The snow-scoured hills and buttes of the Missouri Breaks are dotted with isolated houses, until the sudden appearance of the Oceti Sakowin encampment on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The presence of so many people catches at the heart. Snow-dusted tepees, neon pup tents, dark-olive military tents, brightly painted metal campers, and round solid yurts shelter hundreds on the floodplain where the Cannonball River meets the Missouri. Flags of Native Nations whip in the cutting wind, each speaking of solidarity with the Standing Rock tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, or D.A.P.L., owned by Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics. This pipeline would pass beneath the Missouri River and imperil drinking water not only for the tribe but for farmers, ranchers, and townspeople all along the river’s course.
Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Fires, refers to the seven divisions of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, people who are perhaps best known for their resistance to colonization (Little Big Horn, 1876), their suffering (Wounded Knee, 1890), and their activism (Wounded Knee, 1973). One of their most famous leaders, Sitting Bull, was murdered in the town that is now their tribal headquarters, Fort Yates. Down the road from Fort Yates is the town of Cannonball, named for the large round stones polished by the whirlpool that marked the convergence of the two rivers, just outside the Oceti Sakowin camp. The round stones disappeared when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri, in a giant project that lasted from 1948 to 1962. The result of that project, Lake Oahe, flooded Standing Rock’s most life-giving land. The Lakota were forced onto the harshly exposed grazing uplands, and they haven’t forgotten that, or much else. History is a living force in the Lakota way of life. Each of the great events in their common destiny includes the direct experience of ancestors, whose names live on in their descendants. It is impossible to speak of what is now happening at Standing Rock without taking into account the history, as well as the intense spirituality, that underlies Seven Fires resistance.