Standing Rock: a global environmental movement led by indigenous youth


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Indigenous people all over the world are in good spirits today. On 4 December, 2016, the Army Corps announced that it would not approve the easement which would have allowed the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross Lake Oahe, approximately 0.5 miles upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The alignment of the pipeline threatens the water source that the tribal nation relies on for drinking water, irrigation, the continued practice of treaty rights like hunting and fishing, and their cultural livelihood. The decision came one day before the initially publicised date that Corps planned to evacuate water protectors from their camps in North Dakota. That message triggered over 2,500 veterans and many others to make the trek to the camps to stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Tribe. This decision has put a temporary stop to the Pipeline.

Unfortunately, threats of environmental and cultural damage from extractive industries and natural resource exploitation are not new for indigenous peoples. This has been an ongoing battle for centuries. However, what is happening here in Standing Rock is unprecedented. Indigenous nations all over the world and their allies, stood up in the face of a large adversary and refused to accept that they had no voice in the matter of protecting their water and their cultural heritage—and we owe this powerful movement to our indigenous youth.

This movement sprung into the national spotlight months ago when indigenous youth journeyed 2,000 miles, by foot, all the way to Washington, D.C., in an attempt to stop the construction of the pipeline, all the while live streaming their movement on social media for the entire world to see.

“It is the teachings of our elders that have taught us that if we stand strong in peace and prayer that we will defeat the black snake, and we truly believe that,” says Layha Pretty Elk Spoonhunter, a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council. Despite being subject to brutality and harsh treatment in the process, Layha knows what youth are fighting for: “We want to live in a future where we have clean water and clean air. If we have to go to jail or get pepper sprayed in order to protect the next seven generations, we will do it.”

So what does all this mean? First and foremost, it means that the youth have the power to turn an issue affecting their home and their people, into a global issue. We have the power to make change happen. Second, this means that we have a long battle in front of us. In less than two months, we will have a president who is personally invested in the pipeline take office. And although the Army Corps says it will look into alternative routes and complete a full environmental impact statement, there is no promise that the pipeline through this sacred area is defeated for good.

But if there’s anything that this movement has taught us, it’s that as long as we continue to give our youth a voice and allow them to lead, we will be in good hands. We must stay vigilant, stay determined, and, as indigenous environmentalist Winona LaDuke said, continue to “be the descendants our ancestors will thank.” 

Anna Hohag is a young Paiute (Nüümü) woman and a citizen of the Bishop Paiute Tribal Nation. She is in her final year of law school at The University of Arizona where she is studying Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy (IPLP).  Anna serves as the Area 1 Representative for the National Native American Law Students Association (NNALSA), President for her local NALSA chapter at The University of Arizona, and is a board member of the California Indian Law Association (CILA). Earlier this year, Anna was selected as a Delegate Speaker at the One Young World Environmental Summit.