The Protectors of Life: Indigenous Women in Leadership at Standing Rock

First rumored in 2014, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe immediately opposed plans for the Dakota Access Pipeline. It gained momentum with the public in the latter portion of 2016, spearheaded by a gaping controversy of the 1,200-mile project. The pipeline itself, “built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners and designed to transport as many as 570,000 barrels of crude oil daily from North Dakota to Illinois,” has since become one of the country’s biggest controversies (Worland). Those in favor argue that it will create jobs, help the U.S. become more energy independent, and that the oil transfer process will be environmentally friendly. Those who fought against it and stayed out the winter in Standing Rock had a starkly different view: it threatens the purity of the water in the area, directly worsens climate change by pumping shale oil into the market, and perhaps the most important point, it is a direct violation of a land treaty offered to the Sioux in 1851. The peaceful protest lasted just under a year, both sides vying for the last word. On January 24, 2017, President Donald Trump signed executive actions to advance the construction of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines. The battle may have been lost, but the war is not over. Indigenous women led much of the protest process, including making the concern a global matter, playing vital leadership roles, and offering unique perspectives on political and cultural materials.

Indigenous women played a crucial role in each level of the movement to stop construction of the pipeline, including local, regional, and global influence. Aside from the local events surrounding the pipeline in North Dakota, such as peaceful protests and camps organization, they also helped rally the support of people across the country and globe. According to U.S. Today, “Indigenous women across the U.S. have pushed boundaries and served as guiding voices in struggles for land rights, cultural restoration and environmental justice – often quietly, in service of their own communities.” (Hult). For example, Faith Spotted Eagle, a Yankton Sioux Tribal elder and prominent voice against the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines, believes “pipeline protests are a continuation of traditional teachings” and that these teachings must be reinforced in Indigenous children to “educate and re-teach culture lost through decades of forced assimilation in boarding schools.” (Hult). Many of the Indigenous women involved with Standing Rock are actively involved with Indigenous and environmental rights daily across America. Regarding global influence, “a delegation of Indigenous women from Standing Rock and their allies who observed and experienced rights violations in North Dakota due to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, recently traveled to Norway and Switzerland to share their on-the-ground experiences as Indigenous women who are living and working in communities directly impacted by fossil fuel development and infrastructure.” (Lake). These Indigenous women believe their work is ongoing, and they know how to reach all levels of influence to impact people on the broadest levels.

Several key characteristics defined the leadership roles of Indigenous women during the movement. One major goal they had was to make sure others understood that they were not simply fighting for one cause or issue. They cared about clean water, police brutality, and the rights of future generations in America—to name a few. In a viral video shared by social justice journalist Shaun King, one such Indigenous female leader said, “in the history of colonization, they’ve always given us two options: give up our land or go to jail…give up our rights or go to jail…and now, give up our water or go to jail…we are not criminals.” (Lampen). Satiacum chose Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe activist and two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate who ran with Ralph Nader, understands that the responsibility for change lies heavily on the shoulders of Indigenous women. “The leadership in a lot of the environmental movement and the indigenous movements has been women,” LaDuke explains, and historically, the role of women traditionally had differing but equal roles within tribes (Hult). Even when leadership was generally male, women were still always part of the conversation and decision-making process. They have grown bounds since then, and these powerful leaders believe they have more impact for change than ever before.

Legal, political, cultural, and spiritual perspectives drove Indigenous women forward throughout the protest. One perspective infrequently touched on by media is the deep spiritual perspectives that are a framework for Indigenous beliefs and actions. For example, in the Lakota way of understanding, harming the water directly harms women and their reproductive systems. Coya White Hat-Artichoker, a Lakota and active leader at Standing Rock, explained that “the Lakota word for womb is ‘tamni,’ which means ‘her water’…if the water is poisoned, then she is poisoned.” (Bogado). Legal and political perspectives tend to go hand-in-hand, and the protest at Standing Rock was yet another example of colonizers treating Indigenous peoples with utter disrespect. Corrine Sanchez, who leads Tewa Women United, adamantly stated, “Indigenous lands have always been stolen or taken as sacrifice zones.” (Bogado). Coya and Corrine are both strongly driven by cultural perspectives, and they believe tribal sovereignty is of the utmost importance. Osprey Orielle Lake, the founder and executive director of the Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, argues that “globally, it is time for financial institutions to listen to the voices of Indigenous women leaders and their allies as they call for accountability to people and planet.” Ultimately, Standing Rock was not simply about protecting water. It was symbolic of Indigenous self-governance and sovereignty—the right to protect one’s body, mind, and soul.

Indigenous women were active change agents in the work at Standing Rock, and their efforts will only continue to impact the world. Even after President Trump signed the executive order, “Indigenous women leaders and their global allies remain unyielding in their quest for justice and healing regarding the violations of Indigenous rights and human rights being carried out through the development of DAPL and other fossil fuel projects across North America.” (Lake). Being the protectors of life, Indigenous women are adamant about protecting water, rights, and sacred ground—all three of which are now threatened with the construction of DAPL. Not only are fossil fuels exceedingly dangerous for both the climate and water sources, it is also a silent way to strip any remaining rights away from Indigenous peoples. Leaders like the Indigenous women who played an active role at Standing Rock refuse to silently accept their fate, and they will continue to fight for Indigenous sovereignty and for respect through the means of self-governances and protection over people and lands. These Indigenous women, these frontline defenders, these protectors of life, may be all that stands between the destruction of human rights and the world as we know it.

Works Cited

Bogado, Aura. “How Water Contamination at Standing Rock Threatens Women’s Reproductive

Rights.” Teen Vogue., 28 Apr. 2017. Web. 29 Apr. 2017. <http://www.>.

Hult, John. “Women of Standing Rock aren’t backing down.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite

Information Network, 12 Mar. 2017. Web. 26 Apr. 2017. < story/news/nation/2017/03/11/women-standing-rock-arent-backing-down/98975956/>.

Lake, Osprey. “Indigenous Women of Standing Rock Resistance Movement Speak Out on

Divestment.” EcoWatch. EcoWatch, 16 Apr. 2017. Web. 29 Apr. 2017. <http://www.>.

Lampen, Claire. “Indigenous women of Standing Rock release heartbreaking video hours before

evacuation deadline.” Mic. Mic Network Inc., 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 27 Apr. 2017. <https ://>.

Worland, Justin. “Dakota Access Pipeline: What to Know About the Controversy.” Time

Magazine. Time Magazine, 28 Oct. 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2017. < /4548566/dakota-access-pipeline-standing-rock-sioux/>.


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