“Standing Rock Lives”: On the Persistence of Indigenous Architecture


By Elsa Matossian Hoover - īī∙nǔ∙k̇ǎa∙tsistai’ṗiiyii Above: Two women cross the entrance to Oceti Sakowin camp along the Missouri River. Photo: Jaida Grey Eagle


This short piece is intended to open an Indigenous architectural dialog motivated by the power and increasing visibility of land defense action, led primarily by Indigenous women, elders, and young people. As a gathering of camps, Standing Rock (re)produced a process of (re)claiming land as old as our first encounter with settlers while it created relationships that are unsettlingly new. Making and breaking camp—for hunting, for a powwow, for the summer—remain familiar skills in our communities. When camps form the frontline, they draw together traditional skills, diplomacy, claims to Indigenous sovereignty over the lands we defend, and the violent refutation of that sovereignty through extraction and policing. The frontline camp is indigenizing architecture already, posing a challenge to architects, spatial thinkers, and “indigenous architects?” like myself: how do we situate our building and ourselves when we recognize our presence in Indigenous homelands? I write this piece as an Anishinaabe architecture student and the youngest member of the NYC Stands with Standing Rock Collective.


Here on the urban periphery, images of Standing Rock are blurry and pervasive. In pictures taken from drone and horseback, tipis, tarpees,[1] tents, camp kitchens, yurts, and outhouses are laced together with the footprints, hoofprints, and vehicle tracks left by the procession of thousands and thousands of peaceful bodies. In the last two weeks of February, these bodies were forced from the camps by the Army Corps of Engineers, the BIA,[2] and multiple sheriff departments, allegedly to protect them from the danger posed by spring flooding. Two camps remain at Wakpala and Eagle Butte, while thousands of Water Protectors have spread themselves across state and national borders, waiting to mobilize against the Keystone XL and any other project carved through Indigenous (home)lands. On March 29th, Digital Smoke Signals, an organization dedicated to innovating media and technology in Indigenous advocacy, flew their drones over the drill pads on the banks of the Missouri River, revealing a pipeline under construction with sections buried and others sticking out of the earth. The day before, March 28th, 2017, a report from within Dakota Access stated that “oil has been placed in the Dakota Access Pipeline underneath Lake Oahe,” betraying the company’s need, even after months of violent policing, successes in court, and evicting most of the camps, to mark and mar the territory they claim.

The scenes that reach us here in New York and across the entire world through visual media are ¹chaotic: old people sprayed with water cannons in the freezing North Dakota winter. They are ²remote: drone footage of the placid river and acres of overturned ranchland, containing now-invisible graves that have been plowed apart. Most of all, they are ³enduring: that the land defenders were evicted from the homes they created along the river is immaterial to the longevity of the images and citizen journalism circulated from this space. This is not to minimize the fresh trauma caused by this action, but to highlight the fundamental spatial ignorance that it displays. These bureaucracies refuse to acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty by breaking the treaties that brought the United States and Canada into being.[3] Land defenders position their camps directly in the path of this bureaucratic refusal, making the Indigenous right to build in defense of land and water visible and legible to the defenders, the settler-offenders, and the entire world through media. Channeling resources from the urban periphery back to the homeland; and restoring all that was outlawed (our languages, our ceremonies, our gatherings) through graceful, bodily confrontation: this is the architecture of Indigenous resistance.

Citizen journalism at Standing Rock: Digital Smoke Signals amplifies the voices of land defenders through social media. From Digital Smoke Signals on Facebook


I never lived or worked or prayed at Standing Rock because that was not my place. In New York, I am a student. For Indigenous students and academics here, as in many urban places, our presence is often about gathering knowledge to take back to Indian Country (in its many forms). While youth from the reservation set up tents gifted to them along Mnišoše,[4] we crowded into apartments to sort through what we had gathered—our degrees, skills, friends, and books—to send it back where it was, and is, needed. What I know is drawing (and a little history, and how to catch a rez dog), so I offered to make maps. For the hundreds of hours that my teachers and collaborators spent assembling the real matter of the project, what people tend to remember first about the #Standing Rock Syllabus is the map. Images carry power and collapse distance. In the city, we are responsible for using images and our newly generated visibility well.




On Halloween, I missed the tide of Indian Princesses at dorm-room parties to sit with a group of Columbia students who would decide they were unprepared to go to Standing Rock. These were camping club activists well-versed in the language of fossil fuel divestment and on-campus protests, ready to take their lingo and funds from a handmade t-shirt campaign on the 1,735-mile drive to Cannon Ball, ND. Here, in a circle of well-meaning undergrads, space opened up for me to act on the responsibilities we carry at the periphery of Indian Country: to choose what relationships are channeled home to the camp, the rez, the traditional territory. As much as they wanted me to, I could not decide for these students; instead I asked two questions:

Have you ever been to a reservation? (“Yeah, in Minnesota. I can’t remember the name though.”) What is the closest reservation to campus? (*silence*)[5]

Over the next hour, they became familiar with their own discomfort:

(“You can’t walk to the grocery store?” “Will there be bail and representation for us? Do women have to wear skirts?).

