A DAY JUST LIKE TODAY — Thoughts on the Dakota Access Pipeline

Recently I was flying across the country on one of those rare cloudless days when you can watch the full bounty of the earth pass beneath you in all its geological and topographic beauty. I sat, mesmerized, as the ragged expanse of the Rockies gave way to the duns and tans of the rolling high plains. Cities and towns – small huddlings connected by a thin tracery of roadways — appeared for a moment and then, just as quickly, were gone.

I was lulled into an almost hypnotic reverie by the landscape passing below me when suddenly the brown list and roll of the plains was broken abruptly by a snaking ribbon of blue that looked like nothing so much as one of those serpentine dragons on the back of a Japanese kimono. The Missouri River. The Mne Sose, the giver of life.

Seeing this vibrant blue artery against the relentless brown of the landscape brought to mind a conversation I once had with a Lakota man outside a convenience store on the Standing Rock Lakota reservation in North Dakota. A severe drought had overtaken the land, and the earth was parched with a desperate thirst.

“I hear the reservoirs on the Missouri are drying up,” I said. “The ranchers are having to truck in water for their stock.”

The man pulled some tobacco shards from a cigarette he had just rolled. “Damming a river is like stopping the blood in the veins,” he said. “It’s bound to cause trouble.”

His words haunted me there at 30000 feet as I thought of the people gathered far below me at the Sacred Stone encampment in an effort to stop the pipeline that would cut like a black snake through this magical landscape. By their presence they were trying to speak the truth that the old man knew in his heart: you do not violate a river, because it is the lifeblood of the earth.

Anyone who has ever experienced the power and the magic of the Dakotas knows that this land has a spiritual presence. It is a land of vast singularities — sky, earth, wind, moon, clouds moving in stately procession through azure skies — nothing small to stop the eye. It leans the heart instinctively toward meditation. And coursing through it all, in majestic counterpoint, is the Missouri, the longest river in America, flowing in sinuous beauty among the hills and swales toward a seemingly endless horizon.

To experience this land is to understand on a fundamental and visceral level that the confrontation taking place here at the edge of the Missouri is more than a struggle between protesters and authorities; more even than test of limits of tribal sovereignty or even claims of violations of sacred land. This is a struggle for the very health of the planet itself.

It is a wager between the belief that technology, in the service of progress, will allow us to adapt and adjust and change the earth to fit our human needs, and the belief that the earth has immutable truths that we cannot violate without irreparable damage. It is a wager we cannot afford to get wrong.

An elder once said to me, “You think you can fix everything, change everything. But there will come a day when things cannot be fixed. And, you know what, it will be a day just like today.”

The committed gathering of people on the banks of the Mne Sose understand this. They know, like the old man in Fort Yates, that the Missouri is the blood in the veins of this earth, and that if it becomes polluted by toxins, whether intentionally or otherwise, all the earth and the life upon it fed by those waters is in peril.

The reactor at Fukashima sits in stark desolation, beyond the capability of human repair, seeping radioactive water into the Pacific. Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Mexico are forever tainted by the oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon. Chernobyl is a ghost city standing in haunted silence amid the rich grain fields of the Ukraine.

In these and a thousand lesser-known places, pipelines have ruptured, reactors have leaked, and trains have derailed, leaving the land and waters poisoned and the plants and animals diseased and dying. And in each case, we had claimed that such accidents were impossible, because all necessary protections and safeguards were in place to keep them from occurring.

Now, in an unholy alliance of faith in technology, our insatiable desire for oil, and the demands of corporate profit, we are trying to put a pipeline beneath the Missouri River, the giver of life.

We must not let this happen. We must now speak up, each of us in our own way. The folks huddling in the cold on those distant Dakota plains, being sprayed with water cannons and maimed by concussion grenades, need to hear our voices added to theirs.

They are not there for themselves. They are there for our children and our children’s children. They are the voice for the seventh generation, if there is to be a seventh generation. And they are being led by the very people whose voices have too long been silenced, the people who have always understood that the earth is alive and that spirit is present in all of creation — the people of Native America.

Those of us sitting comfortably in our homes are called upon at this moment to decide if we will stand with them, or if we will let this fade into the background while we continue to live as if the earth is infinite in her patience and capabilities. We are asked to choose, by our words and actions, whether we believe that the earth is here for our benefit, and technology and ingenuity can always save us from our mistakes, or if we believe that we are stewards of this fragile planet and must approach her with humility and respect.

As we choose, we would do well to keep the words of the elder who spoke with me close to our heart: “There will come a day when things cannot be fixed, and it will be a day just like today.”

I, for one, believe we must do what we can to keep that day from coming.


19 thoughts on “A DAY JUST LIKE TODAY — Thoughts on the Dakota Access Pipeline”

  1. The courageous folks putting their physical presence at risk to,stop this pipeline should inspire those of that care about the preservation of our planet to do whatever we can to support them. I worry about the world that will be left for our children and their children. We cannot afford to let corporate profits come before the preservation of earth.

