In 2016, the water protectors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation created worldwide awareness of Indigenous rights and environmental justice in a way that few movements have before. As the world and Indian Country watched, thousands of water protectors rallied to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would run under part of the Missouri River on the reservation.
From the beginning, youth helped lead the activism against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In April 2016, youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe created the Sacred Stone Camp along the Cannonball River on the reservation. Later that month, youth ran from the reservation to Omaha, Nebraska, to deliver a petition signed by 457,000 people to the Omaha District office of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, demanding they stop the pipeline. The Commander of the Omaha District refused to meet with them. In July 2016, Standing Rock youth ran to Washington, DC to demand President Obama stop the pipeline. By August 2016, construction of the Dakota Access pipeline began — but protests were just getting started.
Over the next few months, thousands of water protectors camped near the construction site in protest, effectively delaying construction for several months. Water protectors used several key methods to raise awareness. The first was recognizing water both as a sustainer of life and as sacred for many tribal communities. This brought about the phrase Mní wičhóni, Lakota for “Water is Life.” A second key strategy of water protectors was encouraging divestment (removing money) from banks that supported the pipeline by holding protests in front of banks like Wells Fargo. Using divestment as a technique enabled people across the U.S. and world to engage with the movement, beyond attending protests or joining the camp.
By December 2016, President Obama and the Department of the Army denied a final easement until an Environmental Impact Statement was conducted, temporarily halting construction. This changed when President Trump took office, however, as he very quickly signed executive orders in support of both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. Similarly, the Army Corps of Engineers under President Obama said they had no intent to forcibly remove water protectors from the camps, but this too changed under President Trump. Their “eviction date” was February 22, 2016; the camp was ceremoniously burned by water protectors and a few protectors were arrested.
Despite months of advocacy, the pipeline was constructed and oil began flowing in May 2017. The legal fight continues: Native American and environmental groups have asked President Biden to shut down the pipeline. So far, his administration has refused to do so.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe aren’t the only Native community fighting pipeline construction or extractive industries. Here are a few other places that Native activists are standing up for the environment:
- Native activists in Minnesota are currently protesting Enbridge Energy’s Line 3, a pipeline expansion that would bring oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to Wisconsin. Part of the pipeline would cross wetlands in Minnesota where tribes gather wild rice, fish, and hold treaty rights.
- The Keystone XL pipeline expansion would bring oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to Nebraska. It would impact several tribal communities along the way, including the Fort Peck Reservation in eastern Montana.
- The Niitsitapi Water Protectors in Alberta, Canada are currently working against the Grassy Mountain Coal Project and all open-pit mining in the Rocky Mountains in Blackfoot territory, where the Blackfoot hunt, gather food and medicine, and more.
You can make a difference by learning more, writing your Congressional leaders and President Biden, getting involved in your tribal youth council, and helping raise awareness of these issues.
- Check out this youth advocacy guide by UNICEF
- Get inspired by these Native youth who are champions for change
- Learn how to write a letter to your Congressional leaders here
- Write a letter to or call the White House
- Get involved at the national level
- Grow your leadership skills in Washington DC with the Native American Political Leadership Program
- Intern in Congress with the Udall Foundation