LaDonna Brave Bull Allard is a Lakota historian and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. In April 2016 she started the Sacred Stone Camp, the first occupation to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Allard was named 2017’s Rebel With a Cause Honoree at Conservation Colorado’s Rebel With a Cause Gala on May 24 in Denver. Westword sat down with her to get her perspective on the NoDAPL movement, renewable energy, and the future of life on Earth.
Westword: What does it mean for you that 300 Native American tribes planted flags at Standing Rock? Does this signal a new dawn for Native American movements? The environmental movement?
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard: It’s a new movement for the world. It was not only 300 tribal nations; it was the Sami from Norway and Sweden, the Mongolians from China and Russia, Aboriginals from Australia, many African nations, aboriginals from India, the Maori from New Zealand. But as far as American history goes, this was the largest tribal gathering ever. This is the first time we stood among our enemies as allies.
When we started the camp, it was very small — twenty people at the most. And then when everybody came in, when we went up to 15,000 people and you came over the hill and you saw all the teepees, the Chippewa lodges, it was overwhelming. I remember the first time I came over the hill and I saw all the people, I pulled off to the side of the road and cried because it was so like a dream. And as you drove into the camp, no matter where you went, you could hear people singing, and each in their own language. You could hear prayer ceremonies going on. You could hear hip-hop music. You could hear country-Western.
Everyone who came and stood that ground became family with each other. Today, we still have about thirty to forty people in our camp; they don’t want to leave. This is their home now.
Quite often, activist movements put out a call to action, and a lot of the time people don’t come. Why do you think people came this time?
Prophecy. It’s time. I always talk about this woman from South Carolina. She pulled up into the camp, and she was about 64, elderly, non-Native, and I asked her as I asked everybody, “Why are you here?” And she said, “I waited for this call my whole life.” “Why?” I asked. And she said, “Because I knew the minute I heard the call that this was the time to stand up, and I sold my home, I packed everything in my car to come here.” And I was like, “Who does that?”
Law enforcement and private security forces used dogs, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, percussion grenades, batons, tear gas, pepper spray and fire hoses in subzero temperatures against protesters. Why do you think the law enforcement response at Standing Rock was so overwhelming?
We scared them. It was the first time that I could imagine that our police department was no longer there to protect the people but was there to protect the corporation. When did we lose that empowerment of the people? You can see on the ground how the empowerment of the people can happen everywhere — and that the people still have the power. They just have to remind themselves.
Despite the efforts of thousands of water protectors and support from millions of people around the world, the Dakota Access Pipeline will be built. Do you consider this a victory or a defeat?
Depends on what the results are. There’s still no oil in the pipe. They have done four tests; all four have sprung a leak, including this morning.
Does this validate the predictions of water protectors?
We told them it was going to happen. When you do a rush job, work 24/7 and make people try to push this as fast as possible, the work is really bad. The steel is substandard. At this point in time, they can’t even get the oil into the pipe.
Production of crude oil in North Dakota and in the U.S. peaked in 2014. Do you feel it’s a worthwhile message to send that, aside from the ecological impacts on water, land and the climate, we’re dealing with a finite resource from which we’re eventually going to have to transition anyway?
That’s what we have been saying. In the Bakken [shale oil fields], we’re down to less than less than one-third of the oil rigs producing. Three-fourths have been shut down, and that is a tremendous amount of oil that is not flowing.
Standing Rock is unique in that it’s about protecting sacred lands from corporate extraction. But, overall, do you feel that fighting fossil fuels pipeline by pipeline is the best way to stop fossil-fuel production?
We are not doing pipeline by pipeline. We are doing a unified front everywhere. So right now we have Sacred Stone people in Texas, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Utah, Oregon, Washington and California. And we just met with all the groups in western Canada and eastern Canada. We entered into an alliance with Amazon tribes and then Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico.
If you stand together in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience, you can change the world.
What are your thoughts on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council’s decision to dismantle the occupation in January?
We are gathering our evidence for the illegal closing of the camp, for the stolen personal property, the sacred items that were taken. We are planning to sue.
While the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is central to the modern environmental movement, fossil fuels still make up 80 percent of our energy use. Do you believe that the so-called American way of life, as demonstrated by modern, city-dwelling Americans with ever-increasing consumption, can continue if we’re going to make the switch to clean energy?
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Change starts with worldview and this worldview. If you start changing here [points to head] and changing here [points to heart], you can change here [gestures out to the world].
These days, people hear so much bad news that many are in a state of despair. They care, but they’re overwhelmed. What would be your advice to them?
Put your hands in the dirt, plant something. You know that dirt has healing components, takes away depression. Dirt is there to help us heal. Right now I’m encouraging everyone to garden. Even if you put a tomato plant in your apartment.