On Thursday, November 16, 210,000 gallons of oil leaked from the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota. We should have seen it coming. If we had listened to the environmental activists and indigenous people who have put their bodies and well-being on the line for years — and, most notably, at Standing Rock reservation last year — to adamantly warn us about the environmental dangers of pipelines and their tendency to leak, we would have.
Activists have protested pipeline constructions for years, but gained little media attention for doing so until 2016, when thousands gathered to speak out against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which they claimed would pose not only an environmental and economic threat to the nearby Standing Rock Sioux tribe, but would also cut through their sacred land, putting it at risk. The DAPL would run more than 1,800 miles beneath land spanning from North Dakota to Southern Illinois — and notably beneath Lake Oahe, which is sacred to tribes near Standing Rock, like local Lakota and Dakota people. It was estimated to eventually transport more than 520,000 barrels of oil per day.
The media representation of this movement, however, often failed to fully describe the complex, harrowing, and incredible experience of the predominantly young activists on the frontline. Here’s what actually happened over the past year at Standing Rock, according to Andreanne Catt and Lauren TwoBraids Howland — two youth leaders who witnessed it all firsthand and gave their account to MTV News. They are leading the movement forward.
May 2016: Contracted workers begin to clear a path for the pipeline, although final approval for construction isn’t given until July. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe sues the federal agency that granted the pipeline's final permits, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to try to halt pipeline construction. Activists begin to mobilize.
Andreanne Catt: I didn’t tell anybody I was leaving — I just hopped a bus to Standing Rock. I only had a purse and a blanket and I just decided I needed to go.
Standing Rock [camp] was a home to all of us: [the protesters] were all family. All the happiness at camp made us stick together; it made us hopeful, it kept us all in high spirits.
The frontlines were a whole different place and a different story. The frontlines were scary.
We never used the word ‘protest’ because it wasn’t an ‘us and them’ thing. We called it ‘protecting’ because that’s what we were doing — defending the land, people, and water using non-violent direct action. We stressed non-violence throughout.
Summer 2016: Over 30 young people from the Standing Rock Reservation run 2,000 miles across the proposed path of the pipeline to ask then-President Obama and the Army Corps of Engineers to protect their home from the DAPL.
Lauren TwoBraids Howland: When the youth came back from running, they formed the youth council and were then told of a prophecy. Seven generations ago, a medicine person prophesied that seven generations from then the youth would rise up and help defeat a black snake that would come through the land. It would be the start of a new time and a new era and we would be the fire starters. The generation after us would keep the fire going.
September — October 22, 2016: The peaceful protests turn violent in early September and on October 22, the police make their first mass arrest.
Howland: On October 22, we were on a prayer march. [Police officers] surrounded us — they corralled us. I was trying to negotiate with one officer when another officer came up behind him. He hit me with the baton a few times and fractured my wrist. I was still able to get a little boy who had been separated from his family and a few other women out.
Catt: When they charge you with things like being part of or starting a riot or conspiracy to burn things – that stays on your record. When you’re trying to apply for school or a job, you can’t really say, ‘I was at Standing Rock doing that.’ My brother was arrested, a lot of my friends were arrested, and they’re finding it really hard to find a job and a place to live because of these charges. It can ruin your life.
Seven generations ago, a medicine person prophesied that seven generations from then, the youth would rise up and help defeat a black snake that would come through the land. It would be the start of a new time and a new era and we would be the fire starters.
October 27, 2016: During a raid on sacred ground, hundreds of officers evict 142 people camping directly in the path of the Pipeline, slapping some with rare federal charges.
Howland: They pulled [protesters] who were in ceremony out of the sweat lodge during their prayers. They dismantled the lodge, arrested them, and had them sit on the road for a few hours while they continued the raid. Men were wearing basketball shorts, women skirts. They were freezing. [The sweat lodge] is like our church — it was like going into a church and arresting people for praying.
The people who were arrested that day were charged with the same felony charges, including conspiracy to endanger by fire. When they were arrested, they weren’t put in jail cells. They were put in dog kennels. The temperature in the jail was about 40 degrees. They had already been outside, freezing for a couple hours. Health problems came out of that.
Catt: There was also constant surveillance. Helicopters and airplanes constantly flew over. Nobody ever talks about the things they did to mentally break us down like that.
November 2016: After the raid, a group of protesters donates needed supplies to the police.
Catt: The county had sent out a list of donations that they needed for police on the frontlines. The youth council bought and donated every item on their list. When we went to the police department to deliver them, they wouldn’t let us inside to drop anything off. The whole department went into lockdown. We were just carrying supplies. We waited outside and prayed for them. They eventually opened the door and let us put the supplies on the ground.
November 21, 2016: In the most violent attack yet, the police spray Standing Rock protesters with tear gas and water hoses in freezing temperatures.
Howland: After they sprayed us, the cops threw concussion grenades. They didn’t roll them on the ground — they were deliberately throwing them into big crowds, at our faces. Sophia [a protester on the ground], who was 20 at the time, got her arm blown off by a concussion grenade. She threw her arm up to protect her face and the grenade exploded on her arm and blew off a big chunk of her arm. Her bones were showing.
Another concussion grenade exploded next to Suzie [another protester]. Shrapnel hit her eye and blinded her.
The county denies using grenades that night or at any time during the protests.
December 4, 2016: The Obama administration blocked construction of an important segment of the Dakota Access Pipeline and required the company behind the pipeline to make an “environmental-impact statement” and study alternate routes for the pipeline.
Howland: A lot of our council members were in the line of fire. A lot of us are experiencing PTSD from being in what felt like being at war with the U.S. government again. We not only experienced our own trauma, but carry historical trauma with us. The suicide rate among Native American people is far higher than the national suicide rate. Add PTSD from Standing Rock on top of that. We’ve already lost a few protectors to suicide.
Catt: The International Indigenous Youth Council has been working on starting a hope campaign where protesters can come together and get [psychological] counseling and do a job fair for employers and landlords that support water protectors.
January 25—June 9, 2017: Trump cancels the Obama administration blocking order in January, soon after his inauguration. Months later, oil begins to flow through the pipeline. “It’s up, it’s running, it’s beautiful, it’s great,” Trump said on June 9. “Everybody is happy, the sun is shining, the water’s still clean.”
Catt: You can’t lead a movement with anger. It really takes a lot of discipline to not be angry at the government or Big Oil or the colonizers because we’ve been oppressed by them our whole lives. And it’s still happening today. As indigenous people, as a member of the LGBTQ community myself…youth have the mindset that it’s okay to be angry but you can’t take it out on [your oppressor]. You must be kind, generous, and pity [oppressors] instead of being angry at them.
You can’t lead a movement with anger...it’s okay to be angry but you can’t take it out on [your oppressor]. You must be kind, generous, and pity [oppressors] instead of being angry at them.
June - October 2017: In June, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, noting that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to adequately assess the pipeline’s environmental consequences when it first approved its construction. The ruling does not require the pipeline to fully shut down, though. The Tribe filed a brief soon after arguing that the pipeline should be shut down while the best path forward is being decided. In October, the Court rules that the pipeline can continue operating until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ new environmental review is completed — which will take until April 2018.
Catt: It’s time for the people who have been in the movement forever to take a break. It’s time for the youth to take over. Standing Rock was just one fight, and it isn’t over. There are so many more fights out there.
Howland: We’re still here. We’ve been here resisting for over 500 years. It would be cool if the larger movement started including us in their resistance.
To support Lauren, Andreanne, and other young protecters, check out Seeding Sovereignty, the organization for which they both serve as youth organizers.