North Dakota’s Fury Road

Fans of dystopian cinema will recognize the scene: a mismatched collection of somber and sunbaked subjects, most of them left long behind by the masters of a civilization well into its senescence, erect a barricade of wooden pallets, broken tables, and rusted vehicles across a cracked highway as the sun goes down over a big sky.

Anticipating their barricade’s demolition even as they build it, these kerchiefed protestors are hoping to hold back at least temporarily an advancing battery of militiamen—outfitted with automatic weapons, gas masks, flash grenades, and Long Range Acoustical Devices—in an effort to protect their water, which they see as threatened by the oil pipeline being constructed less than a mile behind the garrison. When completed, this “black snake,” as the self-described water protectors call it, would be capable of transporting half a million barrels of oil per day not only through indigenous territory, but under the Missouri River and waterways from North Dakota to Illinois.

Thus do the protectors resist, restaging events that have occurred so many times before on these same plains.

“As we’re building the barricade, our new friends give us one rule: build it up as much as we want, but their elders say no fire. We agree to this,” one anonymous participant in this same anti-Dakota Access Pipeline (or #NoDAPL) protest wrote for CrimethInc. in October 2016 from the protest’s ground zero—Standing Rock, North Dakota. “At this point, people are crowded up the hill at the first checkpoint; we begin to load our barricade materials into the street, leaving one lane open to enable our people to make it to the other side before the cops [arrive]. We watch from a distance as the armored vehicles approach the crowd up ahead. Then a blue car that had been up near the first checkpoint speeds down the hill toward us. It parks, blocking half the road. A Native woman gets out and stabs her own tires with a knife. A team removes her license plates, and soon another car blocks the other side of the road in similar fashion. The cops are heading toward us, and word spreads that the other barricade is already on fire.”[1]

Later describing several horrifying instances of police-on-Native violence, the CrimethInc. writer explains how “The chaos is overwhelming. A young warrior on horseback is tazed and falls to the ground. All around us, people are screaming from the effects of pepper spray. Flash-bang grenades are bursting in the air, mingling with rubber bullets and beanbag rounds. The screaming matches continue between those who want to fight back and those who want to be arrested while praying. The cops are already in the camp.”[2]

Beyond verifying that Native America is still subject to a colonial power nearly two decades into the twenty-first century, Standing Rock, as an event, demonstrates the degree to which North Dakota has come to resemble the wasteland envisioned not so much by T. S. Eliot as by George Miller.


Highway 1806 in North Dakota  |  Photo: Angus Mordant, The New York Times

Consider the conclusion of Fury Road, the fourth installment in Miller’s bleak Mad Max franchise. At the end of the 2015 film a caravan of environmentalists, feminists, lapsed fascists, and mercenaries is returning whence it came, speeding away from a punked-out parade of pale War Boys who are each the product of antagonist Immortan Joe’s prolific loins. The chase was inaugurated when, 48 hours before, Charlize Theron’s mutinous lieutenant Furiosa absconded from Joe’s citadel with his prized breeding females hidden in a secret compartment of her “war rig.” Enraged at the theft of his chattel, Joe and his army hurtled after the traitorous Furiosa immediately, chasing her across an unforgiving and tumultuous badlands in battered and retrofitted bone carts, motorbikes, and doom-buggies.

After Furiosa and crew reach what was supposed to be the mythic “Green Place” for which they were searching only to discover that it is now a swamp, the rig had reversed course and is rumbling now back toward the citadel where the water is plentiful and clean. Joe’s confederates are still in pursuit.

Filling in for Furiosa behind the wheel of her massive semi-truck, Nux, a lowly War Boy who had come to see the despotism of his horse-toothed father and thus joined up with the runaways, makes a fateful decision:  as the parade of ugly autos reaches a very narrow mountain pass, War Boys close in. Quickly, each of the film’s remaining heroes are transferred to the caravan’s lead vehicle—Joe’s own, which had been commandeered by Furiosa and Max—and Nux prepares to sacrifice himself in order to deliver Furiosa and those in her custody. “Witness me,” the tumor-necked youth whispers to the breeders through cracked glass as they watch him with anxious appreciation from the lead car before Nux wrenches the rig’s steering wheel rightward, rolling the truck in the women’s wake and jamming the pass in a twisted heavy metal barricade that would distance dissidents from despots.[3]


Furiosa and her War Rig in Fury Road (Warner Bros., 2015)

So it is in North Dakota two decades into the twenty-first century. For not only the state’s rampant truck culture, jagged and often treeless landscape, and ostensible takeover[4] by neo-Nazis, but the very literal crises of oil, water, and human chattel are today emerging across the state on a regular basis. Lighting up the prairie night with flared natural gas and fracking its way toward desertification, that is, North Dakota is helping accelerate the arrival of the filmmaker’s post-apocalyptic take on the future, and in so doing reminding us that Miller’s films were never so much about the horizon—or the Middle East—as that which is already at hand in the American Middle West: environmental collapse, violent clashes over oil and water between elites and the underclass so-called, and the explosion in human trafficking.

