“It felt like something had been sawed off,” Charger said about her separation from Jasilea. She got so depressed she was moved to a psychiatric unit, where she often got into fights. She aged out of the system at 17, but when she returned to the ranch developments and trailer parks of Eagle Butte, she struggled with depression. She and Jasilea had gone “from knowing everything about each other to being strangers.” She fell into a monthslong cocaine binge, crashing in abandoned cars with other homeless kids. Her weight had dropped to 80 pounds by the time that her cousin, Joseph White Eyes, intervened. “He would say, ‘You’re killing yourself, and we need you,’ ” Charger recalled. “ ‘Don’t get high, let’s go to a sweat.’ He got me off drugs and into our culture.” She eventually found a job in Rapid City on the production team of the local Fox News affiliate but quit, she said, after her boss made one too many “cowboys and Indians” jokes in response to Native Americans’ being shot by the police. In early 2015 she moved to Portland, as far away as she could get. She hadn’t intended to return.
But now she was home, amid a new plague of suicides, and she wanted to do whatever she could to help other teenagers on the reservation. Together with White Eyes and their friend, Trenton Casillas-Bakeberg, she formed a youth group. They raised money for basketball tournaments and for a youth trip to the Red Nation Film Festival in California, where the kids were able to see the ocean for the first time in their landlocked lives. They went to the tribal council, demanding and getting funds for a safe house for young people. Most of all they counseled young people, urging them to look out for one another and get involved. “Yeah, it looks all pretty on Facebook,” Charger remembered saying, “but really, what’s going on in real life? You can be busy getting on Snapchat while someone’s getting bullied.”
As the suicide wave crested and broke, the youth group, now called the One Mind Youth Movement, turned to something more political. They spent that fall as part of the local campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, whose route would cut under the Cheyenne River just upstream from the reservation that bears its name. And after the Obama State Department denied the Keystone XL permission to cross the U.S.-Canadian border in November 2015, they moved their focus to the neighboring Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where the company Energy Transfer Partners was trying to build the Dakota Access Pipeline. That pipeline would move half a million barrels of oil a day beneath the Missouri River, the main source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux, which is one of the cousin bands to Cheyenne River, as well as for other downstream Sioux reservations. The youths came to believe that the Dakota pipeline was not only a threat to their drinking water but also a harbinger of the larger environmental crisis their generation was set to inherit.
Last April, Charger, White Eyes and a few One Mind teenagers and mentors helped establish a tiny “prayer camp” just off the Dakota Access route, on the north end of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Over the next six months that camp grew into an improbable movement that united conservative farmers with the old radicals of the American Indian Movement; urban environmentalists with the traditional chiefs of hundreds of tribes. As Donald Trump pushes forward with the Keystone XL and Dakota Access, he will face a movement emboldened by a victory on Dec. 4, 2016, when the Department of the Army denied an easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline and directed the Army Corps to consider an alternate route. It was a rare triumph for both the environmental and land rights movements, as well as for the American left in an otherwise dark moment. But little remarked upon at the time was the unlikely seed from which the movement had grown: an anti-suicide campaign among a tight-knit group of youths, most younger than 25, impelled by tragedy and guided by prophecy.
At the start, the camp seemed like a quixotic undertaking. Lakota culture is effectively run by the old — traditionally young people are supposed to apologize before they even speak in front of elders — so for the youths to take it upon themselves to lead a movement was a radical act. In March, concerned citizens of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, frustrated with the lack of action from their tribal council, the body that functions as the tribe’s official, U.S.-recognized government, put out a call for help to the other Sioux reservations. One Mind Youth made the two-hour drive north to propose setting up a prayer camp modeled on the ones raised against the Keystone XL. The tribal council agreed to set up the camp but offered little other support, pessimistic about the effort. The youths were undeterred. In early April, a handful, joined by a few former Keystone activists, moved into tepees in a protected ravine beside the Cannonball River, on the extreme north end of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Those days, the temperatures were in the 30s and there was still snow on the ground. The youths dubbed the camp Sacred Stone and lit the sacred fire. At first, they lived on little more than bologna sandwiches, potato chips and water. But then residents from the small reservation town of Cannon Ball, up the hill from Sacred Stone, began to bring donations: leftovers from dinner, cut-up wooden corrals for the campfires, a chain saw. Life in the prayer camp was supposed to be lived “in ceremony,” a sort of mindfulness or religious retreat in which all things are done with the intention of maintaining purity. Days began with a water ceremony; the sacred fire had to be regularly fed; meals began with prayer and a “spirit plate” served for the ancestors; alcohol and drugs were strictly forbidden.