  2. Great article Kent. I am trying to persuade the Dutch press to dive into this conflict en report here in Holland about what really is going on right now. Nanai just made a 650 dollar donation to help get the camp ‘winterproof’. Madonna Thunderhawk, an old friend of Nanai (and me) is involved in gofundus.com. I trust her absolutely and I am asking our donors to support the whole group and especially her as an elder who was one of the first to climb the barricade.

  3. Kent, your pipeline story is a tragic accident waiting to happen. But, we have an even worse example of what can happen to a society that has been so badly wounded that it is disintegrating. I’m speaking of the Lokota People of the Rine Ridge Reservation.

    If you readers want to know more about the Lokota tragedy, watch this brief film. You’ll see a tribe that is destroying itself.


    Bob Roelf, Iowa City

  4. Oh, blessed be…you speak the Truth so eloquently, Kent Nerburn. My heart and soul are with The People…I write this with tears flowing for all and especially for out Mother Earth. When The Creator informs me of my time to go join The Protectors, I will go. For now, I pray, sending unconditional love to All Concerned at Standing Rock so that All of humanity will understand that we must unite to help heal Mother Earth for our children and grandchildren…

  5. bamboo-water(Rich Pack)


    This is one of your very best and most important notes. Thank you for your words. For those who may want to be more involved with all of those beautiful souls who are at Standing Rock—Witnessing for All of Us—you may want to learn more about “Pray With Standing Rock” which takes place this Saturday November 26th: https://praywithstandingrock.com/home

    Again, your words have always been deeply appreciated—and—remembered.

    bamboo-water(Rich Pack)

  6. We money grabbing whites must stop the madness, after all, this oil is for “us”! If we think we can’t do anything, we can…Remember, send text and emails and most emportently, Pray!

  7. Your words gave me chills… I don’t think I’ve read anything yet about this subject that was so beautifully written and gave me a strong emotional response. You have to spread this article around Mr Nerburn.. please send to any newspaper that may publish it.

  8. So beautifully articulated. I continue to challenge numerous national media outlets to cover such a multifaceted and critical event. Would really like to see human rights organizations put some boots on this sacred ground and ramp up the exposure as well. Also learned that one of my bank invested in the pipeline so I took my business elsewhere, after notifying the CEO. Trying to get some momentum going in my own very small way.

  9. First, I want to say that I am just now reading Neither Wolf Nor Dog and only a couple of chapters, repeatedly moved to tears and laughing out loud. I am 67, a white native of Tucson, Arizona who has been working with tribes and on more sustainable building and development for 25 years through our small nonprofit organization. I have also been as involved as I can be for many months, though from afar in support of the noDAPL efforts at Standing Rock, with allies who have also been working on this issue in Iowa. I have many friends and colleagues there, who are working to create winter shelter and plan for building on SRST land in the spring.

    My thought as I read your book and then reading your writing here is to wonder how we might get the wisdom that is so evident and so needed in your writing into the hands of thousands of people who need to become aware of it? I don’t know why I had never come across this book before, but I am deeply grateful for the way it already, just a small way into it, resonates at an extraordinarily deep level in me. I want to send copies to Kelcy Warren, owner of Energy Transfer Partners, to the folks at the Army Corps who just issued the eviction notice to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne River Tribe, to President Obama, to the Sheriff and elected officials of Morton County.

    It may be completely naive to think it will make a difference, but it seems to me that nothing could be more important than trying to reach the hearts of men who seem heartless, in large part because they have never glimpsed the enormity and integrity of a completely different and infinitely coherent worldview that is so different from what they have ever known or been told or taught.

    I am enormously grateful for you and for your work.

  10. My whole purpose in writing is to teach. For me, teaching is a sacred obligation and writing is just my vehicle. If you can get any of my writings into the hands of decision makers, I would be thrilled. We’re just casting bread upon the waters, but, who knows? The right words in the right hands could change a lot. Thank you for your kind comments. I appreciate them.

  11. Thank you Kent, I am honored to be able to communicate with you. Would you mind if I transcribed a few pages from Neither Wolf Nor Dog – in particularly the last section in Chapter 3, where Dan says: “Let me tell you how we lost the land…” That is such a crystal clear telling of the story and the two worlds and world views that reveals so much about what is still so little understood. I am especially wanting to share it with many of my friends and colleagues working in support of Standing Rock and against the black snake. If it is not okay to do, I will completely understand. I didn’t want to do it without asking first.
    Thank you again!

  12. Dear Kent –
    I just read David’s transcription of the short section of Neither Wolf Nor Dog. I am SO deeply moved! Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I love that your description included some understanding of where Euro-American distress about property arose.

    A native-raise-white, and deeply reconnected in service to and with the local reservation told me this: Every immigrant who came to North America had to leave their own home, their own land. And coming here was hard. There was no time, no slack, to grieve as deeply as needed for that loss. My friend believes that is also at the root of why we whites are so very hard on both native peoples and on the land. We’ve lost our connection to the land and to one another, and passed that hurt down through the generations.

  13. Thanks Kent for the powerful words! It worked – to the heart and continue the words spoken from within (heart) what a gift to listen and learn from! I have ordered your latest book to end out a very long year!

    “We must Honor the past by building a future.”

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