What Standing Rock meant for those who took part

Protesters from afar didn’t just take a stand in North Dakota — they brought the movement back home.

Editor's note: On Jan. 24, President Donald Trump signed memorandums to advance construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as Keystone XL. Read more here.

Dec. 8 dawned cloudy on the North Dakota plains. A blizzard two days before brought negative temperatures and wind gusts up to 50 mph, and now the temperature hovered at about 3 degrees. Cars inched past drifts on the highway, shuttling people and provisions in and out of sprawling encampments with names like Rosebud, Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin, where an estimated 10,000 to 14,000 people had assembled to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, or “DAPL.” The 1,172-mile project, designed to carry crude oil from the Bakken fields south, was nearly complete, except for the section that the self-described “water protectors” — members of the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies — had blocked for months. The pipeline would tunnel beneath the tribe’s water supply, raising the specter of spills, and through ancestral grounds. Just four days earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers had denied a key easement for the pipeline, giving a minor victory to the Standing Rock protesters.


Ten miles south, near a tiny community called Cannon Ball, the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort was still crowded with activists who had sheltered there during the blizzard. A mother of four boys packed up her belongings, while a Standing Rock Sioux elder talked quietly with reporters and an Omaha woman dragged on a cigarette near a row of purring slot machines. Two people who had fallen in love during the storm — a 19-year-old from South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Reservation and a 20-year-old from Minneapolis — lounged on a blanket in the lobby, having slept there the night before along with hundreds of others.

The water protectors now faced a choice: Go home, or stay until the pipeline was definitively halted. Either way, for most people here, Standing Rock wasn’t over. The protests, which had grown through the fall and early winter, had deeply inspired many of the activists now hunkered down in the casino, people like Christian Johnson, 20, from Red Valley, Arizona, who had recently spent a week in the Oceti Sakowin Camp. Johnson, who is Diné, or Navajo, had just come to the hotel to shower and use the internet. Tall but unassuming, and wearing a large turquoise necklace, Johnson had once worked with his father driving oil trucks. “I was pro-oil, because you’re out of high school, you want to make money,” he told me, as we sat on the floor of the casino and drank free coffee from the hotel desk. But when he heard about Standing Rock, he said, he quit his job to devote himself to the NoDAPL movement. Now he was becoming involved in similar issues at home.

The protests meanwhile inspired countless others who never touched down in the camps, who had only watched events unfold through rapid-fire social media posts and live-streamed videos. Demonstrations of solidarity flared up from remote Alaska villages to busy Florida cities. As with past social movements, NoDAPL’s fight helped catalyze and strengthen relationships within and between disparate communities, sometimes across vast distances. As one participant put it, “The camps in Standing Rock were hotbeds of Indigenous networking.”

Standing Rock, in other words, was more of a beginning than end. It was both a potent symbol for this American moment, and the start of something bigger. NoDAPL participants now hope the movement will raise the national consciousness on a broad array of Native American issues, from tribal sovereignty to environmental justice to the local impacts of the extractive industry — issues often removed from public discourse and overlooked in history books. As cars left the Prairie Knights’ parking lot, ­taking hitchhikers back to Seattle or Fort ­Collins or Flagstaff, they also carried the lessons of Standing Rock into a diverse array of communities across the country.


A signpost in the Oceti Sakowin camp bears evidence of people from hundreds of tribes who flocked to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Terray Sylvester

Seen from the air, the Navajo Nation — which spans parts of northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona and southern Utah — is a red-and-tan ­expanse of desert plain, broken by canyons, sandstone outcroppings, verdant mesas and rugged mountain ranges. The scars on this landscape reveal the long and complicated relationship between extractive industries and Indian Country — one of many reasons why the Standing Rock fight holds such strong resonance here.

Companies have scraped Navajo earth for coal since the 1960s — funding the tribal government, which has been largely pro-extraction, and dividing local communities over its environmental costs and economic benefits. Uranium mining began here after World War II and tapered off in the 1980s, leaving radioactive drinking water and cancer in the bodies of mine workers. Webs of roads in the San Juan Basin mark almost a century of enthusiastic oil and gas drilling. In 2014, a company called Saddle Butte San Juan Midstream proposed a 148-mile-long pipeline to transport crude oil. The Piñon Pipeline would have skirted Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the remains of an ancestral Puebloan society that is also part of the Diné spiritual origin story. So it was that in 2016 Piñon earned the nickname “New Mexico’s DAPL.”

