Since April, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, environmentalists, and allies have peacefully protested the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The crude oil pipeline, which is a private venture belonging to the Texas-based company Energy Transfer, is projected to run through four states and connect production areas from North Dakota to Illinois. Construction has already destroyed sacred Sioux religious grounds and treaty-protected territory. The pipeline endangers North America's longest river, the Missouri River, which is the primary water source for the Standing Rock reservation and for other communities downstream.
“I have a two-year-old daughter, and every morning she wakes up and she asks me or her father for a cup of water,” Bobbi Jean Three Legs, a Standing Rock Sioux youth leader, told me over the phone. “I thought to myself, What am I going to do when we wake up and I can't give her a cup of water because our water will be damaged? That got me involved.”
Given the long history of pipeline leaks in the U.S., including last year's Gold King Mine spill and Yellowstone River spill, pipelines that don’t leak are an exception to the rule. “If this river is affected, it will be devastating,” said Olgala Lakota rapper and activist Nataanii Means. “We're not fighting for our constitutional rights, we're fighting for our basic rights to live, our basic access to clean water.”
“The invaders have stolen billions of acres from this land’s first peoples, and to hell if they think they will poison the little we have left...We survived their white relatives. We will survive their progeny, too.” —Simon Moya-Smith
If you haven't heard of the DAPL, it’s no fault of your own — the $3.8 billion project was discreetly approved by the U.S. government earlier this year, despite many concerns and without consent from the Native nation impacted by its construction. And the nonviolent, community-oriented resistance at the Sacred Stone and Red Warrior prayer camps in North Dakota has gone largely undocumented by major mainstream media outlets. The arduous, crucial task of exposing the Dakota Access Pipeline has been led by indigenous activist and communities, trending as #noDAPL on social media.
It hasn’t been an easy fight. So far, North Dakota has cut all state-owned water supplies to the protest site; many have been arrested; and private security believed to have been hired by Energy Transfer attacked protesters with dogs and pepper spray. Today, over 2,000 people, including elders and children from dozens of nations, are occupying the prayer camps in Cannonball, North Dakota with a primary purpose: protecting the water. The action is the largest gathering of Native Americans in over 100 years, and is becoming a space for Native youth to fight environmental racism on behalf of current and future generations.
On September 9, a federal judge ruled against the Stand Rock Sioux's request to block construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. Justice and Interior Departments and the Army ordered a halt on construction. To better understand the historic movement, we asked six indigenous activists working at the forefront of #noDAPL why it was important for the Standing Rock Sioux to take a stance of resistance.
1. Bobbi Jean Three Legs, Sanding Rock Sioux
Activist, lead organizer of the Oceti Sakowin youth 2,000 mile relay to Washington, D.C. for Rezpect Our Water
The one thing I always think about is that this pipeline was supposed to go through Bismarck and Mandan, [North Dakota], but then they said this would affect their water and they had too much of a population up there. How come they didn't think the same way about us? Me being Native American and from Standing Rock, it makes me feel, like, “Well, we're human beings, too. We deserve a future, too. The way you guys are thinking about your population and your water is the same way you should be thinking about us, too. We're no different. We need water just like you to survive.” It’s nothing different at all. And this isn't just a Native issue. This is an issue for everybody because this is everybody's water.
We decided to do a run to Washington. This is where all the officials are, the ones that make these decisions, so why not try and go there and change their minds and hearts about how we see this and what our perspective is? Educate the people who are non-Native, educate them about us, educate them about how [the Dakota Access Pipeline] is going to affect us the most.
When you're at the Sacred Stone Camp, you can just feel all the energy. Sometimes, I wish that all the Natives that have to go through all the change first were here in bodies — that they got to feel this feeling again, and look at all the tipis and the tents and all the people. I'm pretty sure it would feel like the old ways. That's what it feels like to me.
2. Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota
Advocate, culture editor for Indian Country Today, CNN Opinion Columnist
The people of Standing Rock, including other Native American and non-Native American allies, are challenging Energy Transfer Partners over its Dakota Access Pipeline for three paramount reasons. Firstly, the construction and placement of the pipeline is in violation of the Ft. Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868. Secondly, it threatens to desecrate ancient Native American graves. And thirdly, and most importantly, when [the pipeline] inevitably breaks or leaks, the crude oil that will spill out of it will poison the Missouri River, which is the Standing Rock community's main water source.
Today, we stand as indigenous peoples against yet another violation of yet another treaty. Numerous Native American nations and tribes stand side by side in this century as our ancestors once did in centuries of yore. We have unified ourselves against the corporate arm of the United States. This is our ancestral homeland, not theirs. The invaders have stolen billions of acres from this land's first peoples, and to hell if they think they will poison the little we have left.
As an editor and reporter, I use my platform as well as social media to post and share information about the violations at work regarding the pipeline, and about the resilience of Native Americans today. We have an unprecedented power to shape the narrative and combat false reports in real-time. It's imperative that we embrace the influence of social media and utilize it as a tool to disseminate our own story and to raise awareness of the continued violations of the rights of indigenous peoples on this continent.
