David fumbled the sappy, 14-foot wooden poll. Shadows of distant rolling hills stretched toward his camp across the Cannonball river as the red sun descended into the horizon. Soon the temperate late-October day would slip into bitter night.
A month before I met David, he, his young son and wife traded the winking, one-headlamp minivans of the Standing Rock reservation for the bareback horsemen of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp. With winter approaching, he struggled to build the home that had sheltered his ancestors for centuries, and would hopefully shelter his family for the coming months: a teepee.
Intended to transport crude oil 1,172 miles from North Dakota’s Bakken and Three Forks oil fields to southern Illinois, the Dakota Access pipeline faces its most critical opposition from protesters encamped at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. Earth Justice, the environmental law group representing the tribe, alleges the pipeline “threatens the Tribe’s environmental and economic well-being and would damage and destroy sites of great historic, religious and cultural significance.” While arguments are echoed in court, people from across the country encamped themselves on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect the water source of downstream Standing Rock.
David’s son, Kaslin, only wanted to ride his bike. He would do a trick, run to me, flop on the ground and wrap himself around my leg as I photographed his father. David needed Kaslin to be distracted while he, his neighbor, Sage and a fellow Sioux, Jesse, struggled to align the 15 wooden teepee poles. They never could build past five or six poles at a time.
As they re-built for the fourth time, an old minivan from the reservation pulled up, its headlamps turning on to replace the disappearing sun. The driver sat in the car watching until his wife, Wilma, in the passenger seat pushed him out.
“Go help those boys,” Wilma said. He lumbered out of the van on feeble legs.
The minivan driver, joined by fellow Sioux elders Rick and Manaja, joked about how many teepees they had already set up that day.
“Too many to count,” Manaja said.
Native history, religion and language — the cornerstone of their identity — has been passed down from generation to generation by elders. Without written language, elders replaced texts as the repositories of tradition.
David, Sage and Jesse were slower to turn their lack of knowledge into laughter around the elders. Kaslin and his friend briefly stopped roughhousing. Instead, rummaging through a bag of junk food, each unwrapped a packet of yellow ramen, gleefully cracking their teeth against the hard, uncooked noodles.
Manaja dropped to one knee and re-wrapped the rope around three of the poles. Rick hoisted the cluster with David and Sage, each pulling a pole apart to form the base.
I approached by asking the driver his name. “Kidder,” he mumbled. Bernard James “BJ” Kidder was the name given to him by a priest, a name he shares with Saint Bernard’s Catholic mission school in Standing Rock. The school he had to walk home from through the North Dakota winter, his pants sticky with his urine from beatings by the priests.
“Kill the Indian in him, but save the man,” was the founding principle of mission schools like Saint Bernard’s.
BJ watched Rick and Manaja tie the last loop of rope around the teepee poles.
Wilma motioned me over to her van.
Natives believe actions ripple seven generations into the future. Wilma, BJ, Rick and Manaja are, in Wilma’s hopeful words, the last generation to face the elders’ struggles from the past.
The new generation, that’s learning to build teepees, has found a home in the protest camp. Living in opposition to the pipeline has also meant living in a rare immersion of tradition. In camp, teepees replace the decrepit trailer homes on the reservation and become a chance for elders to pass down the culture they have kept through the trails of their past. More than an environmental stand, the camp has been a place for a renewed movement for Native rights.
BJ drove the final stake of David’s new home into the dark earth.
Contact CU Independent photojournalist Jackson Barnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.