Published: November 16, 2016

Oil or Water? Part II

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


Alaka Wali is a Curator of North American Anthropology Collections. 

This is the second of two parts.

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. 

This is the second of two parts. Read Part I here. 

We can better respect the passion and determination with which the Sioux tribes protest the pipeline when we understand that the beliefs about the sacredness of the Missouri River and the nearby Black Hills stem from a long history with this environment. Before European settlers arrived in the Americas, the Sioux tribes roamed the Great Plains, depending on the natural bounty to create a livelihood. They hunted buffalo and farmed, living in small camps but occasionally gathering together for feasts, exchanges, and ceremonies.  

The Sioux were close observers of their home landscapes, taking note of natural patterns and changes. Over centuries, they developed a way of managing and thriving in this lifestyle. The knowledge of nature was embedded in stories, songs, and the designs of everyday objects. Moccasins made of hide were decorated with dyed porcupine quills. Designs were highly symbolic of the relationship between humans and nature or other significant aspects of lifeways.

An animal hide painted with four circles containing a striped design

The design on the buffalo robe from the collections exemplifies a symbolic representation of a Lakota worldview. The representation of crossbars inside a circle has multiple meanings. The space created between the two bars is called "cape mni," according to Lakota artist Rhonda Holy Bear. She translates this to mean, "As it is above, so below"—the earth and sky (or heavens) mirror each other and are linked. The bond between people and the lands they depend on is thus encoded in the belief system and manifests in the material culture as well as oral traditions.

I witnessed firsthand a similar passion for protecting a landscape among the indigenous people in the Amazon region of Peru. There, in 2009, the Awajún people and their allies protested an oil pipeline that was encroaching on their homeland along the Morona and Santiago Rivers. Just as with the Sioux of Standing Rock, the Awajún depend on the rivers and forests for their livelihood and consider parts of their land sacred. The Peruvian military fought a skirmish with Awajún warriors that resulted in death on both sides. Indigenous people in the Amazon had been protesting peacefully for over a year against oil development resulting from new laws loosening regulations on oil companies' activities. The protest brought heightened awareness of the indigenous struggle, and ultimately, the Peruvian Congress repealed the laws (although pipelines continue to pose a threat to indigenous homelands). In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the conflict continues.

The Missouri River currently provides drinking water for more than 10 million people. The Amazon ecosystem has been called the "lungs of the world"—providing all of us with oxygen and absorbing harmful carbon dioxide gasses. Indigenous peoples in North Dakota and the Amazon have made a choice to protect water over the extraction of oil or other fossil fuels. They ask us to think about that choice and what we value. Can we continue to extract oil and minerals to fuel growing consumption without facing the consequences of these actions for the long-term sustainability of our planet? Do the purported economic benefits of these extractive industries outweigh the potential long-term risk to our natural resources, to biological and cultural diversity? Oil or water? As we choose, let's listen with respect to the voices of indigenous peoples.

"Our land is more valuable than your money. It will last forever. It will not even perish by the flames of fire. As long as the sun shines and the waters flow, this land will be here to give life to men and animals. We cannot sell the lives of men and animals. It was put here by the Great Spirit and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us." -Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot Nation (Circa 1870s)  


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.