Black Hills Powwow competitors dance with an added urgency -- the Dakota Access Pipeline
RAPID CITY, S.D. -- It's 8 p.m. on a Friday. Sabrina Pourier, arms outstretched, her iridescent skirt trailing behind her, dances under her local arena's lights. As the sound of a heartbeat emanates from the drum, she uses the voices of the men singing behind her as a compass.
Her effort is invisible, but felt by the crowd as she makes her way around the circle. She spins, her toes feeling the thin carpet meant to hide the concrete underneath. Her shawl of many colors, swirling around her, combined with precise dance movements, shapes her shadow into that of a butterfly.
In the same arena, there are scores of other young women on the floor, twirling, arms raised with the identical goal of taking flight, the beat of the drum group dictating when their wings will contract and expand. They have been waiting all week for this moment, for the chance to leave their frustrations out on the dance floor.
The Black Hills Powwow, held during the first week of October and known in the Lakota language as the He Sapa Wacipi, is South Dakota's largest gathering of indigenous dancers and spectators. It's a three-day-long celebration of music, dancing and friendship, where approximately 300 of the 560 legally recognized nations will be represented.
Powwows are Native American traditional social events with men's and women's dance competitions. Gatherings like these are a way to memorialize their culture while visiting with relatives and friends who reside in other regions.
For 30 years this powwow has been an annual event, but this year the dances take on an added urgency. The Dakota Access Pipeline, and its potential environmental repercussions, looms large in the minds of the dancers and observers. There is a new threat to their way of life.
Pourier is one of a growing number of indigenous women participating in powwows, dancing in celebration of survival with a renewed pride for the ideologies of her traditional culture. Dancers like her are straddling two worlds: Pourier works to preserve the history that her tribe has left, while also securing the future, so that succeeding generations can learn more about the Lakota, one of the indigenous tribes that comprise the Great Sioux Nation.
Until 1978, when Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, gatherings like the Black Hills Powwow were illegal. The Code of Indian Offenses, implemented in 1883, mandated that traditional dances could not be practiced, and reservation residents were at times forbidden from speaking their native language. The goal: erasure via assimilation.
Those who dance now are the descendants of survivors of that time, also known as the Termination era, and Pourier, 19, understands how important it is to acknowledge history. Dancing is also a stress reliever for her. At times graceful and athletic, she feels her mind clear when she dances and all of the energy flows to her feet. Gone is the stress about school, work and her family.
Pourier began dancing when she was 11 months old, and now that she is a young woman, she has developed a deep respect for the dances, the songs, the drum and the craft that it takes to make her regalia. All of her skills -- sewing, beading and quillwork -- have been passed down to her. It can take hundreds of hours to complete an outfit of leggings, moccasins, cape, belt, headband, hair ties and earrings. Each tribe has its own style, and dancers add their inspiration to create one-of-a-kind pieces.
Even though Pourier lives in Rapid City, she is aware of the tribe's clash with the pipeline, known by many as the "battle with the black snake." For her, the fight against the pipeline is personal -- her mother is from the Standing Rock Reservation, and some of her family still lives there, namely her aunt and five cousins.
The initial pipeline route crossed north of Bismarck, North Dakota. But the path was changed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because federal pipeline regulators found that if a spill occurred along the Bismarck route, it could create devastating environmental repercussions for ecosystems in the pipeline's path, known as "high consequence areas."
Now the pipeline is slated to cross a tributary of the Missouri River, less than a mile away from the Standing Rock Reservation, where much of the population gets its drinking water. If a leak were to happen, it would threaten the only water supply for her family's tribe.
So earlier this year, several members of the tribe created a camp adjacent to the area affected by pipeline construction. During the summer, their vigil over their land and water gained momentum and spurred national media coverage.
Since the opposition began, thousands have made their way to Standing Rock Reservation to join the protest, and those unable to travel have found other ways of conveying solidarity. Last week, more than one million people used Facebook's check-in feature to tag themselves at the site in a show of digital unity. The tactic was also meant to confuse the Morton County Sheriff's department, which was rumored to be using social media posts to track protesters, a claim that it has denied.
On Aug. 10, Pourier and her boyfriend, Coleman Eagle Elk, joined the No Dakota Access Pipeline (NODAPL) movement. They decided to go after they saw footage on Facebook of Eagle Elk's brother getting arrested for nonviolent protest. When they arrived at the site, the gathering was small, composed of a couple of tents, a food shack and fire pit.
The next morning they stood with a small band of water protectors -- they don't call themselves protesters -- at the Cannonball Ranch, a pipeline access construction area that, according to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe chairman David Archambault II, is a sacred burial ground.
"We stood there all day long against the gates, we were very cooperative," Pourier says. "We were singing, and all of our prayers were coming out, and we witnessed their equipment getting stuck. We told them even Ina Maka, Mother Earth, doesn't want you here."
