The National Mall took on a western flavor earlier this week as Sioux tribal leaders, sheepskin-clad cowboys, and concerned landowners gathered to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. And Gary Dorr was in the center of it all.
"This is an epic project, and it's going to have an epic response," said Dorr, sitting outside an encampment of tepees festooned with tribal flags. "All seven Council Fires of the Great Sioux Nation are united against it."
The laconic 47-year-old, who is the media and logistical coordinator for an initiative by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe to defeat the Keystone XL pipeline, motioned to a crush of reporters near the entrance to the main tepee.
"We're here to get some answers. We've sent letters to the Department of the Interior, the State Department, and the White House, but no one has bothered to respond."
Earlier that day, Dorr watched as 24 mounted ranchers and indigenous leaders rode from the Capitol to the Reflecting Pool. It was the opening of a weeklong event arranged by the Cowboy and Indian Alliance to protest an extension of the Keystone pipeline that would traverse tribal lands and could pose a risk to battlegrounds, burial grounds, and other sacred sites.
After water from the Ogallala aquifer — which opponents fear may be contaminated by leakage from the pipeline — was poured into the Reflecting Pool, the gathering pitched a half-dozen tepees on the National Mall just north of the Smithsonian Castle. The encampment is centered on a sacred fire and has religious overtones.
Dorr explained that the cluster of tepees was a smaller version of a "spirit camp" that had been set up in central South Dakota in late March. That camp — located near a turn in the planned route of the pipeline — consists of seven tepees inside a perimeter of grass bales. The entrance is marked with seven flags mounted on 35-foot pine poles.
"The spirit camp is a physical embodiment of all the prayers of the people," Dorr said. "We're going to be there until one of two things happens: Either President Obama denies this permit, or, if the pipeline is approved, this camp will change from a spirit camp into a blockade camp. If that happens, we will stand a line. We have the entire Great Sioux Nation — all seven Council Fires — behind us. We will not let the pipeline go through. The pipe makes a turn next to tribal land; we aim to turn it around and send it back."
As to why he opposes the pipeline, Dorr suggested that he was less concerned about climate change — "that's already happened," he said — than the inevitability of leaks. "The crude oil that flows through the pipeline is full of toxic chemicals. Once it gets in the water, it sinks. There's no way to clean it up. Once it gets in the aquifer, the aquifer is done."
The protest comes less than a week after the Obama administration announced that it would postpone a final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the Nebraska Supreme Court had decided a legal dispute related to the project.
Dorr, who took over his current job in February, was raised in Yakima, Wash., and served for 11 years in the Army as a military police sergeant.
After studying business administration at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., he worked as a buffalo hunt coordinator and was later elected to the Nez Perce Tribe Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Dorr is a traditional hunter and gatherer who makes his own nets and gaffs. "When I was living in Idaho, my freezers never had store-bought meat," he said.