BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA—In April, Joye Braun left her home in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, and moved—first into a tipi, then into a yurt. She’s rarely returned home since. You would expect her to sound exhausted, but on a recent December day, with freezing, punishing winds whipping across the plains and snowdrifts piling up around her, she was exuberant. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” she said, laughing.
Braun is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and a community organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network. Cheyenne River’s territory borders that of the Standing Rock Sioux, and Braun came in April to help build the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That movement was a historic, sustained civil rights action that led to real change: On December 4, the Army Corps of Engineers blocked the portion of the project that was near Standing Rock land by denying an easement requested by Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind it. ETP has been ordered by the Army Corps to seek an alternate route.
It’s not an exaggeration or flattery or romanticism to say that women built the Standing Rock movement, and will sustain it through whatever fight is yet to come. Braun is one of a group of organized, dedicated, phenomenally tough Native women who spent months living outdoors and engaging in direct action to kill the “black snake,” as they often refer to it, and who are prepared to keep fighting ETP even if they refuse to stop drilling in violation of the Army Corps’ orders. (ETP said in a press release they expect to finish the disputed portion of the project, but didn’t provide a timeline or openly confirm that they’ll keep working in violation of the easement denial.)
Women have comprised the majority of the “water protectors” (the term coined by another IEN organizer, Dallas Goldtooth). The International Indigenous Youth Council for Standing Rock was founded by a young woman named Jaslyn Charger. Women led numerous demonstrations at the site, standing toe-to-toe against police from all over the country and private security hired by ETP. At the hands of law enforcement, they endured threats, tear gas, rubber bullets, freezing cold water from pressure hoses, mass arrests, and forced strip searches when being taken into custody on minor charges. Along with male and non-Native allies, they’ve faced what they say is a campaign of legal intimidation, but the most serious charges were levied against Red Fawn Fallis, a 37-year-old Native woman charged with “attempted murder of a police officer.” (The charges were dropped without explanation in late November.) The most serious injury sustained at Standing Rock was by a non-Native woman, Sophia Wilansky, whose family says police threw a grenade at her and nearly severed her arm. (Law enforcement has accused demonstrators of throwing explosives.)
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux and the former tribal historian, owns the land that Sacred Stone Camp rests on, one of the water protectors’ largest encampments. Allard’s family has been in North Dakota since the 1800s, and she’s been a driving force in the Standing Rock campaign. “I come from a long line of bigmouthed women,” she says. “My grandma, my mom—they always stood up.”
The pipeline was her time to stand up, she adds. “I’m the closest landowner. It’s me who’s first facing the devastation of the pipeline, having to face those people.”
The fight was even more personal than land ownership for Allard. She has 18 grandchildren and gave birth to three sons.
“My one son is buried on top of the hill,” she says evenly. “Nobody’s going to put a pipeline next to my son’s grave.”
Standing Rock’s women activists weren’t militants or “extremists” or “paid agitators,” as Energy Transfer Partners has variously claimed, and they weren’t just from North Dakota. Amber Morningstar Byars, 31, is an artist from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and part of the Oklahoma band of the Choctaw nation. She plans to attend law school after finishing a Bachelor’s degree in Indigenous Studies, but first, she found time to travel to Standing Rock twice this year. The first time, she participated in prayer and peaceful protest. “We went up to the burial grounds and the sacred sites that were dug up by Dakota Access. We prayed. We just prayed. We all sang to our ancestors and asked them to watch over us and our sites and help us win this uphill battle.”
When Byars returned in November, she was laden with $8,000 worth of supplies and donations she raised through a GoFundMe campaign: “I rented a 20-foot U-Haul and filled it with five cords of wood, medical supplies, donations, food.”
That trip, she was also one of a group of demonstrators who were attacked by police with tear gas and water hoses on November 20, in one of the ugliest incidents of this winter.
“I’ve never been exposed to such violence,” she says. Byars was teargassed, and still suffering from the after-effects weeks later. “We’re calling it black snake lung.” She tried to go for a run a few days after returning. “I was hacking up pieces of my lungs. I can still taste that chemical taste in my mouth and my nasal cavities. My clothes are ruined.”
Byars says she and others suffered from chemical burns on portions of their skin that was exposed. “We were just contaminated. This is real. Nothing could’ve prepared me for that. I knew what I was getting into when I went up there and aware of the consequences, but there’s nothing that can prepare you for that kind of violence.”
