“Water Wars”

Lakota Law

When I was a little girl, I lived in paradise. I would roam out from my family’s cabin along the banks of the Mni Sose — the Missouri River — and drink straight from her waters. Around our allotment, the Standing Rock Nation was home to one of the most glorious forests on Turtle Island. Our gardens had every fruit tree you could want, and berries to nourish our growing bodies and souls. We were healthy in that place. Our homelands and the river provided for us — and then everything changed.

Before I tell you the rest of the story, I want to share a new video that Lakota Law has produced for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The second chapter in our “Water Wars” series, it follows the first video, which highlighted the uniting of tribes from across the Oceti Sakowin to stop the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). This installment gives you more background and history, detailing the U.S. government’s refusal to honor the treaties that should preserve and protect our homelands. 

Watch: In the new video we produced for Standing Rock, I address other leaders from across the Oceti Sakowin to inspire #NoDAPL action.

What happened to the paradise of my youth? In 1958, I was ten years old when the government completed construction of the Oahe Dam and flooded my home to create Lake Oahe. That same lake now provides our tribe’s drinking water, and it’s under that precious resource that DAPL dangerously crosses — without an adequate leak detection system — threatening to devastate our lives once again.

After the flood, for several years, we children lived on white bread, bologna, and hard cheese. We developed vitamin deficiencies and sores on our hands. We no longer had cherries, plums, grapes, wild onions, and all the things that came from the land. We could no longer find many of the medicinal plants that used to grow wild and abundantly in the riverbed and forest. No more could we collect the mushrooms we called “ears of the tree.” When they flooded our homelands — some of the richest in the world — it was an act of pure cruelty. They took our land and the food we grew up on, and they replaced it all with a welfare state.

This was, of course, illegal under both our Indigenous laws and those of the United States. The Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868 guaranteed that we would retain our sacred He Sapa, the Black Hills, forever. Those treaties and subsequent agreements also protected 14 million acres in North Dakota. Today, we call these “taken lands,” the spoils of manifest destiny and the dam’s construction. 

That’s why we fight. DAPL is only the latest in a long line of projects meant to benefit the colonizer without regard for the original peoples of this land. But with your help, we’ll resist, we’ll sue, we’ll work to replace fossil fuels with Native-run renewable projects, and we’ll use the media to make ourselves heard. And when, at last, our lands are returned, our sacred sites respected, and our treaties honored, I will invite you to come sing with us. Because, despite everything, I still believe we can restore justice together.

Wopila tanka — thank you for standing with Standing Rock and Lakota Law.
Phyllis Young
Standing Rock Organizer
The Lakota People’s Law Project