Mni wiconi: Water is life

For America’s Native people, halting the Dakota Access Pipeline is about protecting life

On the ground at Sacred Stone Camp, 4:30 a.m. Water protectors chained themselves to bulldozers and backhoes in order to protect traditional grave sites.

On the ground at Sacred Stone Camp, 4:30 a.m. Water protectors chained themselves to bulldozers and backhoes in order to protect traditional grave sites.

Photo by Dallas Goldtooth

About the author:
Samuel White Swan-Perkins (Tsalagi/Welsh/Siksika/German) is the owner of White Swan-Perkins Cultural Consulting and a freelance journalist who lives in Butte County. He writes for Native American media outlets such as Indian Country Today Media Network and News from Native California. He penned this piece for the CN&R. His tie to the Standing Rock Reservation is through a grandson of Chief John Grass, Dr. Barney Hoerner.
Join the protest:
Those interested in donating to the cause at Standing Rock Reservation can do so online at or by sending checks to Sacred Stone Camp, P.O. Box 1011, Fort Yates, ND 58538.

News out of North Dakota hit the media this month; water protectors were needed outside of a little town called Cannon Ball to halt the installment of the Dakota Access Pipeline, intended to send crude oil from the Bakken fields south to Illinois. Although this situation may be surprising to some, it is the actualization of an ancient prophecy many Plains Natives were raised with.

According to the Lakota Black Snake Prophecy, “A time will come when a snake will encircle Turtle Island. And everywhere it goes, it will spit its venom, and everywhere the venom goes, it leaves destruction.” I first heard this story nearly two decades ago, and today the world is seeing this prophecy come true near a place called Standing Rock Reservation.

Standing Rock Reservation has a large population of Hunkpapa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota residents. This is the land of Gall, Sitting Bull and John Grass, prominent chiefs who sacrificed so that the Seventh Generation, my generation, might survive. The area is northern plains and the sheer vastness and beauty of the place cannot be easily expressed. The reservation itself is roughly 3,575 square miles or 2.3 million acres of hunting, fishing and horseback riding paradise and home to nearly 9,000 members of the Lakota and Dakota nations.

In the 1920s, oil extraction techniques and technology began improving and companies started to seek out virgin ground. Surveys of Native American territory, legally off limits, revealed huge deposits of uranium and other resources. Within the next generation or so, pressure was on the tribes to cash in. Despite the genocide that had occurred and the subsequent loss of culture, our elders were able to hold onto two basic tenets: Water is sacred, and in all our decisions we must consider the next seven generations.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) route does not pass through Standing Rock Reservation land, but it abuts it in places and first crosses over the Missouri River in Cannon Ball. From there, the river flows south, providing recreation and drinking water to the Native tribes. While the U.S. government has temporarily halted construction of the pipeline near the reservation, much land and water is still threatened by it.

What happens when a pipeline bursts? In short, an ecological disaster with far-reaching effects on tribal nations. Game and fish, critical as food sources, are also important components of ceremonial and artistic expression; without them, culture is lost. Consider the environmental impacts the Keystone XL pipeline has had on the children of Ponca City, Okla. A report by Auburn University found that children living in areas surrounding the pipeline were 56 percent more likely to develop leukemia than children living just 10 miles away.

Another study, published in Nature magazine, found that oil-sands development in Alberta, Canada, has not only degraded the land and damaged ecosystems but also “elevated waterway concentrations of chemical contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic compounds that are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms and has been associated with a tenuous but troubling rise in rare cancers in downstream indigenous communities.”

It’s no wonder solar companies are doing so well on tribal lands.

In May, construction began on the DAPL. There were issues from the start; the land that the project passes through in Cannon Ball, a mere half-mile from the Standing Rock Reservation, is privately owned but contains important Native burial grounds and other sites and artifacts. The oil companies ignored that fact and construction began in short order.

A cry for help went out on social media and what happened next was not only historically significant, but something that holds great spiritual significance as well; to date, over 100 Native American nations have responded and are currently holding the largest gathering of our people in more than a century.

Mni wiconi. Water is life. All of us use it for cooking, cleaning and in ceremony. At one point in human history, the rivers were all considered sacred sources of life—including the Sacramento.

As political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell so aptly pointed out in his commentary on Sept. 8: “They [Native Americans] don’t understand why we [non-Natives] don’t understand what water means to them and to us. They know that we’re taught that there could be no life of any kind on this planet without water. They know that we know that the first thing we search for on other planets is any trace of water, because water is life.”