On Standing Rock – Prayer, Oil and Water


Since I have not been able to travel to Standing Rock myself, I am posting a guest column written by my colleague Frederik Aagaard Hagemann, who traveled there around Thanksgiving. Mr. Aagaard Hagemann is an avid bike-rider and graduate-student from Lund University in Sweden but with stubborn roots in Copenhagen, Denmark. Currently he is doing an internship at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh where is research interest is focused on sustainability, community and social justice. Here what he wrote about his experiences in North Dakota.

Water is Life

Wikipedia describes water as “a transparent and nearly colorless chemical substance that is the main constituent of the earths streams, lakes, and oceans, and the fluids of most living organisms”. But what does water mean to people? Can we construe its value in monetary or in spiritual terms? Is it currently under siege by a very different fluid? On a frozen prairie in North Dakota, such questions circulate on the surface and in the historical depths of a current strife between a gathering of indigenous tribes and US American authorities. “Water is life” claims the gathered tribes.

Their history along the banks of what is now called the Missouri River bears witness, as the fish swims, vegetation gets irrigated, and animals and people alike drink and live off the river. The reservoir of the Missouri River provides water for a multitude of purposes for people living around it.

The very same water turns into a weapon, when funneled through the cannons of the armed police-forces. On a bridge across the Cannonball, a tributary river to Missouri, these authorities are spraying water from the top of armored vehicles towards individuals and groups of people gathered.

A video on the internet shows an indigenous man walk along the barbed wire-fences and barricades. He urges some loud demonstrators to concentrate on prayer, and he warns them not to lose their composure in the cold, despite suffering quite tangible repression. As the video cuts off, a few angry yells in the background testifies how hard it is to keep a peaceful presence in front of the barricades and water-cannons.

Even more so, as reports come in. A young woman is getting her arm amputated after a percussion-grenade exploded near her; and old man has gone into hypothermia after getting sprayed with water. The gathered tribes have water on their lips when uttering their prayers and equally so when those prayers are met with blazing water-cannons from militarized police-forces.

But the tribes do not want people’s anger, they want their prayers. They convey a simple message and appeal pervading different belief-systems, social- economic- and cultural-divides: water is life. No humans can do without. The authorities in Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota, had the initial route for an oil-pipeline redrawn for this very reason. A potential oil-spill in the area would pose a great risk to drinking water reserves that many human lives depends on.

The demonstrators refuse to endanger their supply of water by conceding to the pipeline-project at Standing Rock. The pipeline-project would tie another string in the intricate cobweb of pipelines ensnaring the United States, beckoning the oil to flow even more freely across the nation. The Standing Rock Sioux have mobilized against this perceived risk, snaking its way towards their reservation for nearly 10 months.

Does their struggle in fact form a node in a much wider conflict between two highly cherished liquids and the people and the profits who depend on them? In a different America, Bolivia undergoes a historical drought as atmospheric carbon-concentrations melts the glaciers in the Andes at alarming rates, and in the Niger-delta fisheries and farmlands now appear as toxic dumps due to oil-pollution of their irrigation-sources. Local people are mobilizing in all these places in protection of the water, coerced into precarity by the extraction, transportation, and combustion of fossil fuels, of oil.

Oil and Lines of History

The Standing Rock Sioux has invited indigenous people from across the globe to join them and help protect the water. The dry, beige prairies in North Dakota now stages a historical gathering of indigenous people of North (and even some from South) America. They call themselves water protectors, united in the fight against Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which is projected to run under the Missouri River and through burial grounds and sacred lands of the Sioux.

After the agreement between the Sioux Nation and the US government in 1851 several encroachments on tribal land were made without due process. The colonial legacy of genocides and forced displacements renders any allusions to due process between native tribes and settlers in the nineteenth century a contentious matter.

Oil-developers, legal-authorities and indigenous groups alike now finds themselves caught up in a bitter legal fight over reservation-boundaries. Not every element of the conflict seems so legally opaque, however. US law prescribes the active consent of the Standing Rock Sioux to any pipeline-project near their reservation. This was not acquired at the initiation of the project, nor was a comprehensive environmental assessment report compiled as construction began. The initiated pipeline-project thus appears a clear transgression on indigenous territory resonating with historical repressions.

