Defiance for What is Right 
~ Chase Voirin  
Wildlife Biologist, M.S.   University of Arizona

I awoke to the sound over the speaker

near the central part of camp, “Wake up

all you warriors.”  I almost thought I was

dreaming when I realized I wasn’t in the

warm, comfy confines of my bed.  “Wake

up all you pipe dancers.”  It was 6:30 AM and frost covered my tent and sleeping bag in the November pre-dawn light.  In most other settings I would have drifted back off to a peaceful slumber until the sun climbed higher in the sky, but a keen sense of motivation helped me rise that morning.  Perhaps it was the excitement of comparing what I witnessed on TV and social media to what was happening on-the-ground, in real life.  Or perhaps it was the chance to find a deeper sense of emotional connection with an event my generation could truly call our own.  An event that not only touched me on a scientific/environmental level, but also on a cultural level.  I am Navajo after all, born for Red House Clan.  “Good morning all you warriors.”  Turns out, this voice was a daily greeting to many like me who came to the Oceti Sakowin camp to not only observe, but also find some inkling of ourselves and make a difference through tangible, in-person contributions.  This was the front line. This was the heart of the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

Some basic facts of the pipeline include that it will cover approximately 1,172 miles across four states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois)1.  It consists of a 30-inch diameter pipeline that will connect the Bakken oil fields and Three Forks production areas in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, where it can be transported to refineries and other markets, including those in the Midwest, East Coast, and the Gulf Coast of Texas1.The pipeline will transport approximately 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day with a maximum capacity as high as 570,000 barrels per day1.  The main argument for construction of the pipeline, other than the fact that it would generate billions of dollars in revenue for Energy Transfer, is that it will “reduce the current use of rail and truck transportation to move Bakken crude oil to major U.S. markets to support domestic demand”1, which some argue reduces the environmental and practical risks associated with transporting it via train or vehicle.  Estimated costs to complete the project are approximately $3.7 billion. 

In contrast to the middle of the nights, the temperature was quite pleasant during the day in this North Dakota encampment, especially considering it was November 7th.  In fact, daytime temperatures were deceiving to a visitor who was unaware of the harsh Midwest winters, but there were plenty of parties constructing more permanent housing structures with the intention of staying through the winter, when the land would freeze over. After making several rounds through camp and listening to different parties there were a couple of things that stood out to me.  I had never been in a place as diverse in terms of culture and viewpoints surrounding the motivations and reasons behind the protest.  It didn’t take long to discover several themes that I found both appeasing and somewhat perplexing regarding the true meaning and identity of Oceti Sakowin.  For example, to many Native and indigenous people, this is a fight against a power born out of colonialism that threatens the very cultural identity of Native and indigenous nations through the destruction of sacred sites as well as the threat of polluting a sacred river containing a sacred source, which is water.  This fight follows the long line of struggles Native and indigenous people have faced since Europeans first landed on this continent and established colonialism predominantly through manifest destiny.  In contrast to this viewpoint, many non-Native and non-indigenous peoples view this fight as not only that of Native sovereignty rights, but also of practical environmental issues.  To a non-Native, this fight also includes the issue of a big corporation bullying its way through environmental policies and the landscape to transport an unsustainable commodity that directly contributes to climate change and which has polluted many ecosystems through careless handling.  I found that these two ideologies, however different they are from one another, are fighting against the same thing, which is the installation of the pipeline.  

The gathering of this many indigenous Nations standing in defiance against an extractive industry may very well be unprecedented.  Indeed, one could spend weeks walking around the entire encampment, conversing with indigenous people from all over the U.S., such as the Seminole from South, Navajo from the Southwest, Salish Kootenei from the Pacific Northwest, Potawatomi from the East, and many bands of Sioux.  Similarly, there were many other indigenous peoples from other countries, such as First Nations from Canada, Mongolia, and Maori from New Zealand.  Not to mention many of the non-indigenous peoples that were present and ready to positively contribute.  And the more I conversed and listened I started to realize many individuals not only represented one tribe, but several. Every hour I spent there created a stronger sense of appreciation for how many people showed concern over the installation of the pipeline and showed up wanting to support the cause in some fashion.  I had heard protest demonstrations were becoming almost a daily occurrence, and this was evident the first morning I had arrived with the occupation of Turtle Island, where hundreds of protesters defiantly canoed and swam across the Cannonball River to occupy land controlled by law enforcement.  The very next day, I observed a silent demonstration near the front lines, calling for silent prayer with any law enforcement officers who wished to participate.  And I believe it is important to point out that I did not feel any sense of danger brewing within the protest encampment.  That is to say I did not witness any weapons of any kind, nor heard of any plans to bring harm unto the pipeline workers or law enforcement.  All protests were designed on a peaceful note with the most minimal of physical confrontation with law enforcement, which made me wonder why such harsh tactics of the use of rubber bullets, mace, and teargas were being used on peaceful protesters.  Nonetheless, I was proud to see the non-harmful actions of protests taking place. 

Standing Rock represented a beautiful yet sad environment.  On the one hand, it was amazing to be there with brothers and sisters from different Nations and backgrounds, as well as the sense of closeness and community that was garnered from those interactions.  On the other hand, it embodied the possible end of a long and lengthy battle between an extractive industry that represented the interests of a society founded on colonialism and the actual indigenous peoples’ of this continent who feel forgotten and overlooked and angered by centuries of oppression.  And therein lies a major challenge within this protest.  Many Native peoples’ view this as a battle to maintain their cultural ties to the natural ecosystem that surrounds them, as well as the ancestors who passed those values down to current generations, and this is represented in the issue of the pipeline disrupting sacred sites and burial grounds, as well as a serious threat to the river it is crossing, which is holy within itself.  For many non-Natives, with all due respect to indigenous rights, this represents a physical threat in that the very resource the pipeline is carrying (oil) is a major contributor to the global threat of climate change, which in that light makes this as much of an environmental battle as it is a cultural one.  Spending a short amount of there allowed me to also see the internal struggle between those that are willing to take the blows on the front line and be arrested by law enforcement for their actions and those that take a more passive approach in their daily protests.  However, at the end of the day, despite these differences, protesters come together to fight against the same opposition.  As I overheard one gentleman murmur, “I wasn’t going to participate in the protest today, but as soon you see that first canoe go across that water to occupy the land in defiance, something stirs inside of you and before you know it you’re jumping in the canoe with them.”  Differences between views deteriorate when action begins to take place.  This gives me hope for future similar battles with extractive industries and government, of which we’ll all need to embody a collective, yet diverse, voice to stand up for what is right.  And while there have been many similar battles waged in the past, for me and my own personal experiences Standing Rock was just the beginning. 

Energy Transfer. Dakota Access Pipeline Facts. Accessed 11/29/2016. 
Dakota Access Pipeline -

The Dakota Access pipeline is proposed to transport light, sweet crude oil from the North Dakota Bakken region through South Dakota and Iowa into Illinois.

Photo Credit: Chase Voirin