Steely gray clouds clung to the densely forested crevasses of Taos Mountain on a morning in early November. The day promised sheets of bone-chilling rain and the first snowfall of the season. As more than 200 people gathered near the río flowing at the heart of Taos Pueblo, the churning sky gave way to streams of sunshine and the arc of a rainbow.
No one could have asked for a more perfect backdrop to that day’s event, a jingle-dress dance held in prayerful support of the front-line resistance to a pipeline in North Dakota.
Since the spring, Native American water protectors and their non-Native allies have kept a resistance camp near the Missouri River in North Dakota, which has waxed and waned in population from perhaps 10,000 people to fewer than 1,000. The pipeline and the sustained resistance to it have thrown modern iterations of old fights into stark relief, namely the tension between Native sovereignty and well-heeled extractive industries.
Throughout moments of national attention in 2016, the people of Taos have shaped and sustained this community’s unique role in that struggle. Taoseños have brought the pipeline issue into the daylight in Northern New Mexico and provided an unquantifiable amount of material goods throughout the year. But they’ve also shown up and worked at the front-line camps for days, weeks or months at a time.
As has happened time and again in the effort to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), new battles in the protracted fight keep surfacing.
Yet the camps remain. So does Taos’ connection to them.
The black snake
DAPL is a 1,172-mile piece of crude oil infrastructure backed by Energy Transfer Partners and capable of carrying a minimum of 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Illinois.
One early DAPL proposal called for crossing the Missouri River 10 miles north of Bismarck, the state’s second most-populated city, where more than 90 percent of residents are white. That path was rejected because it threatened the city’s drinking water. The current route places the pipeline within half a mile of the modern-day boundary of Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands.
DAPL was supposed to be up and running by the start of 2017. But the pipeline has not been laid underneath the Missouri. That delay is largely the result of the on-the-ground resistance and a solidarity movement that spread like wildfire after concerns were sparked about the potential threats to the health of the Standing Rock community’s drinking water – and thus the community itself.
On April 1, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard established the first on-the-ground presence, the Sacred Stone Camp, to halt the construction of the pipeline. The Oceti Sakowin Camp soon followed and grew into the the largest of the resistance encampments.
During the second half of 2016, thousands of people from as many as 200 Indian nations joined the camp, along with indigenous people from around the world. While the coming together of the Sioux tribes — the “seven council fires,” or Oceti Sakowin — is significant in its own right, the camp is also considered the largest ever gathering of nations.
Many from Taos have joined the water protectors (which leaders distinguished from “protestors”) at the nonviolent prayer camps, especially since September, when the camps and a surveilling police presence swelled.
Those involved with the movement to “kill the black snake” (as they sometimes call DAPL) ground this moment of collective defiance in prophecy.
“This whole thing has been prophesied, all the nations coming together to kill the black snake … that represents a world of extraction, violence and greed,” said Jacquelyn Cordova, a Taoseña who spent more than a month in North Dakota.
Much of the day-to-day activity of the camps is prayer, ceremony and direct actions at the front lines. The rest of the time is spent working for their collective existence in the plains: sorting donations, chopping firewood, cooking, cleaning and winterizing the buildings. And because no one leader or organization is in charge of the camps or “NoDAPL” movement, a lot of the daily happenings at the camps are strategic organizing — coordinating media, legal aid and introductory meetings to explain how the camps function.
Like a lot of people who leave the camps, Cordova was nervous. In a place where the needs of each other, elders and the collective come first, the camp is a difficult place to walk away from, she said. But the resonances of the NoDAPL struggle are strong in Northern New Mexico. “Taos is one of the most supportive places of that entire movement,” Cordova said.
For a small and rural community, the action around the DAPL situation — both political demonstrations and events centered in peaceful spirituality — has soldiered on with determined stamina.
The first major demonstration happened in early September, when a few dozen people stood at the corner of the Plaza and Paseo to fly signs declaring “mni wiconi,” or “water is life.” In October, the Standing Rock issue featured prominently in a march for Indigenous Peoples Day, a Native-centric reinterpretation of Columbus Day. And the jingle-dress dance at Taos Pueblo on Nov. 5 was followed by a local demonstration on a “national day of action” in front of the Plaza branch of U.S. Bank (which is a major financial backer of the DAPL to the tune of $175 million, according to watchdog organization LittleSis).
Beyond the punctuated moments of public support, there’s a pronounced physical connection of people and goods between Taos and the resistance camps in North Dakota.
At least one contingent of folks from Taos Pueblo was already on the ground in North Dakota by the time of the first demonstration in Taos. Not only has there been a sizable number of Taoseños at the camps, but supply trains coming out of Northern New Mexico have also been nearly continuous — firewood, chainsaws and wood-burning stoves, lumber and construction materials, winter clothes, sleeping bags and sheepskins, food, herbs and medicine, even an entire trailer of hay for the many horses that also live at the camps.
Some of those shipments came after big pushes for donations with public events, while others were smaller efforts — one or two people at a time stuffing their car, truck or bus with supplies, dropping them off and turning around. Because the camps are a full-fledged community, the supplies coming out of Taos are vital to the daily existence and basic needs of the water protectors.
‘We are powerful healers’
Native women and young people have led the charge throughout the growth of the NoDAPL resistance. They are among the most vocal water protectors.
Alice Martinez and a group of women from Taos Pueblo called for a prayer ceremony featuring the jingle-dress dance — performed only by women. “It’s important for us women to make a stand … because we are powerful healers,” Martinez said.
“Violence against the land is violence against the women. When women start to understand and embody their fullness, essence and power, when women start to be respected, the land will start to heal,” said Cordova, who is 25 years old and was initiated into the International Indigenous Youth Council in her time at Standing Rock.
Young people are coming into their heritage in the high-energy and wholly singular existence at the camps. Cordova said that for some, it’s about claiming a Native identity that is at the heart of the struggle. Yet for non-Native allies, it’s understanding the history of colonialism and fighting against its current incarnations.
“We all have roots. It was people of white skin who colonized this land, but a person of white skin has also been colonized,” said Cordova. “We are also indigenous to somewhere. If that knowledge wasn’t passed down to us, then we’re part of this huge forgetting. We have to figure out how to dust off that golden thread from way back then in order to create the world we all want to live in. It’s not short-term thinking there. The youth are being called the seventh generation. We were prayed for generations ago. We’ve heard your prayer and we’re going to bring it. We’ll be the generation that never stopped fighting.”
Their struggle and prayers, she said, are being cast for the next seven generations of youth.
The camps have downsized largely due to harsh winter weather, but also because there have been victories in the struggle to stop the pipeline — namely, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers denied a crucial easement in December following a particularly violent show of force by police on Nov. 21 and a nationwide backlash over threats of forced removal from the camps.
Yet some folks are staying put.
Elders extinguished the Oceti Sakowin fire, which was lit months ago and served as a focal point within the physical and spiritual space of the camps, on Dec. 11, saying that the prayers the fire had been lit for were answered. But with the blessings of those same elders, young people lit a new fire in its place. It is called “Oceti Oyate,” the “all-nations fire.”
It’s a fire for the next phase of the struggle to kill the black snake.