Adam Killsalive didn’t believe the news. The 22-year-old from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation who now resides in Beulah, North Dakota, had just eaten dinner and was checking messages and scrolling Facebook, getting ready to kick back after a hard day’s work building a barn, when he saw it. A District Court judge in Washington, D.C. had, earlier that Monday, ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline to shut down, pending an environmental review by the Army Corps of Engineers. The pipeline carries 570,000 barrels of oil per day — enough to fill a tanker — snaking under the Lake Oahe Reservoir on the Missouri River, beneath a burial ground and through sites that are sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Killsalive has seen a lot fake news about the pipeline, so he checked his most trusted sources: friends back home. Four years ago, those same friends recruited him to participate in a run of prayerful protest to the Army Corps of Engineers office in Omaha, Nebraska, to build opposition to the project. A lot has happened since then, things that made Killsalive doubt if his people — the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Native people — could ever win even a small measure of dignity and justice in this country. “My people are warriors,” he said by phone on Tuesday. “But that’s not going to trump all the horrifying things that’s been done to us.”
The story of the Dakota Access Pipeline is as damning a tale as any told about the crooked dealings of the colonists and capitalists who swindled this continent away from its First Peoples. You’ve probably heard it already, but just in case, here’s the synopsis. An oil pipeline with close financial ties to Donald Trump — he was an investor, and Kelcy Warren, the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company that operates the pipeline, is a donor— was rerouted from upstream of the predominantly white city of Bismarck, North Dakota downstream through the treaty lands and drinking supply of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. When the tribe protested, guards sicced dogs on activists. When people saw the images and descended on the reservation from far and wide to stand with Standing Rock, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple called in the National Guard. Protesters, who took to calling themselves Water Protectors, squared off with law enforcement agents better armed than many militaries: riding in armored vehicles and brandishing all manner of lethal and non-lethal weapons — including, even, a surface-to-air missile launcher. At the protest encampments, TigerSwan, a private security firm employed by Energy Transfer Partners, deployed counterinsurgency tactics brought back from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. After months, President Barack Obama intervened, ordering an environmental review. But less than a week after his inauguration, President Trump reversed the decision with one of his first actions in office. Oil began flowing through the pipeline later that year.
Killsalive was on the front lines of much of this fight. When his friends confirmed the news — that a judge had, in fact, ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline to empty — his heart lifted. “What we did wasn’t for nothing,” he said. “But what still bothers me is that the people who built and approved this pipeline are being shown that it’s a bad idea, but still think they’re doing right.”
Killsalive’s mind returned to the beginning. In the waning days of Spring, 2016, his niece, Tariq Brownotter, and two other young women from his reservation: Shayla Gayton and Bobbi Jean Three Legs, began recruiting young people from Standing Rock to participate in a run to organize opposition to the then little-known pipeline. They called it “Rezpect Our Water,” “Rezpect” being a portmanteau of the slang term “rez” for reservation and respect. Killsalive said he hadn’t heard of the project before that, and that people were still explaining it to him when he decided to skip out on the last weeks of school and follow the young women leaders of his tribe out the door. Some people made fun of Killsalive and the other young men who joined the run for that — not the lack of knowledge thing, the following women thing. But Killsalive never cared much. He trusted his peer’s leadership. Brownotter and Gayton were part of a youth group that had traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with Obama, after all. Plus, after his own father left him, chasing alcohol out the door, Killsalive was raised by women: his mom and then his auntie (not by blood) and then his cousins. “If it wasn’t for women, this movement wouldn’t have started,” he told me.
After departing on April 24, the runners hoofed it from 8 or 9 in the morning to 8 or 9 at night, feeding themselves off of online donations and sleeping in the houses of generous strangers for over 500 miles, all the way to Omaha. When the first run didn’t stop the project, they organized another later that summer that took them all the way to Washington, D.C. Killsalive, who plays basketball — shooting guard and small forward, mostly — ran with the same focus, determination and pride that he plays defense, his feet pumping to the bass of the rapper Denzel Curry and the reverb of Metallica. He remembers the magic of those runs: the time an elderly woman led the group for a couple of miles as they tramped through the Lower Brule reservation in South Dakota; the time a hawk followed the runners for miles, swooping from telephone pole to telephone pole. And he remembers the pain: the windburn on the road to Omaha; the dehydration that laid him up in a hospital; the tendons torn by the pounding of joints on concrete; the heartache that grew among the runners, some of whom had barely ever left the reservation, as roads carried them further and further from home; the mockery and racism of white people on the road who saw the pipeline as a source of jobs and prosperity.
