- “There’s a River to Consider”Heid E. Erdrich’s “Pre-Occupied”
part 1: as long as the river flows
Water is Life. This is the resounding refrain of the Nodapl movement centered at the Standing Rock Reservation. Beginning in April 2016 with the creation of Sacred Stone Camp, the small Nodapl encampment along the Cannon Ball River in North Dakota grew over several months into a community of many thousands. Supported by hundreds of Native nations, as well as international Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous allies, the Nodapl movement marks an extraordinary moment in a continuing history of Indigenous actions on behalf of land and water threatened by ruinous extractive industries. The aptly named Dakota Access Pipeline, the latest in a long pipeline of assaults on Indigenous territories, threatens the Missouri River and its vast watershed. The interconnected water systems imperiled by oil contamination underscore that rivers are, in the words of International Rivers Director Jason Day, “a ribbon of life” (Public Radio International).
Nodapl’s national and international visibility was made possible by the collaborative groundwork of Indigenous activists and non-Indigenous allies in recent movements such as Idle No More and Tar Sands blockades. The message and meaning of “water is life” also has deep roots in local Indigenous communities that have always recognized that rivers are veins and arteries connecting peoples and territories. For example, in 2010, Twin Cities–based poet, curator, and filmmaker Heid E. Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) curated Original Green, an exhibit featuring four Indigenous artists—Gwen Westerman, Carolyn Lee Anderson, Bobby Wilson, and Gordon Coons—who offered perspectives of St. Anthony’s Falls and the Mississippi River. This exhibit was [End Page 38] part of a series called Greening the Riverfront, which addressed “how the Minneapolis riverfront has transformed, beginning with the Dakota and Ojibwe people and their relationship to the land, their removal by Euro-Americans, the rise of industrialization in the area, and the recent steps to embrace sustainability as a goal, as well as a look toward future initiatives” (Regan). The Mississippi River, whose major tributary is the Missouri River, emerges from headwaters in Ojibwe territory and moves through Dakota and other Indigenous territories along its 2,350 miles. It is also one of the most polluted rivers in the United States.
Erdrich’s curation of this exhibit fed a broader arterial network of Ojibwe and Indigenous women artists and activists who have worked to make visible the continuing claims of this and other threatened riverine systems. On March 1, 2013, Sharon Day, executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, led a small group of Ojibwe women, helpers, and allies from the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River Walk, according to Day, was a “ceremony. . . . [E]very step we took was a prayer for the water” (“Ojibwe Water Walker”). The River Walk served as a moving mnemonic that was intended to remind, reassert, and reactivate ongoing relationships and responsibilities toward the Mississippi River. Social media networking about the River Walk extended its geographical reach by connecting Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples across territories. In the fall of 2012, three First Nations women and one non-Native woman—Sylvia McAdam, Nina Wilson, Jessica Gordon, and Sheelah McLean—turned to Facebook and Twitter to declare “#IdleNoMore” in the face of the proposed legislative assaults on Indigenous lands and waterways by Bill c-45, created by the government of Stephen Harper, prime minister of Canada.1 Bill c-45 jettisoned environmental protections in order to streamline energy development in Canada. In launching teach-ins and making the threat of Bill c-45 more visible, these four women and the movement they inspired reaffirmed the potentiality of digital spaces for carrying words across territories, linking Indigenous peoples across geopolitical borders not of their own making. As Stephanie Fitzgerald quips about Idle No More’s formation, “The power of four women and a hashtag cannot be underestimated” (122). The central role of Indigenous women in the formation of Idle No More and in related movements such as the Nodapl movement reaffirms [End...