As tensions in North Dakota surrounding the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline have mounted and protest efforts to protect the land from the controversial project have grown over the last several months, many roots musicians have taken to song in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Like their Trump-protesting musician pals before them earlier this year, these musicians are using the power of music to raise awareness and vital funds for protest efforts, which continue following the Army Corps of Engineers' announcement that they would not grant permits necessary for completing the pipeline.
One of the largest of these efforts is Songs for Standing Rock, a series of compilations put together by Austin musician and activist Phoebe Hunt. So far, Hunt and her team have released three compilations, all available via a pay-what-you-want page on Bandcamp. All proceeds from sales, with the exception of a 3 percent PayPal processing fee, go to "the creation of permanent sustainable winterized geodesic domes, wood stoves, and fire wood supplies at Standing Rock." Artists featured on the compilations include Elephant Revival, Ana Egge and the Sentimentals, and Hunt herself.
Hunt initially got involved in Standing Rock efforts after hearing of the freezing conditions water protectors were enduring in their efforts to guard the contested land. Living in Austin, though, she wasn't immediately clear how she could make a substantial difference. "I wanted to help, but I was so busy with everything I was doing in my life," she explains. "I was so proud and so happy that they were doing what they were doing, but I couldn't be there … I knew I needed to help and I called my friend Lakshmi and I said, 'What can we do to help?' She said, 'I have this idea that we could get an album together of musicians that would come together to support.' I had an idea of a thousand things that I needed to do in my own life with all of these other projects I'm working on and was trying to direct her in how to do it and then, two days later, I woke up and it was cold in Austin and I was cold and I thought, 'These people are freezing. I have to do something now.' So I put up a Facebook post and I said, 'We're going to put a compilation album together. Anyone interested? We need to help these people. They need firewood. It's freezing. Let's activate.' That one Facebook post got so much response I had to create a graph of all the people who wanted to help."
Hunt put together a meeting that very evening for friends and musicians interested in joining the effort. "We delegated, and we talked through what we could do to help immediately," she says. They decided to use Bandzoogle, which doesn't take a portion of sales once a one-time annual hosting fee has been paid, to distribute the music and started the writing, recording, and curating process soon thereafter. It wasn't long before they had Songs for Standing Rock Vol. 1, a 15-song collection released on Thanksgiving Day. Hunt and her team received such an overwhelming response from their community that they have since released two additional volumes.
Artists getting otherwise involved in the movement include Spirit Family Reunion, who wrote the new song "Goin' Out to Cannonball" to raise money for Sacred Stone Camp, which is located on the Standing Rock Reservation. It's available for purchase through Bandcamp with all proceeds benefitting Sacred Stone Camp.
"This is not limited to protecting clean water and sacred land for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe," Spirit Family Reunion's Nick Panken, who wrote the song after spending time at Standing Rock, says. "This is not limited to the 17 million people across several states who get their water from the Missouri River. This comes down to protecting values that are vital to our humanity. The Dakota Access Pipeline represents the destruction of these values and, when these values are destroyed, so are we. This is our time to stand with Standing Rock in defense of their values and to learn from Standing Rock in their valuable ways."
The women behind Rising Appalachia, an Asheville-based roots-folk duo comprised of sisters Chloe Smith and Leah Song, also spent time protesting at Standing Rock, hoping to, as Smith describes, "be an ally to the water protectors on a holiday (Thanksgiving) that holds historical weight for many people across this country."
"It will take some time to fully understand and articulate the beauty and rawness that we experienced at Standing Rock, North Dakota, when we arrived on November 22," Song adds. "The sobering prayers and fire-centered leadership, the way that a living indigenous movement embraced and celebrated Thanksgiving in all of its complex historical context, the incredible sense of community and care that was shared amongst strangers and family alike who had all lent their physical bodies to a movement much bigger than a protest. The Standing Rock community, the Oceti Sakowin and RoseBud camps, and the many, many people from far and wide that are standing with this movement to reroute the Dakota Access pipeline are making their voices heard in a peaceful and prayerful way."
While songwriting is a primary outlet for activism for many musicians, some artists have taken to writing op-eds in support of Standing Rock, as well, including a handful who have done so for BGS. Nashville's Korby Lenker wrote an essay for us to accompany his song "Last Man Standing," writing, "Watching the news, I see policemen lined up in riot gear while, behind them, bulldozers carve up land upon which buffalo once roamed. Apart from the specific threat, people are frustrated — I am frustrated — that this is one more example of the government putting corporate interests over the health and well-being of human beings." The Indigo Girls published a call to action urging readers to contact Kelcy Warren, the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company slated to build the pipeline.
Artists have long been at the forefront of activist movements, and these recent examples from roots musicians are the kinds of efforts that will be especially crucial in coming years when President-elect Trump takes office. Protecting the environment will soon be a more urgent cause than ever, as will the protection of the civil liberties of marginalized groups, and it's up to artists to raise their voices and use their platforms for change.
"We need new models and new leaders to help shepherd us into a more sustainable way of living," Song concludes. "We know that coal and oil will not last forever. Standing Rock is creating that model physically, metaphorically, poetically, and through real non-violent teachings and beliefs to begin to shift our cultural emphasis away from corporate large-scale agendas and into grassroots living and organizing. We have a lot to learn from this movement."