There was so much time and space to think out there, and Killsalive had a lot on his mind. Like many Native youth, he’s lost loved ones: two nephews, a cousin and a homie to suicide. He’s lost others — more than he cared to count — to alcohol. He estimates there are 50 roadside crosses, marking fatal accidents on the highway from Bismarck to the reservation. The fall before the runs, on November 25, 2015, Killsalive lost his dad to pancreatic cancer. He remembers the last time he saw him. How he was so skinny, Adam could see his spine and back ribs. How it was too late for chemo. How his little sister asked him if their father had gotten to eat Thanksgiving dinner before he died.
As he ran, Killsalive felt like he was following in the footsteps of those who came before — he just couldn’t tell if it was his ancestors or his old man. His elders told him that he came from a defiant people, the Hunkpapa, one of the seven council fires of the Lakota. His great-great grandfather, Henry Kills Alive, whose last name he carries, was a scout for Sitting Bull. Henry rode with Sitting Bull during the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where the allied Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho annihilated George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, sent by President Ulysses S. Grant to round up and confine the Indians to reservations. The Hunkpapa were among the last tribes to surrender and report to their reservation. On the run, Killsalive and the Standing Rock youth were told a Lakota prophecy that a Black Snake would slither across the land, desecrating sacred sites, poisoning water and destroying the earth itself. A new generation of Lakota would rise to stop the monster. In the Black Snake, Killsalive and the Standing Rock youth saw the Dakota Access Pipeline, and in the new generation of Lakota, they saw themselves. “I truly think everything we did was passed down,” Killsalive told me. “All of us have a warrior spirit, a warrior heart. We don’t know how to give up. We don’t know how to bow down to nobody. That’s why they called us the ‘Great Sioux Nation.’” Soon they were calling themselves something else: “Black Snake Killaz.”
At the end of the first Rezpect Our Water run, the Standing Rock youth met with representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers inside a big, boxy concrete office building in downtown Omaha. Killsalive remembers the government representatives just sitting there, nodding at the things the young people were saying. “It was just in one ear, out the other,” he recalled. “It was the most frustrating shit I’ve ever been through. Even after we ran 500 miles. They didn’t care about our water.” When Killsalive was little, his father told him that men don’t cry, but sitting in that meeting, he couldn’t hold back the tears. He’s still choked up by the memory today.
In the months and years since, Killsalive and the Standing Rock generation —the generation of Indigenous young people who came of age in the movement — have transformed Indian Country, the United States and the world. Standing Rock has shaped court decisions, shifted environmental politics, changed laws and forced a long overdue and ongoing reckoning for a nation built on slave labor and stolen land. It’s a reckoning that, in its most powerful moments, has reinforced the concurrent Movement for Black Lives. Despite all that he has been part of and achieved — things that many people can never say they’ve done in a lifetime — Killsalive still feels like he hasn’t done enough when he sees his friends and family still out there protesting.
Despite this week’s legal victory, the fight is likely far from over. Energy Transfer Partners has vowed to pursue every possible avenue to keep the oil flowing and is still accepting requests for shipments next month. For Killsalive and the Standing Rock generation, the work is not yet done. Killsalives, Hunkpapas and Indians have been running and fighting for hundreds of years, after all.
“My people are always pointed the finger as the hostiles, the savages that ran the land naked and all that bullshit,” Killsalive said, as our conversation wound to a close. “All I want is for people to be educated about us like how we’re damn near educated about everybody else.”
“It sounds like, if I can just read into that a little bit, there’s still some fight left in you,” I responded, a statement that was really question. “If DAPL was just a battle, there’s still some battles ahead.”
“Exactly,” he said. “The Dakota Access Pipeline was just the battle we won. There’s still this war that’s going on.” Then his voice trailed off: “And I still got all this running around in my head, 24/7.”
Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St’at’imc) is Vice President of Policy & Strategy for Data for Progress, a think tank, and Narrative Change Director for the Natural History Museum, an artist and activist collective.