Indigenous youth used social media to build and sustain the #NoDAPL movement

Indigenous youth used social media to build and sustain the #NoDAPL movement. Just minutes earlier, she and the rest of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe learned that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won't grant an easement that would have allowed construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to cross under Lake Oahe on the Missouri River. "This entire movement was brought up by the youth," Iron Eyes, who lives on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, told author and activist Naomi Klein on Sunday in a Facebook video that racked up more than 1 million views in 24 hours. Now, young Native American activists are looking ahead, focused on the very future Iron Eyes mentioned. "People are not leaving, and that's great," Iron Eyes says with a laugh. Expertly navigating Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube to elevate their voices and those of others at Standing Rock, the young people's petition spread across social media with the #NoDAPL, #ReZpectOurWater and #StandWithStandingRock hashtags. By tapping into the power of social media, the Standing Rock Youth were able to capture the attention of other young people—the digital generation. "Please come stand with us." Beyond media attention, the impact of these social media campaigns is felt within Indigenous communities, too. "This isn't just the one fight, or the one last stand," she says.

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Young people hold signs in Navajo, Lakota/Dakota and English before marching to a sacred burial site disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline on Sept. 4, 2016, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
Young people hold signs in Navajo, Lakota/Dakota and English before marching to a sacred burial site disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline on Sept. 4, 2016, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Tokata Iron Eyes is beaming. Surrounded by journalists, camera crews and activists, the 13-year-old water protector—what she and other demonstrators call themselves—stands in the snow at a camp near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, wearing a heavy gray coat, a large knitted scarf and thick burgundy mittens.

Just minutes earlier, she and the rest of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe learned that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won’t grant an easement that would have allowed construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) to cross under Lake Oahe on the Missouri River. For months, Native American activists and allies have argued that the 1,172-mile, $3.8 billion pipeline project would pollute the region’s water supplies and desecrate sacred sites.

“This entire movement was brought up by the youth,” Iron Eyes, who lives on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, told author and activist Naomi Klein on Sunday in a Facebook video that racked up more than 1 million views in 24 hours. “It just started so small … And now, the easement for DAPL was denied.”

Her joy is tangible, her infectious laugh punctuating every sentence. Klein asks her how she feels about the news.

“I feel like I got my future back,” she says. Then, she breaks down in tears.

It’s a short video, just over a minute long. But it shows that for a movement largely started and sustained by Indigenous youth—using social media savvy to amplify their voices and garner solidarity—her sentiment is widely shared.

Now, young Native American activists are looking ahead, focused on the very future Iron Eyes mentioned.

While Sunday’s victory is historic and certainly cause for celebration, Indigenous people have quickly called for continued vigilance, especially from young activists on social media.

“It took a little bit to set in, because it happened so quickly,” Iron Eyes tells Mashable. “We went from being told that we might be raided to the easement being denied.”

She says there’s been an atmosphere of celebration as well as apprehension over the past few days, especially because they don’t know what will happen when President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

Sunday’s decision was made by the Obama administration, which will transition power to an administration that supports the completion of the pipeline project.

The pipeline is also almost complete, and Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the pipeline, called the decision not to grant an easement a “purely political action.”

#NoDAPL is as much about stopping the pipeline as it is recognizing tribal sovereignty, right to land, as well as Native civil rights. And many activists and water protectors say the good news won’t erase the reported human rights abuses that have taken place.

While Reuters reported that Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, asked those who are not Sioux to leave the area for the winter on Tuesday, water protectors aren’t planning to leave anytime soon. And #NoDAPL actions are still planned around the world for the month of December.

“People are not leaving, and that’s great,” Iron Eyes says with a laugh. “Because it’s not over yet … I’m thankful for the people at the camp who continue to stay in this below-zero weather.”

As young activists continue the fight, it’s worth looking back at the impact they’ve had leading up to Sunday’s victory—and the lessons they learned using social media to reach it.

The beginnings of a movement

Proving that teenagers can truly make a difference, many people credit Tokata Iron Eyes and her friends with starting the #NoDAPL movement.

In March, when they heard about plans to reroute the Dakota Access Pipeline away from Bismarck and through sacred land, they took action. As part of the Standing Rock Youth, a group of about 30 young people from the Standing Rock Sioux community, they decided to go online, and make their issue known.

Thirteen-year-old Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer, also a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, spearheaded a Change.org petition in late April, simply called “Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

“In Dakota/Lakota we say ‘Mni Wiconi.’ Water is life,” Rain Yellowhammer wrote in the petition to the Army Corps of Engineers. “Native American people know that water is the first medicine, not just for us, but for all human beings living on this earth.”

The petition was the cornerstone of the Standing Rock Youth’s #ReZpectOurWater campaign. Expertly navigating Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube to elevate their voices and those of others at Standing Rock, the young people’s petition spread across social media with the #NoDAPL, #ReZpectOurWater and #StandWithStandingRock hashtags. By now, it has more than 460,000 signatures, including endorsements from celebrities and influencers like Leonardo DiCaprio, Shailene Woodley, Bill McKibben and Ndaba Mandela.

By tapping into the power of social media, the Standing Rock Youth were able to capture the attention of other young people—the digital generation. And those are the very people they wanted to galvanize.

“Our ancestors are the ones that died fighting for this land, so that makes me think that we have a duty to fight for our land,” Iron Eyes told Truthout in June. “Whatever happens with the pipeline and climate change—that is going to be affecting…

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