Women of Standing Rock aren't backing down

John Hult
Protestors rally against support for the Dakota Access pipeline during a march to the White House in Washington, DC.

As thousands of Native Americans brought the Dakota Access pipeline protests to the Trump International Hotel's front door on Friday, indigenous women were there, leading the way, just as they have been for generations.

The Native Nations Rise march in Washington, D.C., is a continuation of a year-long battle between the Standing Rock Sioux and environmentalists against the government and pipeline corporations. Protesters held signs including, "Honor Our Treaties," "Water is Life," "Stand With Standing Rock" — and "Indigenous Women Rise."

Indigenous women across the U.S. have pushed boundaries and served as guiding voices in struggles for land rights, cultural restoration and environmental justice – often quietly, in service of their own communities.

Protesters hold signs, including one that reads "Indigenous Women Rise" during the Native Nations Rise rally in front of Trump International Hotel on March 10, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Native tribes from around the U.S. gathered to oppose the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Their voices grew louder last year.

In the movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Native American women played key roles in drawing global attention and inspiring action.

“This lifelong fight for water is something I was born into,” said Faith Spotted Eagle, a Yankton Sioux Tribal elder and prominent voice against the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines, who flew in to D.C. for the protest. Her family lost land to the Pick-Sloan Plan, a result of the Flood Control Act of 1944, which flooded wide swaths of Missouri River bottom lands to create the Oahe Reservoir. The land was flooded when she was an infant, and the impact was never lost on her.

Faith Spotted Eagle

Supporters of the Dakota Access pipeline say it's the most environmentally sensitive way to transport crude oil and point to its economic benefits.

But pipeline protests are a continuation of traditional teachings, Spotted Eagle said, which have been hard-fought to maintain. She founded the Brave Heart Society in the 1990s to educate and re-teach culture lost through decades of forced assimilation in boarding schools. She says she’s lucky to have never lost them. She was raised by her grandmother, who lived to 104 and passed along the teachings she now offers young Native American girls through annual womanhood ceremonies. The religious ceremonies used to train youth were not legally protected until the passage of 1978’s American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

“When I was raised in my culture, it was a decolonized view of the world,” Spotted Eagle said.

Spotted Eagle became the first Native American to receive an an Electoral College vote for president in the 2016 election when a faithless Hillary Clinton Washington state elector named Robert Satiacum Jr. chose her after hearing her speak at the pipeline protest camps.

For vice president, Satiacum chose Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe activist and two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate who ran with Ralph Nader.

Winona LaDuke, an American Indian Activist and former Green Party vice presidential candidate, speaks to a crowd of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) supporters at the Minneapolis Convention Center Feb. 29, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sanders, who has spent the last four days campaigning in Minnesota, is hoping to win the State in the Super Tuesday primary election on March 1st, 2016.

“The leadership in a lot of the environmental movement and the indigenous movements has been women,” LaDuke said.

In North Dakota, Standing Rock’s Loretta Bad Heart Bull leads womanhood ceremonies — coming of age ceremonies in which girls learn from elder women — similar to those Spotted Eagle leads in South Dakota.

Bad Heart Bull said the role of women traditionally had differing but equal roles within tribes. Leadership was generally male, but women were always part of the conversation and decision-making process.

“Our voices were always as important as theirs,” Bad Heart Bull said. “Women weren’t out front, but they were never behind them.”

Bad Heart Bull currently sits on the Fort Yates Public School Board and used to work as a nurse at Indian Health Services. There, she worked with a woman named Marcella LeBeau.

Now 97, Cheyenne River elder LeBeau says that before the boarding schools, the taking of her family’s land for the Oahe Reservoir and the years of struggle to regain lost ceremonies and traditions — her father relayed a life lesson that would prove prescient.

Marcella LeBeau, a World War II U.S. Army nurse veteran and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation, speaks about the significance of the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Oceti Sakowin campground near Cannon Ball, N.D. on Friday, Nov. 11, 2016.

“He always told us ‘get a good education – no one can ever take that away from you,’” said LeBeau. “I didn’t realize until later in life that there was more to that than just a statement.”

Her drive to learn took her to nursing school, then to Europe during World War II as part of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, then home to Eagle Butte, S.D., where she served as director of nursing at the Indian Health Services before retiring.

The trauma of lost culture and lost land is something that LeBeau has watched ripple through generations. Drug and alcohol abuse, diabetes and widespread poverty have taken a heavy toll.

But LeBeau sees a brighter future now, thanks to the energy of the anti-pipeline camps she visited. Standing Rock elder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard opened land near Cannonball, N.D., for the Dakota Access opposition camps that grew to hold tens of thousands of people calling themselves water protectors.

The youth, whom elders refer to as the Seventh Generation, have inspired LeBeau and others. Standing Rock’s message – “water is life” – has the potential to do more than the American Indian movement of the 1970s through peace, prayer and ceremony, LeBeau said.

“The youth movement today is stronger and probably more meaningful,” LeBeau said.

Just look at Bobbi Jean Three Legs. The young mother founded Rezpect Our Water and organized a roughly 500-mile relay run from the camps to the Army Corps of Engineers’ Omaha office last year. The campaign not only united young participants from across the tribes, it raised awareness to new levels on social media. She then made the journey even more ambitious — a long-distance run to Washington, D.C., which they completed in August.

Like the women before her, she shows no signs of stopping.

John Hult is reader's watchdog for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, a Gannett newspaper. 


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