Eryn Wise, a 26-year-old member of the Jicarilla Apache and Laguna tribes, has been living at the Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota since August. Alongside thousands of others, she's been praying to stop the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline; a 1,200-mile pipe that was supposed to enter the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, where it would tear through the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's sacred grounds and threaten their water supply.
This week, the prayers of those at Standing Rock were answered. In a statement on Sunday, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would be denying the easement needed to complete the job. It's a huge win for indigenous people, but one that's come with a steep cost.
From August to December, Wise watched the camp turn from a peaceful place of prayer to a virtual war zone. In effort to push the unarmed masses off the land, law enforcement turned to violence, thrusting water grenades and rubber bullets into crowds of unarmed demonstrators. When we spoke on the phone, three days before the announcement, Wise's voice was raspy from a cold — the product of a blizzard that had torn through the camp in the days before.
But the defiant leader, who left her job teaching kids in Phoenix, Arizona, to move to North Dakota, wouldn't let that stop her. As communications director for the International Indigenous Youth Council, she's fought tirelessly to amplify the voice of her people — a group history has repeatedly silenced. "We don't ever hear the narrative of indigenous people," she tells me. "We hear people writing our narratives for us."
Not this time. After months of being sprayed with tear gas, pummeled by rubber bullets, and doused in mace, the Native Americans at Standing Rock — hailing from 378 different tribes — sang "Mni wiconi!" ("Water is life") not as a rallying cry this week but as a victory song. In the days leading up to the win, Wise shed light on what it's like to be a Native American youth in the middle of making history, from caring for her little sister's broken wrist to navigating mixed feelings about the involvement of celebrities.
Abby Haglage: You have been at Sacred Stone Camp since August. What has "home" looked like?
Eryn Wise: This summer I lived with about twenty youth-council members in a canvas tent and some tipis. Now that it's colder, I live in a yurt with about twelve people. We do everything together — we eat together, we sleep together, we pile into cars to go take showers together, we walk around the camps together.
AH: How many people have been at the camp overall?
EW: Last week, before the blizzard, it was about 15,000. Now I want to say it's probably about 5,000 to 6,000, just because of the weather. A lot of people left when they realized that they were ill prepared. [Ed note: more snow and sub-freezing temperatures earlier this week sent many protectors to a nearby casino for their own safety.]
AH: All along people have been referring to this as a protest, but you've mentioned the desire to be recognized as "protectors" not "protesters." Why do you feel strongly about that distinction?
EW: It is a protection, not a protest. Everything that we do is in protection of the land. [The media] doesn't use the word protectors because they think that the mainstream audience won't understand it ... but this is their time to grasp this teaching opportunity and share with mainstream audiences what it is that we want to be called. We're redefining history, you know? I don't think that [soldiers] call their wars protests. They feel like they're doing a job — so do we.