The Meaning of Landscape in Indigenous Fights Against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)

North Dakota has had three oil booms; the most recent one, which started around the end of the last decade, is much larger than those of the 1950s and the 1970s. If you drive around the back roads of northwest North Dakota with a couple of lifelong residents, they can spot some of the older rigs from a half-mile off (NYT, 2015). Perhaps the most salient event of the latest oil boom is the siting of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and Keystone XL Pipelines and the resistance shown by the Standing Rock Lakota Nation and other Lakota, Nakota, Dakota citizens who founded a spirit camp along the proposed route of the 1,172 mile pipeline.

NORTH-DAKOTA-OIL-slide-H6JM-superJumboA monument near Tioga commemorates the discovery of oil there in 1951 (Janie Osborne for The New York Times)

Looking out at the Dakota landscape using the active gaze of the late American geographer Peirce Lewis, one may stop at the contemplation of cues of culture. The gaze would probably linger on the storage tanks, gas flares, towering derricks and jack pumps that dot the plains today and are active carriers of the previous oil booms (some jack pumps date back to 1957 according to the NYT). But these landscapes, the Standing Rock Syllabus tells us, have been a battle ground long before oil discovery, dating back to the nineteen century history of contact between Europeans and the Oceti Sakowin, extending to the Louis and Clark expedition of 1803, followed by a series of Treaties signed by the United Sates, the Sioux, and other tribes which would be repeatedly violated by the United States. The syllabus provides a historic timeline key to understand that this landscape is a product of history (Mitchell, 2008), where the landscape is the setting and the witness of numerous indigenous uprisings and bloodshed: the Great Dakota Uprising of 1862; the 1876-77 Great Sioux War; the break up of the Fort Laramie Treaty in 1889, which guaranteed certain territories as both indigenous land and hunting grounds; the famous battle of Wounded Knee in 1890 leading to the massacre of 250 to 300 indigenous Lakota, mostly women and children. The syllabus also zooms into more recent events such as the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Plan which led to new violations to the Fort Laramie Treaty as the US Army Corps of Engineers built a massive water infrastructure project along the Missouri River and its tributaries.

DAPL is owned by Dakota Access, LCC a subsidiary of the Dallas based company Energy Transfer Partners, which owns and operates more than 62,500 miles of natural gas and liquids pipelines. There are huge gaps in our knowledge of how spilled tar sands oil behaves in water but in March 2016, officials at the EPA and other two federal agencies, raised serious objections to the North Dakota section of the pipeline warning that “crossings of the Missouri River have the potential to affect the primary source of drinking water for much of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Tribal nations,” but Dakota Access and the Army Corps declined any comment citing that the pipeline is “in accordance with applicable laws, and the local, state and federal permits and approvals we have received.” The landscape, including the rivers and peoples within it, in this sense, is rendered a wasteland. Pulido theorizes that through the racialized production of differential value, racial capitalism “illuminates not only the inevitability of environmental injustice, but the structural challenges facing activists” (5:2017). The differential value has been reproduced in struggles over appropriation and access to land as well as labor system, and capital (along with other non-democratic systems of reproduction) “incorporates this uneven geography of value into its calculus” (6:2017). This is achieved when industry and manufactures create sinks, places where pollution can be disposed of, this can be in the form of air, water and land but also racially de-valuated bodies and the neighborhoods where they reside. It is here that environmental pollution, disasters and race meet, in the racialized places and ‘bodies of expendability’ in Marquez words (in Pulido), or in the site of organized abandonment by the state in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore (quoting Harvey, 1989).

Clearly the landscape here also functions as the site for the production of exchange value through money (Mitchell, 2008). Once the pipeline is completed (85% is already in place) and oil starts flowing property tax revenues will start to flow in, at at rate of $55 Million per annum, which will be distributed across four states. North and South Dakota are expected to receive 13$ Million each (Thompson, 2016), which is peanuts if one compares it to $4.5 billion that is the personal wealth of the largest stakeholder of Energy Transfer Equity, Kelcy Warren. Energy Transfer Equity is parent to Energy Transfer Partners and its shares have almost tripled since February 2016. They rose another 17% after Trump’s election, and more than 30% since November 2017.

standing-rock-camp-leadThe Standing Rock spirit camp (Photo by Paul and Cathy/Flickr)

The Standing Rock spirit camp is as much a grassroots resistance movement on the ground, as a online resistance. According to Streeby’s new book on world making and climate change through activism and science fiction (2018), it was the tribes’ historic preservation officer who co-founded the Sacred Stone Camp in 2016, who when “she heard the construction was going ahead near her water well and her son’s grave, she posted a message on Facebook asking for help. The post went viral and soon many people showed up that an overflow camp had to be established across the river” (38). The Lakota saying Mni Wiconi or “Water is life” spread across social media platforms despite the media blackout. Streeby narrates of the skillful use of social media not only to mobilize people around a common threat but also to “imagine a future connected to the past beyond the fossil fuel economy” (40).

