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Still Standing

Youth activism and legal advocacy
work hand in hand in the fight for justice

Still Standing

Youth activism and legal advocacy work hand in hand in the fight for justice

A group of protestors march on a road. In front, leading the group is Catcher Cuts The Rope. He is wearing a camouflage print jacket, a feather headdress, and carrying a swagger stick. To the right, other protestors are holding up a flag of the Unites States.  In the canton of the flag, there are single stars at the four corners and two concentric circles of stars in the middle.
Alyssa Schukar / New York Times via Redux
Catcher Cuts The Rope, an Iraq War veteran, leads a protest march to a sacred burial ground at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota on Sept. 9, 2016.
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Catcher Cuts The Rope, an Iraq War veteran, leads a protest march to a sacred burial ground at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota on Sept. 9, 2016. Alyssa Schukar / New York Times via Redux

July 6, 2020

After years of legal battle and a historic grassroots resistance, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have achieved a long-sought victory.

In July, a federal judge struck down permits for the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, and ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review the project’s environmental impacts.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has long feared the catastrophic threat of a spill from the pipeline, which crosses the Missouri River within a mile of the Tribe’s reservation in South Dakota. Protests against the project in 2016 drew hundreds of thousands of people to the river’s banks and fueled a global movement for Indigenous sovereignty.

The youth-led protest was only one part of the Tribe’s fight to protect its homeland from an exploitative government system. During the height of the water protectors’ resistance and long afterward, the Tribe persisted in a quieter, years-long court battle to stop the pipeline and obtain a fair environmental review. Victory was never certain, and at times seemed unlikely.

But for the Tribe, backing down has never been an option.

It all started with a prayer ceremony.

In a room packed with families, youths, and tribal elders, patience was wearing thin. It was April 2016. After a year of empty “consultations,” the U.S. government was signaling to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that it would approve the plan to run the Dakota Access oil pipeline beneath the Missouri River, just upstream from the Standing Rock reservation that crosses North and South Dakota. Now the tribal members had to weigh their remaining options for defending their drinking water and homeland from potentially irreversible contamination.

A map of the lower 48 states of the Unites States of America with the location of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation marked in red with the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline marked in black.
Standing Rock Indian Reservation

Dave Archambault, who was chair of the Standing Rock Sioux during that tumultuous year, remembers the overwhelming sense of frustration permeating that meeting.

“People felt that it wasn’t enough,” says Archambault. “At the meeting, a medicine man asked the spirits how we could stop this pipeline. The spirits said: With prayer and with peace, the pipeline can be stopped; but with any form of violence, the pipeline would go under the river.”

Channeling that spiritual call to action, a group of Sioux teenagers traveled to where the pipeline was slated to cross the river. Snow covered the ground as they pitched their teepees and tents. Resilient against the biting, wintry South Dakota wind, the youth established the camps to protest an industry bent on silencing Native voices.

Environmental justice at the heart of the issue: “This is a fight over a big crude oil pipeline — but it hasn’t been primarily a fight about ‘keep it in the ground’ or climate. It’s about justice and sovereignty. And it has forced people to grapple with some of our history — our very awful history on how we treat Native people — and recognize that it’s not all in the past.”

Learn more in a conversation with Jan Hasselman: Standing With Standing Rock

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That spirit camp, called Sacred Stone, eventually grew into multiple camps and spawned a global movement in support of Indigenous rights, inspiring thousands to descend on Standing Rock. A generation of young, mostly Native activists found new ways to organize, fueling parallel movements around the world.

Environmental justice at the heart of the issue: “This is a fight over a big crude oil pipeline — but it hasn’t been primarily a fight about ‘keep it in the ground’ or climate. It’s about justice and sovereignty. And it has forced people to grapple with some of our history — our very awful history on how we treat Native people — and recognize that it’s not all in the past.”

Learn more in a conversation with Jan Hasselman: Standing With Standing Rock

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The Standing Rock story illustrates how different forms of opposition can achieve necessary change, both in the minds of the public and in the halls of justice.

Write to your members of Congress in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its fight for justice and sovereignty.

Close up view of the body of white horse. In the background are numerous tents scattered across a vast camp.
Hossein Fatemi / Panos Pictures via Redux
A horse grazes at one of the Standing Rock camps in September 2016. Representatives of more than 300 tribes gathered to protest the path of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline.
A crowd is gathered in front of a courthouse - some with signs. One man is holding a sign that says 'Seneca Nation stands with Standing Rock.' In the middle is former Tribal Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux David Archambault on the microphone.
Photo courtesy of Standing Rock Sioux
Former Tribal Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux David Archambault II speaks after a hearing on the Dakota Access Pipeline in Washington, D.C.

