Standing Rock protesters with connections to Wounded Knee on why they're there

Protesters near a roadblock on Friday.
Protesters near a roadblock on Friday, near Cannon Ball, N.D.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Tensions remained high over the weekend at the Dakota Access pipeline protest in western North Dakota after last week's arrests.

Over the past several months, thousands of people have come to the protest camp. MPR's Dan Gunderson spoke with two women about their reasons for why they're protesting.

Vonda Long, from the Cheyenne River tribe in South Dakota, said she came to the pipeline protest to pray, not to get in the middle of violent confrontations with law enforcement.

"I didn't come up here to die. I came up here to live with this water. I'm a Wounded Knee descendant, I done survived and I want my people to continue to survive," Long said, standing next to a burned hulk of an SUV blocking a state highway.

In 1890, U.S. soldiers killed more than 150 American Indians of all ages at Wounded Knee Creek.

Long said she was disappointed by the reaction from protesters Friday who burned vehicles and blocked the highway, but she blames law enforcement for escalating the situation. She says it's the same story that's played out for generations in Indian Country.

She said her commitment to stopping the Dakota Access pipeline has grown in the time she's been at the camp.

"I've been here since the end of July thinking I was only going to be here for two weeks, but when I saw this opposition and everything over on that side, it's just not fair, it's not fair ... my heart just kept me here," she said. "I can't go till I see this ripped up out of the ground and gone. It's gotta be ripped up out and gone, out of our mother and out of our sacred areas."

Leech Lake Tribal college teacher Audrey Thayer is one of the protesters from Minnesota. Thayer is Ojibwe from Minnesota and brought her teenage granddaughter and a load of supplies donated in Bemidji and Grand Rapids.

Back in 1973, she said she played a similar role during the American Indian Movement standoff on the Pine Ridge reservation in Wounded Knee, S.D.

Standing Rock resident Bernadette Dauenhauer
Standing Rock resident Bernadette Dauenhauer tries to convince protesters to remain peaceful on Friday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Later, Thayer worked for the American Civil Liberties Union among northern Minnesota Ojibwe bands.

Watching young men and women confront police near the camp on Friday brought back memories.

"I tried to revert back to when I was in my 20s, my 30s and thought about the anger that I had. The bitterness I held and how at 65 I look back and say, 'How did I get there? And what do I need to do to help?' " she said.

Thayer's son Charlie was arrested during a protest a few weeks ago. She said his comments to reporters gave her a fresh perspective.

"He said 'I'm tired of all the meth, I'm tired of all the drugs and tired of what's going on in our communities. It's about water, but I'm so, so tired of it all.' And I thought I got it," she said. "I wanted him to give a big spiel about how important our water is, how we need to stop these pipelines. That's what I wanted to hear him say, but I saw him emotionally dealing, because I saw that raw emotion these young men and women are feeling."

Thayer said the pipeline protest is still a young movement and many young native people are also trying to learn how to collaborate with and whether to trust non-native people who want to join their cause.

Whatever eventually happens with the Dakota Access pipeline, Thayer said she believes it is sparking a new generation of activists.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.