The Fight To Protect Water Isn't Over For This 26-Year-Old At Standing Rock

Photographed by Terray Sylvester.
For the past three months, Eryn Wise has been on the front lines of the movement to block the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The 26-year-old activist is one of thousands of people who have spent much of the past year being part of the Standing Rock resistance, protesting and praying near the pipeline site by the Cannonball River. This week, the self-described “water protectors” scored a major win: The Army Corps of Engineers denied approval for the construction to continue as planned beneath a Missouri River reservoir, citing a need to "explore alternate routes." But activists say their work is not over.

“Everyone was really, really happy. Excited. Deeply moved, everyone was crying,” Wise said of the reaction at the camp site Sunday night. “But reality set in and we knew that it’s not 100% ever. We still have a long way to go.”

Wise, who left her home and belongings in Arizona behind in August to join the movement in person, knows firsthand how hard the ongoing fight over the land and water will be. At Standing Rock, the member of the Jicarilla Apache/Laguna Pueblo people of New Mexico has become a leader within the International Indigenous Youth Council, earning a reputation as the “mom” of the group. By raising close to $30,000 on her GoFundMe page, she’s been able to provide crucial supplies for the group, like food and winter clothes. Her donations have also been used to bail young people out of jail after being arrested while protesting, and to provide small comforts like hot showers by booking rooms at the nearby hotel.

Wise spoke with Refinery29 about the latest news, why she joined the movement, and what women everywhere can do to continue to stand in solidarity with those working to protect our water.

What was your reaction to the announcement from the Army Corps of Engineers on Sunday?
“We were really elated about the news, but we also know that this [does] not mean that the fight is over. We still have a lot of work ahead of us. This next administration that’s coming in is going to be invested in this pipeline, invested in this industry. So we just know that the fight isn’t over. We’re happy right now, but definitely looking towards the future, and what are we going to do next.”
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It’s very important that people realize that this isn’t over, that we still have more work to do.

Eryn Wise
What are some of those next steps? What does the future look like?
“We’re still here in camp. We know that the company is still constructing, it’s still their intention to drill. We need to stop them from doing so. We didn’t want to negotiate or reroute; we want to kill the pipeline. I guess our next fight is figuring out what we need to do to get rid of it.”

Backing up, why did you come to Standing Rock?
“I came to Standing Rock because I am a woman, and as a woman, it’s our job to protect others. I’m here because water is female and there is a deep intrinsic connection between me and water. I was born from water, spent nine months in a womb filled with water, and I feel it is my duty as a woman to, not only to protect the water, but also to ensure the future for the next seven generations. As a water protector, as a woman, as a sister, I’m here to ensure the future for not only the next seven generations, but all the generations beyond that cannot speak for themselves that we haven't even thought of yet.”
Photographed by Terray Sylvester.
Eryn Wise is interviewed by a reporter after a press conference on a hill overlooking Oceti Sakowin, the opposition encampment against the Dakota Access Pipeline on the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation.

The International Indigenous Youth Council has been a large part of the ongoing prayer at Standing Rock, but has also seen its fair share of violence. How is post-traumatic stress impacting the group?
“The IIYC has led many beautiful actions. We’ve led a silent march where we prayed on the Backwater Bridge in front of the police; we offered them some water that we have prayed over; we’ve led marches to free Red Fawn; we’ve led actions that were farther out near the pipeline, when we were still allowed access. The group as a whole is a remarkable group, but now many of the youth who were able to stand without fear or question, a lot of them hesitate. There’s a little more weight in each step, their eyes are a little darker, there is more fear. So many people, especially in the youth council, have experienced police brutality. They know what it’s like to be maced; they know how long it’s going to take to feel pain and to feel relief. They know exactly who the people are that are aggressive towards them, they know the faces of the officers, they recognize their voices. Being in a public space like Bismarck or Mandan, I see the youth look over their shoulder because they’re terrified of what it is they might encounter just walking down the street. People who were once carefree carry the burden of being so involved in this movement."

This isn't just a fight of one group of people here in North Dakota, it’s a fight of a global population to preserve what is left of the land that we have meticulously destroyed.

