Ocean-going canoes, made of giant cedar logs, paddled by a dozen or more members of costal Northwest tribes, are converging just south of Bismarck, North Dakota. They’ll be joined by river canoes from Montana tribes, lake canoes from Minnesota, and a cedar saltwater canoe from Juno, Alaska.
The tribal canoe families are joining members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who have pledged to protect the waters that make life possible in this arid region. These waters, they believe, are threatened by the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, which would transport oil from the Bakken oil fields across the Missouri River, just upstream from the tribe’s reservation, and on across dozens of streams and rivers to Illinois.
The gathering at Standing Rock is already historic, whether or not the pipeline is stopped. A ruling on that question is expected on Sept. 9. Tribes that had been enemies for decades or longer are joining together to protect the water. More tribes are showing up than anyone can recall seeing together.
It’s the sacredness of water, and its importance to all life that is bringing them together.
Oil and water don’t mix. And increasingly, the interests of oil and the interests of water are likewise at odds. Or put another way, a continuing reliance on fossil fuels is not compatible with life—human and otherwise. Pipeline accidents have sullied the Kalamazoo and Yellowstone rivers, fracking is threatening underground aquifers in large swaths of the country, and tar sands extraction is creating giant toxic lakes where once stood healthy forests and clean water. And the climate crisis, caused by the burning of oil, adds another layer of threat, and water—in the form of floods, melting glaciers, disappearing ice caps, and it lack, in the case of droughts—is where the climate crisis shows up most immediately.
Native people have long been at the forefront of some of the critical efforts to stop further extraction. The Lummi Tribe stopped a giant coal export terminal proposed for north of Seattle. The North Cheyenne Tribe, in collaboration with ranchers, prevented a giant new coal strip mine from being dug in southeast Montana. The Turtle Mountain Tribe banned fracking on their reservation. Native peoples are resisting tar sands extraction and the Keystone XL Pipeline.
At Standing Rock, the tribes are gathering—over a hundred at last count—to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. We are protectors, not protesters, they say.
Sweetwater Nannauck is one of the people organizing the canoe families converging in North Dakota for the “Paddle to Standing Rock.”
“What’s so amazing is the unity. There are so many tribes there,” she told me as we traveled across Montana on the way to Standing Rock. “I feel like this is the start of something big.”
Nannauck, director of Idle No More Washington, is Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian. She describes herself as a spiritual warrior, combining prayer, healing, and compassion. And she believes that the power of the Stand Rock convergence is that it is coming from a place of spirit and heart.
“Once this is over, just think of what all the people who came here will take back to their communities. We’ll have a whole generation of spiritual warriors.”