The time of the Seventh Fire:

Grounded in the past, activists rise up


Photo courtesy of Madeline Cottingham

Ava Ahmann

From Above, they look like ants

If you were to look at the oil fields from a plane, it would look like hundreds of little bugs milling around. The machinery like children’s toys, the tracks of the trucks moving about in the wind like the sugar from a Sweet N’ Low packet sifting on a diner table.

Reality is not so trivial.

The oil is removed from the earth in Bakken, North Dakota, harvested from the ground through the process of fracking, the fracturing of layers of rock by pumping high pressure bursts of chemicals, sand, and water. It’s shale oil, thick and black, not unlike molasses, and made from the conversion of kerogen. A product of intense heat, shale oil comprised roughly 50 percent of total U.S. crude oil production in 2017.

The Bakken shale formation is a formidable 200,773 square miles, a geological creation emerging from the Late Devonian age, spanning across Wyoming, North Dakota, and seeping into Canada. The surface of the region is gentle, a mixture of swaying grassland and rolling hills, but under the surface lies the oil itself, transforming the benevolent land into a violent scene of extraction for some of the longest and most volatile pipelines in the United States.

The Black Snake

The US Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, opened the doors to public comments on the environmental impact of one such pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) on December 9, 2015. The DAPL transports shale oil along a 1,172 mile long route starting in the Bakken oil fields and terminating near Pakota, Illinois.

The oil courses through a pipeline that is buried just four feet deep in the dirt, crossing beneath farmland and grassland, small towns and empty spaces alike, below farmland seized by eminent domain, and below roads transporting workers to the Bakken fields themselves.

In North Dakota, the pipeline travels 95 to 115 feet under Lake Oahe. The lake, which derives its name from the Dakota word “Oahe,” meaning “a place to stand on,” has long been a cultural mecca for the Sioux people. Home to two possible burial sites for Sioux leader Sitting Bull, the lake is also home to both the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation which cluster around its western shore.

It was here, at the hallowed ground of the Standing Rock Reservation, that the fight to preserve the integrity of native lands and to limit the pervasive reliance of the US government on fossil fuels intersected. What followed was a months long protest, marred by clashes between participants and security forces, that culminated with the destruction of the camps and the construction of the pipeline.

Young people were the first to arrive, and stayed to the bitter end; however, their activism had begun prior to their arrival at the camps. In the same year as the announcement of the DAPL, Indigenous youth ran from Standing Rock to Washington, DC carrying letters of petition against the construction of the DAPL with the intent to deliver them to President Obama.  

Roughly 2,000 miles, cutting through the grasslands of the northern plains, the Northwoods of Wisconsin, and the mountains of West Virginia, a journey on foot of a projected 439 hours. When they arrived they were denied the chance to speak to the President, and simply turned and ran back to the Dakotas. These youth, most of whom were from Cannon Ball, ND and Cheyenne River, SD, formed the International Indigenous Youth Council (IIYC), pictured on the cover of this issue, immediately established themselves as a force at Standing Rock.

At the core of their work is the Seven Fires prophecy. A centuries old telling of seven generations that has been a part of indigenous culture across Turtle Island (North America) since before colonial arrival. Thomas Lopez, communications director of IIYC, recalls learning about the prophecy from community member Myles Allard. “He told me about the old ones who prophesied the coming of the Black Snake. It would infect the land, the water, and the people, but it would be the Seventh generation to unite the people and cut off the head of the Black Snake bringing medicine back to the people.” Lopez describes the prophecy as having a direct translation to the pipelines and profit driven extraction seen throughout the United States, but also manifesting itself in less visible ways, such as suicide rates among the young indigenous population. “Our youth are being most affected and will ultimately be the ones to undo whatever we leave behind. I began to see the black snake show itself in many different forms in my own life,” he said.  

At Standing Rock, the young activists found themselves in a unique community rooted in both their protection of “mother earth” and of each other. “We all had stories of self harm, suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Overall, we didn’t feel seen, heard, or valued by the world around us,” recalled Lopez. At Standing Rock, the community they created was akin to living in a decolonized society, an escape from western tradition.

Unchi Maka

The story of environmental devastation has long been at the forefront of colonialism. Trees are cut, rivers are dammed, and oil is extracted from the earth, a cycle of destructive utilization of the earth’s many resources without second thought. With eight percent of the United States’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP) being derived from oil, the capitalist systems at play bridge politics and extraction, racism and poverty. The impact is felt in the communities with the most embedded respect for the environment.

Extraction sites are hotbeds of sexual violence. A recent United Nations report documented the connection between “extreme extraction and sexual violence” against Native women in the Bakken oil fields and the Tar Sands region of Alberta, Canada, citing the instances of violence and sex trafficking that have developed at the camps. These camps are lawless zones, without a police presence or much structure, allowing women to fall through the cracks.

The impact of extraction is also deeply felt in its impact on water resources. Fracking waste and the danger of oil spills cast worry over the preservation of water resources, which was at the forefront of the Standing Rock protests. Unchi Maka, or Grandmother Earth, occupies a core spiritual role. “[She] is the turtle that has provided a way of life for us for centuries. Without her, we would have nothing. We do not own her, rather, she owns us.” Water, continues Lopez, is the life force of Unchi Maka as well as an element that connects all humans in its’ importance, “Aho Mitakuye Oyasin, All My Relations. Ask yourself, ‘what is my relationship to water and how is it sacred to me?’”

Beyond Standing Rock, a new battle

In the northwoods of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, work is already being done to confront pipelines that snake beneath the soil, where the white pine tree takes root. Enbridge oil, a Canadian company, has two pipelines in the region: Line 3, which cuts through the White Earth Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota and Line 5, which crosses between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan via the Strait of Mackinac. An oil spill in the strait, scientists at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor have estimated, would be the most disastrous in all of the United States. The currents are unpredictable, and the pipeline remains sealed beneath the ice for much of the year, making clean up near impossible. The pipeline, which was erected in 1953 and has not been replaced since, has already experienced minor oil spills 29 times.

In December 2018, members of the Anishinaabe community in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan founded Camp Anishinaabek. Created as a water protectors camp similar to Standing Rock, it was designed to bring greater attention to the pipeline, which transports 23 million gallons of oil daily.  

Cecelia LaPointe, a member of the Ojibwe band of Anishinaabe, has been working to further the discussion around racial justice in the Great Lakes region. In the spring of last year, she spearheaded the first Anishinaabe racial justice conference and runs the Waub Ajijaak Press. LaPointe explained the unique role of prophecies in indigenous communities, saying, “the connection between prophecies and healthy communities is our current process of healing our communities and empowering our people.” As for water protector camps, she views them as dangerous, when considering the risk for PTSD. LaPointe also urges a focus on the environmental devastation of Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Southern Ontario, Canada where the oil from Line 5 is processed. The community was the subject of a 2013 Vice News documentary which highlighted the pollution that was secreted into the valley, at times five kilometers from the reserve.

LaPointe urges the concentration of work to be centered on community based work, with a focus on healing through prophecies. The Anishinaabe Seven Fires Prophecies “speaks of this time as a time of cleansing and healing,” she wrote, “when we are strong individually and as a community we can be greater equipped to take on larger battles such as land reclamation.”

Rise Up

IIYC has established chapters in Chicago, Denver, Texas, New Mexico, Minnesota, South Dakota, Southern California and Washington DC. Continuing both their environmental advocacy work and their community outreach, they remain framed in a broader moral story. A story of compassion and honor, that begins anew now, in the time of the seventh fire.