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Using Her Voice
Tokata, now 17, has fought to protect Native American land.

Toby Brusseau/Scholastic Inc. via AP Images 

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R.1, R.3, R.4, R.7, R.9, W.2, SL.1, L.4, L.6

Standing Up for Clean Water

How one teenager became a leader in the fight against an oil pipeline—and a battle for Native American rights. 

Before You Read: Check out our Background Builder slideshow

 

    Tokata Iron Eyes grew up with the Missouri River. As a kid, she rode her bike to its shore with her friends. In the summer, they swam every day.

    Then, in the spring of 2016, she learned that the river might be in danger. There were plans to build an oil pipeline under the water. The pipe would carry 20 million gallons of oil a day. The oil would flow from North Dakota to the cities of the Midwest. 

    The project was called the Dakota Access Pipeline. Its route ran just half a mile from Tokata’s home on the Standing Rock Reservation. If built, it would cross land that Tokata’s tribe—the Sioux [soo] Nation—consider sacred. 

    The pipe was also a danger to their water supply. An oil leak could ruin drinking water for Tokata’s community and millions more. Tokata was only 12 at the time, but she was worried. Luckily, she got a chance to fight back. 

    Tokata Iron Eyes grew up near the Missouri River. As a kid, she rode her bike to the river. She and her friends swam there in the summer.

    In the spring of 2016, Tokata learned that the river might be in danger. A company was going to build a pipeline under it. The pipe would carry oil. The oil would flow   from North Dakota to cities in the Midwest. The pipeline would be called the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

    Tokata lives on the Standing Rock Reservation. The pipeline would be near her home. It would cross land that is sacred to the Sioux [soo] Nation. The Sioux Nation is Tokata’s tribe.

    The tribe also worried about their water supply. An oil leak could ruin their drinking water. Millions of people in other communities use the water too. Tokata was only 12 then. But she chose to fight against the pipeline. 

    Tokata Iron Eyes grew up with the Missouri River. She and her friends rode their bikes to the river’s shore when they were kids. On summer days, they swam.

    Then, in the spring of 2016, Tokata learned that the river might be in danger. Plans were moving forward to build an oil pipeline under the water. The pipeline would transport 20 million gallons of oil a day from North Dakota to the cities of the Midwest. 

    The planned route for the pipeline—called the Dakota Access Pipeline—ran just half a mile from Tokata’s home on the Standing Rock Reservation. The plans had the pipeline crossing land that Tokata’s tribe—the Sioux [soo] Nation—consider sacred.

    Furthermore, the pipeline put their water supply in danger. An oil leak could ruin the drinking water for Tokata’s community and millions of other people. Tokata was only 12 at the time, but the situation worried her. Fortunately, she got a chance to fight back. 

Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images (Protesters); Stephanie Keith/Reuters (Flags)

The Camp at Standing Rock  
Tokata and thousands of other people camped out at Standing Rock to try to stop the pipeline.

A Fight for Rights

    At school, Tokata was asked to speak out against the pipeline in a video. She immediately said yes. The video made people around the world pay attention. 

    By fall, thousands of people came to Standing Rock to protest. They camped in tents and teepees for months. On many days, Tokata and her parents joined the crowd. 

    At first, Tokata felt uncomfortable. She had never been around such a diverse group of people. But slowly, she began to make friends. And she started to see the world in a different way. 

    To the protesters, the pipeline wasn’t just a threat to the Missouri River. It was part of a long history of attacks on Native people and their land. “It was a fight for rights,” Tokata says. “It was a fight to protect my heritage and my way of being.”

    Tokata spoke out against the pipeline in a video. Her school made the video. It was seen around the world.

    By the fall of 2016, thousands of people had come to Standing Rock. They protested to stop the pipeline. They camped in tents and teepees. They stayed for months. Tokata and her parents often joined the crowd. 

    At first, Tokata felt uncomfortable. The crowd was a diverse group of people. That was new for her. But she began to make friends. She started to see the world in a different way. 

    To the protesters, the pipeline was not just a threat to the Missouri River. It was also another attack in a long history of attacks on Native people and their land. “It was a fight for rights,” Tokata says. “It was a fight to protect my heritage and my way of being.”

    Tokata’s school asked her to speak out against the pipeline in a video. She immediately agreed. The video caused people around the world to pay attention. 

    By fall, thousands had come to Standing Rock to protest, camping in tents and teepees for months. Tokata and her parents often participated in the protests. 

    Tokata had never been around such a diverse group of people, and she felt uncomfortable at first. But she slowly began to make friends, and she started to see the world in a different way. 

    To the protesters, the pipeline was not only a threat to the Missouri River but also a part of a long history of attacks on Native people and their land. “It was a fight for rights,” Tokata explains. “It was a fight to protect my heritage and my way of being.”

A History of Conflict

Talli Nauman/@Desert Sun News

    Native people have been fighting for centuries to protect their way of life. In the early 1800s, all the land around the Missouri River belonged to Native Americans. Then white people began moving west. They forced Native Americans off their land—often by using violence. Farmers wanted land to grow crops. Miners came to dig for gold.

    Native Americans fought for their land. But the U.S. Army forced them to give in. The government pushed Native groups onto reservations. Standing Rock was one of them. On the reservations, people no longer had land to hunt on. Children went to government-run boarding schools. They were forced to speak English.

