Three John Brown University students traveled to North Dakota to photograph, interview and interact with the Native American protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“It was refreshing to be in a community where people genuinely respect their roots and their traditions and have a sense of community beyond themselves,” Joshua Dover, one of the three students said. “Everyone has more on their minds than their own interests.”
Multiple Native American tribes have formed a non-violent protest on Native American land in North Dakota since April. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribes protest against the pipeline because of the religious and historical significance of the land.
The pipeline will transport crude oil. Protestors fear the effects leaky oil may bring to the surrounding environment, specifically, the Missouri River.
Grace Nast, a senior photography student, first heard about the protest from former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in one of his speeches.
Curious, Nast researched the topic in depth. She did not take action until later when she saw a picture of the protest on Instagram and decided she wanted to go. Nast contacted her friends, Ashlyn Bockstanz, a senior graphic design and illustrations student, and Dover, a senior graphic design student, who agreed with her to travel to North Dakota.
Before leaving, Dover researched the situation, finding that tribes set up a camp near the construction area to slow progress and currently pursue a legal battle to bring construction to a close.
The students stayed in North Dakota from Thursday, September 20 through Saturday, September 24. While they were there, Bakken and Tree Forks, the oil companies involved with the pipeline purchased a large portion of land, including the land under the camp for around 18 million dollars.
They discovered that nearly 400 Native American tribes journeyed to the site to peacefully protest, when they arrived at the campsite of the Standing Rock tribe in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Although each tribe settled in their own section of the camp, Nast described the atmosphere as friendly and inviting, which allowed the three students to set up their own campsite with ease.
In the morning, they set about gathering stories from the people in the camp.
“We essentially just walked through most of the camp and try to cover different areas and meet different types of people and get different stories on why they were there,” Nast said.
Among the 400 tribes, the students came across hippies, rainbow gathers, environmentalists, and people described by Nast as “freeloaders,” there for food or experience.
From his interviews in the camp, Dover discovered the main vision of protestors is the protection of the Missouri River from oil contamination.
He added that most preferred the title of “water protectors” rather than protestors.
Another crucial aspect of the land is the preservation of the historical and religious context. The Native Americans highly value respect for traditions as well as unity. All three students found the spiritually communal atmosphere a significant difference from typical American culture.
“Each tribe comes, bringing their own beliefs and everyone is contributing towards the same goal” Dover said in appreciation of the spiritual tradition of the Natives.
Each time a new tribe arrives at the campsite, they go through a traditional ceremony, followed by a session of prayer on the banks of the Missouri River in their native tongue.
The Standing Rock tribe’s traditions have been disrespected by upheaval of burial mounds in the hillside surrounding the camp where bones of the Indian ancestors are unearthed as the construction continues.
Despite all the destruction and frustration the pipeline construction brings, the tribes remain optimistic and friendly.
Nast and Bockstanz recalled setting up their tent on their first night, battling the wind, cold, and tiredness. One of the native women approached and welcomed them with a steaming pot of Iroquois corn soup.
Bockstanz said the North Dakota atmosphere should inspire the Christian community at the University.
“Where are we falling short as the body of Christ? These people come together and they really love and support each other just because they want to,” Bockstanz said.
“It makes me wonder how I can be supporting others or how I can be intentional with others.”
Nast thought the experience as served as a solid reminder to engage and respect important matters.
“Everyone is learning how we really should be treating each other as family basically,” Nast said. “As neighbors and relatives and getting back to our roots of what really matters.”