The Youth Activists Behind the Standing Rock Resistance (with Lesson Plan)

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At first glance, it's easy to consider the dramatic effort to block construction of an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock reservation a defeat.

Just over a year since the protests began, the fiercely contested Dakota Access Pipeline is near completion. Long-stalled construction resumed in February, following an order by President Trump within his first days in office. And the once-vibrant, sprawling protest camps that dotted the North Dakota plains and came to symbolize an internationally recognized struggle for native rights and environmental justice have all but disappeared.

But for the small group of often overlooked native youth who started the movement, the experience was transformational.

"This has changed my life completely," said Jasilyn Charger, 20, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, who first helped organize the protest. "I will never be the same girl I was when I first came to camp. ... My people gave me courage. And I'm going to continue this fight."


In a recent episode of Reveal, produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting, reporter Leigh Paterson of the public media project Inside Energy returned to the Standing Rock reservation and reconnected with some of the youth leaders who played a crucial role in sparking the resistance.

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"Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that Standing Rock would be put on such a large world stage," Dana Yellow Fat, a member of the tribal council, told Paterson. And it was the young people who put it there, he added.

Soon after the pipeline broke ground in January 2016, he said, "a group of youth approached us and asked for help. ... They wanted our help as elected officials to bring awareness to as many people as they could."

Standing Rock youth running East towards D.C. (ReZpect our Water)

Calling themselves the One Mind Youth Movement, Jasilyn Charger's small group set up a tiny "prayer camp" on the still-frozen ground last spring on the northernmost edge of the Standing Rock reservation. It was one of the first actions to block construction of the pipeline, a project slated to move half a million barrels of oil a day under the nearby Missouri River, which the tribe said threatened its main water supply and desecrated sacred ancestral lands. In August, the group also organized a nearly 2,000-mile relay-style run to Washington, D.C., to bring those concerns directly to federal officials and draw more national attention to the issue.

Within months, thousands of protesters from around the world joined the sprawling camp near the river, an improbable movement uniting conservative farmers, urban environmentalists and members of hundreds of American Indian tribes from around the country, in what became one of the largest native resistance efforts in U.S. history.

Numbering just over 8,000, the Standing Rock Sioux live on a stretch of plains that reaches across state lines from North to South Dakota. The reservation was once part of a far more vast expanse of land controlled by a confederation of Sioux tribes, including the Lakota and Dakota. That territory was dramatically whittled down in 1868 to an area of roughly 25 million acres, encompassing most of modern western South Dakota, when the federal government via treaty consolidated the tribes into the Great Sioux Reservation.

Partitioning of the Great Sioux Reservation (Kmusser/Wikimedia Commons)

But with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in the late 1800s and impending statehood for the Dakotas, the government again went back on former treaties and partitioned the area into much smaller isolated reservations, including Standing Rock.

Many kids growing up on the Standing Rock reservation are no strangers to struggle. Roughly half of the families here live in poverty, a rate nearly three times the national average. The unemployment rate is officially about 35 percent, but many say it is much higher. Drug use, alcoholism and domestic violence plague the community, as do high rates of nutrition-related diseases like obesity and diabetes, making it one of the most unhealthy places in the country to live.

President Obama visited Standing Rock in 2014 and met with some local youth leaders. It was his first visit to an Indian reservation. Reflecting on his experience, he later said: "We walked away shaken, because some of these kids were carrying burdens no young people should ever have to carry and it was heartbreaking."

And similar to many other reservations, the rate of suicide in Standing Rock, especially among young people, is strikingly high: about 1.5 times the national average. For young men, it climbs even higher.

"One of the biggest things and biggest fears that I have is our youth taking their own lives, and it’s happened a lot on Standing Rock," said Yellow Fat. "It was a national story. That’s what we were known for."

Aliya Eagle, Yellow Fat's 17-year-old stepdaughter, can speak of these tragedies firsthand. Several years ago her cousin committed suicide and just three days later her brother was murdered.

"After all of that happened, I didn’t really want anything to do with anybody," she said. "And I couldn’t be in a public setting for a long time or a short time without feeling like the world was going to crash on me."

For Eagle and many of the other young people involved in the protest, the fight against the pipeline was also a fight against many of the demons haunting the reservation.

"I can say it was pretty amazing," she added. "It really helped me gain people skills and just enjoy being in a public setting again."

The lasting impact that the resistance movement has had on the reservation's youth is impossible to quantify. But Monique Runnels, Standing Rock's wellness director, collects suicide-related data and told Paterson that she's observed a notable decrease in the number of referrals and attempts, a trend she hopes will continue now that the camps are gone.

This summer, oil will begin flowing through the completed pipeline, under Lake Oahe, just north of the reservation. For some, it will be a bitter reminder of an ultimately unsuccessful resistance, another failed native resistance effort.

But Tokata Iron Eyes, the 13-year-old president of the Standing Rock Youth Council, sees it a differently. Although certainly not satisfied with the outcome, she says the movement turned into something bigger than just stopping the pipeline.

"Those camps and this whole movement gave our youth something to do that's occupied time where they could have been drinking, doing drugs. And so I think it was a really positive movement for a really long time.

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"Our communities have such a hard time. But we don’t want to be victims anymore. Because we’ve been victims for a really long time. Now, with this generation, with the youth, we’re just trying to pick ourselves up and start over and live in a good way."