She takes out her cellphone and plays a video of her encounter. On the video, construction equipment rocks, then stops, slipping in the light brown soil. The footage she recorded shows women asking the construction workers, "What about your children? Do they like to drink oil?"
Hungry and hot, the water protectors are given three chances to pull back in 10 minutes, or they will be arrested. They continue to pray. In their minds there's too much at stake to turn back. Pipelines in North Dakota have been known to leak and are difficult to clean up. According to a Reuters analysis of government data, the future operator of the oil pipeline, Sunoco Logistics, has had more than 200 crude oil leaks since 2010. The protectors talk about the potential environmental disaster in apocalyptic terms.To them the scenario is not about if the pipeline will leak, but when.
Pourier knows this and is undaunted by the conflict on the front lines. She asked the workers building the pipeline to think about their progeny: "I told those workers to go home and give your child a drink of oil, let her know what you're doing. Let her know that other children her age don't have the privilege of clean water."
Talk of the pipeline permeates every aspect of the powwow. The announcers often refer to the issue, and the powwow solicited contributions from those who were unable to make the journey to Standing Rock. The money will go toward the camp's legal defense fund and supplies.
Even Golden Globe-nominated actress Shailene Woodley, who doesn't identify as indigenous, attends the powwow as a show of solidarity. She and her mother, Lori, tell the youth in the audience about their experience at the Standing Rock Reservation.
Woodley asks the audience, "How many of you love clean water? Who knows about the pipeline?"
Hands go up all around the arena.
"For the first time in history, you guys, a certain amount of Native American tribes have come together to stand unified to protect clean water because they know that, in order to have an Earth, there has to be clean water," Woodley continues. "Right now that's being compromised in the world because some people don't recognize that clean water is a gift -- they see it as a privilege."
After Woodley's speech, Keya Clairmont, 22, thinks a lot about privilege, and pride.
When it's her turn to dance, she is grace in motion, propelling herself around the circle, sliding forward, then backward, using quick, even elevated, movements that give the illusion she is gliding. Her toe touches the floor before she reverses her spin.
Arms and legs slicing through the air, head held high, her primary leg is thrust into the air, the secondary follows. Her supporting leg pushes the first higher and harder, arms working independently to accent the compound step, then compound turn.
Clairmont must be efficient with her energy. There is permanent physical damage from her intensity, the whirling and pounding from her dynamic turns. Years of dancing with sprained ankles, and using duct tape as an ankle brace underneath her leggings, has taken its toll. She dances anyway.
She launches into flight, and midair executes her turn before landing in her original position on the last drumbeat. The arena is silent when she finishes, and Clairmont wishes the audience could read her mind: "We can show people that we are still here, we still have our dances, our songs, and our story is the American story too."
Clairmont recovers and exits the circle, catching the eye of Elaina Red Shirt, this year's ambassador for the powwow, known in Lakota as the He Sapa Win. The He Sapa Win is the figurehead for the powwow and an important voice for the Lakota tribe; she must have working knowledge of the Lakota language, culture and traditions. Like Clairmont, Red Shirt was bullied at school for being proud of her heritage.
Red Shirt, 18, is from the Pine Ridge Reservation, which made the news last year when a mental health crisis reached a fevered pitch. In the span of three months, there were at least 103 suicide attempts by Lakota youth. The reservation is often described with a desperate air, and desolate numbers.
"We don't see statistics; we see faces," Red Shirt says.
During Red Shirt's time as the He Sapa Win, she traveled the country visiting other powwows, talking to youth about how to be more confident in their skin.
However, earlier this year, when she learned of the tribe's opposition to the 1,170-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, she added her voice to the group's rallying cry, in the hope of increasing visibility and finding a new way to help her people.
At the powwow, Red Shirt wears a jingle dress, traditionally known as the healing dress. Originally from the Ojibwe tradition, it has the power to take away illness and negative energy. The little silver cones that adorn the dress are Copenhagen chewing tobacco lids that were hand rolled and attached to the dress. When carefully controlled, coordinated movements are executed properly, all of the cones sway, creating a tinkle of sound that complements the drums.
Red Shirt believes in the dress's power, even though styles change over time.
"It's gotten more flashy and colorful, but the meaning behind it, the feeling behind it, it's the same purpose," Red Shirt says.
Arrayed in her yellow jingle dress, dozens of small tin cones clinking in time, Red Shirt dances and prays for the future of her people. She has an appeal for all those who might not understand the stance of the water protectors at Standing Rock.
"How would you like it if the pipeline was going through your backyard," Red Shirt says. "Would you let it happen?"
Latria Graham is a writer based in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The majority of her work revolves around the dynamics of race, gender norms, class, nerd culture and sports. You can find more of her work at LatriaGraham.com, or engage with her on Twitter at @LGRaconteur.