It was, in other words, the sort of safe place that the youths had been insisting was necessary for them. They needed a haven, Charger explained, to “regroup, figure out what you’re going to do and not worry about where you’re gonna sleep.” The previous fall, they rented a hotel room in Eagle Butte as an informal crash house for Cheyenne River youth, where sometimes as many as 20 teenagers stayed, sleeping and showering, safe from bullying or the lure of alcohol or drugs. The prayer camp at Standing Rock provided something similar. Members of One Mind would drive home every week to resupply and pick up youths who wanted to experience the camp.
For Charger and other leaders, as important as the idea of the safe space was the idea that activism would teach children the skills to survive more immediate threats, like bullying and drug abuse. They hoped to pass on skills at the camp that they themselves had been taught by Keystone activists in their community. During the long campaign against the Keystone XL, groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network (I.E.N.) helped set up a “spirit camp” on the Cheyenne River Reservation, about 50 miles southwest of Eagle Butte, where activists prayed and taught the surrounding communities about civil disobedience. The I.E.N. paid for One Mind members to be trained as organizers — they sent Charger to Washington and White Eyes to network with aboriginal climate activists in Australia — and the teenagers and young adults were exposed to ideas and training that linked the pipeline fight to larger struggles in their society. Every direct-action training against the Keystone XL, for example, referenced the prophecy of the black snake, a figure out of Lakota myth that in recent times has been identified with pipelines. But it has a more general meaning: “It symbolizes a darkness, a sickness, whose only intention is to sow dysfunction and loss of life in our communities,” said Dallas Goldtooth, an I.E.N. organizer who worked with Charger and other One Mind members. The message was clear: The struggle against the pipeline was part of the same struggle against alcoholism, suicide and abuse.
After weeks at the Standing Rock camp with minimal tribal support, the young people decided that they needed to carry out some sort of public action. “It was important to make the adults see that if you’re going to sit there and argue, we’re gonna go wake up our brothers and sisters,” Charger said. Bobbi Jean Three Legs, a young mother and long-distance runner from Standing Rock who had become active in the camp, had a vision. Her daughter woke her one night to ask for water, and she suddenly saw a day when, thanks to water pollution, there would be no water to give. Soon after that, she and White Eyes proposed a 500-mile relay run from the Sacred Stone Camp to Omaha to deliver a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, asking it to deny the Dakota Access Pipeline permission to cross the Missouri River. The I.E.N. began a social-media campaign announcing the run and organized a blitz of calls and letters from tribal members on various reservations.
Within days, far sooner than expected, an Army Corps representative from the Omaha district agreed to meet with members of the tribe. To some, this meant the youths could call off the run. But they insisted on going ahead. Not only did they still want support from the tribal council; they had also begun to believe that this run could bring together young people from all the Sioux reservations. The seven bands of the people commonly known as the Sioux had organized themselves in the Oceti Sakowin, or “the Seven Council Fires,” a tribal republic that spread out over a vast area, including the Dakotas, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska, until federal campaigns forced its members onto the scattered, tiny reservations they occupy now. One Mind saw water as an issue that could unify all Oceti Sakowin youth. And their run had rich cultural resonance: Before Europeans brought horses, long-distance messenger runners held the scattered tribes of Oceti Sakowin together. Three Legs, White Eyes and Charger mapped a route to pass through as many reservations as possible. The run would use a traditional method in which a messenger ran a short distance, about a mile, and then rested while another runner took his or her place. It allowed people who were not very good runners, like Charger, to go on a long-distance run.
Three Legs insisted on bringing someone from each of the nine Oceti Sakowin bands, and the run quickly brought in people from reservations that hadn’t been involved with the Standing Rock camp. Daniel Grassrope, now 25, came from the Lower Brule, a band whose reservation lay down the Missouri from Cheyenne River. Grassrope, the second-youngest boy of 13 children, grew up disgusted by the abuse and dysfunction around him, “racist,” he said, “toward my own people.” As a child, he dreamed of being taken away from his family and adopted by whites, something he associated, vaguely, with having his own bedroom and a mother who came to his basketball games. He was getting wasted every night when he saw Three Legs’s Facebook posting asking someone to represent the Lower Brule on the run.
The run immediately gave him what Standing Rock would later give many other youths: a sense of purpose he had been lacking. It also inspired something more radical, in a way, than antipipeline activism: the belief that a group of lost people from scattered nations could still find kinship. Grassrope wrote to Three Legs immediately. “I had been praying for something like this,” he said.