As expected, media coverage of such phenomena—the #NoDAPL protests especially—typically focused on their more dramatic aspects. The security apparatus’s unmuzzled German Shepherds, the kevlared cops attacking protectors (tazing them, dousing them with freezing water in subzero temperatures), and the alleged strip-searching of female protectors all made for powerful news stories.

Lost in most of the coverage of the slow-motion attack on indigenous rights and clean water, though, has been the fact that in challenging the logic of capital and obstructing with their bodies the functioning of power, the protectors demonstrate the degree to which North Dakota has become Ground Zero for Miller’s vision—an authoritarian elite hoarding natural resources at the same time as it wages war on its own people, all while the planet continues to heat up.

If not Standing Rock and North Dakota’s own fury road—Highway 1806—remember the places where the oil destined for such pipelines continues to be collected. Across the more than two hundred thousand square mile cache of earth in northwestern North Dakota and eastern Montana known as the Bakken Formation, tanker trucks rumble over crumbling roads and across a typically desolate “badlands” that seems to generate its own violence. Environmental consequences aside, the human cost of North Dakota’s commitment to the ideology of extraction had been on display for years. Human trafficking, drug use, and all categories of crime have boomed alongside men and oil in communities like Williston, Tioga, and Dickinson in the last decade as a lack of housing led to the establishment of dozens of makeshift labor camps populated by itinerant and at times amphetamined workers. As the Washington Post reported in 2014, human trafficking notwithstanding violent crime in the northwestern part of the state increased 121% from 2005 to 2011. Likewise, emergency room volumes more than doubled at hospitals in and around Williston and Minot in that time.[5]

These traumatic “externalities,” as economists put it, mean little to the firms and propagandists that still have much to gain from plundering a planet or selling young girls to so many johns. As one editorial, penned by a pair of local businessmen wrote without irony in the Grand Forks Herald, “The oil and gas industry continues to have a significant, positive impact on our entire state, east to west.”[6] “Dakota Access will provide benefits throughout the state economy,” the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce president added in a letter sent to newspapers across the state in the wake of the police attack on water protectors. “It will make more areas of the Bakken economical to drill and recruit more capital investment, thereby creating long-lasting production jobs and attracting new drilling rigs and the 100-200 jobs per rig.”[7]

Buying into the cynical abstractions of such propagandists—do human trafficking, violence, and increased carbon emissions count as “significant, positive impact[s]”—has been not only North Dakota’s state legislature, Governor, and Washington delegation, but America’s new President. Despite the Army Corps of Engineers halting pipeline construction in December 2016 in the name of acquiring first a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement on DAPL, Donald Trump gave a green light to both the Dakota Access and the stalled Keystone XL pipelines two days into his Presidency. And it wasn’t just oil pipelines that Trump targeted in the first month of his administration: Trump also killed the Stream Protection Rule designed to prevent coal mining operations from polluting waterways at the same time as he nominated climate change denier Scott Pruitt to manage the Environmental Protection Administration. Even before his election, Trump likewise had made clear his intention of weakening not only the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, but rescinding several other Obama-era environmental proposals and threatened to withdraw from the carbon emission-reducing Paris Agreement.

Without question, to follow through on such a platform, to engage in an ethical gymnastics that emphasizes “jobs” and “the economy” over human wellbeing, is to double-down on Immortan Joe’s efforts to commodify and control life and force skeptical citizens to prop up a dying industry. It is to goad upheaval by exacerbating the scarcity and conflict dramatized by Miller and further destabilize a planet whose deterioration is already resulting in corporate efforts to privatize water—as with Nestlé Group, whose Board chairman recently argued that “access to water is not a human right.”[8]

The protectors feel otherwise, of course, shouting “Mni Wiconi”—water is life—and placing their bodies between the soil and the implements designed to deface it. So should it be noted that more often than not, helping protect both the planet and human beings from exploitation and violence in and around the man camps and Standing Rock are female bodies. That is to say, much in the way Fury Road valorizes the female response to a fascist, scorched-earth patriarchy, the protests at Standing Rock and the fight against the fallout from North Dakota’s oil boom too are coordinated primarily by women.

