Becoming 'water protectors' changed their lives

Native Americans march on September 2, 2016, to the site of a sacred burial ground that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota.

Story highlights

  • Britto Schwartz: Protests against Dakota Access Pipeline are a youth movement
  • For Native American youth, fighting pipeline is a chance to find a voice, fight racism

Juliana Britto Schwartz is a digital storyteller for social change. She is a senior campaigner at Change.org where she supports users who start petitions to win them, and a senior editor at Feministing.com. In both her roles, she focuses on stories related to women's rights and immigrant rights, and is most proud of her work centering on indigenous women and young people in their fight for climate justice. The views expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)On Thursday, tensions surrounding protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline reached a new pitch, with fires and forcible removal of protestors reported. Over the past few months, 269 people, including journalists, minors and "Divergent" star Shailene Woodley, have been arrested for their efforts to fight the pipeline. The controversial $3.7 billion project is set to cover 1,172 miles and cross the Missouri river less than a mile from the Standing Rock Reservation, which opponents say puts the tribe's drinking water at risk. While Dakota Access LLC has continued construction on the project, advocates have been risking their safety and engaging in non-violent direct actions in order to protect their community from a dangerous project.

This development comes two months after the Obama administration announced that it would temporarily ask Dakota Access LLC to pause construction on the pipeline until the Department of Justice can consider whether the project was approved with proper consultation of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. This small win was an important moment for a movement that began with an online petition and a small riverside prayer camp -- and has since gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures along with thousands of campers on the ground in North Dakota, whom authorities have begun to remove.
Juliana Britto Schwartz
This week's arrests make it clear that the temporary pause will not be enough to stop the pipeline. This struggle will make headlines for months to come as the Standing Rock Sioux and thousands of indigenous allies continue to fight the project. But as this movement grows, it's important to keep an eye on those who helped to launch the petition and, in spite of significant obstacles, continue to shoulder the campaign: young activists.
    As a campaigner at Change.org, I have had the honor of working with some of Standing Rock Youth who helped to launch the petition that has now gathered over 335,000 signatures.
    Jasilyn Charger, a youth leader from Standing Rock, understands that supporting her fellow "water protectors" requires understanding the intersecting struggles she and other indigenous youth face. She herself has been through tough times, but looked past her own painful experiences and threw herself into organizing suicide prevention efforts to benefit others.
    She sees a clear connection between suicide and a dangerous pipeline as threats to the existence and well-being of Native American people in North Dakota. So Jasilyn decided to join a relay run that some friends started in April to raise awareness about the perils of the pipeline project.
    Among those friends was Bobbi Jean Three Legs, who has been a lead organizer for all of the relay runs the movement has used to publicize its cause.
    Here's how it began. First, Bobbi Jean, Jasilyn, and another activist, Joseph White Eyes, ran around the Standing Rock reservation, stopping to talk to community members about their cause. Next, they organized a slightly larger group of youth from Standing Rock to run from the reservation to the Army Corps regional headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. When that run received positive responses from community members and local press coverage, the group decided to dream even bigger and planned a run from North Dakota to Washington, D.C.. They pulled together over 30 young people, ranging in age from 6 to 26 years old, and ran 1,800 miles across the country.
    The journey to D.C. was a spiritual one: each day started and ended with a prayer circle, and the runners carried sacred staffs the entire way. Bobbi says that she organized the action in the spirit of her ancestors who used to run from tribe to tribe, sending messages between communities.
    When they got to D.C., the youth delivered their petition signatures to Army Corps officials, who listened to them speak about what this pipeline meant for their community. The youth talked about life on the reservation and how this pipeline simply added to the list of ways they felt neglected and marginalized by the United States government. When it was over almost everyone -- including government officials -- had tears in their eyes.
    When reflecting about their journey and the success of the past few days, many of the youth acknowledged the tough situations they faced when returning home to the reservation, where addiction and poverty continued. Some talked about experiencing feelings of hopelessness themselves, and the work this experience had done to counteract them. "Before this run, I didn't feel like I had a purpose for being here. I just decided to come on a whim, but it's changed my life," one of the runners shared with the group.
    Follow CNN Opinion

    Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    If you listen to Bobbi Jean or Jasilyn speak about the pipeline, you'll notice that there is one point that each speaker touches on, no matter what. "I'm here today to fight for the future generations, to make sure that they have clean water and a safe place to live," Jasilyn shouted into a megaphone in front of the White House. "I want to know that my future children, and their children, have the water they need to survive."
    Suicide was also ever-present within the conversations these young people had about their community -- understandably, given that it is the second leading cause of death for indigenous youth. Experts attribute these statistics in part to lack of mental health services, but more broadly to a deep sense of despair in the face of disproportionately high rates of poverty, abuse and lack of opportunity. Environmental racism in the form of harmful resource extraction compounds this despair. For example, this pipeline -- originally set to cross the Missouri just north of Bismarck -- was redirected due to possible threats to the city's water supply and instead set to be built a mile away from the Standing Rock reservation.
    With this broader despair so constantly on their minds, many of the Standing Rock Youth talk about the movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline as being about so much more than resource extraction. For them, the pipeline is just another example of the way in which Native people are treated as invisible, and pushed to the margins of society in order to make way for development whose benefits never trickle down in meaningful ways to Native American communities.
      The Dakota Access Pipeline is certainly not the first time that Native Americans have been treated like collateral damage to our country's never-ending quest for more oil, but the youth movement to stop it is one of the first times that indigenous protests have been heard on such a national -- and even international -- stage. These young people are finally beginning to feel that their voices count.
      There is an old saying that rings true at each Dakota Access action I've been to: "We do not inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children." Jasilyn, Bobbi Jean and the Standing Rock youth are living examples of those who would care for the earth as something to be returned in equal or better condition. If the pipeline is successfully thwarted, it will be because of them.