More than 1,600 miles northeast of San Luis Obispo in the rural plains of North Dakota, thousands of people remain unified in an effort to protect the Missouri River from the oil-carrying Dakota Access Pipeline project. A handful of Central Coast residents have joined the demonstration, bringing home lessons in peaceful resistance and the cost of clean water.
What began as one Native American tribe’s stand to protect water on their land at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation transformed into a historic gathering of tribes that has captured international interest.
“The water protectors are there — standing up for you … For all of us,” said Atascadero photographer and filmmaker Brittany App, who spent Thanksgiving at the reservation. “It is time to make a choice about the kind of future we want.”
The $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline Project, being built by Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners, would connect oil production areas in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois, transporting up to 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
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This is not just about Standing Rock. Water everywhere needs protecting.
San Luis Obispo resident Roberto Monge
While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ruled in early December not to grant an easement needed to complete construction of the 1,172-mile underground pipeline until a yearlong environmental study can be done seeking alternative routes, the struggle of those taking a stand is far from over. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to move the project forward.
“This is not just about Standing Rock,” said San Luis Obispo resident Roberto Monge, who made the trek to Standing Rock in late September with his 12-year-old daughter, Liliana. “Water everywhere needs protecting.”
Embracing tribal ties
Monge, 43, said the events at Standing Rock resonated with his indigenous heritage, compelling him to become involved.
Born in El Salvador in a small village bordering the Lempa River, Monge grew up hearing stories of how his country’s government took the land, dammed the river and flooded much of his people’s village — leaving his family to watch as schools and churches disappeared under water.
“When I was little, I couldn’t do anything about it,” Monge said. “This felt like my chance to stand with people that are going through something similar that happened to my people.”
As the elders at Standing Rock called for all nations to come stand with them in September, he discussed the need to go with his close friends.
At first, logic deterred him. He is a husband, a father, a working professional with bills to pay.
“But then I pictured the world that we would leave my children if we didn’t stand up for our most basic component of life, water,” Monge said. “I have always thought that if Martin Luther King Jr. called me to march that I’d join him, or Gandhi, or Thoreau. The moment presented itself, so we decided to go.”
His oldest child, Liliana, was determined to go with him. Monge’s wife, Valerie, decided she would stay behind with their son, 9-year-old Kai, who she and her husband agreed was too young to experience such harsh realities.
Valerie Monge cried the night her husband and daughter proposed the trip. Terrified of the dangers that might lurk in North Dakota, including freezing weather, she worried about how the trip would conflict with her daughter’s schooling and soccer practice.
“ ‘How would those two worlds even coexist? And what if I wanted her to stay a little girl longer and not be exposed to the ugly political realities facing our world?’ ” Monge recalls thinking. “She stood near me and looked at me with compassion and also firm resolution. I knew there was no fighting it.”
Roberto Monge and his daughter spent 10 days at the Standing Rock camp, mingling with the Native American activists who welcomed them with open arms.
Monge, a software solutions architect, helped strengthen the Wi-Fi infrastructure at the camp. Liliana helped in the kitchen, sorted donations, set up tents and even helped align satellite dishes.
In just a little over a week, the Monges became part of the fabric of the village alongside those people they had traveled to stand with.
Liliana Monge returned home with an understanding of the power of peaceful assembly in the face of adversity.
“The people at Standing Rock … surrounded by police who shoot rubber bullets at them, douse them in water in freezing temperatures and arrest them for their honest determination and spirit, cannot only resist the merciless temptation to fight back, but manage to pray for the police,” she said. “You can imagine the love they have for their children and the water that we all depend on. There is a sense of community there that I have never felt so strong as I did at Standing Rock.”
That was a lesson that Roberto Monge had always hoped his daughter would learn.
“I wanted my kids to experience that indigenous pride,” he said. “You can’t really explain that in a textbook, it actually requires a village around you to understand what it means to be indigenous, to understand what they mean by (the phrase) ‘mni wiconi,’ ‘water is life.’ ”
The experience was transformative for the entire family.
“After the election, we were all devastated, fearful as much for the future of Standing Rock as for the feared fragility of all the causes we believe in,” Valerie Monge said. “Coming out of that fear and sadness I realized I would need to evolve my perspective on raising my kids. … The world looks a lot more uncertain now, and the one thing I know is that I want my kids to have resilience and strength for the challenges we’ll face.”
Bringing lessons home
Brittany App traveled to Standing Rock in late November with her friend, Santa Margarita musician Erin Inglish, in a van loaded with thousands of dollars’ worth of donated supplies such as jackets, scarves, tents and firewood.
App, whose upcoming documentary “Where There Once Was Water” focuses on California’s water crisis, has been following the movement at Standing Rock for months. She traveled to North Dakota to stand with the activists and to document their struggle.
“The heart-call was strong, and undeniable,” App said.
She and Inglish spent five days on the road, arriving exhausted and somewhat overwhelmed, the day after an intense clash between law enforcement and protesters that included authorities using water cannons against activists in sub-freezing temperatures.
The heart-call was strong, and undeniable.
Photographer Brittany App
Yet the steady hum of the camp, busy with movement, drumming, singing and prayer, was immediately calming, App said.
It was the weapons displayed by law enforcement that startled her most.
“I felt safest filming from behind parked vehicles with a long lens, and so I did. I was genuinely afraid I’d be shot by law enforcement for doing my job, and this was a new, and terrifying, experience for me,” App wrote on her blog. The tribal elders told her to seek refuge behind one of the grandfathers should shooting occur.
“These men, I realized in that moment, were willing to die for me, for you, for their children, for your children, for water, for our future, for the future of all life,” App wrote.
After a week at the camp, she and Inglish returned home — bringing the lessons they learned there home with them.
Acknowledging that she has lived her life within a “bubble” of “white privilege,” App vowed to work to “always expand my reach, my compassion, my service, particularly for and with anyone who has been marginalized in any way.”
“There is tremendous healing needed on this planet,” she said. “And Standing Rock has demonstrated to the world that this healing is possible — no matter the odds, no matter the struggle.
“All we need is each other, respect, and a willingness to begin.”
Twelve-year-old Liliana Monge of San Luis Obispo traveled in September to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota with her father, Roberto Monge, to join the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Here is a poem she wrote about her experiences.
‘Mni Wiconi (Water is Life)’
casts its fiery glow on the deep dark waters
the soldiers, hands on their
guns, stand tall and proud
as the children sing in their prayer
the ground tremble with each
strike of the drum
the cries of joy that
split through the night air
and yet they fight
they hold guns to the children’s heads
they unleash dogs on the women and bind them all in chains
they threaten to take what matters most
in the end and that goes too far
from each corner of this world people
gather to raise their voices into one
for if you take away the water
you take away the life.
By Liliana Monge