Situating themselves in the tradition of the American Indian Movement, Indigenous Nations came together nationally and internationally, also with at least 2000 U.S. veterans, to protect the waters and sacred land from fracking pollution. The ‘water protectors’ as they preferred to be called, are the subject of the artwork by Onaman Collective’s Isaac Murdoc where the mythological figure of the thunderbird woman takes center stage. Popular among North American Indigenous peoples’, thunderbird woman is a symbol of strength and power, which is represented in the artwork, as her vigorously colored heart, her wings wide spread facing the storm and her feet strongly rooted on a fecund earth, whose sprouts take root in us and not around us (see the detail of the woman’s leg and feet). Water is sacred! yells the poster and as the co-founder of the Sacred Stone Camp echoed  “we are the river, and the river is us” (Streeby, 2018:38). Here we have a view of the world inseparable from the particularity of place – a vision of place lived ‘in’ rather than ‘on’ (Ingold, 2000). This cosmo-vision warrants a landscape as the mirror of a different social justice where space is not used “to separate ourselves from the poverty that our wealth so efficiently produces.” (Mitchell, 45). The poster speaks of the world that the water protectors enacted during the 10 months they camped out in the all weather conditions; a world where schooling, food, medical care and other necessities were made available to everyone from professionals coming from as far as Cuba, to express their solidarity with the unfolding ecological crisis. Also members of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) came out to support after the organization argued for suppressing the water protectors.


These struggles extend and have resonance not only with the battles against settler colonialism that I illustrated before. The struggles of the present relate to other social movements actions to protect the lives of black people, through the Black Lives Matter movement. Indeed this instance of environmental racism can be extended to the expendable lives of the people and contaminated waters of Flint, Michigan. The industrial interests that protect both fossil fuels and poor environmental oversight are one and the same.

The artwork generated in response to these events is transcending geographical boundaries, just like the movement itself. “We The Resilient Have Been Here Before” is a stenciled image represents Lakota elder Helen “Granny” Redfeather, a protestor fighting against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. This image was created by Ernesto Yerena Montejano, who spent some time at the camp during the protest. The image became a symbol of the march against Trump, organized as he was elected 45th President of the United States  and soon after he signed an executive order expediting the construction of the DAPL. The poster was part of a trilogy that the artist created in collaboration with Shepard Farey, Jessica Sabogal and the Amplifier Foundation, behind the non partisan campaign “We The People”.

YerenaArtwork by Ernesto Yerena Montajana

Julian Reid, a skeptic of the word resilience under neoliberal governments, maintains that the ascription of the term ‘resilience’ to indigenous people:

“is not something being achieved simply by anthropologists working to the left of western states or other colonial institutions. It is a mantra being repeated by colonial states and deeply powerful western actors worldwide. Such that the representation of the indigenous as possessing exceptional capacities to care for their natural environments, to adapt to climate change, and deal with extreme weather events has become a governing cliché of white western neoliberal governance”.

Clearly the resilient referred to in the posters are the native American peoples who resisted and died under settler colonialism, but what Reid is referring to in the quote is the tendency of international donor agencies to refer to indigenous people and the poor as resilient in the face of adversities driven by climate-induced disasters. He’s also referring to an academic apparatus that too often plays into an homogenized view of the abilities that people may have to respond and adapt to climatic changes. These ‘cliched representations’, as he refers to them, may be used to justify ‘solutions’ from donor agencies that are also homogeneous and complicit with views of the landscape as existing outside of a historical continuum or as Reid puts it “the resilience which colonial states now identify with indigenous peoples refers to their abilities to survive environmental disasters and pays little heed to their own histories of colonial violence”. Whoever flies the resilience flag needs to be seen with a critical eye. Yerena, without questioning his commitment, is not privy of the ways in which corporate sponsors have used his stenciled indigenous images on their products. According to Reid “selling to Red Bull meant Yerena could pay the rent and paying the rent meant Yerena could design for the Amplifier Foundation and its political campaign against the particular formation of white racist neoliberal capital that Trump’s presidency represents”.  I guess the aesthetic of indigenous imagery is both a means for capital as well as a way to expose forms of hegemonic power and its entrenchment with actual places and lives.

In this short post, I explored the ways in which the North Dakota landscape is produced through acts of will in time, from when settler colonials arrived by horse, made and broke Treaties, organized and fought battles against indigenous natives, to contemporary landscape where the winners established the empire of oil that fueled the American economy. The landscape is the contested grounds for both hegemonic interventionist projects but also localized activism from organized groups, united under the #NoDAPL movement, that push back against forms of state-sanctioned environmental racism (Pulido, 2017). What happens within and outside the landscape is power which ultimately, according to Mitchell (2008), is a power struggle over the shape of social life and social control.





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