In April 2016, the Hunkpapa Titunwan established a spirit camp to protect Mni Oyate (the Water Nation) from a development project called the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). This $3.78 billion, 1,172-mile pipeline will transport between 470,000 to 570,000 barrels of oil per day from the Bakken/Three Forks formations in North Dakota for domestic consumption: “Its goal is to relieve transportation strains on rail for crude transportation and safely transport U.S. crude oil to U.S. markets via pipeline to further the goal of energy independence.”
The stated goal, of course, appeals to mainstream thinking, U.S. nationalism, and economics: Americans will become less dependent on foreign oil, while simultaneously growing their economy. For example, a few of the windfalls that Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) attributes to the DAPL include: labor income ($1.9 billion); right-of-way payments to landowners ($190 million); local use, gross receipts, and lodging taxes during construction ($10 million); and state individual income tax revenue ($28 million). These monetary figures reveal the Western assumption that development is inherently beneficial and everyone wins.
Despite these so-called benefits, ETP’s narrative about its decision-making process remains uncritical. The December 2014 project report to the North Dakota Public Service Commission [PDF] outlined seventeen consultations with ten North Dakota and seven federal entities. The report mentions Indigenous peoples, but ETP likely viewed consultation with them as no different from consultations with North Dakota citizens:
In September 2014, Dakota Access met with representatives of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Dakota Access also met with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in October of 2014 to discuss issues the Standing Rock THPO may have with the DAPL Project . . . Dakota Access was informed that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe THPO has not engaged with federal agencies in the establishment or execution of Programmatic Agreements regarding cultural resource investigations and that the Tribe will participate in complete Section 106 Consultations with federal permitting agencies.
However, in its August 2016 progress report almost two years later, ETP stated that Dakota Access “has held 154 meetings with local elected officials and community organizations” and held “five public Open House meetings in North Dakota.” To the uninitiated, Dakota Access comes across as a responsible corporate neighbor. What the progress report failed to mention, however, is that Indigenous peoples, such as the Hunkpapa Titunwan (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe), were not included in these meetings. In their failure to understand that Indigenous peoples have a nation-to-nation relationship with the United States, Dakota Access and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put Indigenous peoples in the position of having to react to the Corps’s environmental assessment after the fact.
While we must analyze how U.S. colonization marginalizes our voices procedurally, the marginalization we experienced with DAPL is not the reason we take the stand we do. The Oceti Sakowin Oyate’s and its allies’ resistance to DAPL aims to protect water from harm.
The mainstream public sees ours as an environmental action: when an oil pipeline fails, the spill contaminates the water, rendering it unsafe to drink. “Mni Wiconi—Water is Life!” also calls to the fact that all life would die without clean water. Protecting water from contamination falls within the environmental paradigm, and therefore becomes a universal aspiration.
However, Phil Wambli Nunpa, the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council’s executive director, pushed beyond Western environmental, racial, and development paradigms. He explains that “water is alive: we call it mni wiconi, water is life.” That water is alive—and therefore possesses personality or personhood—defines our cultural response to the DAPL. Our definition challenges the West’s anthropocentrism, which accords person/peoplehood only to humans. Hence, the Western way of life would both deny and defy water as having personhood. Yet the United States can arbitrarily recognize fictional entities like corporations as legal persons, while denying personhood to humans who become subject to the Thirteenth Amendment’s slavery exception.
The Mni Oyate, then, is not unlike Indigenous peoples from Africa who, for 245 years in America, were racially constructed, socially viewed, institutionally handled, and economically exploited in the service of Western development. Similarly, Western development frames water as a resource and as property: humans can own water and the right to harm water.
By contrast, our relationship with water is framed not as possessing rights over water but as protecting the rights of water. The Oceti Sakowin Oyate’s original set of instructions requires us to be good relatives to the natural world. “What responsible conduct does water expect from us?” is a development question that we take seriously, however alien the question is to ETP and those behind the DAPL project.
This culture-based understanding motivates the Oceti Sakowin Oyate to challenge the DAPL. How could it not? From our origin story, we know that water and its life-affirming and life-giving qualities came from Inyan’s (Stone Spirit’s) blood. Water is also a significant constituent of human blood, of which at least half is water. During ceremonies such as the Sun Dance, individuals release blood from their bodies—as Inyan did at Creation—so that all life may continue on Earth. By weight, the human body is at least half water, making the Oceti Sakowin Oyate a blood relative of Mni Oyate. We are members of the Water Nation.
Finally, studies of mindfulness, however controversial, suggest that water responds qualitatively to intentionality. For example, an apple is about eighty percent water. Positive intentionality (good words and good thoughts) toward one half of an apple and negative intentionality (bad words and bad thoughts) toward the other half produce different responses: the first half stays healthy, the second rots. Imagine, then, how the river’s water is responding both to the water protectors’ prayers and songs and to the DAPL’s violence. Accordingly, state violence inflicted against the water protectors also constitutes a literal harm to the water.
Mni Oyate has sustained us since time immemorial. Our kinship obligates us to protect water from egregious harm. Though Western development denies that water is alive and exists as nothing more than a resource, such denial proves unsustainable. Just ask Mni Oyate.
About the Author
Edward Valandra is Sicangu Titunwan of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate. He founded the Community for the Advancement of Native Studies, and is Adjunct Professor of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba.