In January 2016, energy company Dakota Access announced plans to run an oil pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois. A few months later, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe began protesting the threat to their water supplies. The protests quickly became a movement, a rallying point for all manner of individuals and groups to express anger about everything from dark money and corporate power to ecocide.
But while the protests came to mean many things to many people, Neil McQuillian found that they mean most to the Native Americans involved. He went to understand why this is one of the greatest scandals in US history.
Colourful flags crack in the cold wind. There are tepees that sit like crowns amongst the regular tents. A silvery grey sliver of Missouri river slicks dull beyond them. The camp is pretty, in a way.
But, in its freezing stillness, the scene feels bleak – the few figures I see are bundles of clothing, moving hurriedly to finish what they’re doing and get back into shelter. Plus I’m only dropping in – I’ve come to better understand the protests against the $3.8bn Dakota Access oil pipeline but have just a few hours to spare – which means I’m an outsider. That status weighs pretty heavily here.
So when I hear low applause, it sounds like warmth and company. I find the source, a large tent in the centre of camp, and push back the heavy flap. It is warmer in here and my cheeks begin to glow. A group of some thirty people, around two-thirds Native American, are listening to the speaker. I recognise her as LaDonna Brave Bull Allard of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who owns the nearby land where the protests began.
“I’m here until the pipeline is stopped,” she is saying. ”We are at a point in our lives where we are unifying. We are people of trauma and we have to heal. We are fighting a demon. Everything we have fought for the past 500 years.”
This protest is not just about a pipeline, but an entire people’s sense of self – a struggle these communities have been engaged in since the arrival of Europeans.
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Native Americans were once promised this land by the US government in a treaty. Like so many others, that treaty was subsequently broken. What’s happening on this camp is historic: this is the first time since the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn – commonly cited as the beginning of the end for Native Americans – that so many tribes have united in common purpose.
A people who have suffered, despairing, in near-silence for over a century are finally stirring.
Trump’s victory has been called a howl, driven by the unhappiness and frustration of a certain segment of American society. That’s what this is, too. But what’s really shocking, in this case, is that the howl has taken so long to rise.
The response to LaDonna’s speech, though, is muted, measured: a few nods; the odd traditional How and Ugh. But then it makes sense that there’s no great clamour. The months of resistance that have passed so far have been marked by their steady, determined, peaceful nature. LaDonna is just tightening the harnesses here.
She continues. “This is a war.” I notice the habit she has of closing her eyes as she speaks. “They’re trying to divide and conquer. One of you could be from the pipeline.” She pirouettes slowly on her heel, her eyes wide open now, looking into faces. “I’m watching you.”
I sink into the shadows at the back of the tent, feeling the cold again. I’m not an oil pipeline mole. I brought 30 litres of water with me – a symbolic as well as practical gift – to try and make that plain. But though I was given permission to walk around the site, I’m not sure it’s cool that I’ve found my way into a camp council.
Before visiting Oceti Sakowin, I’d spent two weeks exploring the Great Plains. It had become clear to me during this time that, for an engaged traveller wishing to understand the reality of contemporary America, you have to go to these areas and see how Native Americans have been airbrushed out of that reality.
It’s nothing less than sickening. And you won’t hear much about it without speaking to the people involved – for this is a classic case of history being written by the victors.
It started with my first taste of a Reservation, where Native American communities were shunted following the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, aka Custer’s Last Stand. The itinerant tribes of the Great Plains, whose lives revolved around the bison herds, found themselves expected to farm poor-quality land.
I didn’t know this before I came. I’d naively thought Reservations would be proud affairs, with a sense of moving into different, special territory.
In fact I’m told that five of the ten poorest counties in the US are in South Dakota, and they’re all Reservations.
At the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, the stats are mind-boggling. At one point in the last decade, Pine Ridge had an estimated unemployment rate of 80%, with 49% living beneath the poverty line and – worst of all – a life expectancy for males of 48 and for females of 52.
Today, it is shocking not so much that so many great wrongs were committed but rather that they’ve never been even nearly righted. The treaty promises made when the reservations were created – from healthcare to policing amongst many others – have been insufficiently backed up.
When the government does not respect their debt to Native Americans, it’s little surprise that much of the wider populace don’t – or can’t – comprehend the sheer rawness of their ongoing struggle.
Quite quickly, within a day or so of being in the region, I had this sense of Native Americans being everywhere and nowhere on the Great Plains. Shutters came down when I asked questions. Sometimes it seemed like a conspiracy of blindness. “I mean, you know the Reservation is there, but you just don’t think about it,” one young woman told me.
By contrast, Native American respect for the land and and community came up time and time again during my explorations.
At Knife River Indian Villages in North Dakota, a day before I visited the protest camp, I looked round a re-created earth lodge and asked about the calf hide tied to the four timber supports. ‘Calf hide is really useful, right?’ my guide told me. ‘So you take something useful but you don’t use it. You surrender it to the lodge as gratitude for what the lodge will give you.’
Compare an attitude like this with that of pipeline-laying energy companies. They’re as different as oil and water.
Featured image © ehallphotography.