In a darkened lamp-lit yoga studio, Caroline Rivera picks her way through a dozen people sprawled out on the floor in a supported corpse pose. They place foam blocks under their shoulder blades and breathe.
She’s teaching a donation-based class at Evolve Yoga in downtown Sioux City to stand in solidarity with the opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline Project.
“As you breathe, can you feel yourself getting lighter with your inhales? Can you feel yourself releasing what doesn’t serve you with your exhales?" she said. "We’re here tonight to raise awareness for Standing Rock. To open space for our water protectors – the people who are on the frontlines of a revolution, not with guns, not with ammunition, not with hate, not with fear, but with love.”
The $3.8 billion pipeline spans nearly 1,200 miles across four states. The largest portion cuts diagonally across Iowa through 18 counties. It was expected to be completed by the end of the year.
But last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted the project for additional discussion and analysis, citing concern for the Great Sioux Nation’s dispossessions of lands and the importance of Lake Oahe to the Tribe.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been saying for months that the project threatens to damage sacred sites of historic, religious and cultural significance and that the pipeline’s proposed crossing under the Missouri River puts the reservation’s water supply at risk.
Energy Transfer Partners, the Texas-based company building the pipeline, disputes those claims.
Environmental activists have come alongside the tribe to oppose the pipeline. One of those allies is Jeannette Hopkins.
She recently led an informational meeting at Pierce Street Coffee Works in Sioux City. She talked about her childhood, growing up in a small town nestled in the Sandhills of Nebraska, where she thought it was safe to play outside.
“So at night, around 6 o’clock, the siren would go off, and the city would come around, spraying a very nice, fine white film and that white film would get on your arms and your hands. Two years before that, Rachel Carson had written a book called, Silent Spring, where she let the world know what kind of damage DDT could do. And that’ exactly what they were spraying in ‘63-’64 to get rid of the mosquitos from the two rainstorms that we got a year.”
Her younger sister died in 1994. Two years later, her brother also got sick died. She blames chemical exposure.
“My investment in the environment comes very personally,” she said.
Hopkins and her husband are involved in Bold Iowa, a group that opposes the Dakota Access pipeline.
Later in the week, they planned on going to Rockwell City, Iowa, on behalf of Bold Iowa to cover court costs for eight protesters who were arrested for trespassing.
“A lot of people ask, why Iowa, why should we care? We have more pipeline than anyone else. We are a land between two rivers," she said. "The other thing I truly believe is for a child to know who he or she is they have to know where they’re from, and to know where they’re from, they have to know the stories, the people, the history, the typography of the place, and they have to respect it because if they do that, they feel connected, and when you feel connected, you take care of things.”
Marisa Cummings, a member of the Omaha tribe, also got up and spoke about her deep personal connection to the land that her ancestors held as sacred.
“It’s more to me – and I rarely talk about this with non-Indians so this is really new to me – but I needed people to understand that when we talk about sacred sites, it’s not just a place where there’s a mound. It’s not just a landscape, a bump in the landscape," she said. "They built that mound for a reason. They’re leaving us signs. They’re leaving us messages.”
She’s been to Standing Rock three times. The first time she went up there, she found a small camp of people, split between one teepee, two tents and three cars. By morning, more than 100 people had streamed in.
Now numbers reach into the thousands on the weekends – at times turning into clashes with law enforcement.
On Sunday night, about 400 protesters, who prefer to be called water protectors, attempted to get through the barricaded Backwater Bridge to improve emergency services’ access to the encampments.
The Morton County Sheriff’s Department described their actions as an “ongoing riot” and said they started dozens of fires near the bridge.
Protestors were met with tear gas and water cannons as temperatures fell below freezing.
Cummings has not experienced anything like this at the camps. She’s fallen asleep to the sound of songs and woken up to the steady beat of rawhide drums. She’s dug a pit and cooked eggs and bacon over open flames, and stood in peaceful protest while drones, helicopters and planes flew overhead.
Standing Rock is ground zero for opposition to the pipeline, but to Cummings, the issue extends far beyond the North Dakota border.
“I don’t want us to focus on Standing Rock itself," she said. "And the reason I say that is because Standing Rock is one place. What I want us to focus on is the water and the protection of the water itself.”