Mni wiconi—“Water is life.” This Lakota phrase weaves throughout my days here on Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Over the past week, I’ve seen it on T-shirts worn by teenagers, on banners held by children, painted on family cars, shouted from kayaks, and whispered in prayer by grandmothers.
I’ve come to this community in response to an urgent call for support as they stand up to protect their precious water from the Dakota Access pipeline. This pipeline will cross through four states and carry crude oil across critical habitats and waterways, including under the Missouri River. According to the New York Times, “The tribe says the pipeline’s route under the Missouri River near here could threaten its water supplies if the pipeline leaks or breaks, and it says the United States Army Corps of Engineers failed to do proper cultural and historical reviews before granting federal approvals for the pipeline.” Currently, people are occupying various spots along the river and pipeline construction is halted, pending a federal court decision.
I’ve come to take part in this gathering because unlike many political actions that are against, this is about standing in unity for life. This is about being in solidarity with a tribe that has not forgotten its role as caretakers of the land and protectors for the next seven generations.
What is beautiful about the makeshift camps that have popped up here is that they are filled with families and a feeling of shared purpose. There are daily prayers, and before each meal, ceremonial songs from diverse tribes are offered around the main fire. At the Sacred Stone Camp, where people have been gathered since April, a group of Lakota men drum and sing every night as the sun sets.
Mni wiconi—“Water is life.” It’s the women here who lead the way. From Winona LaDuke and Shailene Woodley to the mothers who stood on top of bulldozers and young activists like 13-year-old Takota Iron Eyes, the women are the heartbeat of this movement.
“It was the women who started this campaign,” says Carol Olowaan Plain, an Ojibwe/Pueblo woman who traveled from Denver to participate. Carol is a community activist and ceremonial leader whose partner, Doug Good Feather, grew up on the Standing Rock reservation. “When we got here, there were 20 women up at Sacred Stone Camp. … The women are keeping the children at the camp to make sure that everyone knows that their focus should be on the water and on the children and their children. So it keeps the men grounded.”
Mni wiconi—“Water is life.” It’s so simple, it’s easy to forget. It’s so true, it almost seems silly to drive more than a thousand miles to affirm. And yet, I find myself opening up to what this phrase truly means and realizing how differently we need to live if we honestly believe it.
More than 1,000 people from different tribes and nations have shown up to support this prayer. Supporters have traveled from New York, Hawaii, Washington, New Mexico, California, Minnesota, even as far as Peru and Austria. It’s like a mycelial network of people who are now ready to take action. We may not always see these networks, but like the vast fungal systems that exist beneath the soil, they help life flourish in a given ecosystem.
“We carry the responsibility of carrying that water for our children in so many ways,” explains Carol. “Even carrying a child, that child is wrapped in a bubble of water. When you give birth, the water breaks and the baby is born into the world of air. But the child is made in a world of water. That sacred connection to water that we have from our very first heartbeat is what connects us to the earth and the world. People lose that connection through time and they get so busy they don’t realize; they just take that water that’s coming out of their faucets for granted. We’ve got to do something or we’re not going to have any water for our children. We need water to survive.”
Mni wiconi—“Water is life.” This is an issue for all people, not just native communities. The protectors who are camped out here are determined to save the water not only for their own families but to make sure it stays clean for everyone.
“It’s not even about Standing Rock,” says Carol, “it’s about everyone outside of Standing Rock because yes, the river comes through here but the river keeps going. The waterway goes a long way and provides for millions of people.”
If you’re interested in supporting this struggle, sign the pledge of resistance and contribute to the legal defense fund at sacredstonecamp.org. To support continued fair and accurate media coverage of this event, see the GoFundMe campaign of Native American photographer Josue Rivas, who took all the photos for this story.