'I live with Standing Rock in my heart': Massive pipeline protest resonates 5 years later

A portion of an encampment called the Oceti Sakowin Camp.
Late afternoon light illuminates a portion of an encampment called Oceti Sakowin along the banks of the Cannonball River in south-central North Dakota on Nov. 19, 2016. The camp became home to hundreds of activists protesting against the Dakota Access pipeline, which carries oil 1,200 miles from the Bakken oil fields to a distribution center in Illinois.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News 2016

The Standing Rock pipeline dispute grabbed the attention of Stuart Perkins in the fall of 2016. 

He had a steady job and was busy pursuing a career in comedy and music in the Twin Cities.

But in late October, he saw a video online of law enforcement officers pulling protesters from a sweat lodge, and arresting them. 

“I quit my job that day, because somebody called me and said, ‘Hey, I'm going to Standing Rock, you want to ride with (me)?'“ said Perkins. “I didn't know where I was going to stay when I got there. I had money for food. I had my own bedding. I was ready to go out there and do whatever I had to do.”

Perkins, 41, spent nearly the next four months at the Oceti Sakowin protest camp, near the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. 

Stuart Perkins, 37, a Red Lake Band member
Stuart Perkins, a Red Lake Nation member, arrived at the Oceti Sakowin Camp near from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in south central North Dakota in late October 2016. "Out here you see people in a different light," he said. "It's like you're out here with us risking your life. You get past that the first, second day. That's over with." He's photographed at the camp in November 2016.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News 2016

"I still live with Standing Rock in my heart today,” he said recently. “It's definitely changed me for life, and it's changed me for the better."

Five years ago, that small protest camp, formed near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, grew to thousands of people — and lit the spark of an international movement against the Dakota Access oil pipeline — and many pipeline projects since. For months, the Oceti Sakowin camp drew protesters from North Dakota and across the country — and its influence is still felt at pipeline and climate change protests, and in the lives of those who were there in 2016.

The protest started as a tribal government challenge to a pipeline permit process it felt ignored the sovereign status of the Standing Rock Tribe, and downplayed the risk to its water supply. It later expanded to also encompass a global climate change movement.

Phyllis Young was there at the birth of the camp that became the Standing Rock movement. She remembers the spring day that Standing Rock Sioux Tribe members came together at a sacred site near the Missouri River.

"April 1, 2016, was a really emotional day for me, because all of our people were together,” she said. “At the end of the day, we were singing and dancing, actually to defend our territory.”

Young, 72, has been involved in environmental fights for most of her life, she said — and the connection to years past, when tribal members came together around environmental issues, was palpable.

That spring, the Dakota Access pipeline project set the stage for yet another battle to protect tribal sovereignty and interests. 

Maya Runnels was 15 when the effort to stop the pipeline began. She was involved in the Standing Rock Youth Council, whose members drew attention to the issue with a run from the reservation, which straddles the borders of North and South Dakota, to Washington, D.C., in April 2016. She had joined the Youth Council because her mom “thought it might help bring me out of my shell,” she said.  

“I used to be, like, a hard-core introvert. I never thought I would be doing interviews or going on protests,” said Runnels, who is now president of the Youth Council.

The flags of many native nations fly.
The flags of many Native nations fly at the overflow camp where Standing Rock tribal members set up a protest camp in a small valley where the Cannon Ball River flows into Lake Oahe on Sept. 9, 2016.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News 2016

Now, she has friends from around the world — and feels empowered to use her voice: "Standing up for what I believe in, rather than just sitting back and letting people do the wrong thing. I know that I have a right to speak my opinion.”

Chase Iron Eyes grew up on the Standing Rock Reservation, and left at 19 to attend the University of North Dakota and law school at the University of Denver. He’s now an attorney for the Lakota People's Law Project — and had moved back home to Standing Rock in 2014 with his wife, who worked as a physician for the Indian Health Service. 

“I was out on the Missouri River at that time, taking my children boating, and I got a call telling me that my wife was being held in Morton County Jail and that she had been arrested at the site of the pipeline protest,” said Iron Eyes. “For me, that was that was a shift in the way that I viewed my participation in the #NODAPL fight.”

a man smiles at a camera
Chase Iron Eyes is an attorney for the Lakota People's Law Project, and grew up on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota.
Courtesy of the Lakota People's Law Project

As the camp — called Sacred Stone — swelled with protesters from across the country, Iron Eyes realized something unique in Indian Country was happening on the windswept prairie near the river. 

As more protesters arrived over the summer, they outgrew Sacred Stone. 

A new camp, called Oceti Sakowin, a name representing the seven council fires of the Great Sioux Nation, was established not far away. 

Phyllis Young was a liaison between the camp and the Standing Rock Tribal Council. 

She dealt with issues from camp security to providing enough portable toilets for the camp that, she said, had swelled to more than 10,000 people by late fall.

“There were 416 Indigenous peoples’ flags from their nations that came from the Western Hemisphere,” she said. “From the United States, Canada, there were 30 nations.”

a woman stands in front of a large tent
Phyllis Young is an organizer for the Lakota People's Law Project and lives on the Standing Rock reservation.
Courtesy of the Lakota People's Law Project

The rapid growth was a challenge, but the experience managing it was memorable.

