movement. Donations are much needed, as recent mass arrests are draining camp funds.
Tribal leaders met with President Obama in late October. Earlier this week, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that oversees the project, announced that they were delaying pipeline construction in order to do further analysis and get input from tribes. On the surface, this seems like good news. But in response, the oil company now says that it will delay construction under the Missouri River (the last remaining construction to be completed in North Dakota) only if the Corps will give them a certain date of resuming construction. It is widely understood at camp that the company will continue to drill, in direct violation of the Corps’ delay, choosing to pay the relatively minor fines they will incur. The only thing standing in the way is the water protectors.
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The political shift coming in January may make the fight seem more difficult or dangerous, but being in this container held by prayer, ceremony, and spirituality (and without much access to internet and the relentless analysis that’s no doubt now flooding the web), there is also a sense of safety and calm. In the camp, I felt more than ever that life goes on. That yes, this happened, and yes, it’s bad, and yes, the fight will be harder. But it will also continue, and it can still be won. People who have been marginalized and unheard, for so long and by so many, have a unique resilience and inner strength that becomes even more apparent in the face of great challenge.
Zarina Parpia guides organizations to greater effectiveness using management and mindfulness techniques. She works with the Quixote Foundation, a charitable organization which has provided past financial support to Sightline.