The prospect of living away from the amenities of urban space, the promise of police violence, and the foreignness of Indigenous leadership and protocols caused them to reflect on their own positions. Ultimately, they decided the money they had raised would do more good than the city skills they could bring, and sent those funds on with a group of Indigenous students headed for the front line.

NYC Stands with Standing Rock rally in Washington Square Park, New York City. Photo: Matthew Chrisler


Let us return to relationships, and expand those between urban outsiders and the Indigenous leadership they encounter in and beyond the city. The land defense camp, from Unist’ot’en to Standing Rock, to Barriere Lake, to Oka Lawa, to Split Rock, is a permanent structure. Its transitory population and donated composition would suggest otherwise in conventional architectural understanding.  However long the lodgepoles stand at each location before they are packed up–or burned in the face of raids–they have already gathered energy, teachings, and skills that do not dissipate. The purpose that circulates people, material, and building among these places of gathering demonstrates a need to indigenize architecture outside of brick and mortar and drawn conventions, so that we might write ourselves into theories and praxis prepared to serve Indigenous communities and their struggles. For now, the practice is largely comfortable defining the "rural" against the "urban" as a negative space that fuels the active city. Land defense camps, and perhaps Standing Rock most of all (so far), invert this relationship by foregrounding the Indigenous homeland and our responsibility to channel our resources—that which is extracted—back to the center. In cities, Indigenous people have long built community and solidarity by mutual care. For decades, this has meant finding each other through the little signs we show in public: a common code of quilled earrings and tournament jackets that, to outsiders, is blurred to the point of meaninglessness in the urban fabric. After Standing Rock, Indigenous people have suddenly come alive again to the non-Indigenous who surround us; this is as unsettling as it is vital to our success in reclaiming sovereignty.

For the land defense camp, allyship is meaningful when relationships are built through work; especially now, this is not limited to physical presence at the frontline. The absurdity of the outsized military deployment against Standing Rock’s camps is that, despite the trauma it causes to people in these spaces of healing, it is powerless against the Indigenous mobilization it seeks to crush. Policing can only repeat patterns of settler violence and thereby stage images that echo their legacies into the wider world’s consciousness. Land defenders travel the same highways that carry tanks to Oceti Sakowin; we turn Facebook into a platform for citizen journalism even as it is incompetently monitored by police and censored at their request; we attach our bodies to earth-moving equipment and to the glass doors of Manhattan banks. A land defense camp exists to reject violence against living things by bodily confrontation. When we shout “mni wiconi!”—across camp, across a bank lobby, across continents—it is a declaration of rights and responsibilities to Standing Rock and an affirmation of Lakota leadership in the defense thereof. A contract signed elsewhere, created by those whose investments in the world travel along abstract webs, can never have meaningful authority here in Indian Country. A need to mark territory (the inside of an unfinished pipe; the underside of a river; reservation land flooded but resilient) even after attacking and evicting its protectors, even during a judicial process, betrays the weakness of their claim. Our ties to the life of the land define our political identity, and this identity demands that we defend our steward relationships in the ways our ancestors did, and in new ways too. The governments and companies enacting violence against Indigenous people reject these structures of relationality, and therefore our architecture remains illegible to them.

Finally, the images we produce of the land defense camp matter. At worst, they conjure that toxically romantic species, the Western Vanishing Indian. At best, they call us home from many distant places, both physical and mental. Somewhere in between, they compel the guilt and curious goodwill of settler-descendants to show up, to learn, and often to take more than they give in the process. Though media attention is vital to the creation (through education) of new allies, its absence does not force us to disappear into the romanticized mist; we are rebuilding the homeland, and you are not necessarily invited.

Two horses and their young men at camp. Photo: Jaida Grey Eagle


[1] A tarpee is a sturdy plywood and tarp rendition of the traditional lodge.

[2] The Bureau of Indian Affairs (https://www.bia.gov/)

[3] For a run-down of North American treaty history, read sections “Indigenous History of North America” and “United States Indian Policy, Sovereignty and Treaty-Making” in the #Standing Rock Syllabus.

[4] Lakota language: The Missouri River

[5]  The nearest tribal headquarters to Upper Manhattan is the Ramapough Lenape Nation (25.5 miles), home to the nearest active land defense camp, Split Rock Prayer Camp; followed by the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s reservation on Long Island (91 miles).



f-architecture (alt: feminist architecture collaborative) is a three-woman research enterprise aimed at disentangling the contemporary spatial politics and technological appearances of bodies, intimately and globally. Partners/caryatids/bffs Gabrielle Printz, Virginia Black and Rosana Elkhatib run their practice out of the GSAPP Incubator at NEW INC, an initiative of the New Museum.