The same month the Sioux youths pitched their tents, Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman made his first visit to the reservation headquarters in Fort Yates, North Dakota. The Tribe’s elders had reached out to discuss whether Earthjustice could help them fight the pipeline, which few outside of the Tribe had heard of.

The Standing Rock Sioux’s choice to enter a legal battle was not without misgivings. U.S. courts have a long history of providing legal cover for the government to dispossess tribes of their rights. The Tribe needed a legal firm they could trust.

The Standing Rock Sioux’s choice to enter a legal battle was not without misgivings.

“We needed to make sure we were aligned,” Archambault says. “We decided that if Earthjustice is fighting for Mother Earth, those are our values; and Earthjustice said, ‘If they’re protecting their land for future generations, that’s also protecting Mother Earth.’ That was when we knew we could be partners in this battle.”

A key basis of the Tribe’s case is that the government is required to conduct an environmental analysis, and consult with tribal governments, when an infrastructure project — such as a pipeline or an interstate highway — could endanger a tribe’s health or sovereign land. The government rushed approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) without fully conducting that analysis.

“We saw a draft environmental analysis in 2015 that completely ignored the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe,” recalls Archambault. “It was as if we didn’t exist.” A map of the proposed crossing site did not even have the Tribe’s reservation identified.

A Tribal staff member took Hasselman on a tour of the proposed route, and he got his first look at the treeless, windswept landscape at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers. As the lawyer and the Tribe met to formulate legal strategy, none of them dreamed that barely six months later the same site would capture the world’s attention.

A group of protestors with signs that say 'We are here to protect. Water is life' march along a field of gold-colored grass.
Photo courtesy of Josué Rivas
Water protectors march to stop a working site near the Dakota Access Pipeline. Standing Rock, North Dakota September 2016.

Over the summer of 2016, the Tribe carried out a two-pronged approach of legal and grassroots resistance. In July, the Tribe, represented by Earthjustice, sued the U.S. Army Corps in response to its hasty approval of the pipeline’s water permits without full environmental and cultural reviews involving the Tribe.

At the same time, the camps along the Missouri River entered a new phase — one that would forever change the lives of its inhabitants.

“From the beginning, it was known that it was a youth-led movement,” says Terrell IronShell, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. At the start of the protest, he and a small group of Native youths formed the International Indigenous Youth Council. Their leadership ushered the camps through trials and triumphs that tribal elders often compared to the Native defenders at Wounded Knee 1973.

Terrell Ironshell is wearing a a yellow bandana on his head, protective glasses, a red top, and a black backpack. Surrounding him are five uniformed officers dressed in protective gear: shielded helmets, upper body protection, and gloves with reinforced knuckle plating. The officer on the left is thrusting a black baton toward Terrell's hip. A second officer is holding onto Terrell's hands as Terrell is pulling away. A third officer is holding a red canister tank, posed to depress the operating lever. Two more officers have their hands on Terrell's backside -- one is grabbing Terrell's shoulder, the other grabbing Terrell's backpack.
A view of Terrell IronShell's face and upper torso. He is wearing a black beanie, a blue sweatshirt, and a blue puffy jacket. He is not looking directly at the camera. In the background are multiple teepees set out on a field. The background is out of focus.
Photos courtesy of Terrell IronShell and Jonathan Klett
From left: Terrell IronShell was arrested in the Oct. 27 camp raid and charged with a felony “conspiracy to commit danger by fire or explosions,” engaging in a riot and disorderly conduct.

IronShell after he was released from custody.
A view of Terrell IronShell's face and upper torso. He is wearing a black beanie, a blue sweatshirt, and a blue puffy jacket. He is not looking directly at the camera. In the background are multiple teepees set out on a field. The background is out of focus.Terrell Ironshell is wearing a a yellow bandana on his head, protective glasses, a red top, and a black backpack. Surrounding him are five uniformed officers dressed in protective gear: shielded helmets, upper body protection, and gloves with reinforced knuckle plating. The officer on the left is thrusting a black baton toward Terrell's hip. A second officer is holding onto Terrell's hands as Terrell is pulling away. A third officer is holding a red canister tank, posed to depress the operating lever. Two more officers have their hands on Terrell's backside -- one is grabbing Terrell's shoulder, the other grabbing Terrell's backpack.
From top: Terrell IronShell after he was arrested in the Oct. 27 camp raid in which he was charged with a felony “conspiracy to commit danger by fire or explosions,” engaging in a riot and disorderly conduct.