Opponents scored a victory this December when the company withdrew its application, citing low oil prices. But other fights in Navajo ancestral ­territory have increased in intensity even as Standing Rock has cooled down. One of the hottest conflicts now centers on current and proposed fracking in the landscape surrounding Chaco Canyon.

Christian Johnson is one of many who have become increasingly involved in the fight against Piñon, Chaco Canyon and other energy projects, traveling back and forth between the reservation and Standing Rock. Johnson’s activism is personal, like that of many Navajos I spoke with: His grandfather and five other elders in his community, all uranium miners, died from lung cancer. In August, Johnson and a dozen other young Navajos met on Facebook, looking for rides to North Dakota and help delivering supplies to the camps. They gathered in Shiprock, New Mexico, and caravanned from there. A supporter in Chino Valley, Arizona, eventually donated a truck, and students and faculty at Diné College helped fund a recent supply run.

Kyle Mateo, Marisa Pelletier, and Rick Buckman Coe (from left) pose for a photograph in the Oceti Sakowin camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in November. Pelletier is Ojibwe. The three traveled from Vancouver, British Columbia, to oppose the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
Terray Sylvester

Others in Johnson’s community heard about his work, and his former teachers asked him to speak at his old elementary school and high school about Standing Rock and local environmental issues. “I never thought I’d have a next generation of kids looking up to me and what I’m doing,” Johnson said, when we spoke at the Prairie Knights Casino. His group is informal, but its members are thinking about making it official — calling it Sheep Camp after their tent site in North Dakota, which they named for the cabins Navajo ranchers use while tending livestock. One member, Cyrus Norcross, 28, headed to the southern tip of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, in early January, to join an Apache protest against a proposed copper mine there. Norcross is considering setting up a Sheep Camp there; his friends are establishing one in Texas to help fight the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, and have plans for another at the Grand Canyon to protest uranium mining.

Longtime Navajo activists in Arizona and New Mexico are feeling the effects of the NoDAPL-inspired uptick in activism. Carol Davis, a coordinator with the nonprofit Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (Diné CARE), is fielding more Facebook requests from people who want to get involved, and seeing greater participation at rallies and public meetings. Several members of Johnson’s group, for example, have started attending Bureau of Land Management scoping meetings for a new amendment to the Resource Management Plan for the greater Chaco Canyon area, which will govern future energy development and other uses on more than a million acres. Over 300 people came to the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, in early December to give input on that plan — a stark change from meetings earlier in the year, when attendance was “dismal,” Davis said. The venue was so packed that officials had to stop letting people in to comply with fire codes.

NoDAPL seems to have connected nonprofit groups across the reservation, Davis said. In the past, some environmentalists and social justice activists had been hesitant to work together, partly because of nuanced differences in local strategies and goals, and partly because available grants are limited, forcing groups to compete for their share. “At Standing Rock, you saw all kinds of people from all kinds of nations,” Davis said. “I think people realized everybody wants to help.”

The organization Dooda Fracking, for example, fights oil and gas development. Now, co-founder Kim Howe, 28, said she’s started working with groups like Diné CARE and Black Mesa Water Coalition, a Flagstaff-based nonprofit that opposes fossil fuel development and seeks to protect water on Navajo land. The seeds of some of these collaborations existed before Standing Rock, but they have taken on new meaning and depth since then. Sheep Camp members are also planning to work with Dooda Fracking this winter. The networking has transcended tribal boundaries, Howe said. “People from other Southwest tribes are reaching out to us (to help protect) Chaco Canyon.” The Albuquerque-based Indigenous Action Alliance, a group of young Pueblos that launched in September after members returned from Standing Rock, spent October encouraging Pueblo Indian communities to attend meetings and get involved, prompting tribal members in turn to reach out to Dooda Fracking.

