Thousands of Native Americans have set up camp at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers in southern North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This pipeline, if completed, would move 500,000 barrels of oil per day from the lucrative Bakken region in North Dakota across four states to Illinois. Developers contend that it would provide the safest, most cost effective way to deliver oil from North Dakota to the rest of the country.
The location the pipeline will cross the Missouri River causes great concern for the Standing Rock Sioux, however, whose reservation begins immediately downstream. The threat of spills and poisoned water sources has fueled their mass demonstration, attracting Native Americans from all around the continent. Their concerns certainly seem valid, as early plans had the pipeline crossing the Missouri just above North Dakota’s capital, Bismark, until it was moved downstream out of fears of the potential for poisoning the city’s water supply. Many Native Americans I spoke with felt this was just a continuation of hundreds of years of racism and oppression.
Earlier this week, I joined my friend Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper (who has battled a pipeline in her home watershed) in North Dakota to document through photos and video what was happening. I arrived around midnight and turned on to a dirt road along the Cannonball River to find the Sacred Stone Camp. As soon as I stepped out of the car I felt welcomed and began to understand the massive scale of this movement.
As I talked with the protectors (their preferred title, instead of protesters), the cultural importance of water could not be understated. I repeatedly heard that their creation story begins with water, humans are mostly water, and without water trees cannot grow and we won’t have any air to breath. Losing this lifeline is not an option for the people here. Couple that with threats to sacred sites along the pipeline route, already being disturbed as construction begins, and people are ready for a fight.
The next morning we went to visit a camp on the highway where protectors clashed with construction crews days before as bulldozers tore up native burial and other sacred sites. The air was cold and quiet, with people sipping coffee as they kept a lookout. While all seemed calm I could tell there was a powder keg of energy ready to blow. That spark arrived when lookouts reported construction crews had started work on an area of the pipeline about 15 miles away.
We mobilized as dozens of masked people jumped into cars and pickup trucks and tore out. As our convoy sped down the final hill to the site, I could see construction workers sprinting for the safety of their trucks as they abandoned work for the day. Protectors took over the site (with no weapons, just song and prayer, it should be noted), raising flags and signs and even chaining themselves to the construction equipment. The police stood by watching, only trying to keep the road open for traffic.
The protectors occupied the site all day and in what was mostly viewed as a success, construction was halted for another day and no one was hurt.
As the battle continues on the ground, the protectors hope that the court system and government at large will use this as an opportunity to honor treaties and support the original occupants of this country. Here are some ways that you can help make that happen.
Corey Robinson is a National Geographic Young Explorer, photographer and filmmaker whose work focuses on people’s connection to land and water. Follow along for more photos and updates on Instagram @coreyrobinson