The #NoDAPL protests began with a single woman—Standing Rock Historical Preservation Officer LaDonna Brave Bull Allard—who founded Sacred Stone in April 2016. “If we are to live as a people, we must have water, without water we die,” Brave Bull Allard told EcoWatch in October 2016. Likewise, Phyllis Young, the organizer of Sacred Stone’s sister camp Oceti Sakowin, is known alternately as “Woman Who Stands By the Water.”[9] This is why opposition to the pipelines and the extraction that literally produces sprawling ghettoes of men are—like Fury Road—not merely anti-capitalist in scope but feminist. Or, as Brave Bull Allard puts it, “we are women who stand because the water is female, and so we must stand with the water.”

This insurrection was exactly what Miller seemed to have in mind when he designed Theron’s character in particular. Her head shaved and skin blackened, her arm missing and clothes tattered in awful anticipation of protector Sophia Wilanski, Furiosa is not only the repressed returned, as psychoanalysis might put it, but the resurrection a body tortured and burned alive by an equally totalitarian and brutal patriarchy in fifteenth century France, as filmmaker Carl Dreyer reminded his audience in 1928 in The Passion of Joan of Arc.[10]


Renee Falconetti in Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

For just as Joan of Arc burned so will the planet, Miller prophesies, citing nuclear war as the cause of the desertification and desperation he screens. “Our bones are poisoned,” one of the many disembodied voices put in in the film’s intro, referencing the Armageddon that turned the planet into a badlands. Appropriate it is, then, that such an apocalypse, should it occur, might very well connect to North Dakota as well. While its stockpiles have been halved, North Dakota retains many of the warheads that during the Cold War made the state one of the most nuclear armed swaths of land in the world. As many as 150 missiles still wait expectantly in underground silos in North Dakota, one third of them within the increasingly fracked Bakken Formation.[11]

So it is that, in the end, North Dakota today looks poised to compete for the infamous Triple Crown of offenses that Fury Road suggests converted a verdant Green Place into a desert: oil extraction, water contamination, and a continuing apology for the stockpiling of atomic weapons. Such a legacy should embarrass the state and its developers, Miller suggests, making clear the guilt and shame his titular character feels in having contributed to the collapse and failed those he was charged with protecting. “You promised to help us, Max,” the ghost of a young girl reminds the drifter early in the film as another voice adds, “Where were you, Max?” These are the voices that will haunt North Dakota as well if the state and its people continue down the road they have paved for themselves.

Where were you? This question prefaces a more poignant one scrawled about the breeders’ chamber within Joe’s citadel: “Who killed the world?” In the last analysis, this is Miller’s question to his audience, as should it be the only question each of us living today in North Dakota must ask ourselves. ⍟


[1]Anonymous, “Report Back from the Battle for Sacred Ground.” CrimethInc. 1 Nov. 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by George Miller (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2015), DVD.

[4] C.S. Hagen, “White Supremacists’ Hit List of Small Towns,” HPR, 25 Jan. 2017:

[5] Sari Horwitz, “Dark Side of the Boom,” Washington Post, 29 Sept. 2014: A1.

[6] Barry Wilfahrt and Bruce Gjovig, “Pipeline boosts oil industry, which boosts all of North Dakota,” Grand Forks Herald, 28 Oct. 2016: A4.

[7] Scott Meske, “Why N.D. Needs the Pipeline,” Grand Forks Herald, 31 Oct. 2016: A4.

[8] Michael McCarthy, “The danger of water as a product; Definition vital,” Vancouver Sun, 29 July 2015: B7.

[9] Emily Arasim and Osprey Orielle Lake. “15 Indigenous Women on the Frontlines of the Dakota Access Pipeline Resistance,” EcoWatch, 29 Oct. 2016.

[10] Sarah Sunshine Manning, “Bone and Muscle in Woman’s Arm ‘Blown Away’ As Hundreds Injured on Backwater Bridge,” Indian Country Media Network, 22 Nov. 2016. See also The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer (1928; New York: Criterion/Janus, 1999), DVD.

[11] Lauren Donovan, “Missile sites, oil wells co-existing,” Bismarck Tribune, 3 Mar. 2013: A1.