Eryn Wise
"My little sister, Lauren, [who is] 21, now has issues and my post-traumatic stress is pretty much tied up in what has happened to her. On October 22, she was a part of a group of about 50 people that got separated of a mass group of 200 to 300 people who had gone out to the pipeline construction site to pray. A 9-year-old was separated from his grandparents and he crying, and my sister and another member of the youth council were trying to calm him down. As they were doing that, a group of policemen came to round them up, pretty much herding them, and everyone began to form a protective circle around the women, children, and elders. My sister would not let the police officer have the little boy, [and] he broke her wrist with a baton trying to break the chain around him. [Less than a week later], she was maced five times along with other members of the youth council. The biggest issue that she has now is that she can’t be in a public setting and look at police officers without flinching. If she sees cop lights, she gets stressed out, even if they are far away. If we hear helicopters, everyone looks to the sky— even if they’re not for us, we assume that they’re listening to us and following us.

"My sister knows it really affected me not being able to protect her, and she now pretends to be stronger than she is. There’s so many instances where we can look back in retrospect and see we were these fully formed happy humans, and now the two of us are clinging to each other and our brother Alex, my sister’s twin, and looking at each other like, How the hell did we end up in North Dakota…being brutalized by militarized police, and no one with power is doing anything to help us. How did we end up here?"
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Photographed by Terray Sylvester.
Flanked by her fellow activists, Eryn Wise speaks at a press conference on a hill overlooking Oceti Sakowin.



You’ve been critical of President Obama on this issue. Does the latest decision change that?
“Obama didn’t do anything. He’s still a coward as far as I’m concerned. And I hope everyone realizes that the end of his presidency is coming after eight years of him hurting people around the world and lying to indigenous people in your country that you’re supposed to be protecting. As far as I’m concerned, President Obama has been watching the degradation of indigenous people in the United States for the past seven, almost eight months, and has done nothing. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has made a statement far too late. And I think that they’re just looking to shove this problem on the other administration, which I think it’s unjust to the people that have been here fighting. I also think President Obama needs to deeply think about what it is he has done to children, because Trump’s administration is not going to be there to protect Malia and Sasha. And I hope he realizes that it’s his turn and his children that are in danger, [that] he remembers what it is he did to children around the world and the United States by not protecting them.”

What can women who are not able to come to Standing Rock do to support?
“The biggest thing anybody can do is pray. Pray however you know how to. If praying for you means standing outside and looking at the Earth and trees, do that. If it means praying to a specific God, do that, if it means lighting candles, do that. Just continue to pray because this is a movement founded in prayer.

The biggest thing anybody can do is pray. Pray however you know how to.

Eryn Wise
"But also, if you are a woman, it’s not only my duty, but also your duty to protect the Earth, to protect the land and to protect sacred resources. Water is female — it’s our obligation to treat this water with respect, to treat this land with respect, to treat our mother with due respect. And as a woman, you should understand that our rights have been overlooked and our strength has been undervalued for so long. If you want to empower yourself, we must first empower the Earth to reclaim its habitats, its waters, its plants, and its animals. We are killing everything without so much as a backwards glance, and we don't have to do that. We can change this way of life. As women, as life givers, we have the power to change the course of the future, and so I ask the women, stand and protect the sacred wherever you are.

"This isn't just a fight of one group of people here in North Dakota; it’s a fight of a global population to preserve what is left of the land that we have meticulously destroyed. I just ask that if you don’t have the means to donate and you can’t come to Standing Rock, if the cold isn't for you or you’re too scared, make phone calls, write letters, do what you can to stand for the land around you. There’s no one fighting for the Earth but us, and it’s our obligation to give to something that’s given so much to us."

What’s the most important thing young women should know about the situation as it stands right now?
“I think that people need to realize that the fight isn’t over. Media, especially mainstream media that’s here, is going to make it look like it’s a victory and it’s over and people are going to stop paying attention to what’s happening. It’s very important that people realize that this isn’t over, that we still have more work to do. And [to] put out a call for action — we want people to continue divesting from the people that support this pipeline. We want people to continue educating themselves on what’s happening here, and [about] indigenous people in general.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Wise as a member of the Hickory Apache Nation in Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. Refinery29 regrets the error.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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