“I did not expect that all to happen. And I was so energized,” Young recalls. "People from all over the United States started coming, semi[truck] loads of food from all over the country.”

There were highs — like the December day she watched a long line of vehicles coming down the highway as hundreds of veterans arrived at camp to show support — and there were lows, when protesters were injured in confrontations with police.

The thousands of protesters failed to stop the pipeline. North Dakota crude oil started flowing in the summer of 2017. But tribal officials now hope pending legal challenges will accomplish what protests could not.

Young still worries about the oil that flows through the pipeline under the Lake Oahe reservoir on the Missouri River and the possibility of a leak, that could contaminate the source of the tribe’s drinking water.

 “The backup would go into all of our tributaries, including Porcupine Creek. I live on the shore of Porcupine Creek at the mouth of the Missouri, so that would be devastating to my front yard,” said Young. “America used to say ‘not in my backyard.’ I'm saying, ‘not in my front yard.’ ”

A federal judge last year revoked a permit and ordered an environmental assessment of the Missouri River pipeline crossing, effectively nullifying the permit that allowed the project to move forward. But oil still flows through the line, and the judge has yet to rule if it must stop while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes the environmental study. 

‘I’ll always be an activist’

This week, on the anniversary of the Standing Rock protest’s beginnings, Maya Runnels is leading a group of young activists to Washington, D.C. — once again raising awareness of the pipeline dispute, and of the broader issue of climate change. 

A protest movement that was exciting to her as a 15-year-old has given way to a sobering existential question for the now-19-year-old, who’s studying to become a midwife. 

“I think (about) if it's even worth having kids someday, because I don't want to leave them with a messed-up climate, more than it already is," she said.

a young woman poses for a photo
Maya Runnels leads the Standing Rock Youth Council, a group that has been instrumental in drawing attention to efforts to stop the Dakota Access pipeline project.
Courtesy of Maya Runnels

"People are like, ‘Oh, you're too young to even think about that,’ but it's something that needs to be thought of if we want to be here in the future.”

Despite her visible role in the movement that grew out of the Standing Rock camp, Runnels is quick to credit others involved, and says the expectations that come along with being a leader can be '“a little scary.” 

"I just see myself as a regular 19-year-old who just cares," she said. "I don't really know if activism is like a career for me. I think I'll always be an activist, though."

Runnels said she remains grounded, in part, thanks to a lesson she learned five years ago, visiting the Standing Rock camps with her family.

“Every time we went to camp, my mom always told us, ‘Check our energy before we go,’ " Runnels said. "If we're in a bad mood, we shouldn't be there. We just go in with a good heart and prayer. And I think that's really changed me as a person, because I always have to remember to check my energy.”

a man looking into the camera
Stuart Perkins feels the Standing Rock protest experience fundamentally changed him as a person. He spent about four months at the protest camp.
Courtesy of Stuart Perkins

Back living in Minneapolis, Stuart Perkins is watching the protests against the Line 3 pipeline replacement project in northern Minnesota, and sometimes wishes he were back on the front lines. 

After the final group of protesters was forced out of the Oceti Sakowin camp in February 2017, Perkins wasn’t ready to stop fighting. He joined a group called the Rolling Resistance, which traveled the country in a bus for a few months, raising awareness about Dakota Access and other pipelines. He then spent time at a camp in northern Minnesota, protesting Line 3. 

But that life is hard on the body and the spirit, Perkins said. And he has diabetes — so he needed to regroup. He now works at a shelter for Native Americans struggling with substance abuse. 

The time he spent at Oceti Sakowin left him more humble, more tolerant and more focused, he said.   

"I don't even watch sports anymore. I used to be a huge Vikings fan. Now I don't watch sports; it's just a distraction,” he said. “Feels like I could be doing something else productive."

Perkins said he stays in touch with people he met at Standing Rock, and while he’s not physically on the front lines, he stays engaged as a “keyboard warrior,” amplifying front-line messages on social media. 

Backwater Bridge on Highway 1806.
The pavement leading up to Backwater Bridge reads "It's not over," on Highway 1806 just outside of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota on Aug. 30, 2017. The bridge, adjacent to the site of the Oceti Sakowin protest camp, was the site of conflict between protesters and law enforcement and was deemed unsafe after a vehicle was burned on top of it.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

"What we did back then, I'd like to think, inspired people to do what they're doing now,” he said.

“And I'll make some money and I'll help you get out of jail, or I'll send you some shirts, and that's where I'm helping right now, and I'm fine with that.”

Chase Iron Eyes thinks the influence of the movement that started at Standing Rock is only beginning, because it deeply affected many young people. 

"Standing Rock has pushed a lot of these young people to spiritual growth and political action," he said.

The impacts of Standing Rock, he said, will continue to reverberate not only spiritually but politically, socially and economically.

"Standing Rock is a never-ending saga,” he said. “It's a fight to live right by Mother Earth, and so it will continue to manifest itself in many different ways."

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