“April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain,” T.S. Eliot writes in his epic poem, “The Wasteland.” This poem couldn’t have predicted the start of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests this past April at the Standing Rock Reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, but just as spring sprung in Eliot’s poem, so did a fight against one of the most dangerous pipelines in American history; if completed, DAPL will threaten the water quality of millions of people.
On a recent Thursday afternoon in West Hollywood, the Depart Foundation hosted the first public discussion in Los Angeles with Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault II, Jane Fonda, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Bruce Kapson and moderator Jon Christensen, about DAPL's impact. The talk took place at a serendipitous time of waiting and wondering: After more than nine months of protests, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted construction on Dec. 4 to conduct an environmental impact review, determining if there was a way to not cross the Missouri River.
“The decision rendered was a small win,” Archambault said. “But we didn’t win the war, not until the threat goes away.”
DAPL has created a stir nationally and globally, raising awareness about the convergence of corporations, financial institutions and the government, all while the 2016 election was heating up. DAPL is also just another indication of the colonial mindset and the continual, 500-year genocide carried out against Native Americans. The U.S. government violated treaties with the Sioux in 1825, 1837, 1851 and 1868; this was unfortunately no different yet still completely questionable. In total, 300 American tribes gathered to protest the illegal construction, and the number of protesters reached into the thousands. Just before the decision to halt, protesters were joined by 2,000 U.S. veterans of wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Robert Kennedy Jr., environmental activist, son of Bobby Kennedy and an ally of the Sioux, went to Standing Rock. On this chilly afternoon in L.A., his message was about the bigger environmental disaster facing not just America but the world. Kennedy, president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, has always been firmly against the pipeline and the fossil fuel industry at large. The company building DAPL, Energy Transfer Partners (which works with Sunoco Logistics), has an extremely anti-environmental history. Kennedy called for an immediate need to shift to green energy, which he believes is the only possibility for sustaining life on Earth as we know it.
“It is an existential dilemma for all,” Kennedy explained. “If business continues as usual, we will see a six-degree Celsius rise in temperatures, which means crocodiles will be at the North Pole. This will affect my kids and your kids in their lifetime.”
It's said that the Dakota Access Pipeline would create more carbon pollution than 27 coal-burning power plants, and would cross and disrupt 209 water sources, including Lake Oahe, the Sioux’s only water source, without which their reservation is uninhabitable. The pipeline will not create new jobs, as many pro-pipeline people have stated. It will just make more money for the people who invested in it, such as President-elect Donald J. Trump, who has invested at least $1 million in the pipeline. In fact, the pipeline will create around 35 new jobs, all of them maintenance and operational. If there were ever a pipeline more symbolic of the corporate plutocracy, we've yet to see it. And it's threatening the basics needed to sustain human life.
On the brink of this catastrophe, however, Archambault emphasized the power and importance of prayer in addition to the actions being taken against DAPL.
“With prayer and unity, we can accomplish a lot,” he said. “What we are standing up for is basic: water.” The struggle has not been easy, especially with what seemed like the odds stacked against the tribe. “Every time I thought that it was not worth it — every time I thought that, another tribe showed up with songs and prayer.”
Many representatives from Native tribes showed up for the panel, including Standing Rock Sioux historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard. She is the direct descendent of survivors of the historic Whitestone Massacre, which occurred in 1863 when the U.S. Army killed more than 300 Sioux. Her grandmother, then a 9-year-old child, was shot in the leg but not killed by one of the soldiers, who spared her life. When Allard was approached about opening up her land as a camp during the protest, she agreed and allowed people to stay at Sacred Stone Camp.
“I don’t care who you are, you must stand up for the water because without the water there is no life,” she said in a moving speech after the panel.
Everyone who went out to Standing Rock played a different part. Some, like actress Jane Fonda, came in late November with 2,700 pounds of bison meat for use in a Wopila Feast to thank the water protectors for their courage, and for defending the planet. Fonda, who has been outspoken about DAPL and has been involved with and supporting Native rights since the late 1960s, when she supported the Alcatraz Island occupations, went out to Standing Rock as part of a delegation of 50 people. The election, she said, left her feeling like she'd “been hit by a truck,” and she was “very depressed.”
Aside from the discussions about the deeper meaning and impact of the Standing Rock protests, Fonda took it back to the underlying problem: the banks funding the pipeline. One way to combat that, she explained, is to simply take your money out of the bank. Fonda will stage a #BankExit action on her birthday, Dec. 21, at 1:45 p.m. at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, when she will go to the bank and withdraw her funds. She cited the shakiness of the pipeline’s financial deal, saying that if enough people pulled their money from the banks at the same time, it could collapse.
The panel discussion took place amid another historical reminder of America’s treatment of Native American people: Edward S. Curtis’ early–20th century portraits of Native American communities, which he feared were on the brink of extinction. Curated by Bruce Kapson, who also joined the panel, the exihibit offered a glimpse into what Archambault had been saying all along: This was just part of the long cycle of genocide against Native people.
“I think Edward Curtis was someone who captured a time in history when federal policy was trying to eliminate the Indian, and he realized that and he saw the laws coming forth, and so he wanted to make sure he captured that era before it was gone,” Archambault said about the exhibition.
“But what he didn’t realize was that no matter what the federal government did, we as a people are still here and we are always going to be here so, this time today, there are current issues facing American Indians and we are doing the best we can to prevent the worst from happening. And there are images being captured, so 100 years from now, our kids and their kids and their kids will look back and say, 'Look at these images, and look at Edward Curtis’ images, and we can see how we’ve progressed and made it possible for them to still be here.' So it’s important to be here.”
Curtis’ copper prints seemed to shine even brighter amid the conversations taking place. Indeed, Curtis was wrong — Native people are not extinct today — but 100 years later they are still facing many of the same struggles they have since white Europeans came to America and began colonizing the land that we all live on today. With the future of the pipeline, the environment and America in a state of uncertainty with the incoming Trump administration, Archambault again emphasized prayer.
Before the panel closed, a man named Mark Tilsen, who had been out at Standing Rock since August, raised his hand and asked something that was on many people’s minds: What if we lose the political and legal fights, and have to stop the pipeline physically, with our bodies? To that, Archambault responded that he didn’t want people to die for this: “This pipeline is not the last. There will be more pipelines unless we change. As long as there is oil pumping, there will be many black snakes.”