The squandered funds raised around Standing Rock

What we learned about accountability from a nine-month investigation into #NoDAPL.


Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

Michael Wood beams with confidence. He walks with purpose, and his casual smile sometimes makes you feel like he knows something you don’t. And he’s no stranger to bold actions, from helping raise over a million dollars and galvanizing thousands of veterans to brave a blizzard at Standing Rock in 2016, to inviting two journalists to come interview him in person, after much of the money went unaccounted for.

On Friday, High Country News released an investigative story on crowdfunding efforts around Standing Rock, the culmination of nine months of reporting by Assistant Editor Paige Blankenbuehler. Blankenbuehler mined online data for months and found that more than 138,000 people donated nearly $8 million to support protests of the Dakota Access pipeline. A recent APTN story found similar numbers. Not all of the money went where it was meant to go, and not all of it was properly spent. Thousands and thousands of dollars were raised for an assortment of “services” for the #NoDAPL protests, from a chiropractor who wanted to treat protesters, to a business that tests drugs for festival-goers. While I was reporting there in 2016, there was certainly a sense from Indigenous activists that the stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline was being co-opted or used simply as an opportunity to party, at least in part. Our HCN investigation does little, unfortunately, to disprove this.

Graham Smith

The organization Wood helped found, Veterans Stand for Standing Rock, raised $1.4 million, it’s hard to know where the money went. In her reporting Blankenbuehler learned that “people have a much greater capacity for charity than they do for accountability,” as HCN Editor-In-Chief Brian Calvert explains in his note accompanying the story in the upcoming issue. Standing Rock was a galvanizing movement that reignited historical traumas and injustices, and it's important we understand how it unfolded. That includes anyone who potentially could have taken advantage of Standing Rock’s momentum for personal gain. In that endeavor, we welcome your help.

High Country News has compiled GoFundMe data on crowdfunding campaigns that raised money for the #NoDAPL movement. We’re doing so because our investigation on just one group took nearly a year to report. Blankenbuehler went through financial and IRS records and tracked down dozens of volunteers and business partners.

In December, Blankenbuehler and I flew to Los Angeles to interview Wood in person over a two-day period, which allowed us to really explain where that money went—and where it didn’t. Wood had no experience starting a nonprofit, organizing a large-scale demonstration, or creating an accountable process for reimbursement and distribution of funds. “I don’t think (an audit) is a valid use of money,” Wood told us, sitting in the Southern California sun. “(Funds) were donated to me to do what I wanted with the thing.”

If a man of Wood’s limited organizing experience, illustrated by the implosion of Veterans Stand, was able to use the goodwill of thousands of people to raise more than a million dollars, there’s no telling what other stories wait in the data. We encourage you to read more about our investigation, and send us any tips you have on stories we should investigate.


Note: This column has been corrected to fix an incorrect reference to the pipeline; it was the Dakota Access Pipeline, not the Keystone XL. 

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

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