For Many Dakota Access Pipeline Protesters, The Fight Is Personal

Nov 21, 2016
Originally published on November 21, 2016 6:58 pm
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In North Dakota yesterday, a frosty day, police officers sprayed water on demonstrators who tried to pass a police barricade on a bridge. And this confrontation and the many before it are over construction of the Dakota Access pipeline near a Native American reservation.

Crews are still working on the pipeline even as the Obama administration considers whether to reroute the project. The demonstrations have attracted Native American activists from around the world. They're all opposed to the pipeline. But as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, many have personal reasons for being there.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The main protest camp near the Missouri River, south of Bismarck, has grown into a small village of sorts. Dirt roads wind through dozens of teepees. Outside a large tent that serves as a makeshift kitchen, Dorothy Sun Bear introduces herself in her native Lakota language.

DOROTHY SUN BEAR: (Native American language spoken).

BRADY: Sun Bear is from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. And she arrived at the protest camp in mid-August. Even as the weather turns cold, a few hundred people remain at this camp. They draw encouragement from the successful campaign to block the Keystone XL Pipeline. And many of them, including Sun Bear, believe they're making history.

SUN BEAR: You know, it's the most beautiful thing that happened in my life. We're told it was going to happen and we're here experiencing it. We're happy and proud.

BRADY: When you say you were told that it was going to happen, what do you mean?

SUN BEAR: Oh, the prophecies.

BRADY: There's a lot of talk here about the prophecies. One of them is that tribes would converge from all over to defeat a common enemy, even those tribes that have fought in the past. Dave Archambault II is the Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman.

DAVE ARCHAMBAULT II: There was also a prophecy saying that there is a black snake above ground. And what do we see? We see black highways across the nation. There's also a prophecy when that black snake goes underground, it's going to be devastating to the Earth.

BRADY: A lot of people here call the underground pipeline the black snake. Most of the long-term protesters are Native Americans. Others cycle through, some staying for weeks and others just a few days. Alan Chidester is from Moscow, Idaho, wearing a purple fedora. Chidester says he hopes a new culture will emerge from this protest and spread.

ALAN CHIDESTER: And the outside world is all greed. I had 37 cents left in my pocket when I got here after spending gas to get here. And I still had that 37 cents when I went back to Moscow for a few days to take care of business. So money doesn't mean anything here.

BRADY: In addition to the spiritual and ideological motivations, some protesters traveled here for very personal reasons. Cameron Lisondra volunteered to chop wood for one of the kitchens here. It's just one piece of keeping this camp running.

CAMERON LISONDRA: I mean, it's key to survival out here. We need the heat. We need it to cook. We need it basically for everything out here.

BRADY: Lisondra says he took a break from his power washing business in Las Vegas to be here. He's from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and says he was drawn here to be with Native Americans from tribes across the country and to embrace his roots.

LISONDRA: It's really a learning experience for me. I'm first-generation born off the reservation. So in a way, a little bit of this lifestyle was taken from me. So getting the chance to come out here and really connect with other Native Americans, it means a lot to me.

BRADY: Lisondra says he doubts this large a gathering of indigenous people from around the world will happen again in his lifetime. He predicts whatever the outcome, this protest and the thousands who've played a role will be talked about for generations to come. Jeff Brady, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.