On April 24, the runners set off south from the Sacred Stone Camp. They ran along the Cannonball River to Highway 1806, then down toward Cheyenne River, their first stop. Grassrope ran next to Charger, who was carrying a heavy staff that represented their ancestors. When she got too tired, Grassrope carried it. In doing so, according to Lakota belief, they were literally carrying all those who had come before. They stayed in churches and community centers and women’s lodges and private homes. At every reservation, they met not only with tribal leaders but also with reservation youths, whom they talked to just as they had in Cheyenne River, telling them about the old ways and the camp upriver where those ways were being revived. “It really caught them off guard,” Charger said, “that they saw youth like them doing it.” Because the Native American community has become heavily networked on social media as a modern means to keep the bands united, word spread far beyond the communities they visited. When the youths arrived in Omaha on May 3, a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers met with them on the steps of the office. They still felt motivated as they went back to Standing Rock. Grassrope quit his job in Lower Brule and settled into the camp with them.
By then time seemed to be running out: The Army Corps of Engineers was still considering the Dakota Access Pipeline’s permit, and the Tribal Council still wasn’t offering much support. On July 9, through a video released on YouTube, Bobbi Jean Three Legs and several other runners announced an even more ambitious action: a run that would cover 2,000 miles to Washington, where they would deliver a petition to the Army Corps’ headquarters. “We need your help,” a young woman says in the video. Another woman, with glasses and a long black braid, says, “We’re going to be traveling through many of your towns.” On July 15, 30 runners set out from Sacred Stone, adding more as they made their way along their route. Jasilyn Charger’s estranged twin sister, Jasilea, was one. She was in bed asleep when Jasilyn, passing through Cheyenne River, ran into their house, threw her clothes into a bag and urged her onto their support van. Over the course of the next week or so, a dozen more joined.
But on July 26, the runners learned the Army Corps of Engineers had approved the Dakota Access pipeline easements. The black snake was on its way. The runners decided to carry on to Washington, but the focus shifted back to the camp, as I.E.N. activists at Standing Rock urged people via Facebook messages to rise to the standard set by the youths. Across the great archipelago of North America’s Indian reservations and urban communities, people took notice. They loaded cars and buses and camper vans with donations and headed for Standing Rock.
Twenty-six-year-old Eryn Wise moved to the camp in late August, at the beginning of what organizers called the big boom, when the population spiked from dozens to thousands. A native of Minneapolis, Wise was raised by her grandmother on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation after a suicide attempt at 11. On the reservation, she was picked on for excelling at school but was surrounded by her siblings, with whom she formed a close bond. But she returned to Minneapolis when she was 16 to care for her mother. When she read an article about the youth run she felt a pull and quit her job. She found her twin siblings, Alex and Lauren Howland, already at the camp.
Wise arrived just as the elders began to claim more control over the movement the youths had started. The run, Goldtooth told me, had forced their support by transforming the Dakota Access pipeline from a regional Lakota issue into an international one. Standing Rock council members began to visit the camps and pay for emergency services, propane and portable toilets. The camp had expanded onto the floodplain across the river, and grass-roots activists and members of the unelected traditional leadership, which serves as a sort of parallel Oceti Sakowin government, erected a Council Lodge, a large tepee from the tribe’s past that the young people had only heard about. The Council Lodge was the traditional meeting place of the Oceti Sakowin in the 19th century, when the bands would gather on the Plains. The Council Lodge tepee at Standing Rock was a sign of a new political awakening, as the traditional chiefs and medicine men collaborated with grass-roots organizers — the youth and other Native American factions that had joined — to restore the old, unified tribal republic. It was part of a larger move toward formalizing the prayer camps under a council government. By then, the protests against the pipeline had, for the traditional leadership, become about far more: They had become a long-prophesied end to history.
The black-snake, prophesy said, would only be overcome by the Seventh Generation, which would rise up and, as Charger explained, “bring balance to the Earth. Not just to its people. To the Earth.” Many of the youths that I spoke with took this to mean the Seventh Generation had a sort of messianic role to help restore order, on behalf of all beings, to a world thrown out of balance by modernity and greed.
“The Seventh Generation is almost cliché in Indian communities,” Goldtooth, the I.E.N. organizer told me. Anyone born between 1980 and the 2000s, he said, “hears about it constantly. The hope that our generation will see a significant shift toward community renewal and nation building and the reminder that our communities expect big things of us.” The Seventh Generation tracks roughly with millennials of all races, but they share their own unique history. The generation between Goldtooth, 34, and Charger, now 20, is the first to have grown up free to be Indian. They are familiar with their ancestors’ scars but also fluent in mainstream American culture.
