While it didn’t exactly come as a surprise that President Trump would greenlight the continued development of the Dakota Access Pipeline, maybe he didn’t expect the negative reaction given his claims in early February that he hadn’t heard “one call” complaining about it. In truth, backlash towards oil pipelines like the DAPL and Keystone XL has been growing for years now. Most recently, it’s been reaching a fever heat over social media since mid-2016 when the DAPL first started gaining notoriety for proposals that it would be built over land belonging to Standing Rock Sioux.
Amongst the thousands of protesters funneling into the Oceti Sakowan Camp in Cannonball, ND up until their forceful removal by the government to advance DAPL development in late February were musicians. While celebrated acts like Dave Matthews, Radiohead, and Neil Young funneled in and out of the camp for various charity concerts, one of Tucson’s own remained a constant presence at the encampment.
“I’ve been telling people that we’ve been living in a silent genocide and now we’ve awakened the world,” says Gabriel Ayala. He’s a Tucson born-and-raised acoustic guitarist who’s loved internationally for his fusion of jazz, flamenco, and classical styles. For example, David Wiwchar with CBC Manitoba called Ayala one “few would bet against” in his pursuit of legitimizing his “jazzmenco” fusion as a recognized genre.
Ayala’s shows offer a look into his Yaqui culture through his stories of being raised by his grandmother to embrace his tribe’s traditions, and more recently, they’ve been a platform for Ayala to speak out against the DAPL and pipelines like it.
Much of Ayala’s outrage towards the DAPL comes not just as a Native American, but as an inhabitant of Earth. “I think that this is just the straw that broke the camel’s back, because there’s been issues that have been going on with indigenous people for over 500 years let alone in current times. There’s finally something that we all utilize, though, which is water. That’s not a native issue. This is a human being issue. We all need this water to be sustainable and to be alive, so that we and the earth that we live upon can be alive, period.”
His solemn words echo in solidarity with the protesters of Standing Rock, labeled “Water Protectors”. These activists have been highlighting the development of these pipelines as a means of once again embracing big money from the oil industry instead of making a concerted effort to embrace renewable energy. Considering that one of the first big targets from Trump’s proposed budget cuts has been the clean energy movement, these people might just be onto something.
What does it mean to be a Water Protector to Ayala? “Well, it’s more than just protecting the water. It’s protecting our traditional way of life through prayer—not through acts of violence, or name calling, or anything demeaning towards another individual. It’s purely through the power of prayer.”
From protests in Standing Rock to D.C. and beyond, Ayala was there with a guitar and a hand drum ready to perform his music and the music of the Yaqui people to move crowds in a healing effort to inspire morale. Not meaning to undervalue the efforts of celebrity artists like Jason Mraz or Jackson Browne who raised thousands for the protest effort with their charity concerts held at Oceti Sakowan, but Ayala performed his music and did much more than that during his time at the encampment himself.
Ayala refused to live with added conveniences in light of who he was while at the camp, instead choosing to stand in the trenches with his fellow protesters and working directly with them in their attempt to make their voices heard. This often meant succumbing to less than amicable conditions, from snow storms during a recent march in D.C. to the questionable actions of law enforcement at Standing Rock.
“The people that were there in the front lines as we’d stand there and ask them, ‘Join our side. Please put your gun down.’ They would turn their backs on us and scream vulgarities. They would call us names, but nobody will cover that. Nobody wants to admit that,” he said with much chagrin towards the military, police, Morton County Sheriff’s Department, and so on that were present during the Standing Rock protests.
He continues, “How would you feel if someone was drilling inside of your mother? You would not allow it. How would feel if someone was shooting rubber bullets at your son? You wouldn’t allow it! Yet, they did shoot rubber bullets at us, they did arrest us. They stripped us down naked, threw us in dog kennels on cold floors with nothing on, and wrote numbers on our arms because we weren’t worthy of a name.”
Ayala acknowledges the original proposal for the DAPL to go through the town of Bismarck, but that it was denied by the town because its people didn’t feel safe with its construction. Now, even though it isn’t acknowledged in the pipeline treaty, it’s being built through Sioux territory.
“It’s funny to say that they want to run a pipeline through Standing Rock for the betterment of our people when it’s more for the benefit of their business. It’s not for the benefit of the people.”
As far as a bottom line goes? “When I travel around the country I speak about these issues, about our uniting as a people before it’s too late, because again, water is life. Water is what we all rely on. A good percentage of our body is water. Yet, we’re oftentimes too ignorant to view this because of the almighty dollar. What good is the almighty dollar if you have no place to spend it? We’d have nothing to live for.”
Ayala has always been an artist who candidly expresses his culture on stage during his concerts. He’s always said “Love your children, honor your elders, and respect your women,” was his mantra, imbued into him by his grandmother while he was young as the purest lesson of the Yaqui people. Yet, now the celebrated guitarist walks with much more conviction, with painful memories of Standing Rock that will stay with him for the rest of his life.
“Reservations are really more like third-world countries already, but the fact that these things were happening made it seem even worse,” he expresses disappointedly. “There are no words that I can describe to evoke the feelings that those Water Protectors felt and now are forced to carry for the rest of our lives. We all have some form of PTSD. I still kinda jolt when I look at a police car. I don’t know why, because it clearly says “To serve and to protect” on their vehicles, but I don’t believe it anymore.”