Becoming Visible: Infrastructure and Indigeneity in the Dakotas


By Dana Powell (Appalachian State University/NDHU)

This essay presents a story, through brief text and photographs, about a recent Indigenous-led environmental justice movement in Lakota Sioux territory in North America that may offer a point for comparative thinking with energy infrastructures in Austronesian Taiwan homelands. In this story, the efforts by activists, self-identified as “water protectors,” focused on building an infrastructural world through timber, tipis, knowledge/operations centers, and prayers. This infrastructural strategy was central to their defiance of an energy transport “Dakota Access” oil pipeline as well as central to their defense of homeland territories. Their work opens up new conceptual horizons for “seeing” the relational work of energy infrastructures in Indigenous projects for self-determination and may inflect a much-needed Indigenous environmental justice (IEJ) perspective to anthropological and STS discussions on the “politics and poetics” of infrastructure.[1]




From April 2016 until February 2017, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe citizens, along with their diverse allies, held firm in three encampments along the banks of the Cannonball River, in rural southeastern North Dakota, to protect the water and lands of Sioux people – and everyone downstream – and creatively resist Energy Transfer Partners’ construction of the “Dakota Access Pipeline” (DAPL). The three camps – Sacred Stones, Red Warrior, and Oceti Sakowin – were together the “front line” of a broad-based demand that the USA respect its own Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and 1851, which ensured the particular land and waters (of Missouri River) in question, to the Great Sioux Nation. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribal government opposed a decision by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to grant a right of way “access” path (to go over lands and under rivers) to Energy Transfer Partners, to build the 1200-mile pipeline to carry crude oil from the Bakken Shale oil fields near the US-Canada border, through Sioux unceded territory, and onto a transfer station in Illinois, and ultimately, onto the Gulf of Mexico for export. Despite a clear message from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other allies, including the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the (former) Governor of the state of North Dakota determined that the pipeline was “too risky” to route through the capital city of Bismarck, N.D., and thus should be re-routed through the rural countryside and “away” from the city. This rural countryside is the traditional and customary lands of the Great Sioux Nation, ensured in 19th-century treaties, and contiguous with the contemporary Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. In April 2016, a small but determined coterie of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe citizens established a camp to make their opposition to the pipeline public, their vigil grew over the summer months, with allies arriving from down the road and around the world. By September of 2016 – amplified by news media attention to violent attacks on water protectors by ETP’s private security forces – the encampments were surging in population, moral force, and DIY infrastructure, making this standoff one of the most high-profile and largest events of US-American Indian relations in the past century (Estes 2019).


In Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, STS anthropologists Susan Leigh Starr and Geoffrey Bowker argue that infrastructure only becomes visible when it breaks down (Bowker and Starr 1996). Invisibility is a central attribute in their illustrative schema to characterize the sociality and historicity – indeed, the agentivity – of infrastructure. That infrastructures are “embedded,” “learned,” and “linked with practice” offered us new ways of “seeing” objects that, following their argument, was largely invisible prior to malfunction; remarkable, indeed, given that they wrote this in 1996, just as the world wide web was becoming accessible to civilian publics, as if they anticipated our common 21st century cry of despair, “The WiFi is down!!”

Their schema helped me in the United States, in 2005, make sense of a bewildering event of climate disruption: when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, starkly exposing New Orleans’ aging and collapsing embankment levees. Indeed, the levees were invisible to many until they failed and the neighborhoods of one of North America’s most unique cities, and its diverse residents, were crushed by the storm. After Katrina, we could never again NOT see a levee. A few years later, in early 2011, I was living in Beijing when the disastrous “meltdown” of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors made those infrastructures globally hyper-visible. I recall how Beijingers wondered how far the radioactivity could travel and we watched as the once-invisible reactors became the center of renewed international debates on nuclear power, state capacities for disaster management, and as anthropologists Adriana Petryna and Kim Fortun have shown, the subjective science and national politics behind knowing “safe” levels of chemical exposure (Petryna 2013, Fortun 2001).

