These Are the Defiant "Water Protectors" of Standing Rock

President Trump advances Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, despite protest by hundreds of indigenous tribes

When the demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) kicked into high gear last August, Lewis (Lew) Grassrope, a 39-year-old former policeman, dropped out of his race for chairman of the Lower Brule Sioux, his tribe in South Dakota, and turned his attention to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in Cannon Ball, on the Missouri River. The tribe was gathering, with many others, to stop the building of the DAPL, a project run by the Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners that would connect the North Dakota shale oil fields with the eastern pipeline networks in Illinois. Grassrope joined thousands of people from hundreds of indigenous nations—from every state in the United States and from countries as far flung as Tibet, Sweden, Guatemala, and Brazil.

Every day during the summer, processions of people in traditional garb came to the camps around Cannon Ball, pledging to support a movement that had turned into something bigger than a pipeline protest. It had become an international call to protect indigenous people’s rights, and their land.

This season's first blizzard came and went on the heels of a tentative victory: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Dakota Access’s permit to drill under the Missouri. The camp cleared out, dropping overnight from 10,000 people to fewer than a thousand, as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council urged people to go home.

Grassrope and his camp stayed put, however, digging in against the winter as part of a hard-core of determined activists from across the country who saw the camps at Standing Rock as the seed of a new Native American nation, built on neo-traditional lines and fueled by spiritual revival. “What needs to be accomplished hasn't been,” he said. “We need to stop the pipeline completely, and we need to rebuild our nation and re-establish our ancestral ways.”

Executive Action

Then came January 20. Within days of his inauguration, President Donald Trump signed executive actions to advance approval of the Dakota Access pipeline as well as the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

“It's really disheartening,” Grassrope said. “We may have touched the hearts and minds of people around the world, but we knew this day would come, when someone we couldn't reach out to would do an egregious act on the environment, toward Mother Earth.”

But Grassrope, like many other protesters, vows to fight on in the campaign for native lands and tribal solidarity. When spring comes, he plans to be back home, organizing his home reservation of Lower Brule against the Keystone XL. As camps modeled on Standing Rock go up and grassroots anti-pipeline opposition spreads throughout the country, and as activists struggle to determine what Trump's action will mean, Grassrope sees in last year's rising at Standing Rock the beginning of a committed community of believers dedicated to building a new society, and mobilized to resist the expansion of America's fossil fuel economy.

Growth of the Movement

Last summer, Lew Grassrope's had been the first teepee to go up on the plain beyond Cannon Ball.

“There was nothing but tall grass and wide-open green,” Grassrope told me. He is a large man, so solid that light seems to bend around him. In that first camp, he said, there were “wolf spiders galore. I'd pray with them and make them my protectors,” he said.

As the camps grew over the summer, they evolved into a complex economy, with teams of sawyers; a free medical corps, which included acupuncturists, masseuses, herbalists, and prescription-writing MDs; and a team of chimney sweeps who cleaned out the flues of the ubiquitous wood stoves installed, gratis, by volunteer construction crews. Central to all, of course, were volunteer chefs such as Rachel Wheatley, a Maidu from near Orrville, California. Wheatley was a long-haul trucker before she arrived at Standing Rock. In the summer her kitchen had served 600 a night.

In December, with its military-style barracks tents and colorful yurts, Grassrope's permanent camp, Kul Wicasa, resembled a well-stocked, if ragged, polar expedition. The camp kitchen was down to a skeleton crew, but Weeks still served two hot meals a day; we had buffalo ribs for dinner one night (we had to eat them fast before they froze). How long would she stay? She laughed: “Until it's done. Where would I go?

The youth at Kul Wicasa had come from reservations across the country. They were Ojibwes and Yanktons and Standing Rock Sioux—all in search of a sense of purpose. “We're a good collection of misfits here,” said Ken “Abe” Abrahamson, a Coloradan with a ruddy beard and piercing eyes who had ridden into Baghdad in 2003 as a gunner with the 3rd Infantry Division. After his service, he said, he moved home to Denver and, missing the close bonds of the military, fell into years of depression. On a long road trip in mid-2016 with his dog, Scout, a shepherd mix, he dropped in on his closest army friend, a Lower Brule Sioux, at Kul Wicasa. “I was all, ‘I'm gonna go hole up with my dog and not talk to anyone for the rest of my life,’ ” he said. But around the campfires he found the “real warrior society” he craved. “Back in Denver, I heard singing in the alleyways, whooping in downtown. I decided to come here instead, and the spirit took care of the rest,” Abe said.

