Oil Pipeline Protesters Are Building Trauma Support Centers

After the media spotlight faded and police forced oil pipeline protesters to pack up and leave in 2016, the struggle that began at the Standing Rock encampment in Sioux County, North Dakota was far from over. More than 800 Water Protectors had been arrested at the Oceti Sakowin resistance camp, where indigenous people and their supporters gathered to oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

While the resistance has led to a temporary shutdown of the pipeline and triggered an environmental review, many of those who came to Standing Rock left traumatized, facing large medical bills and lengthy court battles.

Timothy Cominghay, an indigenous volunteer who provided legal support for Standing Rock defendants, said he witnessed the effects of the trauma they had endured. “I’ve seen the end of these campaigns. People go home and die. People drink themselves to death. People go home and kill themselves,” he told Motherboard. “And, you know, on the other side, instead of going home and dying, they go to the next campaign. They carry all this pain and fear and trauma that they experienced with them and that just poisons that campaign before it even begins.”

The next campaign has already begun. In Minnesota, more than 800 people have been arrested while resisting the Line 3 pipeline, an expansion to a 1960s-era oil line that crosses through Native treaty lands to bring roughly 760,000 gallons of tar sands oil per day from Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin. Despite ongoing frontline resistance, the new pipeline became fully operational on October 1.

The fight isn’t over, however, and supporters like Cominghay and are now building long-term support for pipeline resistors experiencing trauma at the Welcome Water Protectors Center, a Anishinaabe Akiing space resting on 1855 treaty territory on the Mississippi River that is run by Winona Laduke and other Water Protectors along with Honor the Earth. Over the past year or so, it has served as a publicly-facing Anishinaabe Akiing cultural and community center that helps guide new pipeline resistors in the struggle against Line 3. Now, the Center is reorganizing to provide the Water Protectors with peer-to-peer counseling, community, and a space for healing, said Cominghay.

“When you’ve been out here on the frontline with your friends getting traumatized every day and you need a break—there’s nowhere to go,” he said. “You go home and your family is like ‘why are you even out there? We don’t understand why you can’t just come home and get a job. Why do you keep doing this?’ And your friends at home are like ‘you’re acting funny now. I’m not sure I even want to hang out with you.’ Both of those things are so hurtful.”

Police violence has been associated with worse health outcomes compared with other forms of violence, according to a 2020 study in the American Journal of Public Health. Some frontline Water Protectors have said they’ve been brutalized by police using “pain compliance” tactics, and Department of Homeland Security agents have used a low-flying helicopter to pummel resistors with debris. The protestors have been pepper sprayed and shot with rubber bullets, and more than 80 people face felony charges that could put them behind bars for a decade or more. According to a Motherboard investigation, Enbridge also paid local law enforcement at least $2 million to police the anti-pipeline movement against Line 3.

Indigenous Water Protectors see the police backlash as part of a 500-year legacy of oppression and extermination efforts by European colonizers against indigenous people across North America. According to an Environmental Impact Statement released by the state of Minnesota, the Line 3 pipeline’s impacts “would be an additional health stressor on tribal communities that already face overwhelming health disparities and inequities.”

While the concept of intergenerational trauma has only recently been recognized and explored within Western psychology, many indigneous cultures have long understood that traumatic experiences can be passed down to future generations. Some traditional Native healers see community as important for healing trauma, in contrast with Western biomedicine’s often individualized approach.

Rather than offer professionalized services, the center aims to equip Water Protectors with resources, time, and space to facilitate community-based healing and relationship building. “Some people might just want to come here to the Welcome Water Protector Center and sit by the river every day and not really talk to anybody and that’s fine,” Cominghay explained. “Some people might want to come and need constant peer-to-peer counseling.”

Others may participate in art projects, community activities and cultural camps, according to Shanai Matteson, a local non-native artist and cultural organizer who moved to the Center a year ago. “Through art and handiwork, people can express their emotions and tell stories which can be healing,” Matteson told Motherboard. “My hope is we can have a residency program where people can come and spend some time working on creative projects that are healing for them and that offer opportunities for healing to others.”

On October 30, the Center will host a day of healing arts and music for Line 3 Water Protectors. People will come together on the land to “recognize what has happened so far, and find ways to tell their stories,” said Matteson, “as one step in that healing process, using arts and culture as the space to build those relationships and continue that work.” On Mother’s Day of this year, Anishinaabe Water Protector Tania Aubid hosted a ‘Fossil Fuel Addiction Center,’ a group paddle on the Mississippi River with the intention of healing from the addiction to fossil fuel consumption.

At the core of the Center’s work, is the idea that the Anishinaabe way of life, which includes spending time on the land and treating it with care, can be healing. “When we’re talking about the pipeline, we’re actually talking about the health of the earth, which is the health of all of us,” Matteson explained. “If the land is not healthy, if extraction is permitted, and it becomes the norm — which it has been — then we’re not healthy. “

The Center hopes to continue this work after the movement to Stop Line 3 is over, and to scale up. “Building those systems where we’re able to care for each other, that’s the work of the movement,” Matteson said. “Sometimes caring looks like locking yourself to a machine, and sometimes caring looks like asking your friends, ‘what do you need now?’”

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