Subsequent anthropologists of infrastructure have importantly modified Bowker and Starr’s “invisibility” claim, and broader schema, pushing more expansive understandings. In his comprehensive and elegant Annual Review article on the anthropological-STS literature on infrastructure, Brian Larkin moves beyond levees and nuclear reactors to consider infrastructure as “material flows” that allow for exchange across space; they are “the architecture for circulation” and “undergirding of modern societies” (Larkin 2013: 328). This move from hardware to software, or from late industrialism to information technology, permitted us to “see” new circuits of exchange and the consequences of materiality for political processes (Ibid). An exemplary ethnographer in this vein, Ashley Carse illuminated “nature as infrastructure” in the Panama Canal, showing how engineers and agrarians collaborated in the remaking of a continent’s biophysical land base to allow for greater passage of commercial ships – Larkin’s “undergirding of modern societies,” to be sure – while at the same time, enabling a new political ecology to take hold (Carse 2014). Pinning down these things is hard, Larkin tells us, because infrastructures are “conceptually unruly,” possessing a “peculiar ontology.”

“Infrastructures are matter that enable the movement of other matter. Their peculiar ontology lies in the facts that they are things and also the relation between things. As things they are present to the senses, yet they are also displaced in the focus on the matter they move around. We often see computers not cables, light not electricity, taps and water but not pipes and sewers.” (Larkin 2013: 329; my emphasis).

Never has this “peculiar ontology” been more visible than in 2016-2017 in the rural plains of North Dakota, when 10,000 people assembled, primarily from American Indian Nations, but also from all over the world, to build the infrastructure of Sioux-led resistance camps to counterpose the infrastructure of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The “things” in this story are multiple, including social infrastructures among activists; U.S. military and law enforcement infrastructures; 19th-century U.S.-Sioux treaties; federal energy policies; and the “brick and mortar” projects of the pipeline as well as the dwellings and operations centers erected within the resistance camps. These “things” made visible “the relation between things”, as Larkin notes, indeed, the often-obscured technologies of interlocking jurisdictions (US states, US federal government, and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Government) and the hidden “wiring” through news and social media, that brought 10,000 people to Sioux territory.

But what I am more concerned with, however, is the “displacement” of other kinds of “relations between things,” and how the infrastructure of the resistance camps in this 10-month struggle revealed the “peculiar ontology” of the pipeline itself – an otherwise taken-for-granted avatar of fossil fuel modernity. The pipeline possessed what I have called elsewhere a “present absence” as an unbuilt energy project (Powell 2018), casting its own shadow across the Great Plains, long before each segment of metal piping was laid, criss-crossing the Missouri River several times, through unceded Indigenous homelands and watersheds upon which millions of humans and nonhumans depend, for drinking water. The peculiar ontology of the pipeline was also the peculiar relationality of relations between the USA and Native Nations, in this case, a relation of “nested sovereignty” (Simpson 2014: 10) where Sioux territorial rights, ensured by 19th-century treaties authored by the USA itself, were circumvented by bureaucratic technologies that “permitted” the pipeline, measuring its environmental and social “impact” one segment at a time, rather than as the entire 1200-mile long project. Especially, this battle over infrastructures revealed the federal government’s disregard for free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) by Indigenous peoples, as well as its own (US) treaties, while also making visible the fact that energy infrastructure – far from being “invisible until breakdown” – has been a defining feature of rural American Indian life, for decades.

The story of two infrastructures shapes the narrative arc of the NoDAPL movement – the camp’s infrastructure and the pipeline’s infrastructure – and makes visible not only the “things” in question, to return to Larkin’s characterization (rivers, lands, pipelines, policies, treaties) but the wider relations between things – and especially the historical relations of settler colonialism in North America, in which the extraction, processing, and transport of energy minerals has played a decisive role for Indigenous self-determination. As Andrew Curley argues, infrastructures in Native America have been “colonial beachheads,” encroachments over time with political and material consequences that result in the foreclosure of Indigenous livelihoods and lands” (Curley 2021).

