Eryn Wise with her niece, Riot. Photo courtesy Wise.
When I called up Dakota Access pipeline activist Eryn Wise, I thanked her for taking the time to talk with me. “Oh, it’s my pleasure,” she replied, noting that it was very nice to be inside in a warm room talking on the phone rather than where she’d spent recent days: outside, soaking wet, in freezing temperatures as police took violent action against the Native groups gathered at Standing Rock. Twenty-six-year-old Wise is of the Jicarilla Apache of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and is currently in North Dakota volunteering as the media coordinator for Sacred Stone Camp and the media liaison for the International Indigenous Youth Council. I talked with her about the images the world saw come out of Standing Rock over the weekend, images of tear gas, water hoses, and fire, as well as what keeps her on the ground despite the danger.
SARAH MIRK: Can you tell me about the National Indigenous Youth Council briefly? What is that?
ERYN WISE: Yeah, International Indigenous Youth Council is a collective of youth that was started in early August as a direct result of the population boom that happened in camp and a need for the youth to continue having purpose within the camps. The Oceti Sakowin Youth & Allies Warriors are a youth group that actually ran to D.C. with a petition with over 150,000 signatures to hand to the White House, saying, “Hey, we don’t want the Dakota Access pipeline to go through our rez.”
So basically, the Youth Council is a group of youth. All of our young, young kids have gone home because it’s gotten cold. But now I think we’re ages 17 through 28 living in all three camps. So we live in Sacred Stone, Rosebud, and Oceti Sakowin. We work together with the elders in the camps and with the different camp organizers to plan ceremonies, raise awareness, days of action. We sit on the Seven Council Fires, and we pretty much are one of the main voices in camp. People have to run their ideas by us because the youth are part of the reason that this whole movement started.
A lot of people have been alarmed watching the news from Standing Rock over the past couple days. Can you describe the scene for me? What has it been like this past week?
Well, according to Morton County, they never used water cannons or flares or any of the things that they used. So on the record, just so Morton County doesn’t get their feelings hurt, we definitely know that they did not use those. But also, I’m kidding. I can’t stand them. So, what the police did was, on October 27, a couple of cars caught fire, and the police made a barricade across Highway 1806 with the cars that had been burned out. They chained them together so they could be not removed from the highway, and it’s been posing a serious health risk because we have to take another route through a different county road that takes us about 30 minutes extra to get to Bismarck. In the event that somebody is in an ambulance, for example, and needs to get to life-saving facilities, 30 minutes can make or break a situation. So we made a collective decision to bring in an ally with a semi truck to remove one or both of the vehicles so we could start traveling through that highway again. When we started moving the vehicles, the police showed up, and all hell broke loose. I went down. I tried to stay away from the front lines because I have a big-sister complex. I’m just very, very protective of the Youth Council, and so they know that I can’t go down there because I have a bit of an attitude problem when it comes to the kids. But I went down to check on everyone because it was so cold. It was about 25 degrees. When I got down, there were water protectors that were trapped on a bridge, Backwater Bridge, and the police were shooting concussion grenades and tear gas into the crowds. So people were disoriented from the concussion grenades, and they couldn’t see what they were doing because of the tear gas. So they would just stop, trying not to trample each other on this bridge. Then, down along the water, there were police officers who were firing water cannons at the protectors. They keep saying that they didn’t use water cannons, but I don’t understand how one fire truck could’ve produced enough water to hose people down for six hours. And also, we saw them pumping the water out, which is kind of sick because they’re using the water that we’re fighting for against us.
One of my Youth Council members got shot with a flash grenade, and he had a seizure. Another member of our Youth Council was trying to help people off of the bridge, and he got shot three times with rubber bullets. He put one on the table at dinner last night so I could see what it looked like. It was just like, I don’t know. They’re so casual about it, but it’s terrifying to me that people just, these are things that they just use.
What was the conversation like last night with the Youth Council member who got shot by the rubber bullets? What was that conversation like?
“They told me that I could’ve suffered from internal bleeding because I got shot in the heart, but I’m just lucky that I wore a lot of layers cuz it was cold outside. Do you think that we can put bulletproof vests on our Amazon wish list?” I mean, those are serious questions. They come up to me all the time like, “Hey, thanks for buying us chemical-resistant goggles, but we need something that’s gonna cover our mouth. We need a different kind of face mask.” Or, “Hey, thanks for the new jackets, but do you think next time you could get us something that’s waterproof or chemical-proof?” Or, “Hey, do you think that it would be cool if we could get lacrosse gear, cuz then it would cover our arms and not just our chests? Because we’re getting shot in the arms, too.” Or, “Hey, Eryn. Do you think you can order more milk of magnesia? Because we keep getting maced, and we need to make something to flush our eyes out.” There’s just so many different things where it’s just like everyday conversation at this point. And because they call me, the Youth Council calls me Ina, which means “mom,” I end up buying a lot of things that I really wish I didn’t have to for youth who should really be in college and right now, instead, are fighting for their right to clean water.
