It was a historic news conference halfway around the planet.
President Barack Obama in September was fielding questions as the first sitting U.S. president to ever visit the southeast Asian nation of Laos.
He wasn’t prepared when a Malaysian woman turned the topic to an oil pipeline being built 8,000 miles away in the Midwest.
The exchange underscores how the Dakota Access Pipeline has become a global cause for fossil fuel and indigenous rights activists.
Scores of pipelines crisscross the continent, and in recent years many projects have drawn the ire of local activists and landowners. None — including the controversial Keystone XL project — has generated as much worldwide attention and scrutiny as Dakota Access.
Never before in the United States has so large or durable a movement thrown itself so directly in the path of a pipeline project for so long.
The protest camps clustered around the once-tiny village of Cannonball, N.D. have become the center of the pipeline-fighting universe, a spiritual home base for indigenous rights groups, faith leaders, and environmentalists of all stripes.
“There weren’t thousands of people camped out on the pipeline route (with Keystone),” said Lorne Stockman, research director for the renewable fuel-backing Oil Change International. “This is unprecedented — it’s on a completely different scale.”
Photos: The Dakota Access Pipeline protests
In the months since the first tents were pitched in Cannonball, the population of the protest camps on this otherwise isolated stretch of rolling prairie has grown to become the largest settlement on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
On any given day, estimates of the camp's population range from 1,000 to 3,000 people. The next-largest city in Standing Rock — McLaughlin, S.D. — is home to fewer than 700.
Celebrities like Daryl Hannah, Neil Young, and Mark Ruffalo, along with climate activists like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. have all made the pilgrimage to North Dakota.
How did “NoDAPL” become the rallying call for so many activists?
The answer involves a coalition built on the momentum of the Keystone XL pipeline opposition that grew through social media and other tools to tap into the energy of other recent movements from Bernie Sanders to Black Lives Matter.
“It’s the absolute, all-time story of small versus big, of ancient oppression and modern possibility, of the people who have been the most oppressed on this continent,” climate activist Bill McKibben said on the radio program Democracy Now! earlier this month.
Keystone allies reunite
The movement started with a small camp in Cannonball, N.D.
In April, before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offered its initial approval for Dakota Access to drill beneath the Missouri River, a group of opponents set up Sacred Stone Camp, which grew steadily as the Corps signaled its intent to allow drilling beneath Lake Oahe and the tribe filed its lawsuit seeking to stop it.
Many of the groups involved earlier on had united previously to fight Keystone XL, a stalled extension of the Keystone pipeline that runs through North and South Dakota. The Indigenous Environmental Network, Yankton Sioux and Rosebud Sioux tribes had fought Keystone at the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission.
Bonds were formed during that effort between indigenous rights groups, wildlife groups, rural landowners and environmentalists, and those bonds helped create what would prove a powerful activist network.
“I really do think that Keystone has opened up this whole new world where all these movements can come together,” said Jane Fleming Kleeb, who founded a group called Bold Nebraska to oppose KeystoneXL. “Where these people used to just be in their silos, now all these cross-disciplinary folks are coming together.”
The Dakota Access opposition also gained momentum from the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who led attention and his supporters to the cause. Sanders has been an advocate for Standing Rock, visiting the White House on Tuesday during what was dubbed a "global day of action."
“Senator Sanders forced both Hillary Clinton and President Obama to take a stand on this,” Fleming Kleeb said.
Violence and viral video
The first glimpse of national media attention came in August when a group of tribal youth made a 2,000-mile cross-country run from North Dakota to the Corps’ offices in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, violence broke out in Cannonball after a group of protesters entered a Dakota Access construction zone in an effort to protect a site the tribe said contained burial grounds and cultural artifacts.
The resulting video showed protesters clashing with security guards with pepper spray and dogs. The images drew the quick attention of civil rights groups and brought additional attention from larger media outlets.
Smaller-scale, independent journalists, including those with the Indigenous Environmental Network, filmed demonstrations, produced videos and broadcasted live on Facebook. The #NoDAPL and #StandWithStandingRock Twitter hashtags began to trend.
The attention to the police tactics grew as arrests mounted. On Oct. 27, Morton County law enforcement used pepper spray, rubber bullets and sound cannons to eject protesters from what was called a “treaty camp” on private land. Some protesters set tires and vehicles ablaze on a nearby bridge.
Most encounters with law enforcement were far less dramatic, but roadblocks, marches and other on-site activism with a police backdrop have become daily occurrences. The images and videos have helped draw in demonstrators with broader concerns about police violence.
On Nov. 12, a member of Black Lives Matter Denver named Jumoke Emory Brown stood near the entrance to a Dakota Access Pipeline staging area surrounded by hundreds of demonstrators on County Road 82.
“I am here representing all nations, all generations and all relations,” Brown said, as officers in helmets and riot gear waited behind an armored vehicle in the pipeline’s staging area. “We will not be moved, we will not be poisoned.”
Responding to indigenous concerns with the use of force, particularly on land still claimed by tribal members under 19th Century treaties, animates visitors as much as concerns about water quality or climate change.
“I wasn’t here for the original sin, but I’m here now,” camp volunteer Terri Wilkerson said.
Will protest momentum sustain?
Protesters are now preparing for the harsh North Dakota winter.
Semi-permanent structures and yurts have been placed on the site, and a group of volunteers from the Lakota People’s Law Project and Red Lightning of California are traveling to deliver heating stoves, generators and winter clothes.
Retired Army Major General James "Spider" Marks was among the pipeline supporters to visit Cannonball last week. He said the daily protests and the build-up of a winter presence at what was permitted as a temporary camp has the potential to become a humanitarian and safety issue.
Marks would like to see the Army move to revoke the permit and peacefully dismantle the camps.
“There is a hardened core of what I’m going to call anarchists who are going to weather the storm,” Marks said. “I worry about their survivability.”
It's still unclear how the Standing Rock movement will end.
The question of whether President Obama is able to delay Dakota Access past the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump remains open. The project was reviewed and approved by four states and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the Obama Administration’s early September halt, and Trump has vowed to expand oil and gas production in the U.S.
Regardless of the outcome, Standing Rock Tribal Chairman David Archambault II said the historic groundswell of support for his tribe’s act of protest has brought the world’s attention to important issues of sovereignty and the environment.
“If anything happens, we brought attention to treaty lands,” Archambault II said. “We need to ask ‘how can we make sure that we are respected.’ We’ve shown that with unity, with prayers, we can have an effect.”