IronShell during the arrest.Photos courtesy of Jonathan Klett and Terrell IronShell

When IronShell first arrived in early August, the spirit camp was still sparse. Tall, wet grass slithered over his knees as he waded through empty fields. Wary of crowds, he set up his tent on a patch of grass far removed from the main gathering area, nestled near the horse pen.

By week’s end, that same field was covered with tents. As a group of Native youths ran from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to deliver a petition to the Army Corp’s headquarters, Dakota Access brazenly started construction, even before all the permits had been received. Hundreds of Native activists who had heard about the run traveled to Standing Rock.

Over 300 tribes were represented at the camps, including some that made their living from oil drilling or coal mining. Longtime adversaries put aside differences to draw attention to the U.S. government’s centuries-long practice of exploiting Native land. They were joined by Indigenous people from around the globe.

“So many of us came from Tribes that historically didn’t get along,” says IronShell. “We built our relationships with each other and felt stronger for it. We found unity among Indian movements around the country.”

Each morning, before the sun rose over the teepees, the camp was awakened by the booming call of veteran Oglala Lakota activist Guy Dull Knife. IronShell, who practices the Lakota ceremony of sun dancing, would make his way to the camp’s sacred fire to dance, pray, and smoke a ceremonial pipe with other sun dancers as daylight broke.

Afterward, IronShell and the youth council would spend the day circulating around camp. Their community-organizing skills were in constant demand: coordinating truckloads of donations, crafting press releases, and leading group trainings on nonviolent action, like road blockades and silent prayer sit-ins.

In the evenings, people would sit around their campfires, singing songs, telling stories, and praying to their ancestors.

On a field of grass, a horse is rearing with two smiling riders on its back. Riding anterior is Stevana Salazar. Salazar has chest length brunette hair, is wearing a hooded black jacket, denim pants, and leather moccasins. Salazar is holding the reigns to the horse. Behind Salazar is Arlo Standing Bear. Standing Bear has brunette buzzed hair, is wearing a hooded sweatshirt of a tree print camouflage, denim pants and calf-length leather boots. Standing Bear is holding on the saddle. In the background are cars, teepees, flags, and tents.
Terray Sylvester / VWPics via Redux
Stevana Salazar of the Kickapoo Tribe of Texas (left) rides with Arlo Standing Bear of the Oglala Lakota Tribe of South Dakota at a Standing Rock camp in August 2016.
A small group of youth are playing basketball in a field. Behind them are two long rows of Tribal flags, each of a different emblem.
Hossein Fatemi / Panos Pictures via Redux
More than 10,000 people traveled to North Dakota in fall 2016 to show solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
A man, Joseph Marshall, stands in front of a tent, carrying his 9 year old daughter, Kinehsche’. She also has her arms wrapped around his neck. they are looking at each other with foreheads and noses touching.
Alyssa Schukar / New York Times via Redux
Joseph Marshall and his daughter Kinehsche’ Marshall, 9, both from the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in California, stand outside a tent at the Sacred Stone Camp in Cannon Ball, N.D., Sept. 9, 2016.

“The bonds I made with the people at that camp are lifelong,” says IronShell. “They’re my family now.”

By the fall of 2016, the camps had swelled to 10,000 inhabitants. Non-Native people came in solidarity, including human-rights activists, journalists, Hollywood stars, politicians, and veterans who saw defending the rights of Indigenous people as a way to atone for the abuses of the U.S. military.

Behind the major media story at the camps was the Tribe’s continuing legal battle. After a series of hearings, the judge denied the Tribe’s request to halt construction of the pipeline. Yet the enormous pressure from the camps and the Tribe’s administrative advocacy began to affect the case: Minutes after the judge’s ruling, the Obama administration signaled a change of heart and put the permits on hold.

“Every infrastructure project the Sioux has ever faced changed the way we lived,” says Archambault. “The government says, ‘This is in the best interest of the nation’ — but they never give us an opportunity to say if we believe this is good for our nation.”

For a brief but beautiful moment, the grassroots power generated by the Standing Rock spirit camps turned the tide in favor of the Tribe. In December of 2016, during the waning weeks of the Obama administration, the Army Corps effectively denied DAPL’s water permits and kicked off the environmental review that the Tribe was seeking.

