4 Water Is Life: Why Chicana/o/xs Should Support NoDAPL

Marisa Elena Duarte

Originally published on Mujeres Talk on December 6, 2016


pregnant woman with earth in belly and water flowing around her
Water is Life” drawing by Ruby Chacón.CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On Thursday October 27 militarized police forces from multiple states joined the Morton County Sheriff’s Department in North Dakota to initiate a violent series of crowd control tactics against the peaceful water protectors and land defenders blocking the illegal construction of an Energy Transfer Company (ETC) oil pipeline across land adjacent to the current boundaries of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The pipeline, designed to transport oil from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota down to the Gulf Coast, and from there to various domestic and international markets, also threatens clean water and soil through the entire Midwest region, all the way down to the Gulf Coast of Mexico. In July, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued the Army Corps of Engineers for constructing the Dakota Oil Pipeline (DAPL) through sites of Dakota and Lakota cultural and historical significance, in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act (Standing Rock Tribe v. US Army Corps of Engineers, Case 1:16-cv-01534). On September 9, US District Judge James E. Boasberg found that the Army Corps ‘has likely complied with the NHPA,’ thus allowing for continued construction. Shortly thereafter, the Justice Department, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior asked ETC to pause construction 20 miles east and west of Lake Oahe, demanding further evaluation in particular with regard to care for Lake Oahe through the National Environmental Protection Act.

By that time, over ninety tribes had sent letters of support to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Thousands of people, from tribal youth councils, to tribal delegates, medicine people, elders, teachers and professors, activists, environmentalists, college students, moms and grandmothers, artists, and more had set up three camps—the Sacred Stone Camp, the Oceti Sakowin Camp, and the Front Line Camp—in prayer around the tribal lands closest to the proposed pipeline construction. People at the camps prayed, and have been in prayer for months, out of respect for tribal ancestors who died protecting Lakota and Dakota territories, out of respect for those who continue to care for lands and waters in the Americas not with the intent of property into profit, but because clean water, clean soil, and clean air are gifts of Mother Earth. Referring to themselves as water protectors and land defenders, and not protestors, the people at the Sacred Stone Camp, the Oceti Sakowin Camp, and the Front Line Camp have been praying in the ways that their grandparents and ancestors taught them: through sweat lodge, prayer circles, dances, storywork, dreaming, teaching young people, and caring for others. Activists have been updating supporters in different places throughout the world, sending hashtags like #WaterIsLife beside #NoDAPL hashtags, indicating the integral sacred nature of the work they are doing there.

Thus on October 27 it was particularly painful to see over a hundred armed militarized law enforcement agents pulling elders from sweat lodges, spraying mace in the face of a woman carrying a prayer stick and calling the prayer stick a weapon, arresting young people and issuing blanket felony charges, and shooting bean bags and sound cannons at, essentially, hundreds of people standing in prayer for Mother Earth, for their rights as members of sovereign Native nations, for their tribal rights under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, and for the human rights of Americans deserving of clean water and clean soil. In fact, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department and the Energy Transfer Company violated the rights of so many individuals on October 27, in addition to tribal rights, that the shock of it reminded Native Americans and and non-Native Americans alike of the genocidal foundations of the United States of America, the greed of American capitalists, and the overwhelming epistemic blindness of American courts and law enforcement agencies.

Why should Chicana/o/xs support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and water protectors and land defenders? My name is Marisa Elena Duarte. I am a member of Pascua Yaqui Tribe, tribal from my mother’s side, and Mexican American (South Tucson) from my father’s side, and I am writing this essay for you on November 1, Dia de los Muertos, from a hotel room in South Tucson, while my family prepares the mesa for our difuntos and parientes who have passed on. While I write this, the governor of Sonora Claudia Pavlovich Arellano has approved the illegal construction of the environmentally-devastating Sempra Energy (San Diego) gas pipeline through the Rio Yaqui Indigenous autonomous zone in Sonora, causing such violence and strife in the Yaqui tribal communities—where there is presently no potable water–that some of us are presently seeking human rights solutions through the United Nations.

Perhaps Los Angelenos are enjoying long showers and preparing simmering pots of beans and tamales on this special day. Chicana/o/xs in L.A. may be completely unaware that their water is sourced from the Owens Valley, drying out California tribal communities who every day work to retain tribal languages (Nuumu) languages and lifeways in spite of generations of water theft through the LA Aqueduct project.

When I honor my Chicano parientes, my father reminds me of my grandfather who worked on ranches through the Sonoran desert, and my grandmother who worked in orange orchards in California. They had close relationships with water: herding cattle to creeks to drink, and cultivating crops we rely on. They also experienced the challenges of pesticide poisoning—from children with lifelong breathing problems to the long-term effects of DDT. The collusion between large private mining companies and state governments, usually in violation of environmental standards, is precisely what causes the dispossession and displacement of land-based peoples in the Spanish-speaking Americas. Many of the more recent generations of Spanish-speaking and Indigenous migrants in the United States come seeking a life where they can earn a living away from the environmental degradation and tyranny of their local and national governments.

There are a number of reasons for Chicana/o/xs to learn about and support #NoDAPL. We can empathize with brown people brutalized by unjust law enforcement officers. We can empathize with mothers and grandmothers reminding us to honor our parientes indígenas by caring for Mother Earth; as humans we are not better nor more blessed than tortugas, venados, vísperas, or aguilas. We are all beings made of water, made for Mother Earth, standing in her graces. We can recall that part of our Chicana/o/x strength is our insight beyond borders. We know that these oil pipelines are not just about pollution or jobs in this town vs. that town, but that they are about the interstate transnational distribution of currency, labor, goods, and bodies across borders, and often without care for the Indigenous peoples living close to the land. We have rights to work in clean environments, with regular access to clean water. There are many reasons to support #NoDAPL. Here is one of the most significant: we are who we are because of the unbroken chain of belonging between the past and the present. I support #NoDAPL because my parientes worked hard to teach me to live the right way in accord with my herencia, and I want my little cousins and future grandchildren of my communities to enjoy clean water, clean soil, and clean air, as they continue living in the right way, as people of the Earth, gente de la tierra. Nuestra agua es nuestra vida. Water is life.


Marisa Elena Duarte is Pascua Yaqui and Chicana. She is an associate professor in the School of Transformation at Arizona State University.


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Water Is Life: Why Chicana/o/xs Should Support NoDAPL Copyright © 2022 by Marisa Elena Duarte is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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