Mni Wiconi - Water is Life

Why adventure travelers should care about the Standing Rock protest and the Dakota Access Pipeline

By: Joe Whitson
October 13, 2016

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As adventure travelers, we all care about the environment. We care about fresh air. We care about clean water. We care about spaces that are free from the marks of our industrial society. But for most of us, these places are not our homes. They are refuges, landscapes preserved for visiting. And for most of us, the kind of landscape makes a difference. We love the snowcapped peaks of Montana, the ochre canyons of Utah and Arizona, and fog wrapped forests of Washington. Threatening these places incites our wrath, and in turn, activism. And this is awesome. The environmental activism of adventure tourists like those on the outbound has the potential to be a powerful force. This is especially true given that such individuals are often privileged and have the social capital necessary to make travel central to their lives. It is this group of people that, among other things, lobbied for and succeeded in preserving Yosemite Valley, set aside the Adirondacks in New York, and maintained the beauty and integrity of the Maine coast. Never underestimate the power of tourists in the fight for environmental conservation. Build a dam in the Grand Canyon? Never! Log the Sequoia Forests? Unthinkable!

But what about constructing a pipeline through the prairie of North Dakota? A state on the margins of the nation with a landscape void of any distinguishing feature. This isn’t a place any tourist would likely have as a destination. It isn’t even on the way to a place they are likely to be going. While it is a breathtaking landscape, it has no exceptional attraction, it is not marketed, has few public facilities for camping or hiking, and, with its history of farming and ranching, is not even untouched prairie. However, for the Lakota and Dakota of Standing Rock Reservation, this isn’t a tourist destination, it is their homeland and a landscape they have long been fighting to save. Most recently the fight is against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a project that puts the reservations water as risk and infringes on the tribe’s resources sovereignty. Are we outraged by threat to the environment? Are we willing to use our collective power to stop it? I argue we should be.

Tourists as a political block cannot save everything, the march of corporate expansion must go on, and, when it comes right down to it, we need our affordable oil to live the lifestyles we do. There are dozens of projects like the DAPL happening around the world. Large companies threaten and destroy the environments around underprivileged communities all the time, but we must pick our battles. So, why this battle? Why now? There are a number of reasons.

First, the protests at the Sacred Stone and Red Warrior Camps at Standing Rock Reservation have gained unprecedented support from both Native and non-Native communities around the country and world. This is one of the most diverse gatherings of Native Americans in history with nearly 300 different tribal Native American nations represented. While they may yet lose the current legal battle being waged in the courts, this type of activism has the potential to shape future legislation, bolstering Native American resource sovereignty and giving tribal governments a greater voice in decisions that may impact their land and water. By adding our voice to this collective movement, we can help push legislators in that direction.

Second, while this specific protest is about the water of the communities along the DAPL route, it is symptomatic of larger issues that involve all of us. Oil spilling into a river is an obvious example of the impacts of substandard corporate infrastructure, but everyday our food, air, and water are polluted in more subtle ways. Standing with Standing Rock against the DAPL is an important step in holding corporations accountable for the laws and policies already in place and pushing for new and stronger environmental regulations and great corporate transparency.

Finally, as tourists to National Parks and other federal land, we are currently reaping the benefits of the same kind of unethical dealings with Native Americans. Similar to the carving up of Indian reservations and treaty land, and the forced removal of Indigenous inhabitants, the DAPL route was chosen because disempowered Native people were considered the path of least resistance. As the direct beneficiaries of these acts, we have a moral responsibility to push back against the continuation of American colonialism. Working to protect the natural resources on reservations and upholding the treaties is a critical piece of this effort.

I encourage you all to consider your position in this conflict and similar environmental activism movements. North Dakota may seem far away, but in these kinds of issues, nobody is neutral.

If you would like to support or get involved in the movement against the DAPL, you can find more information here.

Mni Wiconi – Water is Life 

Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.