Tribal leaders, veterans, and activists celebrated, hailing the decision as a watershed moment for tribal sovereignty. Archambault asked the inhabitants of the spirit camp to return home and to keep pressure on their elected representatives. The camps began to empty.

Wooden plywood boards are mounted on the side of a yellow bus. Portraits of native faces, and the words 'Mní Wičóni' (Water is Life) are painted on the boards. Below these are a sign that says 'Standing Rock. The Vote.' A man dressed in a black brimmed cap, an orange vest, denim pants, and heavy-duty boots is walking in front of these signs with a power drill in hand. There are wooden planks on the floor, a step ladder, and a container of bits set atop the open tailgate of a yellow truck.
Hilary Swift / The New York Times via Redux
Jesse McCloud puts up signs for voting on buses that will be used to bring voters to the polls, in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe land in Fort Yates, N.D., Nov. 5, 2018. The Tribe had just renewed its legal challenge to DAPL’S permits at the time.

Then, a new administration took over. Within days of taking office, President Trump walked back Obama’s order and directed the Corps to issue DAPL’S permits.

In the three years that followed, Earthjustice represented the Standing Rock Sioux through a complicated period of victories and setbacks. A federal judge eventually ruled that the administration had acted illegally and ordered the Army Corps to reassess why the permits should be authorized without a full environmental review. Yet the ruling was bittersweet: The court later declined to halt the pipeline’s operations (which had commenced only a few weeks earlier) while the new review was conducted.

Since its completion, the Dakota Access Pipeline has moved 600,000 barrels of crude oil a day within hailing distance of the reservation. Yet despite failing to stop the pipeline’s construction, the Standing Rock Tribal Council has voted unanimously every year since to continue the fight.

“As long as there’s a pipeline under the Missouri River, there’s a threat,” Archambault says. “Even if we were to win, there’s a threat to the children who are not even born yet that waits underneath that river.”

When the Army Corps unsurprisingly concluded in 2018 — after a year of review — that it had lawfully issued the permits, Earthjustice challenged it in a last push for justice. The final path forward would hinge on whether a judge agreed with the Tribe — or took the Army Corps at its word.

As the final hearing approached in March of this year, Hasselman was ready. The legal team had worked with the Tribe and its technical advisors for months to form an airtight case, offering pages of citations from independent environmental experts proving DAPL’s potential for an oil leak with disastrous impact on the Tribe.

In a corner office with windows, sits Jan Hasselman on the left and Stefanie Tsosie on the right. Hasselman is in a red office  swivel chair. He has short blonde hair and is dressed in a blue button up long sleeve, denim pants, and leather shoes. He has one arm resting on the arm rest and another held up close to his face. Stefanie sits facing Jan in  chair made of wood and leather. She is wearing a purple knit sweater, denim jeans, and leather boots. She has shoulder length brunette hair and her mouth is open as if speaking to Jan. Beside them are stacks of paper atop a desk and cabinet. On the floor, beside their feet is a box with a stack of files on top. The view from the window shows that they are multiple stories up. Hung on the walls are a calendar, and a pushpin board with photos.
Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice
Jan Hasselman and Stefanie Tsosie, senior associate attorney at Earthjustice, serve as counsels for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Jan Hasselman is seen outside a court building talking to others. He is wearing a white shirt with a multicolored patterned tie. Those listening around him are writing on notepads and holding out their phones as if recording Jan.
Matt Roth for Earthjustice
Jan Hasselman answers questions after a status hearing on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. United States Army Corps of Engineers case in Washington, D.C., Jun. 21, 2017.

What Hasselman did not anticipate was the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It became obvious that I really should not be flying across the country,” says Hasselman, who is based in Seattle. As air travel became too risky, Hasselman cancelled his trip to the court in D.C. and requested that the hearing be held via teleconference.

By phone, Hasselman argued that the Army Corps never fully assessed the imminent danger to the Tribe should the pipeline rupture. Despite not being able to see the judge’s body language, Hasselman found ways to make the virtual accommodation work: Surrounded by fact sheets and regulatory citations taped to the wall of his home office, Hasselman had everything he needed to answer the judge’s questions.

Exactly one week later, the court issued a sweeping decision: The pipeline’s permits were illegal. The judge ordered the Army Corps to start the process over and conduct the full environmental review that the Tribe had sought since the pipeline's conception. In a follow-up ruling, an appeals court upheld the decision, so that the pipeline is now effectively operating illegally. While the issue of temporarily stopping the pipeline will be resolved with further court proceedings, the ultimate decision on shuttering DAPL for good won't be made until after the November 2020 election.

