When I first arrived in North Dakota to report on Standing Rock, I visited the State Capitol, built in 1934, the tallest building in Bismarck. The Art Deco interior has gilded everything — doorframes, ashtrays, elevator buttons. On a late afternoon in December, I stood at a window on the 18th floor and looked outside. Tiny people scurried through the streets below, and tailpipes puffed a fog of spent petroleum into the cold air. The snowy horizon was the same color as the clouds in the light gray sky, the landscape a pale abstraction that went on forever beyond the neatly gridded city. Somewhere to the south, thousands of people hunkered in the NoDAPL camps against the coming winter. From where I stood, I couldn’t see them.
In the days that followed, as I traveled through the camps and spoke to the water protectors, I had the sense that this movement, invisible though it was to Bismarck, was coming into sharp relief here and elsewhere. The Trump administration has indicated that it might push the pipeline through. If so, NoDAPL itself may be remembered simply as a brief moment of hopefulness — for the Standing Rock Sioux, social justice activists and climate protesters. Hope, though, once planted, tends to grow, to take on a life of its own. At Oceti Sakowin, it was palpable, at communal meals and in the daily teamwork it takes to keep such a sprawling encampment functioning, a feeling that people who stand together can overcome injustice and systems that do not serve them, no matter who is in power. That hope, now lodged in the memories of tens of thousands of people, will be hard to erase. “Getting well in your mind, body, spirit is what this camp really is about,” one Standing Rock Sioux elder told me. “People are coming to be healed.”
Dakota Access may yet carry oil south, and the demonstrations it has inspired may disintegrate. But if the inspiration of a new generation of “protectors” is any indication of success, maybe they’ve already won. On my last day at the casino, I met a woman who works at the restaurant there. She was exceptionally busy that week, as thousands of NoDAPL protesters passed through for a hot meal, but she took a few minutes to speak with me. “Through (NoDAPL), our elders have gained confidence,” she said. “I hope this thing leaves its fingerprints on you, too.”
In High Country News, Tay Wiles reports on how the Dakota Access Pipeline protests have spread greater understanding of environmental issues among Natives and non-Natives alike, and how they’ve inspired a new generation of protesters who are collaborating to raise awareness of and oppose other projects that impact Indigenous people, their rights, and their land.