About 600 people gathered in the Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza at the Arizona State Capitol on Saturday afternoon to show support for those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a controversial project intended to transport oil from North Dakota to a refinery in Illinois that critics say will threaten the water supply for the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.
"We're here to stand in unity and solidarity, to protect the protectors," said Michael Rossi, a member of the Lakota Nation and the organizer of the day's event.
"Pray for my relatives in Standing Rock. What's happening here today is a prayer," he continued, as the crowd erupted in cheers. "I just want to pray, to stand together to show the world that the issue, that water, is sacred. It's not just a Native issue. It's an issue for all of us."
"Water is life! Water is life!" people shouted again and again.
Following Rossi's opening statement, others led the group in prayer and song as a group beat a large drum in the background and others let out loud ululations.
"Water is life! Water is life!" people chanted.
For the next few hours, though the sun beat down relentlessly, people continued to dance, sing, pray, and hold signs and banners high in the air.
Speakers, most of whom were Native, took turns approaching the microphone to talk about why the DAPL protest movement is so important — as is their opposition to copper mining at Oak Flat, the proposed escalade at the Grand Canyon, and uranium-tainted water on the Navajo Nation, among other pressing issues.
"Are we not American? Did our grandfathers not fight in World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War? Did they not fight for our water, fight for our land, fight for our crops?" a man named Alex spoke into the microphone as the crowd cheered. "Why are we still on the bottom? It is because of corporate greed."
"We should all be out in North Dakota fighting for the water because, as my brother says, it was the first medicine we had. If it spills in that water, we're going to be drinking it," a boy, no older than 12, told the crowd.
The proposed DAPL, which will span 1,172 miles and cost $3.7 billion, has been controversial since its inception. The original path of the pipeline had it crossing the Missouri River near Bismarck, North Dakota, but after an outcry from people across North Dakota, the pipeline was rerouted.
In July, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the new path, which has the pipeline crossing under the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, less than a mile north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The tribe says it was never properly consulted about the move, and that it has significant concerns about the threat it poses to its drinking-water supply and to areas of deep cultural and religious significance.
The tribe filed a federal lawsuit against the Corps and asked the court to grant an injunction. But as the legal process slowly moved forward in court, tension on the ground continued to build.
Beginning in April, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe built an encampment near the proposed pathway of the pipe to protest its construction, and in the months since, at least 200 other federally recognized tribes have expressed solidarity, and thousands of people have joined the Sacred Stone Camp.
Last weekend, Energy Transfer Partners, the company in charge of construction, bulldozed an area containing thousands of cultural and archeological artifacts, then unleashed guard dogs on a group of protesters the following morning. Six people were injured, including one child, and at least 30 people were pepper-sprayed.
Since then, the protest has begun to receive national media attention, and solidarity marches and gatherings like the one in Phoenix have occurred throughout the country.
There have been some major developments in the court case, as well. This past Friday, in a major blow to the protesters, a federal judge denied the tribe's request for an injunction to temporarily halt the project. Hours later, however, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a joint statement with the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior, putting the court's decision on hold:
"We appreciate the District Court's opinion on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act. However, important issues raised by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other tribal nations and their members regarding the Dakota Access pipeline specifically, and pipeline-related decision-making generally, remain....
"The Army will not authorize constructing the Dakota Access pipeline on Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe until it can determine whether it will need to reconsider any of its previous decisions regarding the Lake Oahe site under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or other federal laws. Therefore, construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time. The Army will move expeditiously to make this determination, as everyone involved — including the pipeline company and its workers — deserves a clear and timely resolution. In the interim, we request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.
"Furthermore, this case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes' views on these types of infrastructure projects...."
"I wouldn't call the decision a victory, but a step forward," Phoenix organizer Rossi told New Times.
"How to even describe this?" he continued, gesturing toward the crowd. "I expected the gathering to be me and about five other people standing here with signs."
Rossi, who lives in Phoenix, spent three days last month at the Sacred Stone Camp and said he got the idea for a solidarity prayer gathering upon returning.
"They've had these types of gatherings in D.C, in Salt Lake City, in Denver — all over," he said. "And there's another one here in Phoenix on Tuesday in Steele Indian School Park. I'm not an activist or anything. I just want to help people show solidarity and have this be one more place in the U.S. holding these types of prayers and standing in unity."
After nearly four hours of prayers and speeches in the plaza, the crowd marched through downtown Phoenix. As they chanted, "Water is life! Water is life," drivers sounded their horns in solidarity.
"I'm so proud to see how many young people turned out. This teaches them to speak up for what they believe is right, Winnie White Tail Mendivil, a Cheyenne elder who has lived in Arizona for decades, remarked to New Times. "What Native people are facing in other parts of the country affects us, because water is life. I can't imagine living in the direct line of that pipeline. The things that are done today affect future generations."
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Regarding the future of the movement, she said, "I do believe we will be successful in permanently stopping the DAPL.
"I do believe it will be stopped — and if I know one thing, it's that it at least won't be going through the reservation."
Click here to read information about the rally in Steele Indian School Park on Tuesday evening.