Native women were also among the thousands of veterans who descended on the camp recently to support the water protectors. Marisa Van Zile lives in Michigan and is an enrolled member of the Sokaogon Chippewa band of Lake Superior Indians. She joined the Army as a 27-year-old single mom looking for a reliable way to provide for her family, and recently completed an eight-year contract. She visited Standing Rock on several occasions, traveling with both other Native women and other vets.
When Van Zile got the news that the Army Corps had decided against Energy Transfer Partners, she saw it as “not a bad thing,” but not necessarily the jubilant victory described in the media. When the news came, she had just finished bringing donations over to the Sacred Stone camp with a group of other women before breaking for lunch.
“I got a little bit of cell reception and could check Facebook and I seen the announcement,” she says. “We just ate our bologna sandwiches. I said, ‘We might as well have two pieces then.’ That’s kinda how we treated it. Just shook our heads up and down: ‘Let’s finish and get these donations taken care of.’ That’s how it felt. It didn’t feel like my heart started fluttering or anything. It’s not bad but I’m not gonna start crying. It wasn’t that emotional for me.”
Van Zile’s tribe fought environmentally destructive mining practices for years, she points out. “My tribe battled these big mining companies for almost three decades. I know what this feels like. I was born into this.” As such, she’s used to companies finding ways around the law, and the government turning a blind eye. “You can’t just take somebody’s word. You have to watch.”
Van Zile points out, too, that other Native-led environmental movements aren’t getting the attention that Standing Rock has garnered. “Indigenous people all over the world have similar battles going on, against things that are devastating the land and the water and cultures.” She points to the Wisconsin-based Ho-Chunk nation, who have been fighting to keep their ancestral burial mounds intact even as mining companies try to destroy them to reach copper deposits underneath, or mining under the Menominee River, damaging the ancestral lands and water of the Menominee tribe.
“Standing rock, the Menominee River, I take them all personally,” she says. She sees them as a religious and spiritual struggle as much as a political one.
“The one thing we have is prayer,” she says. “That’s one thing my dad told me. We don’t have all the money in the world but we have prayer. What’s going on at Standing Rock proves that prayer works. What happened with my tribe, prayer works.”
Allard, the owner of the land where Sacred Stone is located, agrees with Van Zile that the movement at Standing Rock isn’t over, and that it connects with broader environmental issues.
“The simple fact is that the black snake is not dead,” she says. “It cannot go through the water. It cannot go through the water anywhere. I don’t care if they move it ten miles up, 50 miles up, 50 miles down, it cannot go through the water.”
Allard also isn’t surprised that women took control of the water protector movement. “Because it’s our responsibility,” she says. “Our responsibility for life. We don’t have a choice.”
“I don’t know of any man that’s standing up,” she adds, witheringly. “They sit in camp and talk about themselves.” A moment later, she softens that a bit: “Let me clarify that. We have a lot of male allies who came and stood with us. Our native allies, the people that came from all areas to stand with us, they are very respectful, very powerful, and I honor them every day.”
Allard says that “overwhelming people” have come to join the movement: “When we first opened the camp, I said anybody was welcome, anybody who would stand with me. I don’t care how you pray, how you look, as you long come stand and pray.”
Those people, she says, plan to stay “for the long haul, until the pipeline is gone. So we still have a lot of work to do. Someone asked me the other day when is this ended? When every pipe is out of the ground and the work is ended.”
Joye Braun, the community organizer, sees Native women as having an innate and spiritual connection to water that informs their environmental activism.
“Women, we’re life-givers,” she says. “Whether it’s about the Keystone XL pipeline, [proposed Canadian pipeline] Energy East, uranium mining, mountaintop removal, it all affects water. We start life in water, in the womb.”
In the midst of the fight against the now-defeated Keystone XL pipeline, Braun says her 22-year-old daughter, who suffers from tonic clonic seizures, had what their family consider to be a prophetic vision.
“In our culture, those who have epilepsy can see things that no one sees,” she explains. “She was telling me that the snakes were coming.” Her daughter saw “the water on fire, and the earth on fire,” and a line of people marching against the snakes.
“The women were standing in front,” she says. “And then behind the women were the men and behind the men was the nachan [chiefs] and behind them were the children. And behind the children were the animals. Four legged and winged and swimming things that don’t have a voice.”
Braun says her daughter isn’t alone in having visions or dreams about women’s place in the Standing Rock movement, and the broader Native fight against environmental atrocities. “Lots of people had dreams and visions out there where the women are in front,” she said, quietly, from her yurt, as the snow continued to fall. “It has always been the women.”