    Tokata’s parents taught her this history when she was young. The pipeline, she says, is part of that history. It threatens Native land. And yet, Native people weren’t a part of the decision to build it. “You have to understand the history to understand what’s happening now,” she says.

    Native people have long fought to protect their way of life. In the early 1800s, the land around the Missouri River belonged to Native Americans. Then white people began moving west. White farmers wanted land to grow crops. Miners wanted to dig for gold. They forced Native people off their land. 

    Native Americans fought back. But the U.S. Army was more powerful. The government forced Native groups onto reservations. Standing Rock was one of them. On the reservations, there was no land to hunt on. Children went to schools run by the U.S. government. They had to speak English.

    Tokata says the pipeline is part of that history. It threatens Native land. But Native people weren’t part of the planning. The pipeline was forced on them.

    For centuries, Native people have been fighting to protect their way of life. In the early 1800s, all the land around the Missouri River belonged to Native Americans—but then white people began moving west. Farmers wanted land to grow crops, and miners came to dig for gold. They forced Native Americans off their land, often by using violence. 

    Native Americans fought for their land, but the U.S. Army forced them to give in. The government pushed Native groups onto reservations, such as Standing Rock. On the reservations, people no longer had land to hunt on. And children went to government-run boarding schools where they were forced to speak English.

    Tokata was taught this history by her parents when she was young. The pipeline is part of that history, she says. It threatens Native land, yet Native people weren’t involved in the decision to build it. “You have to understand the history to understand what’s happening now,” she says.

A New Path

    In the end, the protests failed. Bulldozers went to work. Since May 2017, oil has been flowing under the Missouri River. But that could change. A judge has ordered a study done about the pipeline’s effect on the environment.

    Tokata hasn’t given up. She has traveled the nation speaking about Native rights and the environment. Now she’s taking a break to start college. She’s studying to be a filmmaker. She wants to make films that show “the strength and beauty of being a Native woman.” 

    And she plans to keep working for a healthier planet. “We need to figure out how to leave a better world for our children,” she says.

    In the end, the protests failed. Oil has been flowing through the pipeline since May 2017. But that could change. A judge ordered a study. It will look into the pipeline’s effect on the environment.

    Tokata hasn’t given up. She travels around the U.S. to speak about Native rights and the environment. Now she’s starting college. She wants to be a filmmaker and make films that show “the strength and beauty of being a Native woman.” 

    And she will keep working for a healthier planet. “We need to figure out how to leave a better world for our children,” she says. 

    In the end, the protests failed, and bulldozers went to work. Since May 2017, oil has been flowing under the Missouri River—but that could change. A study about the pipeline’s effect on the environment was ordered by a judge.

    Tokata hasn’t given up. She has traveled the nation giving speeches about Native rights and the environment. Now she’s taking a break to start college, where she’ll study to be a filmmaker. She wants to create films that show “the strength and beauty of being a Native woman.” 

    And she plans to keep working for a healthier planet. “We need to figure out how to leave a better world for our children,” she says. •

Infographic

Fighting for Native Land

When white people came to America, they violently forced Native American people off their land. These maps show how that land was taken.

Jim Mcmahon/ Mapman®

America in 1600
Europeans first came to America in 1607. Native Americans had already lived here for thousands of years. There were hundreds of tribes all over the continent.

America in 1600
Europeans first came to America in 1607. Native Americans were already here. They had lived here for thousands of years. They lived all over the continent. 

America in 1600
When Europeans first arrived in America in 1607, Native Americans had already been living here for thousands of years. Hundreds of established tribes lived all over the continent.

Jim Mcmahon/ Mapman®

America in 1775
In 1775, white people who had come from Europe fought for their freedom from England. By that time, they had forced most Native people out of the eastern states. Thousands of Native people were killed as more white people arrived.

America in 1775
In 1775, the white people from Europe fought for their freedom from England. By that time, they controlled the eastern states. They had killed or forced out most Native people. 

America in 1775
In 1775, white people who had come from Europe fought for their freedom from England. By that time, they had forced most Native people out of the eastern states. As more white people arrived, thousands of Native people were killed.

Jim Mcmahon/ Mapman®

America in 1830
Once they won their freedom, these new Americans started moving west. To open land for them, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The law allowed the government to push all Native people to a piece of land west of the Mississippi River. Thousands of Native Americans died on the brutal journey there.

America in 1830
After winning their freedom, new Americans started moving west. They wanted the land. So Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. It said the government could force Native people to move west. They had to move west of the Mississippi River. Thousands of Native people died on the brutal journey. 

America in 1830
Once they won their freedom, these new Americans started moving west. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 to open land for white settlers. The law allowed the government to push all Native people to a piece of land west of the Mississippi River. The journey was brutal, and thousands of Native Americans died.

Jim Mcmahon/ Mapman®

America in 1850
After 1850, the new Americans started moving west of the Mississippi River. Native people had to fight a series of wars to protect their land. They lost—and were forced to move to reservations. Today, only 56 million acres of land belong to Native people. Put together, that’s about the size of Minnesota.

America in 1850
After 1850, new Americans started moving west of the Mississippi River. Native people fought back to protect their land. They lost. They were forced onto reservations. Today, Native people have only 56 million acres of land. Put together, that’s about the size of Minnesota.

America in 1850
After 1850, the new Americans started moving west of the Mississippi River. Native people fought a series of wars to protect their land, but they lost—and were forced to move to reservations. Today, only 56 million acres of land belong to Native people. In total, that’s about the size of Minnesota.

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