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A section of the 11.5-foot-tall mile marker post created by activists at the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest goes on display in the exhibition DzNation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nationsdz at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, October 24 (image courtesy Paul Morigi/AP Images for the National Museum of the American Indian)

WASHINGTON, DC — The director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) welcomed a recent piece of history to the museum’s collection last week: a mile marker post from the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests (NoDAPL). The mile marker is a late addition to the exhibition Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, which opened in September of 2014 and will remain on view until 2021. The 11.5-foot-tall object commemorates the distances protesters traveled to arrive at the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) camp, the largest of the NoDAPL protest camps. The first signs added point to the locations of other Indian Nations — 1,392 miles to the Seneca Nation, 1,017 miles to the Kalispel Tribe, and 3,913 miles to Sápmi, the arctic home of the Sami indigenous people. Other signs point to cities in the United States and countries across the world: 1,700 miles to New York City, 1,000 miles to Wilsonville, Illinois, 6,912 miles to the Netherlands. The marker reflects the massive outpouring of support the NoDAPL protests received during the encampments, which began in October of 2016 and continued until earlier this year.

The mile marker post at the National Museum of the American Indian (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

As the NMAI exhibition makes clear, the treaties between the United States government and American Indian Nations are central to the conflict over DAPL. The Dakota Access Pipeline route runs through land that was acknowledged as Sioux territory in the 1851 Horse Creek Treaty, but was stripped from the tribe by the federal government in 1868 — a change in boundaries that the Sioux Nation still views as illegitimate. The Standing Rock Sioux argue that they should have had input into DAPL, citing a 1968 treaty that grants them undisturbed use of their territory. The section of the pipeline that protesters hoped to stop runs underneath the Missouri River, near the Lake Oahe Reservoir, which is a crucial water source for the surrounding communities. Any leaks or spills from the pipeline would endanger the water supply for nearby reservations. Tribal leaders have also argued that construction of the pipeline endangered sacred ancestral land. Initial plans for the pipeline routed it north of Bismarck, North Dakota but that route was rejected by the Army Corps of Engineers, in part because of concerns that a spill would endanger that city’s water supply.  

Detail of the mile marker post. Hundreds of hand-made signs nailed to the post point toward protestors’ cities, states, American Indian Nations or foreign countries and indicate distances in miles or meters. (image courtesy Paul Morigi/AP Images for the National Museum of the American Indian)

The No-DAPL Mile Marker appears towards the very end of the exhibition, which explores the history of treaties between the United States government and the various Indian Nations, documenting hundreds of years of treaties agreed to and, more often than not, broken by the federal government. The exhibition also features ceremonial objects, weapons, and articles of clothing related to the treaty conferences. The last section covers more recent history, including the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 and protests in the 1960s against the forced removal of Native American children from their communities.  

The mile marker was brought to DC and donated to NMAI by Hickory Edwards of the Onondaga Nation. Edwards created the mile marker post, cutting down a log and adding the very first mile marker pointing towards the Onondaga’s land. In early 2016, before the Army Corps of Engineers cleared the protest camp, Edwards removed the mile marker. He spearheaded an effort to get the mile marker to the museum, driving it 1,500 miles from the protest camp to Washington, DC.

Edwards has donated the mile marker to NMAI, where it will remain after the exhibition comes down in 2021. For Edwards, donating the marker to the museum was a way to preserve and protect it. Speaking at the launch event, he explained that preserving the mile marker felt important, stating, “We didn’t want it to be lost or to be a trophy for DAPL.”

According to Kevin Gover, director of NMAI, inclusion of the mile marker into the museum’s collection represents NM AI’s commitment to highlighting not just the history of native people but also their “lively contemporary existence.” Earlier this year, the museum acquired iconic pink pussy hats from a group of native women who attended the DC Women’s March. They have also acquired materials related to the protests against the Keystone XL pipeline in 2014.  

Hickory Edwards (Onondaga), who donated the mile marker post from the Dakota Access Pipeline protest to the Smithsonian (image courtesy Paul Morigi/AP Images for the National Museum of the American Indian)

The addition of the mile marker to NMAI’s collection comes as the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline continues. In January, President Trump pushed through the pipeline’s completion but a lawsuit brought by four Sioux tribes is currently being considered in US District Court. In June, Judge James Boasberg ordered the Army Corp of Engineers to perform an additional environmental impact study, which they expect to complete in 2018. In the meantime, the judge has allowed Energy Transfer Partners to begin operation of the pipeline.

Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations continues at the National Museum of the American Indian (4th St SW & Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC) through 2021.

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Blair Murphy

Blair Murphy is an independent curator and cultural worker based in Washington, DC. She was a Helena Rubinstein Curatorial Fellow of the Whitney Independent Study Program from 2014 to 2015. Her past curatorial...