As the name of the hair salon fittingly suggests, customers who walk through the doors of The Hair Place and More at 3166 22nd St., are usually in for much more than a trim.

A mural depicting indigenous traditions decorates the wall opposite the salon’s entrance and is placed intentionally to greet customers and to evoke questions. Handmade jewelry and native artwork exhibited on its wall space give the salon a bit of a gallery feel.

“I’ve had young people come in – they are Navajo and Pueblo tribe descendants– to paint my mural because I needed something that reflected who I am,” explained proprietor Debbie Santiago, a descendant of both Nevada’s Washoe Tribe and the Midwestern Osage Nation.

For some four decades, the 54-year old Mission resident has used the space to showcase her Native American ancestry. “I feel that it is my calling to educate people,” she said.

But in recent weeks, Santiago’s calling has shifted from the role of cultural ambassador to that of an activist. She is currently asking her customers for donations – blankets, thermals, jackets, scarves and financial contributions  – to send along with family members headed to North Dakota, where they plan to stand in solidarity with another native tribe in its ongoing resistance to a $3.7 billion pipeline project, slated to be built on their sacred lands.

For the last few months, members of North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their allies have protested the Dakota Access Pipeline because they say developers bypassed a tribal approval process.

Intended to transport some 570,000 of oil across four states daily, the pipeline’s construction imperils the drinking water of a nearby reservation.

Hundreds of protesters from across the country have trekked to camps along the Missouri River, near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Among the protesters are Santiago’s brother and sister, and a third sibling will make the journey this month – Santiago hopes to collect as many donations as she can to send along with her.  

“We have a really small window this month to get these things out there,” said Santiago. “Winter is coming, and the winters are harsh out there.”

Along with winter clothes and camping gear, Santiago is asking her customers to donate water. Reports from her brother, who recently returned from Standing Rock, and others who remain there, about infiltrators in the encampments have left her fearing for the protester’s safety.

“They need help,” said Santiago. “I’ve been hearing that certain people have been sneaking  in there, pretending that they are there to help but they are not. They are poisoning or doing something to the drinking water there.”

Santiago said that she is frustrated but not surprised with how little attention the large-scale, peaceful protest has received by mainstream media.

To date, numerous protesters have been arrested, and social media has been the biggest tool in documenting the happenings inside of the camps. Santiago said her brother reported that some protesters were maced by the pipeline’s company’s private security guards.

“ [Police] are stopping people at a checkpoints, putting things in their cars, then saying ‘you are terrorists,” she said. “The media is not reporting on that.”

Santiago cannot join the protesters because she is caring for her mother, but said she is hoping to help out in other ways.

The hairstylist said that her own parents collected necessities to support Native American protesters during the 1969 Occupation of Alcatraz for land rights.

“My parents went around and asked for water, clothes, other provisions, then we would take it down to the boat,” she said.

Santiago remembers her childhood home at 17th and Utah streets as being a safe space for native people – or anyone– in need. “We let stay whoever needed a place to stay,” she said.

When asked what she hopes that her customers  will take away from conversations about Standing Rock, Santiago said she aims to instill them with “compassion.”
“Have compassion for who we are as native people, and have compassion for the land,” she said. “We are the caregivers of our land. It’s not only about allowing us to be on our land, it’s about letting us be.