Smartphone-videos and footage from civilian drones documents battered, pepper-sprayed and freezing indigenous faces on the frontline. Those faces look vividly inscribed with the pain of both historical and contemporary suffering and repression.

It is not the first time in history that gathered tribes and the US military clash. The tribal members in the camps refer to the most total defeat of US forces history at Little Bighorn with an ill-hidden sense of pride. Back then they defeated colonial forces in armed combat, today they apply the means of prayer and peaceful presence.

The contrast to the US forces in place is striking. With guns and rubber-bullets, shock- and gas-grenades, with pepper-spray and dogs and batons and ice-cold water the militarized police protect the pipeline-building. The imagery of the conflict is rich, even if confined to a narrow audience at first. One journalist was arrested while reporting, another shot down with rubber-bullets while conducting an interview. Mainstream media seemed for long to overlook the matter entirely; six months went by before US national media started reporting. Meanwhile the construction of the oil-pipeline progressed abiding only by the schemes of its investors, and tribes gathered and were forcefully repressed at a crucial and contentious spot along the projected route between producers and consumers of the oil.

Equality Before the Law?

The legal terrain of the conflict is murky at best. Colonial history, and dubious, contested territorial lines speak their own moral language; the escalating use of force by militarized authorities adding to the volume. Between not-yet granted permits and civil disobedience, neither DAPL nor the gathered tribes are acting in some strict accordance with federal law. However, authorities have made a clear decision to protect the oil-infrastructure rather than the people worrying about its impact. I can’t help but wonder if it was even a decision, or if it was merely standard procedure within the institutions of the liberal democracy of the United States.

At a mall, outside Bismarck, the foundations of this democracy were put in question once again. Emma from CPS and I had made our way there with a small group of people to hand out informational flyers and little cotton-pouches, infused with prayer and tobacco. We came there on ‘Black Friday’, the day after thanksgiving, where shopping is imperative for corporations and consumers alike in the United States and many other places in the world.

We arrived with an aspiration to use this opportunity to raise awareness in a public gathered under very different agendas than the tribes in the neighboring encampment.

Another group of indigenous people and a few non-indigenous supporters had thought so too, and as we entered the mall we came upon a silent circle of people praying in a leisure-area inside the mall. Keeping a respectful distance, we witnessed their silent prayer for a brief moment.

It lasted only minutes until a loud voice commanded them to break up the circle and get out of the mall. In a matter of seconds, I saw three indigenous faces slammed down in the floor, hands getting cuffed behind their backs. The circle broke and some stood still with their hands above their heads, others moved slowly towards the exit while chanting: Water is life. During the next few minutes more policemen streamed in, grabbing people at random, forcing them to the floor or against the walls. Two-three policemen held each arrestee down and cuffed or tied their hands behind their backs.

Sitting outside in the parking-lot I felt a little shaken up. What did these people do to get so brutally arrested? It seems the intersecting legal-codes of freedom of speech and right to private property were cynically exploited to prosecute and repress the struggle of these indigenous people gathered in peaceful prayer. Did they bring a message too contrary to the values underlying the workings of the mall? Why else would a minor, if any, transgression against legal code unleash such brutal and efficient force?

Only minutes after the incident, a small family of three walked out the mall while happily inspecting their brand-new, plastic toy-car. Their feet crossed the smooth floor, and I felt suddenly terrified by its clean spotlessness. The repression of the indigenous people’s voice seemed total, as if in some Orwellian nightmare. What trace was there to see of their attempt to vocalize their prayers but maybe an invisible drop of saliva on the shining surface of the floor? Families and friends of the arrested were crying and comforting each other in remote corners of the parking lot, as a new group of young people walked into the mall to do get some cheap Black Friday-deals. It seemed a struggle between two divided worlds, one suffering a violent repression from the other.


In the Prayer Camps

Woodfire-smoke and cold mist creeps up my nostrils as I’m looking out over a horizon specked with teepees, tents and colorful flags. The scenery of the camps spells out a narrative much different from the mall on ‘Black Friday’. Waking up in the hazy, frosty morning the first thing I hear is drums and chanting, people moving towards the river to pray. And so, it is the last thing I hear before I fall asleep at night. The drumming, the dances and the prayers continues day and night in the camps.

