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It'd be easy to feel despair at the ending that met the fearless activists who came together last year to fight the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. At its peak, the rally gathered over 10,000 people to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation — the largest Native-led protest since the 1970's, and the first time so many participating tribes had united in the same place. Celebrities showed up too, including Shailene Woodley and Mark Ruffalo, and the demonstration hoped to prevent Energy Transfer Partners from building a $3.8 billion project that would send crude oil to Illinois from beneath Lake Oahe — a vital water source for nearby Native communities. But despite the protesters' tenacious outcry, President Trump greenlit the pipeline's construction last January. But the pipeline remains problematic: There's already been 3 reported leaks.
The Standing Rock protests generated some of the biggest headlines of 2016. The story tied dire environmental concerns to long-overdue outrage for the marginalization faced by Native Americans across this country, as demonstrators catapulted the injustices that have haunted these communities for generations into the mainstream. Even as the economy recovers, the unemployment rate Native American was over 60% in 2014. Many live in poverty, with scant educational resources. And, of course, government projects like the DAPL — with its threats to the Sioux people's access to clean water, its invasion of lands pregnant with religious significance — only exacerbate the feelings of neglect underpinning these stark statistics.
But Judith LeBlanc of the Native Organizers Alliance isn't letting the defeat at Standing Rock define the future of grassroots activism on reservations. She's transforming the loss into a powerful new platform for amplifying the visibility of the crises impacting tribal lives from coast to coast — a push that culminated last spring in a Native Nations March on Washington.
"For native communities, organizing is as old as dirt," she says. "We've always had a collective approach to problem-solving. The days are over where people will accept decisions being made about us, without us. People were just invigorated by the idea that we not just resist, but actually revive our culture through resistance."
For LeBlanc and her new constellation of activists, Standing Rock isn't just a heartbreaking reminder of near-victory — it was also an empowering lesson in how to deliver real change. By building collaborative networks across tribal communities, groups like Native Organizers Alliance are gathering the momentum to finally place indigenous peoples' voices and issues at the forefront of the American political conversation. Watch America Uprising: This Land I Love, featured above, to learn more about the struggle against DAPL and these organizers' bold efforts to make sure it was just the beginning.