A little over a year ago in North Dakota, as many as 4,000 activists were hunkered down in Sacred Stone Camp during a harsh winter. They were part of a grassroots movement rallying to combat the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was designed to run directly under the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and near the Standing Rock Reservation. Indigenous activists, called water protectors, and their allies endured police brutality and the more unforgiving elements of a Northern landscape to speak truth to power that winter; they soldiered on until December 4, 2016, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shut down the pipeline construction.
This victory for the water protectors was one that President Trump would reverse within his first month in office. The pipeline was completed in April of this year; oil has been flowing through it since May.
To some observers, the #NoDAPL movement seemed like an anomaly, a flash in the pan for Native-led activism—but nothing could be further from the truth. What happened in Standing Rock launched an explosive year for Native American activism, and it was built on an ancestral history of resistance. A new crop of leaders has risen in the fight for environmental justice, inspired by the events of last winter and dedicated to changing their communities and protecting the land we inhabit. They have created youth organizations and staged demonstrations from Washington, D.C. to North Dakota.
Many of them are women.
One of the young leaders in this community is activist Eryn Wise—the Next Generations Coordinator for Honor the Earth, an organizer for the on-the-ground efforts of water protectors in Minnesota and the official Iná (or “Mom”) to the International Indigenous Youth Council (IIYC).
“We still had so much hope that we were going to effectively stop the Dakota Access Pipeline before the drill got under the water,” Wise told Ms. “It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that we were politicized in Standing Rock, but the waves of PTSD that have come since leaving camp feel unending.” But despite the immense mental taxation that affected those who stood at Standing Rock, it sparked something in the water protectors.
“The fires that were lit in Standing Rock still burn,” she said, “just in different home communities.”
One burns on in Wisconsin, home to Line 3—a pipeline built in 1961, and with significant structural problems that threaten water sources and the surrounding land. The oil company Enbridge wants to abandon the pipeline and build a new one without addressing Line 3’s structural problems; seeing this threat, Indigenous youth stepped up and promoted awareness to the issue in a compelling way. A 250-mile canoe journey led by Native American youth raised awareness and got the larger community engaged.
Some other feats of activism include the Native Nations Rise March on Washington after
After Trump signed orders to move forward with the construction not just of DAPL but also Keystone XL, the Native Nations Rise March on Washington took the National Mall by storm. A grassroots Indigenous tipi gathering was held in front of the White House. At the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, Indigenous leaders held their own sister march demandeing sovereignty and respect of the land—and proclaimed that they were standing for the Seven Generations, referring to how any decision made will affect seven generations down the line.
“Nonviolent actions going off nationally in opposition of pipelines, fracking and mining… that no one has died continuing to do their work,” Wise remembers. “Everyday I wake up and to find myself and my friends alive is a triumph. Coming out of Standing Rock still standing, fighting and fucking with the status quo makes me feel triumphant as hell.”
Wise’s sense of triumph and her dedication to environmental justice is, no doubt, in part shaped by her relationship to another revolutionary woman: Winona LaDuke, the executive director of Honor the Earth, who has been an activist for decades and continues to stand for Native American rights. (“Someone needs to explain to me why wanting clean drinking water makes you and activist,” LaDuke has famously said, “and why proposing to destroy water with chemical warfare doesn’t make you a corporate terrorist.”)
That women of every generation have become leaders in the Indigenous community should come as no surprise—to those looking in or those speaking out. “Women are the sacred life givers,” Wise explained, “protectors, innovators, caretakers and inherent leaders. If we understand that this earth is our mother, we recognize the need for women in our life. It’s no secret that we can’t live without our earth, so how do we anticipate living without our women. Female leadership is an imperative facet to success in any effort, not just anti-fossil fuels work.”
2017 also included a major oil spill—approximately 210,000 gallons of oil erupted from Keystone XL in South Dakota, the largest oil spill by the pipeline to date. The oil spill was below-ground, but some had surfaced to the grass above. Five days after the leak, the new Keystone XL was approved by a narrow margin of 3-2 on the one-year anniversary of Standing Rock’s victory march.
Activists are already vowing to stage a similar standoff like Standing Rock if construction of the Keystone XL begins, and Wise is already committed to showing up.
“If I can find time for self-care and stop pipelines,” she said, “that’s all I can hope to do. My feelings towards it [Standing Rock] is that the movement was the single most important event of my life and I’ll spend the rest of my time on this earth wishing I had been there earlier and stayed there longer. In years to come, people are going to review what happened at Standing Rock with reverence and I’ll be able to proudly proclaim that not only was I there, but I returned to myself there. It was like a homecoming of sorts that I’ll never know the likes of again.”
Sarah Chavera Edwards is a slightly off-kilter Mexican American writer who calls Phoenix home.