We survived their white relatives. We will survive their progeny, too.
3. Nataanii Means, Oglala Lakota and Navajo
Hip-hop artist and activist
We're always at the front lines. Always. No matter where we are, no matter what fight it is. There are places on the Navajo nation where you can't even drink the water, same as other reservations in the country. So once you feel that loss of water, once you feel that loss of life, you know how important it is.
The camp is beautiful. You see not only the Oceti Sakowin people of the Lakota and Dakota nations, but you also see the Pawnee, the Comache, you see the Kiowa, you see the Navajos, you see so many different nations there to support. They've had shows for the youth that are there and give them a platform to speak. I know what it's like to be them — you feel like your opinion isn't valuable in those kinds of situations and that you're supposed to be quiet and learn and listen and look. But we've held events where we've allowed [youth] to get up and either talk or say some poetry, even perform. To hear them is really powerful because that's who we say we do it for, the wakanyeja, the sacred youth, the sacred kids.
To hear their power and their words at such a young age, it's definitely a big difference from when I was that age. You can see how conscious this generation is at such a young age, and it's beautiful to see them stepping up and even taking on roles in the camp: security, cleaning up, doing whatever is necessary for the elders. It's very empowering. I commend Standing Rock for being at the forefront of this, and I've commended the youth for being at the forefront of this because they started it. They started this whole awareness about the pipeline.
4. Naelyn Pike, Chiricahua Apache
Right now is a critical time where the indigenous people of the world are unifying. Indigenous people are trying to protect what is left, like I’m trying to protect my homeland, Oak Flat and Mount Graham, [Arizona], from telescopes and mining companies. These entities want to destroy what is sacred to my people. This is why I watch my grandfather, Wendsler Nosie, Sr., work tirelessly to protect his people and to protect what is alive. I see how hard he works, but also how strong he is, and he’s someone I look up to. I’ve got to keep fighting though prayer and spirituality just like him.
For the Standing Rock people, [the Dakota Access Pipeline] will directly affect them. We’re at a time when all of our natural resources are scarce and our water is almost all completely contaminated. This pipeline will only bring more corruption and destruction to what is left. They are standing strong to protect their homeland – having their allies of different tribes from all over come together and stand with them only makes them stronger. I know that when I was there in Standing Rock, everything is in prayer. You see the water, you see the life, and all the children laughing and playing. Now, tell me that is not sacred. Tell me that is not a gift from the Creator.
As a youth standing by the elders, [the Standing Rock Sioux protest] gives me hope. Looking at each other as brothers and sisters, we’re taking that fight that is now in our hands for those that are yet to be born. I believe that if we keep our prayers and spirituality to protect these lands, we will win.
5. Bethany Yellowtail, Crow and Northern Cheyenne
The Standing Rock Sioux are protecting their water and sacred lands because it is their inherent responsibility. They are facing it head-on with dignity, just as their ancestors did before them. I am using my platform as a designer and [owner of] a fashion brand to spread awareness. We also just launched a T-shirt campaign — the sales we generate will be donated to support the resistance and their legal defense.
It’s amazing to see Native people come together. It’s monumental. Historically, the Crow, one of my tribes, and the Sioux were enemies. But for the first time in history, our nations joined together to take care of our first medicine, water. We know our responsibility to the water and the land. That’s why so many indigenous people have come together. We are the original caretakers — not owners, but caretakers and protectors.
There is unity among our nations, although we may not agree on everything. And despite criticism, racism, and some of the ugliness that has transpired, our people will remain resilient. The [Missouri River] water brings life to everyone, not just indigenous people. It is worth standing for.
6. Frank Waln, Sicangu Lakota
Hip-hop artist and activist
The Oceti Sakowin are protesting all pipelines coming through our ancestral homelands because we have a right to fresh water and a healthy life, like all other human beings. Indigenous people understand that the earth treats you the way you treat it. [We] have cultures and relationships to the land and water on Turtle Island that are older and stronger that the United States of America. We're simply doing what we've been doing for thousands of years — taking care of the land and water.
The Dakota Access Pipeline protests give me so much hope for our future and indigenous people for many reasons. This whole movement was started by youth from the Standing Rock Rez running from their [reservation] to Washington, D.C. to tell the government they weren't going to passively let this pipeline be built in their home. Three years ago, not very many young indigenous people in the plains were speaking out about natural energy extraction in our homelands because we didn't have access to the information to learn about what was happening in our backyards.
I wrote a song about the government trying to build [the Keystone XL] pipeline through our reservation back in 2013 called “Oil 4 Blood.” I wrote the song because I was frustrated that the government could endanger our health and no one knew about it or was talking about it. Now, we have powerful movements being started by youth from our communities. Our people are waking up, resisting colonialism, and organizing like I've never seen in my lifetime.
The fact that indigenous communities still need to defend our ancestral homelands from government invasion is proof that we still live in a settler colony that is still actively colonizing our land. Even without national media attention and proper resources, we still rise up and protect the land and water.