From the Front Lines of the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests

Thousands of Native Americans have set up camp at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers in southern North Dakota to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This pipeline, if completed, would move 500,000 barrels of oil per day from the lucrative Bakken region in North Dakota across four states to Illinois. Developers contend that it would provide the safest, most cost effective way to deliver oil from North Dakota to the rest of the country.

The location the pipeline will cross the Missouri River causes great concern for the Standing Rock Sioux, however, whose reservation begins immediately downstream. The threat of spills and poisoned water sources has fueled their mass demonstration, attracting Native Americans from all around the continent. Teepee at Sacred Stone CampTheir concerns certainly seem valid, as early plans had the pipeline crossing the Missouri just above North Dakota’s capital, Bismark, until it was moved downstream out of fears of the potential for poisoning the city’s water supply. Many Native Americans I spoke with felt this was just a continuation of hundreds of years of racism and oppression.

Earlier this week, I joined my friend Tonya Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper (who has battled a pipeline in her home watershed) in North Dakota to document through photos and video what was happening. I arrived around midnight and turned on to a dirt road along the Cannonball River to find the Sacred Stone Camp. As soon as I stepped out of the car I felt welcomed and began to understand the massive scale of this movement.

As I talked with the protectors (their preferred title, instead of protesters), the cultural importance of water could not be understated. I repeatedly heard that their creation story begins with water, huProtector Stands atop Bulldozer with Police Looking On.mans are mostly water, and without water trees cannot grow and we won’t have any air to breath. Losing this lifeline is not an option for the people here. Couple that with threats to sacred sites along the pipeline route, already being disturbed as construction begins, and people are ready for a fight.

The next morning we went to visit a camp on the highway where protectors clashed with construction crews days before as bulldozers tore up native burial and other sacred sites. The air was cold and quiet, with people sipping coffee as they kept a lookout. While all seemed calm I could tell there was a powder keg of energy ready to blow. That spark arrived when lookouts reported construction crews had started work on an area of the pipeline about 15 miles away.

We mobilized as dozens of masked people jumped into cars and pickup trucks and tore out. As our convoy sped down the final hill to the site, I could see construction workers sprinting for the safety of their trucks as they abandoned work for the day. Protectors took over the site (with no weapons, just song and prayer, it should be noted), raising flags and signs and even chaining themselves to the construction equipment. The police stood by watching, only trying to keep the road open for traffic.

Protectors Occupy Pipeline Construction Site.

The protectors occupied the site all day and in what was mostly viewed as a success, construction was halted for another day and no one was hurt.

As the battle continues on the ground, the protectors hope that the court system and government at large will use this as an opportunity to honor treaties and support the original occupants of this country. Here are some ways that you can help make that happen.

Corey Robinson is a National Geographic Young Explorer, photographer and filmmaker whose work focuses on people’s connection to land and water. Follow along for more photos and updates on Instagram @coreyrobinson


  1. Mary Marshall
    Portland, Oregon
    September 22, 1:35 pm

    Thank you, Corey. Sharing your experience with the protectors at Standing Rock is opening the eyes of those who previously have not understood the intricate, life-sustaining connection between Native Americans and this Earth.

  2. John Broadhead
    Haida Gwaii
    September 9, 11:26 am

    Turtle Island Spirit Rising

  3. John Broadhead
    Haida Gwaii
    September 9, 11:25 am

    Turtle Island Spirit Rising

  4. Paul K Anderson
    Bellingham, Washington
    September 9, 8:56 am

    Just a short week ago I was fortunate to visit Standing Rock as the photographer for “The Totem Pole Journey.” Our visit coincided with the visit of 8 Chiefs from Washington State Native American Nations.
    We were warmly greeted both at the Standing Rock Administration Building by the Council and Chairman and at the sacred Stones
    encampment. The mood was confident and determined. What I observed was the strength and support from Native American and First Nations across North America and the commitment to protect Mother Earth. Everywhere we visited here in the West and in Canada (the final resting point for this beautiful totem pole was near Winnipeg, Manitoba) Indigenous People and crowds of non-indigenous all had the same concerns: the protection of water supplies and cessation of polluting by the extractive industries.
    What I also observed was the deep spirituality and the warmth and kindness of our hosts.
    But understand one thing: Indian Country has stood up and deserve our support and respect. I believe that “White Priviledge” must stop and we must follow the leadership of Indeginous People. It may be our best hope.
    On Facebook at totempole journey.