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Democracy in Crisis

Out of Standing Rock, the Birth of a New Environmental Movement



It is snowing in Washington—strange in early March after an insanely warm winter, but nothing compared to the cold many activists and tribal members endured in North Dakota while fighting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Kristen Tuske of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation stands with other women in front of the White House, fist raised in the air. She lived at the camp, where thousands of water protectors gathered to fight the pipeline, for seven months.

"The last couple weeks at the camp were sad and everyone was a little angry," she said. "A lot of feelings are hurt ... That was our home and we got kicked out." The last protesters left the camp Feb. 23.

The struggle started last summer when the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes sued the Army Corps of Engineers to stop the construction of the pipeline, claiming it could contaminate their water supply and destroy significant archeological sites. Protests pitted indigenous people—and the environmentalists and veterans who fought with them—against an increasingly militarized police presence. Then-President Obama twice ordered construction stopped, but, after taking office, the new president gave the go-ahead, insisting it must be constructed of American steel (a stance he quietly reversed this month).

The evacuation of the camp may be a defeat for Standing Rock, but it may also signal the beginning of something greater: the possibility of a real environmental movement in America.

"The reason I am here is to represent our future generations and be their voice, part of the resistance in decolonizing our minds," said JoRee LaFrance, a member of the Crow tribe from Montana. "Protecting our waters should be our number-one priority, and that's why we're all here is to unite and protect tribal sovereignty and to protect indigenous people and their waters. People need to realize indigenous people are doing this for all people, not just indigenous people."

I hear that sentiment again and again; indigenous people, stepping forward to save the planet.

Little Thunder, father of a child living at Standing Rock and an elder from South Dakota's Rosebud Indian Reservation, is standing apart from the crowd in full ceremonial regalia: a feathered headdress, a circular feather shield. He came to "let people know and let Trump know that this is not just a Standing Rock or a Washington, D.C., or a politics issue. This is for the whole earth. We're trying to save the water because water is life."

"Once he let [Standing Rock] go through, they think they can destroy the water, which is life every place else on this earth, not just Standing Rock," he says.

David Kenny, a member of the Seneca Nation, is standing with a sign that reads, "Water is Life."

"It's not just about Native Americans anymore. It's about everyone," he says. "Because you keep poisoning the water, you're going to start paying for it and they're going to shoot that price up. You're going to be paying $20 for a bottle of it. It's not just about the tribes anymore."

He turns his attention toward the White House. "Can you stop this pipeline, please?" he asks, his voice soft.

There's no indication that anyone in the White House hears, despite the fact that native nations have at this point spent four days with teepees on the mall, raising awareness of indigenous and environmental issues. On March 9, the day before the gathering across from the White House, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said he would not agree that climate change caused by human activity is "a primary contributor to the global warming that we see."

But as the Native Nations Rise rally went down, thousands of more people were calling the EPA to complain about Pruitt's disavowal of accepted science. On the very same day as the rally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study reporting that carbon dioxide levels rose at a "record pace for second straight year." Trump's budget proposal stands to slash the EPA by more than 30 percent. NOAA is not included in the final proposal, but a leaked draft showed a 17 percent decrease in funding.

The snow falls on the demonstrators and the dancers and the speakers. Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas takes the stage. Part Shoshone, he organized the release of a song recorded by a collection of mostly native artists, bringing attention to native issues. It is still a strange moment, watching the snow fall as this pop star sings "I Gotta Feeling" and people dance and sing, making it feel, for a moment, more like spring break than a fight for the fate of the world. Looking over at the White House, I have a feeling that tonight's probably not gonna be a good night. But if we listen to the water protectors, we may still have some good nights left.

Tips to Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday.

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