This could be a story about land rights. It could be a story about the environment. It could be a story about pepper spray, attack dogs, rubber bullets and water cannons.
It’s all of those things, but in the eyes of some Seattleites who traveled to North Dakota and stood with Standing Rock, this is a story about love and duty.
“It’s extremely important to me. It’s not just important, it’s who we are as human beings,” said Redmond resident Paul Cheoketen Wagner, a storyteller and member of the Saanich Nation.
Wagner was one of many who traveled more than 1,000 miles from the Puget Sound to Lake Oahe, where he and others stood on the front lines of the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a pipeline meant to bring oil from North Dakota to Illinois. The pipeline is planned to cross under the lake, a source of water for the local Sioux tribe. Energy Transfer Partners, the company in charge of building the pipeline, originally planned for it to run farther to the north, but changed the route after complaints from the predominately White community in Bismarck, North Dakota.
That left the burden on the Sioux tribe to lead their own charge against the pipeline, a battle in which the tribe and its allies — known as water protectors — seemed to be making progress until the arrival of the new president of the United States, Donald Trump.
The Army Corps of Engineers responded to the commander in chief’s directive to move the pipeline forward, announcing that it would grant a controversial easement that had been denied under the Obama administration, pending additional environmental review. That review seems unlikely to take place, although the Standing Rock Sioux continue to fight in court and on the ground.
The newest decision marks one more chapter in a story that has been ongoing for more than a year.
Most recently, the Seattle City Council ended its relationship with Wells Fargo over the pipeline, but local tribal members and activists moved beyond policies to place their bodies on the line.
On the Seattle front, Matt Remle, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, has been a strong voice bringing attention to the situation in North Dakota since he became involved in December 2015.
He said it’s a family affair.
His aunt, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, started the Sacred Stone Camp, one of three primary protest camps outside of the community of Cannon Ball, where water protectors have endured the harsh winter conditions in community and solidarity. She contacted Remle while the pipeline was still in the state permitting process, asking for his help in publicizing the pipeline through Last Real Indians, a native news site for which he writes and edits.
“It’s not stretching the truth saying that nothing was being written on the piepleine at that time, and even up until April 1 when she started the Sacred Stone Camp,” Remle said. “There was little coming out about the pipeline until August, when the arrests started happening.”
Seattle became one of the first cities to speak out against the pipeline when the City Council passed a resolution in September 2016 voicing concern. Protests that started here began to spread to other major cities, bringing attention to a movement that had been largely ignored.
But that was the beginning, not the end. What started as a local effort to oppose the pipeline grew to encompass other similar projects opposed by indigenous people that posed a threat to the environment and sacred sites.
“We wanted to connect with local tribes who were fighting different projects and use DAPL with its new media attention,” Remle said.
He and others traveled to North Dakota to support the water protectors who had gathered there. What he described had less to do with the vicious attacks on water protectors perpetrated by law enforcement, less even to do with the harsh conditions and physical danger they posed to people in the camps.
Instead, Remle spoke of a moment on Dec. 5 when he and others gathered to perform an action on Backwater Bridge, a site near where drilling may begin for the pipeline’s route underneath the Missouri River. A man he did not know began playing a song, and Remle went to lend his own musical talents.
Out of the corner of his eye, Remle saw two women, one elderly, walking toward the group. Remle thought the older woman needed medical attention. The younger woman approached the musicians, pulled out some tobacco and said, “She wants you guys to keep singing and put the tobacco on the drum.” They obliged.
“I’m not kidding you, man, she went from having to be held up, this elderly lady in her 70s was dancing right there in the blizzard,” Remle said.
The bitter cold presented significant health and safety challenges to the water protectors, with temperatures plunging to 15 and 20 degrees below freezing when the sun went down. When they came back from their actions, in some cases having been blasted with water cannons by law enforcement, water protectors needed ways to warm up or risk frostbite and death.
Wagner, who lives in Renton and works to preserve the oral storytelling traditions of tribes, thought he could develop a solution. He went to North Dakota with others to protest in canoes in September, before the worst of the weather hit.
Even with an air mattress and sleeping bags, he needed a wool cap just to get through the night.
“I thought, ‘When winter hits, it’s going to be crazy cold, and people can’t survive in tents,’” he said. “What can I do to help?”
Wagner worked to develop “tarpees,” a design inspired by the conical and iconic teepees that appear in so many history textbooks. His version involved two layers of tarp, two-by-four wooden planks and metal brackets to join the pieces. With a little effort, they were protective against the wind, and Wagner added a stove to the center of the design to keep firewood dry during the day and the tarpees toasty at night.
He and his team of 20 or so volunteers constructed several in Washington, but built most of the 40 tarpees in North Dakota in the Oceti Sakowin camp.
The project was expensive — roughly $10,000 out of Wagner’s pocket, he figures — but it was met with enthusiasm from volunteers who helped him build the structures, donors who supported the effort and even people staying in the nearby casino who let it be known that the water protectors could find showers in their rooms.
The leadership of the Oceti Sakowin camp announced in early February that it would be moving for safety reasons, and Wagner is now making plans to travel back to Standing Rock to help move whatever they can to a new campground. He wants to improve them, installing floors and a window attached with Velcro.
He said water protectors are fulfilling a sacred trust placed in the people by their creators to protect the land on which we all live. If they do not, the world will end in fire, he said, and future generations will bear the brunt of the disaster.
“They will suffer like no one has suffered on Earth,” Wagner said. “And we need to make sure that does not happen.”
Even with the apparent intent of the federal government to allow this and other pipelines, such as Keystone XL that would travel from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to Texas, to proceed with slim environmental review, the fight for DAPL has brought the diverse voices of the environmental movement to national attention.
In her comments after voting to divest from Wells Fargo, Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez said that she felt moved seeing “people that looked like me” take charge in the fight for the environment.
“We honor all of you for the work that you are doing,” she said.
Remle, who started his work in a community coalition for environmental justice, agreed. There has been a focus on communities of color placed near freeways and producers of toxicants that impact their health and quality of life. To focus on indigenous peoples brings another perspective to the issue, he said.
“Everybody around the world knows ‘mni wiconi,’ [water is life],” Remle said.
He broke down the word and explained that “ni” means “life” and the additional “m” gives reference to the self. “It literally means this substance is giving you life.”
Wiconi refers to all living creation.
“When we put those words together, it means all of creation needs that ‘mni’ to live,” Remle said. “I think that in itself can reshape how people look at it.”