Counter Stories: On Being at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp

Protesters look over a fence at the construction.
Protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline look over a fence on top of a hill on the west side of the Missouri River at pipeline construction crews as they work on the other side of the river on Aug. 16, 2016.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News

Rhiana Yazzie found herself almost by accident last week at the protest camp set up near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, where thousands of people have spoken out against the proposed Dakota Access pipeline.

Yazzie's theater company, New Native Theater, happened to be touring at reservations across the country when they decided to go to Standing Rock.

This month's Counter Stories focused almost entirely on the Dakota Access Pipeline project and Yazzie's personal experience at the protest camp, along with reflections on what the protest has come to signify for indigenous people.

Signs at a rally in Bismarck.
Signs are held up at a rally in front of the North Dakota state capitol during a protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline on Sept. 9, 2016.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News

But this edition of the monthly conversation is more than what it's about — it's what it shows. It shows what can happen when people tell their own stories unencumbered.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Yazzie joined regular co-hosts Anthony Galloway, Don Eubanks, Hlee Lee, and Tom Weber.

The collective "we" rings intentional during the conversation. There is no single "Native American culture" in North America, and there never has been.

Indigenous nations have cultural characteristics that distinguish them, but those characteristics don't necessarily function to separate.

One of the remarkable things about the Standing Rock camp, according to Yazzie, was that it brought indigenous nations together who don't necessarily cooperate. She compared the camp to a state fair, but without the commerce. This is something new.

Yazzie maintains the novelty comes from what's at stake: water. "I hope the rest of America gets that we're fighting for our humanity" at Standing Rock, Yazzie added, "and we're fighting for it through our deepest connection to the earth."

The pipeline is designed to travel under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, and there are fears that a leak would contaminate the water.

Native Americans protest Dakota Access pipeline
In this Aug. 12, 2016, file photo, Native Americans protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in southern North Dakota.
James MacPherson | AP Photo File

"Water sustains us, and if we lose that we lose everything as people." And here, the plural pronoun "us" extends beyond those who belong to indigenous nations. It's in reference to us all.

The company building the pipeline maintains the fears are unfounded and its CEO pledged in a memo to employees to keep working to complete the 1,200-mile pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois, which is more than half built.

Last week, minutes after a court ruling in the pipeline company's favor, the Obama administration announced a halt to construction in the disputed area where the protest camp has grown from a small few in April to representatives from more than 100 tribal nations across the country and North America.

Thinking to the past, Yazzie wondered what indigenous people from 200 years ago, to whom it felt like "everything was lost," would feel about Standing Rock: "if they could know that indigenous nations across the entire country would be there; indigenous nations they had no idea even existed coming in their canoes fighting for this water," they would be astounded. The people from the past might not be able to know. We can, though — but we have to listen.