The Crucial Roles Women Are Playing At Standing Rock — In Photos

Photographed by Terray Sylvester.
According to Lakota prophecy, a “black snake” will someday come to destroy Mother Earth.

And, when the time comes, it will be women who emerge as the ultimate guardians and protectors of life.

These predictions were long left open for interpretation. But today, the notion at Standing Rock is that the black snake resembles the 1,172 mile-long Dakota Access oil pipeline.

For months, thousands of people have camped out on the North Dakota prairie to protest against the $3.8 billion pipeline, set to transport up to 570,000 barrels a day of fracked Bakken crude oil through a tunnel under the tribe’s main water source.

And, as the prophecy predicted, women are leading the fight to stop its construction. It was indigenous women who were first to take on the bulldozers in an attempt to protect lands and water deemed sacred by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. They rushed to lead the protests, even as the demonstrations were rocked by clashes with police. Their contributions aren't just on the front lines — they have also provided critical behind-the-scenes support for the protesters, working as paramedics, cooks, and media liaisons.

Opponents of the pipeline scored a victory earlier this month, when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not allow construction to continue beneath Lake Oahe as planned. But they say the fight is not yet over.

And these female water protectors, many of whom are still camped out in North Dakota, remain central to the struggle to protect the Missouri River from a potential oil spill.

As the movement continues to gain momentum on ancestral ground of the Great Sioux Nation, a coalition of female warriors are standing strong. They are mothers who fought and won to block the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015, and they are daughters whose fathers watched treaty territory diminish by seizures led by the federal government. Others are grandchildren who have inherited historical traumas linked to forced removal, assimilation, and genocide.

For these women of Standing Rock, it is their calling, their responsibility. They are on the front lines, shaping the indigenous narrative, and standing up for what has captured the attention of the world. Ahead, these female water protectors crucial to the fight share their stories.
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Photographed by Terray Sylvester.
Kandi Mossett (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara)
Lead Organizer, Indigenous Environmental Network

“When we saw those bulldozers ripping into our sacred sites, as women, we couldn't just stand there and watch them do it. That’s why you saw women going down there and tearing down the fence and running out into the fields to stop them, physically to put our bodies on the line. Because our blood memory dictates that we protect what protects us, which is our mother.”
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Photographed by Terray Sylvester.
Olive Bias (Eastern Band of Cherokee)
Front Line Water Protector

"The spirits are on our side, and the fact that prayers have been laid down here on the land that we're on for eons, which has helped people gather here in the first place, we have to be patient. We understand the difference of being goal-oriented and being focused. If you have focus, that means you’re in prayer and you're gonna be at the right place at the right time and you'll know how to act."
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Photographed by Terray Sylvester.
Faith Spotted Eagle (Ihanktonwan Band/Yankton of Oceti Sakowin)
Brave Heart Society

“When Mother Earth is rapeable, women and children are rapeable, and that’s who usually, in war, who are most vulnerable, and that’s how it’s played out in our history and our culture. So I think, in America, what we need to do is reconcile the denial, the guilt, and say we all need water.”

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Photographed by Terray Sylvester.
Jade Begay (Navajo/Tesuque Pueblo)
Indigenous Rising Media Producer
"Over the course of hundreds of years our story has been written by non-native people — anthropologists, academics, journalists — coming into our communities and telling our stories for us. Now the mission is to get away from that cycle of extractive storytelling."
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Photographed by Terray Sylvester.
Harmony Lauritzen

“I’m probably the whitest person here. My dad's from Denmark and my mom's from Kentucky, so they call me the Danish hillbilly. I'm always trying to be respectful and learn things and do the right thing in the culture. I don't want to screw things up and basically dishonor anyone because their food is their culture.”
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Photographed by Terray Sylvester.
Vanessa “Red Bull” (Cherokee)
Volunteer Paramedic

“It hurt me to see people I've eaten with, people I’ve taken care of when they've had colds or cuts, people I've just come to love; it hurt me a lot to see what's happening to them. [Watching police hose down hundreds of demonstrators with water in sub-freezing temperatures last month] was just devastating on a spiritual level. I really try to keep it all in perspective. Without me here, it could have been worse for people.”
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Photographed by Terray Sylvester.
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard (Lakota Sioux)
Founder, Sacred Stone Camp

“Water is life. Water is the center of everything. Water is female. As females, we must stand up for the water. We have no choice. Without water, we all die. It's common sense to me. We must save the water.”