What’s motivating the young people who are there to stay there and to keep pushing? I mean, it’s getting cold. I’m sure a lot of people would rather go home and get back to school. What do you hear from them, and what keeps you there, too?
Honestly, I really like water. I grew up in Minneapolis, and so I grew up surrounded by water. Every summer, my grandparents would take me to the ocean. As Indigenous people, we recognize—as women, especially—that we are life givers, and that we are born from water. That our first home is in a womb full of water. I think that we just recognize the deep significance of the life that water brings. I think that a lot of people forget that without water, there is no life. I wanna have kids, but I don’t want to have kids if I can’t guarantee them the simple freedoms that were afforded to me as a child. I don’t think it’s fair to not even be able to offer my child a clean glass of water, or that it’s fair for me to not be able to take my child out to teach them how to fish, something that I love to do.
We look seven generations down the line. It’s always our responsibility to take care of things for seven generations down the line. And as we are the seventh generation right now, we are preparing for the next seven. In that preparation, and I guess in that motivation to be here, is knowing that we are responsible for the next seven generations, for all the babies that are here now, all the babies that haven’t been born, and all the children that will be coming.
I’m sure there are people who think, “This is just one pipeline. What does it matter?” So how do you see this fight over the Dakota Access pipeline tying into that bigger right to water and the idea that you might have kids who don’t have access to clean water?
I think for us, we know that there are other pipeline issues, right? So many of our Youth Council came as veterans fighting the KXL pipeline. There are people that we know that are in Florida right now fighting the Sabal Trail pipeline. I, myself, have been asked by Winona LaDuke when I finish here to go to Minnesota to fight Line 3, which used to be the Sandpiper pipeline. There are so many other things that we know exist and that are going on right now, including Indigenous fights globally for water, especially in the Amazon. We’ve had people from the Amazon come and tell us of how many terrible things have happened to their water supplies. But the reason that the Dakota Access pipeline is such a major fight right now is because it stands to run through the two largest rivers in the United States. If you think of the veins in your wrist, and the blood that flows from your heart to the rest of your body, these are the two ventricles in our heartland. And they are putting a pipeline [there]. The reason this fight is so big is because there are 18 million people downstream, roughly, from where they put the, or where they intend to put the pipeline under the Missouri River. That’s not including all of the people that would be affected from its 200 tributaries, one of which is the Mississippi River, and all the people downstream from where they’re putting it, or where they have put it, underneath the Mississippi River.
It’s not the first time we’ve made a stand, but it’s the first time in a long time that people have finally started paying attention to Indigenous communities. And it’s the first time in a long time that we’ve had the power to say, “Hey, we know that you guys haven’t been paying attention to us this whole time, but we’re here. And we’re taking back our land. We’re taking back our languages. We’re taking back our sacred resources because you guys have taken over them for so long. And you essentially fucked it up. You’re not allowed to be in charge anymore.” And I think people are finally starting to get over the historical trauma we’ve been suffering from for hundreds of years and are finally recovered enough to say, “Hey, that’s not yours anymore. Actually, that was ours to begin with. I’m reclaiming my power, and I’m taking it back.” So for this fight right now, it’s integral because I think it’s the first time in a long time we’ve said, “No more.”
What is the best way for people who are watching this to help support you guys right now? What do you see as effective activism to support your work?
This all started in prayer. So even though I was a self-proclaimed atheist, I always tell people to pray however you wanna pray. I hate saying, “good vibes,” but if you have good vibes, send them because whatever kind of energy, positive energy you can send, we need. Because we’re surrounded by so much negativity all the time. We have helicopters circling day and night, airplanes circling day and night. So I always ask for prayer. Another thing I ask for is for people to keep watching. Keep watching and keep spreading the word because Morton County right now is being sanctioned by the North Dakota state governor, Jack Dalrymple, and they are being allowed to do whatever it is they want to do. And they’re doing it because they think that no one’s paying attention. So the more people pay attention, the less opportunity they’ll have to get away with things without being called out. Third thing: Write letters or call the White House. President Barack Obama, he has an obligation, and he controls the Army Corps of Engineers. And then lastly, if you can, donate. We have legal funds. We have camps. It is getting colder. We do need supplies. We’re being boycotted by North and South Dakota for hay and for wood and so many other suppliers that refuse to sell to us now. So we’d have to spend more money to bring in supplies from even further, and that’s a lot for us. And then if people think that they can hack it, and if people are down to work, I’m just kinda sick to death of people that show up, and they take a picture for Instagram, and then leave. Cuz they eat our food, and they use supplies that are intended for people that are actually living in the camps, and then they leave. And they’re like, “Man, I just really feel so moved because I got to have a real Native American experience.” But the Native American experience has always been one of trauma and degradation, and it’s like nobody else is getting that if they just show up to take a picture and leave. So I always say, lastly, show up. We always need bodies, but only come if you’re willing to work.