Alexandra McNichols-Torroledo first drove across North Dakota’s vast prairie spaces in mid-October under endless blue sky from the Bismarck airport toward the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
To photographically document the Lakota Sioux’s protest against the pipeline being built by Energy Transfer Partners on government land adjacent to their reservation. She was en route to land that has been in dispute since the days the first American settlers crossed the same ground, to where Chief Sitting Bull, Gen. George Custer and the Oglala Lakota war leader Crazy Horse battled.
McNichols-Torroledo’s inspiration for the trip to Standing Rock came from a grant she was awarded last summer by the Indiana Arts Commission funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Her application asked for support in doing photographic documentation of the comparative impact of corporate development of the land of native peoples in the United States and in her native Colombia.
When she applied for the grant, she had already done extensive photographic documentation of what she saw as the tragic impact international corporations’ exploitation had brought to the traditional lands of a Colombian indigenous group known as the Embera.
And McNichols-Torroledo had lectured about the Embera’s suffering to colleges in the Terre Haute area as well as exhibiting her photography in Vigo County and Colombian galleries.
Her original intention when applying for the grant was to visit Native American lands in the United States’ Southwest, but as Standing Rock developed into a high-profile conflict, she decided to go there.
McNichols-Torroledo’s photographic work does not resolve the tangle of legal, emotional and political issues involved in the dispute over land Energy Transfer wants for its Dakota Access pipeline, but the pictures do reveal the passionate outcry and spiritual intensity of the Lakota Sioux and their supporters.
When McNichols-Torroledo arrived in North Dakota in October, ETP had completed its pipeline except for a mile of federal land near Standing Rock and the section of pipeline the company wants to run under Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir near Standing Rock.
Dakota Access pipeline project’s “fast facts” website states, “The pipeline will meet or exceed state and federal safety requirements.”
According to Energy Transer news releases, once completed, the pipeline would move 470,000 barrels per day from North Dakota’s Bakken oil field across four states to Patoka, Illinois, in what the company calls a cost-effective and environmentally responsible manner. The company says the pipeline would lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil and reduce the need to transport Bakken oil by rail or truck. Additionally, according to ETP publications, the pipeline would generate millions in state and local revenues for schools, hospitals and other public needs while creating up to 15 permanent jobs. (ETP did not respond to a phone interview request.)
“As soon as I arrived at Standing Rock, I realized how friendly and organized the Lakota Sioux and their supporters were,” McNichols-Torroledo said. “I was provided a tent at no charge in the Oceti Sakowin Camp near Cannon Ball on the Standing Rock Reservation, and like others who came, I was given food donated by many tribes. One tribe had donated fresh salmon — the Mohicans donated firewood. Much time was passed by people in the camp praying and showing reverence in traditional ways for land and water.
“The Lakota Sioux call themselves ‘Water Protectors’ because they are fighting to protect their water supply. To them, water is life. They do not believe what the pipeline company tells them. They say the company has rushed construction and has a bad safety record.
“They understand the modern world and are much better prepared with lawyers and outside assistance to resist corporate power … . About 800 protesters were already at Standing Rock when I arrived in October.”
McNichols-Torroledo said that at 5:30 a.m., people in the camp were awakened to be dispatched for the protest line.
“I really liked being on the front lines photographing the action — I had a very active camera,” she said. “In addition to being a photographer, I am an activist.
“Most of the time I did photographic documentation near Standing Rock, but I did take my camera to photograph a confrontation between protesters and police in Mandan, North Dakota. Some encounters have been violent. One woman lost an arm; another woman lost an eye.”
During her time at the camp, McNichols-Torroledo became more knowledgeable of historic factors driving the Standing Rock protest.
Lakota Sioux believe the U.S. government has, over the years, wrongfully taken possession of land granted the Sioux nation “for as long as the sun shines and the grass is green” by The Indian Treaty of 1851 created at Fort Laramie when Millard Fillmore was America’s president.
The Indians are not protesting against Energy Transfer building a pipeline somewhere. But they are protesting a pipeline passing through their sacred grounds, which they say include burial sites.
Following her October trip to North Dakota, McNichols-Torroledo returned there during Thanksgiving week with Ralph Leck, a social justice professor at Indiana State University, who wanted to show solidarity with the Lakota Sioux.
She was surprised during this visit that the protest had grown though weather was getting very cold. By late November an estimated 10,000 people were staying at Standing Rock. American Indians had come from all over the United States, including Mescalero Apaches from New Mexico. Other indigenous people like Maya from Guatemala and a Maori from New Zealand had come from around the world.
While at Standing Rock, McNichols-Torroledo saw that the pipeline confrontation was also attracting eco-activists from Sweden, Great Britain and Germany.
In Leck’s opinion, “People come to Standing Rock for a variety of individual motives … . It was very impressive seeing so many Caucasians joining together with Native Americans.”
On Dec. 3, after McNichols-Torroledo had returned to Terre Haute from her Thanksgiving trip, she met in the Providence Center at St. Mary-of-the-Woods with Sister Joni Luna, who has visited Standing Rock and given talks about what she experienced.
“I recently learned that I have a significant amount of Native American heritage,” Luna said. “I don’t stand up and protest all the time, but I just wanted to help these people, and I kept feeling nudges from the spirit to do so.”
Luna went with a friend on a 16.5-hour drive to Standing Rock.
“I really developed a sense of how sacred the ground is to these Indians,” she said. “I came to feel the sacredness myself. It felt so open and free under the sky with geese flying overhead. There was a sacred silence when the moon arouse over the horizon at night … . I have an incredible desire to go back, to help more.”
On the day Luna and McNichols-Torroledo met, the Army Corp of Engineers said it would deny ETP the easement it needs to complete the final stretch of the $3.7 billion pipeline. President Barack Obama has said the Army Corps is examining whether there are ways to reroute this pipeline.
In response, ETP and Sunoco Logistics Partners charged the decision was purely a political action intended to delay the matter until Obama is out of office. The company says it’s confident the easement will come through.
Luna fears the conflict between the Lakota Sioux and Energy Transfer will resume after President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated Jan. 20. “Trump has owned hundreds of thousands of dollars in the stock of the pipeline company and the Sunoco Company,” she said.
Standing Rock’s Lakota Sioux have not vacated their campsite obstructing the pipeline. They plan to stay until they are sure Trump will order the pipeline be rerouted.
The native groups’ resolve to fight the pipeline further intensified after it was made public on Dec. 5 that a private landowner had spotted an oil leak from North Dakota’s Belle Fourche Pipeline less than a three-hour drive from Standing Rock, a leak undetected by its company’s monitoring equipment until 176,000 gallons had dumped into Ash Coulee Creek.
McNichols-Torroledo hopes to be on hand to document future protests at Standing Rock, should they take place.