Published: November 12, 2016

Oil or Water? Part I

Alaka Wali, Curator of North American Anthropology, Integrative Research Center


Brown, white, and red beaded bag with design of two people standing next to two flags

Alaka Wali is a Curator of North American Anthropology Collections. 

The Lakota phrase Mni Wiconi, meaning “Water is Life,” has been an inspiration for protesters since early on in their stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline, as currently planned, will take light crude oil from the Bakken fields to Patoka, Illinois, for refining and shipping. The route that was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers and state authorities would go under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, close to the Standing Rock Reservation, home to Lakota and Dakota Sioux. In early April, as tribal leaders and members heard of the pipeline’s route, they started a legal and civil protest. Soon they were joined by allies from other tribes, and the protest has since grown in an unprecedented manner. On August 10th, when construction was about to begin under Lake Oahe, more than 1,000 protesters from over 80 different Native American tribes joined the Standing Rock Sioux in a massive demonstration.

Group of people holding signs in protest outside a building, with a large banner that reads "All Nations Stands Up for Mni Wiconi, Water is Life"

The people of Standing Rock hold that the river and the surrounding landscape contain sacred sites, including burial grounds of their ancestors. The Missouri River has helped to sustain the Sioux for centuries, and today, that source of life and the sacred grounds surrounding it are at risk. The voices of the Standing Rock protesters went unheard, and on September 3rd, crew members of Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, bulldozed dozens of graves, stone prayer rings, effigies, ancient cairns and other artifacts along the path, some having been described as “one of the most significant archaeological finds in North Dakota in many years” by the tribe’s cultural expert.

Once before, in the 1950s, the Dakota and Lakota of Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Reservations lost significant land when the Army Corps of Engineers built the Oahe Dam, flooding prime agricultural land and drowning trees, homes, and ancestral sites alike. The people of the region experienced displacement and severe pain to the extent that some elders were said to have died of heartache (there’s an in-depth account of this experience in Michael Lawson’s book Dammed Indians: The Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux, University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).  

Despite the trauma, the Standing Rock Sioux have persevered, determined to protect the river. They are guided by a belief that the river is a living thing: not just an element of the landscape but imbued with a spirit that should be respected. But what difference does this make?  

Anthropologists like me have asked this question as part of our inquiry into the reasons for diversity in cultural practices and how they shape human behavior. We hope that understanding cultural difference can promote respect and better relationships between us all. At The Field Museum, we use a framework we call "common concerns, different responses" to discuss sources of cultural diversity. This framework says that, while all humans have to solve common problems of life (such as making shelter, finding food, socializing the young, or organizing societies), we do so in different ways. This is because of the different environments in which we live and the different histories that shape our current circumstances.

Another factor is human creativity or ingenuity. This stems from our unique capacity to communicate through language and symbols and to imagine things beyond our immediate experience (the supernatural, for instance). The interaction between environment, history, and creativity shapes our response to a common problem and leads to a wealth of cultural diversity. Without this ability to respond differently, we humans never would have succeeded in spreading across the globe and making a life in so many diverse habitats.

This is the first of two parts. Read Part II here.  

Alaka Wali
Curator of North American Anthropology, Integrative Research Center

Alaka Wali is a curator of North American Anthropology in the Science and Education Division.  She was the founding director of the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change from 1995- 2010.  She currently curates the sizeable North American collection which includes a contemporary urban collection.  She also works closely with colleagues in the Science Action Center.