He nodded at Grassrope. We were sitting in a hotel room at the Prairie Knights Casino: the unofficial movement headquarters as temperatures dropped below 0°F. Grassrope nodded back. “Most people who come here never had a role to play in their own lives. We saw a lot of lost people, people who don't realize they're more than Americans. Their ancestors are indigenous from somewhere, which means they were once caretakers of the Earth.” He pushed his hands into the pockets of his Carhartts. “We're sharing work, and we're sharing stories. We've learned a new way, and it's teaching us to be human beings again.”

Tara Houska, an Anishinabe from Couchiching First Nation, is a tribal attorney in Washington, D.C., and the national campaigns director for the group Honor the Earth. “This is a moment in which indigenous people are saying ‘No more, enough is enough,’” she says. “We know how it feels to have extractive industry projects threatening our communities and our drinking water and our children’s future. When these projects happen in America they happen out of sight and out of mind, and that usually falls to indigenous people.”
Tara Houska, an Anishinabe from Couchiching First Nation, is a tribal attorney in Washington, D.C., and the national campaigns director for the group Honor the Earth. “This is a moment in which indigenous people are saying ‘No more, enough is enough,’” she says. “We know how it feels to have extractive industry projects threatening our communities and our drinking water and our children’s future. When these projects happen in America they happen out of sight and out of mind, and that usually falls to indigenous people.”
Photograph by Erika Larsen, National Geographic

Standing Rock has deep roots. In 2007, longtime Lakota activists, including Phyllis Young and Russel Means, veterans of Lakota sovereignty movements since the American Indian Movement occupations of the 1970s, declared the independence of Lakotah, a “matriarchal republic” in control of the territories that the U.S. had granted to the Sioux Nation of Indians under the 1851 Treaty of Forty Laramie Land. The area now includes the predominantly white cities of Bismarck, North Dakota; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska.

The December evening I spent with Grassrope in the hotel at Prairie Knights Casino, Young was holding court two floors below in the Tatanka conference room. Magisterial in a long coat and mirrored shades she never took off, Young—who calls herself the “oldest malcontent on the Great Plains”—sees the movement as the Lakota's last shot at real sovereignty, at a true nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. wherein the Lakota would have control over the traditional territories ceded to them by a long string of broken treaties.

Grassrope, like all the leaders I spoke to, imagined the Standing Rock project as explicitly multinational—the Lakota nation standing up for indigenous rights worldwide. “You felt the power of this place,” he said, “the romanticism most people came here to fulfill. A lot of people came to protect Mother Earth, to give their lives selflessly for it. And that's what will happen. Our stance is still the same.”

It's like a Second American Revolution, Grassrope told me. The revolutionary rhetoric, however, is explicitly peaceful – Grassrope dismisses as “colonized thinking” the arguments of those who believe the tribes can win with violence. But now, with the stated intention of the new President to get the pipelines built, rising temperatures could bring renewed violence along with the inevitable flooding as winter snows melt. “If they push the DAPL through, some are saying war here, some are saying whatever. But it ain't war until war actually happens. I'm trying to get my camp down, get out of here, in case they're trying to raid this place, take our stuff,” Grassrope said.

“We're trying to go set up in Lower Brule for the Keystone XL fight,” Grassrope said. “I don't wanna be fighting DAPL, and Morton County, and Standing Rock. That was not my picture of how things are going to go. What few people I still have in here, I need to get out.

“Standing Rock reached across the world, and everyone saw the power of what took place here,” Grassrope said. “Now we have to be, for most of us who have been in this camp, we must get back to our own reservations to take what we've learned here back to them, because the fight is going to come to each nation. Each of the 500 nations who come here, the fight is going to come to them.”

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