Sharing her personal experiences with the 2016 Standing Rock protests, Jennifer Weston discussed the evolution of the Water is Life movement, which attempted to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built through unceded tribal territory land in North Dakota. Her lecture on Wednesday, “The Water is Life Movement: Standing Rock in Social Justice and Spiritual Context,” was part of the American Studies Program’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Colloquia Series.

The NAIS Colloquia Series seeks to “promote conversation at Brandeis about Indigenous issues, settler colonialism, and NAIS, and to help students, staff and faculty build relationships with scholars, community organizers, and tribal representatives in local area,” Prof. Lee Bloch (AMST/ANT), the Florence Levy Kay Fellow in Native American and Indigenous Studies, explained in an email to the Justice.

Weston, of the Hunkpapa Lakota people, grew up on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and her activism is dedicated to issues of cultural resiliency and language revitalization among tribal communities, per  the event description. She is the director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project and the Language Department director for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and she teaches at University of Massachusetts Boston.

“I’m asking you today to think about what it might mean to envision social justice from a place that centers indigenous rights, and part of those rights involve treaties that our ancestors negotiated, and fought and died to defend,” Weston said at the beginning of her lecture. Throughout her talk, she stressed that the issue of treaty rights being violated is at the core of the Water is Life movement’s opposition to the DAPL.

The DAPL transports 500,000 barrels of oil a day from oil fields in North Dakota’s Bakken formation to Illinois, per a Nov. 29, 2018 National Public Radio report. The pipeline runs through large areas of unceded tribal territory north of the Standing Rock reservation — territory that indigenous communities would still control if the government had not violated treaties. The region also contains ancestral burial grounds and ceremonial sites that are significant to many indigenous tribes in the area, Weston explained.

Although the original DAPL route ran north of Bismarck, the state’s capital, that route was abandoned due to environmental concerns for nearby wetlands and drinking water, according to Weston, which led to the development of the current DAPL route.

As early as 2014, the tribal government met with extraction company executives and state and federal agencies in charge of approving the pipeline’s route, but, as Weston explained, “it just became apparent to everyone, and particularly the young people, that these vast bureaucracies were not going to be able to do anything to stop this pipeline.”

The Water is Life movement that grew out of this sentiment was “grounded in non-violent, peaceful resistance and acts of prayer,” Weston said.

In March 2016, a group of indigenous youth called the Oceti Sakowin Youth and Allies, led by Bobbi Jean Hu Yamni, began their first Spirit Run, running from Standing Rock to the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Nebraska, a distance of about 700 miles. Oceti Sakowin is a collective term for Lakota, Dakota and Nakota families and allies, spread across about a dozen Indian reservations and First Nation reserves from Nebraska to Canada, according to Weston. In a series of Spirit Runs throughout 2016, the youth carried an eagle staff — “the equivalent of a flag,” often given to individuals who have become community spiritual leaders — and raised awareness and opposition to the DAPL.

Spirit Runs and social media activism — including hashtags like #NoDAPL — conducted by indigenous youth were “instrumental in launching this movement and in bringing literally the world to our doorstep,” Weston said.

In April, the Inyan Wakanagapi Oti, or the Camp of the Sacred Stone, was established on the Standing Rock reservation, according to Weston. A second camp, the Oceti Sakowin or Seven Council Fires camp, was established in mid-August, and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe established a third camp, the Sicangu Oyate or Burnt Thigh Lakota. Weston explained that these water protection encampments grew throughout the year, eventually having schools, clinics and internal security forces.

“I don’t think anyone could have predicted that upwards of 10,000 people would be camping out along our river in solidarity with us,” Weston said.

According to an American Civil Liberties Union graphic which Weston shared during her presentation, more than 70 law enforcement agencies, working with private security contractors hired by the extraction companies, responded to the Standing Rock protests. In her presentation, Weston juxtaposed photos of nonviolent protests conducted by native community members with photos of militarized responses, including clouds of tear gas. Standing Rock became “a training ground for militarized police response,” she said, calling the level of the response “terrifying.”

A significant “language barrier” also existed between the police response and the tribal protestors, Weston said. She recounted how some indigenous water protectors brought ceremonial pipes to the camps, but law enforcement misinterpreted this language and said they were talking about pipe bombs.

This was the beginning of a “media narrative that really focused on the potential for violence among these tribal families,” Weston said, which was spread not only among local media but also among publications from other parts of the country.

In reality, of the more than 800 people who were arrested throughout the protests, only one was armed, and that gun was registered to an FBI informant who gave it to the protester, Weston explained.

In December 2016, after months of indigenous protests along the pipeline route, the Obama Administration halted the construction by denying a necessary permit, but the Trump Administration reversed that decision and the pipeline was completed, per the earlier NPR story.

Weston pushed back against the idea that the protest “was all for nothing,” arguing that the Water Is Life movement started discussions about treaty rights and tribal sovereignty in a country that “lives in a state of denial” about these topics. The movement also highlighted issues of civil rights, “this unchecked potential for police militarization” and environmental justice, she added.

“I think we understand ourselves as part of this greater [Oceti Sakowin] nation again,” Weston said, highlighting the way the camps brought together different indigenous languages and ceremonies. 

Looking to the future, Weston urged her community to take the “long view,” stating that she sees the DAPL’s construction as a “temporary victory” for the fossil fuel industry. “I firmly believe that I’ll live to see the day when this pipeline permit expires, and our community will participate in its removal from our treaty territory,” she said.

Bloch explained in an email to the Justice that he believes that the Water is Life movement “radically transformed the public consciousness” around native and treaty rights. This violation of treaty rights “isn’t something we can look at as a dark chapter of history that we’re all ashamed of,” Bloch wrote, “it is how settler colonialism operates right here, right now.” 

“What do we do once we recognize that we live in this settler state that has a vested economic and militaristic interest in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples?” Bloch asked of the Brandeis community in his email.

—Editor's Note: This article was updated to clarify that Weston was citing an ACLU graphic about the number of law enforcement agencies involved and to clarify that the person who was arrested while armed was carrying a gun which was registered to an FBI informant.