At Standing Rock, the elders, once resistant to their movement, now insisted that the youths accept the responsibility that the prophecy had foretold. In early September, the Seven Council Fires and Chief Arvol Looking Horse, who, for the Lakota Sioux, is something like their head of religion, gave the youths a gift: a chanupa, the ceremonial pipe that is the most sacred element of the Plains religion, a symbol of the knitting together of the human community and nature, ancestors with the living. In a ceremony under the blazing sun, the council deputized the youths as akicita, a Lakota term that means something like “warriors for the people” or “police.” It is difficult to overstate the importance of this gesture. The youths, Looking Horse explained to me, “weren’t really ready for it, but we told them that they’re going to accept it and learn the traditions. We said they had to be of pure mind. They said, ‘We’ll try.’ ”
After the ceremony, the youths, who had begun to call themselves the International Indigenous Youth Council, or I.I.Y.C., to symbolize their desire to unite all nations behind a traditional way of life, moved together into a tepee by the Cannonball River. “A lot of our first month or two living together,” Wise said, “was just having someone break down crying.” In her short time at the camp, Wise had become a sort of surrogate mother to the other young people — her nickname even became Ina, or “mother” — and she found herself in charge of a group of about 25 who were barely holding it together, despite the leadership they had assumed. The I.I.Y.C. was the first experience of family for many members. “A lot of them never had the opportunity to be kids, because they were always trying to take care of themselves or take care of their parents.” This process, one of the youth leaders told me, was “terribly beautiful,” an unburdening of the “historical trauma” that had defined their lives. “No one realizes what the repercussions of colonization have been, the repercussions of forced removal,” Wise said. It was hard, she stressed, to explain to people that these were things that had happened recently, to her generation’s parents and grandparents.
“I don’t blame my mom,” Charger told me. “Her mother was murdered.” She shrugged. “The abuse lives in our blood.”
Charger was referring to Native American history, not just what happened on the frontier but also in more recent decades. After federal campaigns reduced the Oceti Sakowin in the late 1800s, there were nearly 100 years of calculated assault as the state tried to force Native Americans to assimilate. The unified nation of Oceti Sakowin was broken into widely separated reservations, and after Congress privatized reservation land, many starving Lakota families had to sell off their property to white farmers, further cutting the size of reservations. The U.S. Government banned the Sundance, the Plains religions’ most sacred ceremony, with its days of fasting and ritual bloodletting; Native Americans could no longer openly practice their religions. But perhaps most devastating to their psychological health were the boarding schools, in which generations of Indians were sent to schools to be taught white culture. This system reached its nadir in the forced assimilation campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s, when the grandparents of many of the I.I.Y.C. youths were taught English literally under the lash.
At Standing Rock, the youths felt they were developing the means to overcome that trauma. The key, as Charger explained it, was to let their history go, which they took as an almost holy responsibility: Forgive, and then take action to spare those who are coming in the future. “We don’t want our children to inherit this depression,” she said. The remarkable thing about this philosophy was that it was deeply practical: not just forgiving “the white man” but also the parent who beat you. For many, this provided a means to re-establish difficult relationships with parents or siblings. But it also helped bind them together into their own sort of family.
In the final months of 2016, the camps at Standing Rock grew to more than 10,000, filling with indigenous peoples from hundreds of nations, climate-change activists, members of the Rainbow Family and Burning Man communities and those who simply felt a call. By that point, the role of the I.I.Y.C. had become a sort of advance guard, taking risks and pushing actions forward and winning new young converts to the cause.
Thomas Tonatiuh Lopez Jr. was one. A 24-year-old Lakota and Latino from Denver, Lopez grew up the child of AIM and Chicano activists, and as the adopted grandson of the powerful medicine man Leonard Crowdog. He came to Standing Rock in September on a supply run and hadn’t intended to stay. Once he found himself at the camp, Lopez was touched by the message of activism and reconciliation. One afternoon, he was sitting with I.I.Y.C. members, rolling cigarettes for everyone in front of a fire, as Charger talked about the role of youth. “She said one thing that stuck with me: Who better to speak for the past than the voice of the future?” He thought about it as he drove home to Denver, and when he got there, he helped establish a local I.I.Y.C. chapter, drawing from local indigenous and Latino youths. In mid-November, the group took hundreds of Denver high-school students for a march through downtown to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Another new chapter, in Chicago, galvanized hundreds for Thanksgiving events that drew in members of other activist groups, including Black Lives Matter, which resulted in black community medics going to serve in Standing Rock’s volunteer medical corps.