Even some of the age-old barriers to organizing on the Navajo Reservation, such as unreliable access to a radio signal, let alone smartphones, cell service or internet, seem more surmountable than they have in the past, activists say. In a trip to Nageezi, New Mexico, where an oil production storage site caught fire in July and forced residents to evacuate the area, Dooda Fracking’s Howe noted people’s optimism. “I spoke with some elders and locals,” she said, “and they were like, ‘Wow, Standing Rock, that can actually happen. And it could happen here for Chaco Canyon.’ ”  


On Thanksgiving Day, an opponent of the Dakota Access Pipeline watches as police monitor ceremonies and demonstrations near the pipeline route on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Terray Sylvester

Navajo Cyrus Norcross, who visited Standing Rock several times this fall, looks at Oak Flat, in Arizona, where he’s considering setting up a "Sheep Camp" so other Navajos can help the Apache Tribe in their fight against a copper mine.
Duke Romero photo, courtesy Cyrus Norcross

On Dec. 19, the air in San Francisco’s skyscraper-shaded financial district was brisk. About 50 people huddled on the sidewalk outside the towering Wells Fargo headquarters, holding “Water Is Life,” “NoDAPL” and “Keep It In the Ground” signs. An American flag was mounted on the wall behind them next to an ATM, and a large plaque read “Wells Fargo, since 1852.” Like Standing Rock supporters have done with Wells Fargo and other banks, the demonstrators were targeting investments in the Dakota Access Pipeline, encouraging customers to take their business elsewhere.

The organizer of this event was Isabella Zizi, a 22-year-old Northern Cheyenne, Arikara and Muskogee Creek from Richmond, California, with braces and long brown hair. She had gathered people through local branches of the Indigenous rights group Idle No More, and the environmental groups Friends of the Earth and Earth Guardians. Since graduating high school, Zizi has worked in retail, but took up environmental justice causes in 2012 after a fire at a Chevron oil refinery filled her hometown with black smoke and sent thousands of people to the hospital with respiratory problems. Before a closing prayer, Zizi addressed the small crowd: “I’m just starting into this movement,” she said. “But it’s so important.”

The Bay Area is one of many major urban centers with strong NoDAPL contingents. The area has a long history of progressive activism, but the issues have particular resonance in Oakland’s well-established Native American community. Oakland and San Francisco were sanctioned destinations during a 1950s federal relocation program that brought Native Americans to cities with more job opportunities than the reservations. Some of the grassroots networks and organizations built by and for Native Americans during that time, and later during the American Indian Movement of the ’70s, are still going strong. One of those, the nonprofit American Indian Child Resource Center, provides tutoring, nutrition classes and case management for students and their families in area schools, which don’t always meet Native American needs, Manny Lieras, 38, a program coordinator there, told me.

Isabella Zizi, who is Northern Cheyenne, Arikara and Muskogee Creek, speaks at an environmental justice rally in San Francisco, California, after having reached out to fellow activists in environmental groups and has helped organize NoDAPL events with the Indigenous rights group Idle No More.
Brooke Anderson

Native youth living in mainstream white society often lack opportunities to connect to their heritage and forge identities within it, Lieras explained. But over several months of organizing caravans of Native youth from the Bay Area to Standing Rock, Lieras saw several people, especially young men, develop a new sense of self and purpose. “There’s often a lack of instruction or guidance about what being a warrior means, but out there, it was very clear what the fight was,” said Lieras, who is part Diné and Comanche. “In our tribal societies, there are certain responsibilities put on men that are just not able to be completely lived through the society we live in. Out there, a lot of men found their voice.”

Lieras’ own voice has been amplified as NoDAPL’s high profile has increased awareness of the local Indigenous population. After he returned from a trip to Standing Rock in September, one of the nation’s leading grassroots climate groups, 350.org, asked him to speak at a rally in Oakland. “I’d never heard of this organization,” Lieras said. “I was one of the only Native Americans. It was weird and awkward, but amazing to see that much support.”

