I interviewed LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Lakota historian, Standing Rock activist, and NoDAPL movement co-founder at her home on Lakota Sioux reservation in North Dakota. For “Surmountable: How Citizens from Selma to Seoul Changed the World,” I visited 15 cities across four continents to explore an effective playbook for the modern activist.

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Standing Rock: Mni Wiconi (Water Is Life)

“You are coming to an Indian reservation in the middle of nowhere,” says LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Lakota Sioux historian and warrior in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). “We don’t have taxis, we don’t have buses, we don’t have trains, there are no hotels.” She promises to send Mayor Jarod, but swings by the Bismarck airport herself, car filled with shopping purchases along with some takeaway food for the family.

Allard doesn’t want the donated car, a hybrid, but an activist insists. It’s adorned with political stickers and, prominently, a Deadpool action figure on the passenger side dash, two swords sheathed on its back. Allard takes a group to see Deadpool I and II and loves it, her Standing Rock friends laughing uncontrollably. “Deadpool might a good symbol for the resistance,” she laughs. “Two thumbs up and ready to defend at any moment with a necessarily sardonic sense of humor.”

The DAPL oil route from North Dakota to Illinois has been fought by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and other Native American and environmental groups since 2016. The pipeline is less than a mile from the reservation – which straddles the North and South Dakota borders, 100 miles east of Montana – and represents a direct threat to its Missouri River water supply.

Swept up in the Standing Rock reservation protests, Allard prefers her chosen passions, tribal historian and grandmama to 18 boys and one girl. Later in the evening, she brings her one-month-old great-granddaughter for an introduction, “Direct descendant of Sitting Bull.” As with Occupy Wall Street, there are protestations that leadership was horizontal, distributed, often spontaneous, but each step of the way, people like Allard stepped up, pointed the way, made personal sacrifices, and set and implemented fluid strategies in an attempt to stop the pipeline’s installation.

Allard once ran for the North Dakota state House of Representatives. “Got close,” she says, but could not capture a key county. She never wanted to be an activist but says she had no choice.

“I’m not a frontline person. Before the camps, I was doing historic tours, lectures about the history of Sitting Bull, about all the chiefs, about our culture, our way of life. When the camp started, I contacted everybody I knew from all parts of the world that, “Hey, this is happening.” That background I had with European people was helping me spread the word.”

She was moved, overwhelmed as the world took notice. A literal gathering of the tribes – the largest of its kind in Native American history – was followed by the gathering of a diverse group of 10,000 environmentalists, military veterans, indigenous rights activists, and sympathetic supporters from around the country and the world, in the dead of the frigid North Dakota winter. Mongolians supplying yurts, New Zealanders performing haka. “Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Native, every group standing together, one prayer and one circle,” recalls Allard.

In December of 2014, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) applies to the federal government to construct the 1,200-mile DAPL to carry more than a half million barrels of Bakken-formation shale oil each day through North and South Dakota, and Iowa to a terminal point in Illinois. The proposed route passes just outside the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and crosses under Lake Oahe, the tribe’s drinking water source.

By the time they were building the pipeline here, they had already invested in construction from the Bakken oil fields.

“Even though they had no permit to start construction,” points out Allard, “they already laid half the pipe before they got permission. Then the court said, ‘Oh, they already spent all this money.’”

In April of 2016, the Sacred Stone camp is set up on Allard’s property by tribe members. “This area was named Cannon Ball by Lewis and Clark,” she says during a tour of the reservation, “because of the round sandstones. But we call this ‘the place that makes sacred stones.’” She says she became involved, “the day Joye came and asked.” Joye Braun of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is a leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network, another of the essential women activists quick to deflect credit but pivotal in the business of planning, motivating, choreographing, and acting.

The Lakota phrase “Mni Wiconi,” meaning “Water is Life,” is an inspiration for protesters.

Until then, what was your mode of engagement?

“We were going through policies and procedures,” says Allard, “wanting them to do a complete environmental impact statement, wanting them to do complete archaeological surveys. Because that’s what the law says, from the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act and the 1970 Environmental Protection Act. My assumption was, people follow the law. And what happened was, nobody was following the law.

“We hear back, ‘I don’t recall that. I will get back to you. I will form a committee. Let me do remote research on this issue.’ It’s the same with all of the agencies.

“At the beginning, there were no protests, all of it was training, in nonviolent direct action, de-escalation, security, and reconnaissance. We went out and
took pictures of what was happening. The training curriculum came from the Indigenous Environmental Network, Honor the Earth, and Keep It in the Ground – all indigenous movements. We instructed what we were trying to do and why we were doing it. We wanted non- violent resistance.”

At a certain point, it got much bigger. Did you ever think, ‘Have I lost control of this?’ or ‘What’s going on here?’

“No,” says Allard, in a familiar self-deprecating refrain, “because I never thought I was in control. I was not a leader. I was not telling people what to do. But people were always walking up and putting a microphone in my face while I was busy running around, figuring out how or what needs to be done.”

Because without all those logistical solutions, the political action is not effective. It doesn’t happen.

“My job was making sure that kids went to school,” she says, “taking care of a town. I wasn’t involved in the frontline non-violent actions. I would drop off medical supplies. Is there enough propane for the cooking stove? At five o’clock in the morning, because we have no running water, I brought in water and breakfast food.

And I had to be in charge of monitoring the grants and putting in every receipt that had to be saved. We had Honor the Earth as our fiscal agent. It was a logistical nightmare. You have all these very compassionate people that want to help. This individual gives this person money, we don’t know who that was. That happened a lot.”

To learn more about the Standing Rock protests and LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, buy the book.

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