“Mni wiconi” means “Water is life” in Lakota/Dakota. Of the many things this protest is, it is about water and gas as shared resources, Native American resilience, and the residents of the U.S.’s complicated relationship to Native American communities. So on my way up through Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota, I watched how I used two things: gas and water.
After I woke up on Wednesday morning, I relished a warm shower at the motel. “I’m using water,” I observed. I noticed the handful of water I used to brush my teeth. I paid attention to the ice I gathered to keep my lunch cooler at appropriate temperatures. I had a water bottle handy for the long drive ahead.
It’s amazing how you can take for granted life-giving things like showers and drinking water. If the pipeline were to leak into the Missouri River, how would people, Native and non-Native alike, deal with lack of clean water?
I started that morning from Torrington, Wyoming, to Sundance, Wyoming. That road stretches north and slightly west for about 181 miles, which was roughly 2 hours and 46 minutes. I had gassed up on the the drive the night before, so I was confident I would reach another gas station at a reasonable distance after 2 hours. If Wyoming is anything like South Dakota, where I’ve driven many a random road while on the rez (or going to someone who mattered to me who lived on the rez), I knew fuel stops were few and far between depending on where you went. But hey, I was on my last quarter of gas and I thought I could pull it off. In my foolishness, I decided to keep going instead of stopping for fuel. I kept taking in the unique Wyoming scenery. I first got nervous when I absentmindedly glanced at my fuel tank: “Wait what? Down to there already?” At this point, I was on a windy road through hills lush with evergreens. No gas station here. I got more and more nervous as I saw small farm community after small farm community…still nothing close to a town that had gas.
I was getting visibly distraught now. It was a stupid mistake on my part to overshoot how much gas I had left. I didn’t have extra gas in a separate container in my car. It might be a while before I reached the next town, and I knew that. It crossed my mind to drive up to a farmhouse and ask how many miles away the next gas station was. Or ask if they had any gas to spare. My mind played out a potential scenario: me stranded in the middle of nowhere…on the way to a pipeline protest…because I didn’t have enough gas to get there. Oh irony.
That was when I grasped this realization: that I partake in the benefits of pipelines that carry oil to refineries, and the refineries that transform oil into petroleum gas, and those dinky gas stations plopped into towns of Wherever in the states of Don’t Care.
This Malagasy chick, driving through Wyoming, with her boat of a blue car…played a part in the system as a consumer.
I hadn’t even reached the campgrounds and already this was not a cut and dry issue: my lifestyle choices were under scrutiny now. Why didn’t I carpool? Because I didn’t know anyone from Colorado who was going to this group event. Why didn’t I fly into Bismarck first? Because I wasn’t interested in ticket prices and I wanted travel flexibility in case I had the chance to stay longer. Why didn’t I take a public bus from Denver to Bismarck? Because that kind of traveling is considerably longer due to stops, and I had to return for work by Sunday.
It was interesting that having a car and a full tank gave me the freedom to set my schedule and whereabouts. I don’t see the gases my car emits as I travel. I don’t pause to consider the consequences of having a pipeline go through land so that people in far off places can get gas. I certainly took for granted how far I could get.
It ended up that the town of Sundance was about 15 miles away from where I was at that point. With great relief, I pulled into a gas station and guzzled that strange liquid into my car, fully recognizing my purchase of convenience.
From there, I met up with my friend in another small town, and we carpooled to the camp, which was a 2 hour drive from her place. On the way we caught up, and our conversation shifted to driving directions so we could get to camp in time to set up our tent before sunset. Like many other reservations, the pockets where people live are often spread out, so getting from A to B takes attention, time, and gas. So I wasn’t surprised that we had to wind this way, then take this highway, and then this one, and then turn here to go for 20 miles until the next road.
When we finally took a left to go north on Highway 1806, we passed houses that made neighborhoods in the small area of Cannon Ball, North Dakota, which is part of Standing Rock Reservation. My friend’s car climbed a hill, and as we descended on the other side, we caught our first glance of camp. Beside the glistening river, we saw white tipis, tents of different shapes, colors, and sizes, and many…many…many cars. The size of the camp was impressive. Some people’s tents bordered the river, others were in clusters next to each other. There were makeshift signs for car entrances and exits, and we got greeted by someone at the front entrance. Flags bearing indigenous people’s emblems lined the roads. Encampments were everywhere. People set up camp in a way that created makeshift car paths like veins fanning out throughout the campsite. Life was everywhere: people were walking around, there was a huge firewood area, a dome-looking thing, a common area where coffee was being served, an area where corn was hung to dry, and places where people gathered to eat. I saw a schoolbus painted with flowers and lots of happy things…it looked like people were living in it. There were no particular rules, so we just parked next to other cars and searched out a decent spot to pitch our tent. With the sun going down, the cold was starting to set in.
The rest of the night consisted of a clergy meeting at Cannon Ball’s gymnasium, returning to camp, and sitting by a fire that bears significance (more on that to come in the next blog post). A drumming group was drumming and singing, and some people started a round dance, so we joined in. It was fun 🙂 But I saw that not too far in the distance there were large white lights, similar to ones at a football field, that guarded what must be pipeline terrain.
Needless to say, my friends and I were gearing up for an unexpected day. Before I went to sleep, I shared tobacco, squares of fabric, and thread with my friends so we could make traditional Lakota prayer ties. The purpose of doing this is to pray, to set aside time and faith to focus on the tasks to come. What was this protest going to look like? We didn’t know. But we would find out when the sun returned.