It’s just one example of the new and stronger relationships forged between Native Americans and non-Natives through the fight at Standing Rock, which has drawn hundreds of tribal nations and thousands of non-Natives from across the country. Dozens of non-Native organizations have also become involved, helping to build a vast network that is unique when considered in a historical context, said Erich Steinman, a Pitzer College sociologist who specializes in social movements, race and American Indians. “Often when there have been potential collaborations in the past, a lot of people come in and don’t get what the Native people are wanting and saying.” When tribes were fighting for access to their treaty-guaranteed share of Washington state’s salmon fisheries in the 1970s, for example, both critics and some white allies miscast the struggle as one for racial equality. But Native activists thought this missed the point, and in a potentially dangerous and confusing fashion; the truth was that their fishery rights as First Peoples were ­simply ­stronger, in a legal sense, than those of non-Natives. 

A similar dynamic played out during the 1990s, in the fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska from oil drilling, said Tom Goldtooth, 63, director of the nonprofit Indigenous Environmental Network, a longstanding organization that is a major player in the NoDAPL movement. “Many environmentalists gravitated to the protection of the Porcupine caribou herd more than the recognition of Alaska Native rights,” Goldtooth said. “A lot of those organizations don’t have the accountability (to Indigenous frontline communities) built in.”

The Indigenous Environmental Network was one of several groups in the early ’90s that wanted an environmental movement focused on biodiversity and land protection to fight for human communities as well — particularly for people of color or impoverished people impacted by pollution and industry. Their work ultimately helped the nascent “environmental justice” movement become mainstream. The networks that have arisen from Standing Rock are an outcome of that work, Goldtooth said. “Even our working relationship took some time to develop with Bill McKibben and 350.org. Now, some Native people are ­working there.”

Given their history, tribes have been hesitant to seek outside help in fighting local battles. That’s why Standing Rock is such a big deal, Steinman said. The upshot? The fight there may ultimately lead to broader public understanding of tribal issues. “Events can be catalyzing to shift not just peoples’ commitments,” he said, “but their understanding.”

Protesters from several tribes gather outside the standing-room-only meeting held Dec. 2 by the Bureau of Land Management in Window Rock, Arizona, on the proposed expansion of oil and gas drilling near Chaco Canyon.
Susan Torres/ New Mexico Wildlife Federation

When I first arrived in North Dakota to report on Standing Rock, I visited the State Capitol, built in 1934, the tallest building in Bismarck. The Art Deco interior has gilded everything — doorframes, ashtrays, elevator buttons. On a late afternoon in December, I stood at a window on the 18th floor and looked outside. Tiny people scurried through the streets below, and tailpipes puffed a fog of spent petroleum into the cold air. The snowy horizon was the same color as the clouds in the light gray sky, the landscape a pale abstraction that went on forever beyond the neatly gridded city. Somewhere to the south, thousands of people hunkered in the NoDAPL camps against the coming winter. From where I stood, I couldn’t see them.

In the days that followed, as I traveled through the camps and spoke to the water protectors, I had the sense that this movement, invisible though it was to Bismarck, was coming into sharp relief here and elsewhere. The Trump administration has indicated that it might push the pipeline through. If so, NoDAPL itself may be remembered simply as a brief moment of hopefulness — for the Standing Rock Sioux, social justice activists and climate protesters. Hope, though, once planted, tends to grow, to take on a life of its own. At Oceti Sakowin, it was palpable, at communal meals and in the daily teamwork it takes to keep such a sprawling encampment functioning, a feeling that people who stand together can overcome injustice and systems that do not serve them, no matter who is in power. That hope, now lodged in the memories of tens of thousands of people, will be hard to erase. “Getting well in your mind, body, spirit is what this camp really is about,” one Standing Rock Sioux elder told me. “People are coming to be healed.”

Dakota Access may yet carry oil south, and the demonstrations it has inspired may disintegrate. But if the inspiration of a new generation of “protectors” is any indication of success, maybe they’ve already won. On my last day at the casino, I met a woman who works at the restaurant there. She was exceptionally busy that week, as thousands of NoDAPL protesters passed through for a hot meal, but she took a few minutes to speak with me. “Through (NoDAPL), our elders have gained confidence,” she said. “I hope this thing leaves its fingerprints on you, too.”

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

Associate Editor Tay Wiles writes from Oakland, California.  


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