Someone said on the radio the other day that many tribes celebrate sadness. The vibe is both serious and festive, and the camps uphold the strictest of policies against alcohol or any form of intoxication. A sense of unity and of purpose seems fused into the social fabric of the camps. People pray for clean water, they pray that the ‘black snake’ (the pipeline) will be stopped before it poses threats to this, or to any other area. But they also pray for the policemen, the pipeline-builders.

The authorities in Bismarck and North Dakota and media across the nation used the word ‘protest’ to describe the actions of the gathered tribes. I used this word frequently when first speaking of the conflict. However, the words and practice of the Sioux, the Navajo, the Cree, and all the other tribes and nations put such a word as ‘protest’ to shame. The serious expressions on the faces of the horse-riders when galloping out the flag-road, towards the police-lines are not faces of aggression, but of stubborn peacefulness.

When they ride out, they ride towards the river and towards the dark uniforms looming ever-present on top of Turtle Hill. The construction of the pipeline is approaching this point to delve under the river, and behind it the dark string disappears into the horizon.

The Standing Rock will need all the prayers and good intentions they can get to hold a stand against the two dark lines of uniforms and of welded tube and newly dug soil. The seemingly unobtrusive proceedings of the companies behind the pipeline as they began construction, naturally expecting easements and legal facilitation, speaks volumes of the power aligned against the claim of the Standing Rock Sioux. They are up against a mighty enemy: business as usual. Can there be a different world from that of usual business? It seems dearly needed, as glaciers are melting, vital ecosystems trampled, and drinking water put in jeopardy in Bolivia, in Niger and in the reservation of Standing Rock in North Dakota.

Oil on the Retreat?

New-reports are coming in, claiming that by a federal intervention, easements to dig the pipeline under the Missouri River requires further investigation and has been immediately denied. This is quite unprecedented, and investors respond with fury: the pipeline will be dug. I fear they might be right, as the looming shadow of a president to be exclaims support for oil-development. It might be a mere question of postponement, but one that seems a bit more of an actual question than before.

DAPL-contracts are likely to run out before construction can be resumed, and will have to be renegotiated suggesting diminished profits. The indigenous tribes’ determined struggle have caused a small dent the business as usual and its unquestioned servitude of oil-infrastructure. Conflicts between local populations and big-scale fossil-fuel infrastructure might have slightly less foreseeable outcomes in the future.

The Standing Rock Sioux and their indigenous and non-indigenous supporters have stood up against an intricate system of interest and power addressing both contemporary economic-bureaucratic-uniformed face and the deep roots in a history of oppression. Simultaneously a lawsuit of Ogoni-people from the Niger delta against Shell to make actual amends to the vast pollution of their vital waterways awaits process in international courts, and people are demonstrating for the right to water in the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, recalling the renowned ‘water-wars’ of Cochabamba in year 2000. These communities, far from political and economic elites, are in very different ways asking vital questions of dominant and repressive regimes whose power resides, with increasing clarity, in oil.

The current struggle at Standing Rock is for indigenous rights to water, to life, and to a different way of being in the world. In the face of historical and current repression, the indigenous people at Standing Rock convey a powerful message as they chant in unison: water is life. And their struggle is by no means over by the denying of these easements. DAPL might very well still be built, as mighty forces stand behind them. Banks and states from across the world (though mainly Europe and the US) are invested in this project and stands to benefit by its completion. The Standing Rock Sioux call for anyone with money in a bank, or citizenship in a state invested in the vast network invested in the DAPL to support the indigenous struggle: demand your banks, your states to withdraw money from this project.

From the frozen prairies of North Dakota sounds this call for a deep re-evaluation of that “transparent and nearly colorless chemical substance”, one that should pervade thought as well as practice and ask serious questions of the hunt for oil.


Photo credits:

Photo of protest by Rob87438 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53979534

Photo of Standing Rock camp by Frederik Aagaard Hagemann


About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent.

1 Comment

  1. A powerful essay about my home state of North Dakota written by Swedish scholar who lives in Lund, Sweden, where my daughter and family live.

    Dan Rylance

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