Dr. Adrienne Keene, an assistant professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, discussed her research regarding native college students’ involvement in protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline on Friday. 

During the event “‘I Just Had to Be There’: Experiences of Indigenous Students in the #NoDAPL Movement,” Keene explored how these students’ participation in protesting the construction of the pipeline shaped their college experiences and relationships with activism. 

The United States Army Corps of Engineers first approved permits for the construction of a 1,200 mile pipeline meant to transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois in the spring of 2016, Keene explained. The Dakota Access Pipeline would have crossed under sacred indigenous sites and the primary water source of the Standing Rock Nation in North Dakota, posing the risk of water contamination in the event of a leak. The project prompted a resistance movement that drew indigenous and nonindigenous peoples from across the nation. Keene described how protesters established camps on the plains of the proposed construction site and faced police brutality and harsh weather conditions. The protests resulted in formerPresident Barack Obama blocking the project, a decision that President Donald Trump reversed days after he took office.

Keene emphasized the role of native college students in the protests. A young woman from the Standing Rock Nation, Bobbi Jean Three Legs, organized three youth runs to raise awareness of the issue, one of which was the first event associated with the movement to gain national recognition. Keene explained, “The biographical availability of college students — meaning they have the time, motivation and space — makes them prime participants in social activism.” 

The role of youth in the resistance further expanded with the establishment of the International Indigenous Youth Council, a group that organized meetings and press conferences during the protests. The involvement of youth in the Standing Rock movement marked a change from traditional indigenous student activism. In the past, native college students focused on calling attention to racism within institutions they attended as opposed to protesting issues in the outside world.

For her study, Keene interviewed 14 native students from a range of secondary institutions who took part in the movement, either from their campuses or at the camps in North Dakota. Keene outlined the common themes she found across the 14 interviews. These themes included the centrality of activism to indigenous identity, as many students felt obligated to protest as a way of protecting their heritage; and students’ shift in academic interests and focus following their protest experiences. Keene mentioned one interviewee that changed his major from Engineering to Ethnic Studies after developing an increased appreciation for his culture following the protests.

Additionally, Keene discussed the interviewees’ appreciation for “language as environmental activism.” Keene provided an example of one student who found there was no word for “undrinkable water” in the Mohawk language, explaining that “within that knowledge of the language comes environmental stewardship practices that go with it.” Keene also described the students’ contemplation of the “otherwise” of their protest efforts while they were at the camps: she explained how students considered a reality in which their involvement in the resistance movement resulted in greater justice for indigenous people.

Keene highlighted an interview with “Ana,” a college senior whose protest experience was representative of the common themes Keene discovered in her interviews. Upon arriving at the camps in North Dakota, Ana found her niche in the community by washing dishes for the community of protesters. Keene cited Ana’s gradual recognition of the small yet significant role she played at the camps, which led her to embrace her indigenous heritage through a newfound passion for native food. 

Following the conclusion of her research, Keene said she will help the students she interviewed to connect with each other and other native activists to help them strengthen their native identity and sense of community. She also discussed integrating data from Twitter and other social media platforms into her study. Native activists relied on these platforms to voice their resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline and organize small-scale protests.

Keene has now begun the process of interviewing indigenous Hawaiian college students who participated in the protest against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, a mountain Keene said was the location of sacred indigenous sites. The controversial project threatened these sites and sparked controversy similar to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Keene noted the similarities in the themes relating to native identity that arose from the experiences of the protesters of the Thirty Meter Telescope and the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

Unlike the resistance movement in North Dakota, however, protesters on Mauna Kea started a school to teach traditional culture to youth. Many students spent a semester studying on the mountain while maintaining contact with their professors from other institutions, Keene said. Additionally, Hawaiian activists protested the University of Hawaii for its sponsorship of the project. 

Keene said she is looking for more interviews to help her expand her study. Her ultimate goal is to increase “educational outcomes for native students.”

The event was hosted by the American Studies Program and sponsored by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Colloquia Series and the Brandeis Anthropology Research Seminar.