The Lakota’s legend says a black snake will one day appear, and the seventh generation will rise up to fight the snake and bring peace to the world. If a pipeline burst, the oil will poison the water they subsist upon, a symbolic black snake manufactured at the hand of men and their money.
The meaning of these photographs transformed in a matter of days. What once was a journalistic account of the Standing Rock Water Protectors now serves as a relic of history and record of a place and a people that have burned to the ground once again. Fire defeated water in the game of elements.
The Hunkpapa, and the countless tribes who joined them, were not just fighting to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (“DAPL”), they were fighting a government and its legacy of violence and oppression. The uprising was an attempt to reclaim a sliver of agency, and it was one of the largest gathering in modern history.
The Missouri River winds a thousand feet north of the Thunderhawk’s backyard. Now that the Trump administration approved the DAPL to run east-west under the river, the family lives in constant fear of an oil spill and the cost to their livelihood. As I sat with Jen Blackclould, the matriarch of the Thunderhawk family, she asked, rhetorically, “Who is going to shoulder the cost [if there is a spill]?” Then paused and answer the question herself, “Our family will have to.”
I spent most of my time with the Thunderhawks who live in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, with 14 people in a four-bedroom house. The house is barebones with unfinished flooring and a
partially caved-in roof. The kitchen has a single crockpot in the space where the oven used to be.
The family struggles to accumulate enough money to pay bills and buy necessities—propane to keep the house warm and gasoline for the car. Jobs are scarce on the reservation,
so the family relies on temporary odd-jobs and day labor.
I have followed the Thunderhawks for the past two years, partaking in family gatherings, and witnessing the family grow with the addition of a new baby. Most of my visits are during the winter and the conditions are harsh. The family has a faulty water heater that finally heaves its last breath as I’m visiting on one of my trips. That morning Jen says to me, “I wake up every morning and think: how’re we going to make it today?” We sip our coffee in silence.