And yet, this is a fragmented story: the things and relations between things that the NoDAPL movement made visible are not easily resolved in narrative form. The peculiar ontology of the pipeline was at once “black snake” in Sioux prophecy and “homeland security” under US energy policy; at once “state of the art” hardware from the Energy Transfer Partners corporation and a trigger for the non-secular epistemic refrain, “water is life.” And it is perhaps best understood through images: the work of artists, architects, designers, builders, healers, poets, electricians, and elders, who constructed an infrastructural world for 10,000 people along the banks of the Cannonball River to make the pipeline infrastructure visible long before its breakdown – believing that its pathway was a threat to Sioux sovereignty and its breakdown (not a question of if, but of when) would pose a threat to wider ecologies all along the Missouri River’s diverse watersheds. In this way, the peculiar ontology of the Dakota Access Pipeline was not just a political proposal – that is, a threat to Sioux self-determination and to the Great Plains and downriver ecology – but was, following Isabelle Stengers, a “cosmopolitical proposal” (Stengers 2004) a process in which we need to slow down, recognize the limits of what we do (already) and yet might “know,” and “turn the river into a cause for thinking” (Ibid).

To be sure, in the Indigenous-led movement to protect land and water in Standing Rock, from DAPL’s incursion, the Missouri River was the central cause for thinking – and for being, doing, and relating. This is indeed a certain kind of energy ethics. For Stengers, it is the “etho-ecological,” to emphasize being-in-habitat, and for me, it is a manner of groping towards freshly critical apprehensions of energy infrastructures, which have played a defining role in Indigenous experience in North America due to the historical geological coincidence of Native Nations (as traditional homelands and 19th-century “reservation” territories) existing atop some of the continent’s richest subterranean reserves of energy minerals.

I have spent two decades thinking with energy justice activists in the Navajo Nation, about the manner in which energy infrastructures of uranium mining and processing, coal extraction, timber harvesting, and emergent form of extractivism, shape the political, cultural, and ecological life of Diné (Navajo) people and possibilities for designing more sustainable and sovereign futures. When some of my long-time Diné collaborators invited me to go with them to support water protectors in Oceti Sakowin, one of the three resistance camps at Standing Rock, I wondered how I could be useful – as an STS anthropologist, as a human, as a friend. I took a student with me, we bought a carload of medical and food supplies, and we arrived on the edge of winter to help haul wood for fires, wash dishes, sort donations, serve food, participate in nonviolent direct action, and record the stories and images of water protectors who wanted their analyses shared beyond the camp. I ghost-authored an article for the tribal newspaper and made hundreds of hours of recordings for our collective archive. Only a fraction of what I learned there can ever be written.

And yet the art within the camps, and the images of the infrastructural world that water protectors built, as juxtaposed with the pipeline, keep this fragmented story vibrant and relevant despite the camp’s eventual razing by federal agents in February 2017. The labor of builders and artists and direct action water protectors made the pipeline visible – despite any eventual breakdown – and this visibility of the infrastructure (the camps and the pipeline they opposed) made indigeneity visible in a whole new manner, within the dominant settler society of the United States. This public debate on energy science and technology became at the same time a public debate on US-American Indian treaties, evidenced by news and social media of the period, and also by a September 2016 statement by the US Department of Justice that indicated the precedent-setting case for “serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these kinds of infrastructure projects” (US DOJ 9.9.2016). This is not only a matter of “participation” but of ethics, and of the hyper-visibility of infrastructure for impacted Indigenous communities (from Diné to Sioux, and Anishinaabe to Lumbee) for whom extractivism and its various technologies have been a defining feature of political-ecological life.

With these images, we can resist narrative closure and highlight water protectors’ analytic, “water is life”, as a central cosmopolitical argument for our times.


[1] This short essay builds upon the work of others scholars and activists of the movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and Lakota Sioux life more broadly. See Nick Estes, Our History is the Future (2019); and NYC Stands with Standing Rock Syllabus; I have published an 2020 essay on the Native:non-Native alliance-making within the movement, with co-author Ricki Draper, in Collaborative Anthropologies and have a chapter on the camp as an “Indian City” in the forthcoming (2022) edited volume, Indian Cities: Histories of Indigenous Urbanization (Blansett, Needham, and Cahill, eds., Univ of OK Press).