WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAWNEE LEBEAU
In 2016, the Standing Rock movement went international after Indigenous youth ran from North Dakota to Washington, D.C. The fight continues—and running is at the heart of it. The Frontline explores the youth-led charge against the Dakota Access pipeline.
AnnaLee Yellow Hammer keeps a red folder full of plane tickets, letters, and newspaper clippings. The paper folder, slowly tearing at its edges, holds memories she’ll never forget. The now 17-year-old started stuffing it full of her personal artifacts almost five years ago when she joined the efforts to stop the Dakota Access pipeline.
Yellow Hammer—a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and vice president of the Standing Rock Youth Council—began her journey to shut down the 1,172-mile long crude oil pipeline when she was only in middle school. Back then, she hand-wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, which she keeps tucked inside the folder. As a 13-year-old, Yellow Hammer already understood the value of protecting the water, land, animals, and her ancestors’ traditions.
“I want to be the voice for my great grandparents and my community to stop the building of the Dakota Access pipeline,” she wrote in 2016. “If the pipeline leaks, the oil will spill on the ground and into the water.”
In 2016, she and about 30 Indigenous youth ran from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to deliver that letter Yellow Hammer wrote. On February 9, they ran 93 miles in sub-zero temperatures to the location of where thousands gathered in 2016 to protect the water. And on April 1—the fifth anniversary of the birth of Sacred Stone Camp where Indigenous peoples from around the world gathered—the youth plan to take their fight to Washington, D.C. There, they’ll take action to demand an end to Dakota Access, as well as Enbridge’s Line 3, a crude oil pipeline cutting through Anishinaabe lands in Minnesota that’s set to expand.
“Just because the media went away and the camps closed down doesn’t mean that the fight went away,” says Kandi White, a Native energy and climate campaign coordinator at the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN). “It’s been in the courts all these years, and it’s been in the hearts of the youth all these years. It wasn’t just something to do. This is the livelihoods of the same youth and new youth who continue to join the fight. Just because something doesn’t happen overnight—and you don’t have a victory overnight—doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. And the youth are proving that.”
Though Dakota Access is now operating and pumping 570,000 barrels of oil a day (and also set to double), a court ruled in July the pipeline was operating illegally in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. The day the youth ran, a hearing was set to decide its fate but was delayed until April. These Indigenous youth aren’t waiting for the courts, though. They’re calling on President Joe Biden to make good on his promise to strengthen tribal sovereignty and address the severity of the climate crisis.
“We wanted to bring awareness once again to shut down DAPL because they’re operating without their legal federal permits ,” Yellow Hammer says. “I’m hopeful and prayerful that [Biden will] make the right decision.”
They’ve managed to capture the attention of the film industry, too. Celebrities like Kerry Washington, Mark Ruffalo, and Ava DuVernay are standing alongside the youth in asking the Biden administration to shut down the pipeline. They (and hundreds of others) signed a letter earlier this month for the president to consider:
We urge you to remedy this historic injustice and direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to immediately shut down the illegal Dakota Access Pipeline while the Environmental Impact Statement process is conducted, consistent with the D.C. District Court’s decision and order. Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps must ensure a robust environmental review with significant tribal consultation, tribal consent, and a thorough risk analysis.
With your leadership, we have a momentous opportunity to protect our water and respect our environmental laws and the rights of Indigenous people. This is our moment.
So far, the president has remained silent. During the confirmation hearing of Rep. Deb Haaland last week, Republican lawmakers repeatedly brought up her past support of water protectors and asked her if she supports shutting the pipeline down. She didn’t offer an answer but did stress the importance of consulting tribes. Haaland was also sure to emphasize that she’d follow the president’s agenda as secretary, not her own.
Until Biden’s stance on Dakota Access becomes clear, the youth will continue to organize. And they’ll continue to run.
William Brown Otter was running before he became a water protector. The 20-year-old member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who serves as a mentor to the youth council ran cross country in high school. The first time he ran with the youth in 2016, his sister volunteered him for a run to Nebraska without giving him much background. He remembers running on and off for 12 days in the rain. His feet hurt. After an elder told him to pray, Brown Otter did. And it made all the difference.
“Right after I got done praying, the feeling of the pain in my feet, the ache in my back, the soreness of my hips went away,” Brown Otter says. “It’s like I wasn’t even running. It was a connection I have never felt. So these runs, they helped me connect with who I was as a person—who I was as a Lakota—and made me see how strong prayer is.”
That power is something you can feel in the air above these young runners. Tasina Sapa Win, a 28-year-old member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who co-founded the Cheyenne River Grassroots Collective, drove alongside them to support them with food and snacks.
“The youth, they have so much strength,” she says. “The closest thing it reminds me of is when I would read stories about the Wounded Knee Massacre and how the survivors had to run hundreds of miles to get to safety in the dead of winter after being completely obliterated by the U.S. government. That was in 1890. And they couldn’t stop. They had no choice but to run for their lives, and when I’ve seen the youth running, it reminded me, Hey they’re running for their lives. They’re like our ancestors.”
The U.S. military killed up to 300 Lakota people on December 29, 1890, including women and children. The survivors escaped imminent death by running. They didn’t let the darkness and frigid temperatures of the night stop them. Morgan Brings Plenty, a 26-year-old member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who’s also a social media intern at IEN, is a descendant of those survivors. Their mother, Joye Braun, who’s also a frontline community organizer with IEN, shared some of that history with me. In 1890, many of the survivors were children.
“It’s about sacrificing,” Braun says of today’s youth runners keeping that legacy alive. “The physical exertion of either running or dancing or ceremony plays into that (for those who are able to do it; a lot of our ceremonies are very physical). You’re sacrificing part of yourself—your breath, your sweat, your tears, your pain—so that those who follow you don’t have to go through as much pain.”
That’s true for Brings Plenty, who describes their memories running alongside the Indigenous-led pipeline resistances groups as “the best times of their life.” They ran in 2016 and again in 2020. Almost five years ago, they would spend four to five days a week at the camps. Their nephew Junior, who was only a toddler at the time, would always beg to join them. He’d bring out his tiny little hand drum and backpack, tugging Brings Plenty and their sister along. I’m ready, let’s go now!, he’d say.
White’s daughter, who is now seven, still remembers the days she’d spend at camp. She now sees her path as a water protector with dreams of becoming a mayor—or even president—saying Momma, I wanted to be a ballerina. But this is more important.
This movement is for the seven generations ahead, for the leaders of tomorrow, for the children born into a world addicted to oil and gas—a world where leaders conspire with the black snake. The youth are at the heart of the effort to shut down Dakota Access. They’ll be the ones passing the staff. They’ll be the ones carrying the sacred fire forward.
Additional reporting by Dawnee LeBeau