“Water Is Life — It Affects Everyone”

A Conversation with Four Winds Native American Alliance on the #NoDAPL Demonstration

Note: This is the first article of a new series from Outside Colby about the work of student activists at Colby College.

Last week, you may have seen a 400-foot-long trash-bag-and-wire pipeline creeping its way through Miller Lawn, complete with pipeline “breaks” and black tarp “oil spills.” That was the work of Four Winds Native American Alliance as part of their demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline. This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Jeanne Gilliard ’17, Olivia Balcos ’20, and Ben Fanucci-Kiss ’20 to discuss their activism, #NoDAPL, and why Colby students should care about the issue from Mayflower Hill.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is an oil pipeline that is threatening the lands of Native American people in North Dakota and around the country. The protests against the pipeline have been going on for nearly a year. “The [protest] camps were created during April of last year,” says Gilliard. “Not only is [the pipeline] a threat to the community’s water supply because they are putting it in a very dangerous place, but it is also a form of environmental racism.”

The #NoDAPL movement was initially able to stop the pipeline. “Under the Obama Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement of the pipeline because of criticism from indigenous and non-indigenous people.” And then, says Gilliard, “Donald Trump came along.”

President Trump signed an Executive Order that pushed the pipeline through without an environmental assessment, one of the major concerns from the indigenous groups in the area. On February 22, the day of the demonstration on Mayflower Hill, the camps were evicted. “The eviction of the camps were devastating for many people,” says Gilliard, “not only because it put a dent in the campaign, but because of the police brutality experienced since April. It culminated in that moment.”

But there’s still hope. “The campaign hasn’t ended just because these camps have been disbanded. But work still needs to be done. Donations still need to be sent. Defunding needs to happen,” she says.

This issue involves major questions of indigenous rights, environmental rights, and justice. According to Fanucci-Kiss, it also asks fundamental questions of capitalism.

“It poses a threat to the well-being of the sacred land on which these people live,” he says. “And then you have to ask the question: if the plan was to put the pipeline through an area with a church sitting on it, would you tear down the church and put it through anyway? Obviously that’s a hypothetical question, but what happens when the earth as a whole is a scared being or a collection thereof? It asks such big questions like that.”

As for what lawmakers and corporations think of these big questions? “It’s just fundamentally incompatible with their system of for-profit governance,” says Fanucci-Kiss.

“The pipelines are all owned by the same companies,” adds Balcos. “If you put them in, they’re going to leak.”

So Four Winds took a stand.

Four Winds displayed this banner in Pulver, using black paper to symbolize oil spilling

“We wanted to hold the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Indian Affairs accountable,” says Gilliard. Whereas other groups in Maine and around the country held protests and demonstrations the day before the evictions, Four Winds decided to hold their demonstration the day of. “Holding them accountable for anything that happens as it’s happening is different than holding them accountable afterwards. It makes it very real for everyone, especially on a campus where we are so distant from it, or people don’t care, or people don’t think it’s a big deal.”

The group made the pipeline by sewing together trash bags, then sewing wire to hold them onto the snow. They didn’t want to block walkways, which led to the perfect metaphor: their pipeline was going to break. Four Winds added black tarp to represent oil spills and signs of the banks funding the pipeline. This visual demonstration was followed by a march through the pipeline and a screening of the protest videos during the day’s eviction.

The responses have been positive, though some students may not have understood the significance of the pipeline on campus. “I heard people were confused about what was happening, and I hope that through this, they had the initiative to look things up,” says Gilliard.

“For the people who are less cynical about the pipeline, I’m not sure,” says Balcos. “I don’t know how it affected them. It matters to me to know how they reacted. Hopefully they thought about it a bit more.”

So why should Colby students care about this issue?

“Water is life — it affects everyone,” says Gilliard. “If you have an oil spill going into the Missouri River, it will affect not only that community, but the rest of the country. It will affect not only people’s health, but the crops, the animals, the environment of the whole. Through protecting other people’s rights, you are in essence protecting your own.”

“Most people here feel complacent because they don’t think it can happen to them,” says Balcos. “But it can. People’s water have been polluted to benefit corporations forever. We’ve been normalizing these things,” she says, “and it shouldn’t be normal.”

People also need to care because the issue is so complex.

“It’s not just an environmental issue,” says Gilliard. “It’s also an indigenous issue. So if you are standing in solidarity with Standing Rock, you should also be standing with other indigenous groups facing injustices, or injustices in general.”

That being said, Fanucci-Kiss recognizes how hard it can be to balance one’s complacency with one’s smallness in the face of these major injustices. “What excuse do people have not to care?” He asks. “But at the same time […] there are compromises we make about how much work and what strategies we are going to pursue. I didn’t fly there. I didn’t do what a lot of other people did.” Still, Fanucci-Kiss believes complacency is not an option.

“People owe it to at least be rebellious and defiant in some capacity.”

This leads to the hardest question facing student activists: what can we do?

“Encourage friends and family members and relatives to defund from the banks,” says Gilliard, referring to the 17 banks supporting the pipeline through credit lending. Money sends a message. “Either they defund from the project, or we defund from them.” Gilliard also suggested contacting representatives, donating to the Lakota People’s Law Project, and getting the information out.

“The very least you can do is think about the issue,” says Balcos. “There are so many resources out there to learn about abuses against Native American people. The least you can do is understand this is happening and not ignore it.”

“But that shouldn’t be the place where you stop,” says Gilliard. “Once you figure out what is wrong, go and do something about it.”

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