See the full timeline of events in Updates & Frequently Asked Question: Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Litigation on the Dakota Access Pipeline.From the top:
Courtesy Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; Joel Angel Juarez / Zuma Press; Michael Kennedy. Background image: Getty Images

Four years after the Sioux youth staked their tents, the case against DAPL is entering its final stages.

For the Tribe, the victory validates the sacrifices they made to continue this fight. The current chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, Mike Faith, expressed hope that this time the government would heed the wisdom of the Tribes.

“After years of commitment to defending our water and earth, we welcome this news of a significant legal win,” he said. “It’s humbling to see how actions we took four years ago to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices affect this planet.”

The seeds of grassroots action planted at the spirit camps continue to grow. Indigenous-led movements inspired by Standing Rock are fighting environmentally destructive projects in New Mexico, Washington, Arizona, Alaska, Canada, and elsewhere. Today, the International Indigenous Youth Council operates in seven states, advocating for Indigenous sovereign rights at the local level.

After leaving the spirit camp in 2017, Terrell IronShell led trainings in nonviolent direct action across the country. At home in Rapid City, South Dakota, his community is resisting uranium and gold mining that threaten the city’s drinking water. Now, after time in Canada helping Indigenous communities mobilize against transcontinental pipelines, IronShell is rejoining the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, which began construction this year.

“There were a lot of things that happened, and all we had was each other,” he says, reflecting on Standing Rock. “We made each other strong.” 

A group of people stand beside two rows of Tribal Flags at the Sacred Stone Camp, Nov. 16, 2016.
Lucas Zhao / CC BY-NC 2.0
Flags fly at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in 2016, near Cannonball, North Dakota.
From Camp to Court
A Standing Rock Timeline
Apr. 2016

A group of Sioux youths set up the first spirit camp at Standing Rock.

Jul. 25, 2016

Army Corps approves some DAPL easements.

Jul. 27, 2016
A black and white image of Earthjustice attorneys and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe -- they dressed in suits and traditional garments.

The Tribe (represented by Earthjustice sues the Army Corp in federal district court.

Dec. 2016

The Army Corps under Obama denies one of DAPL’s easements and says it will consider alternative routes.

Jan. 2017

Newly sworn-in President Trump takes executive action towards approving the easement.

Feb. 2017

The easement is officially issued.

Apr. 2017
A black and white image of a semi truck carrying pipes.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is completed while the case continues in court.

Jun. 2017

A federal judge rules that the easement is illegal and orders the Army Corps to review its decision — but declines to shut down the pipeline.

Aug. 2018

The Army Corps affirms its decision to issue the easement.

Nov. 2018

The Standing Rock Sioux challenge the Corps’ conclusion in court.

Mar. 2020

The D.C. district court sides with the Tribe, striking down the easement and ordering the Army Corps to conduct an environmental review.

May 2020
A black and white image of Jan Hasselman standing in a suit in front of a microphone. A phone is set on a tripod filming him. Behind him are protestors holding signs that say 'Get off of our graves. #noDAPL,' 'Mní Wičóni ungluonihanpi. Respect & Protect our water of life,' and 'Water is life. Life is sacred. #rezpectourwater

The Tribe submits briefs arguing that the pipeline should be shut down while the environmental review is conducted.

From the top: Courtesy Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; Joel Angel Juarez / Zuma Press; Michael Kennedy.
Map of Earthjustice offices.

Earthjustice’s Northwest Regional Office has been at the forefront of many of the most significant legal decisions safeguarding the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled species, ancient forests, and waterways. Learn more.

Jan Hasselman, a staff attorney in the Northwest Regonal Office, joined Earthjustice in 1998. His legal docket covers a number of regional and national issues including listings of salmon under the Endangered Species Act, stormwater pollution, coal fired power plants, and coal and crude oil terminals. @JanHasselman

Alison Cagle tells the stories of the earth: the systems that govern it, the ripple effects of those systems, and the people who are fighting to change them — to protect our planet and all its inhabitants.

Originally published on June 22, 2020. Updated with the July 6 court ruling to shut down the pipeline.

The shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline will remain in place pending completion of a full environmental review, which normally takes several years, and the issuance of new permits. It may be up to a new administration to make final permitting decisions. Write to your members of Congress today in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and its fight for justice and sovereignty.