This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on 18 January 2019. Talia Fox, Fatima Hashmi, and Rachel Porter also contributed to the production of this story.
Danny Grassrope is an indigenous runner, water protector, and environmental activist from Kul Wicasa Oyate (the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe). This is his story:
“My name Daniel Grassrope, but people call me Danny.
I’m from Lower Brule, South Dakota. We live right by the Missouri River. Literally, our territory is right up to the water. When I was younger, I used to always go to the river. People do all kinds of things in the river: fishing, kayaking, jet-skiing, tubing... It is just a very positive recreational thing on the reservation.
My relationship with the river is about water. We need to survive off water. It is essential for our well-being. If we want to survive, we have to have water in our system. And the river is our main water source. It’s where we get our water to take showers, cook, to drink, to do all these things.
Some of the memories I have of the river are going down and just fishing with my dad and my brothers and sisters. I barely saw my father at the time. He taught us what it was to fish, and why we ate, and to give thanks to the fish, and the proper way to kill an animal. He taught us a little bit of our Lakota ways. He would have fun, he would laugh. And he started telling us stories of how the old Lower Brule used to be before it was flooded.
The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is situated in North and South Dakota (Standing Rock).
In 1944, the Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act transferred acreage around the Missouri River—23% of which was tribal land—to the Army Corps of Engineers for construction of dams and reservoirs (Sacred Land).
The project destroyed more tribal land than any public works project in U.S. history. Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota tribes lost 202,000 acres and 1,544 people were forced to relocate (Sacred Land).
We had to move to higher ground in the 50’s because the Army Corps of Engineers flooded the Missouri River and wanted control of the water. The Army Corps met with each of the tribal governments along the river where they damned it. They verbally promised free water and electricity coming from the dams. It was never in writing and they took back everything they said. With that promise, that’s why tribes like the Lower Brule & Cheyenne River and some others sold their water rights. In the Lower Brule reservation, we still have to pay for water and electricity. We got a little bit of history of where our homes used to be and where we are now.
I knew little of my Lakota background. My grandma on my mom’s side was a very strong Catholic and I lived with my mom most of my life. So I was brought up with that, and I knew very little about Sundance, I knew very little about the sweat lodge, the iníkaǧA. I knew very little about our Lakota language, no more than 50 words. That is one of the bases of being Lakota: knowing how to talk and how to feel with everything. But I knew very little.
One of the things I did know was that we used to run. I’ve been running since I was seven years old. Before settlers came, we didn’t have any horses. When we had to send messages to other tribes within our nation, we had to run there. Sometimes we would run for days or weeks and sometimes months. We moved with the buffalo, so we were always moving camp. We knew where our relatives would be, so that’s the direction that we would run. But sometimes we would run a little bit further and have to turn around and come back. Or go a bit further north or further west or down south. An older person shared that with me.
I got involved with the Standing Rock protests through running. I saw a flier to run through indigenous territories all along the Missouri River, from Canon Ball, North Dakota to Omaha, Nebraska, which is the Army Corp of Engineers’ headquarters for our region. The run was to bring awareness to people across America, to the people downstream of the Missouri River, about the Dakota Access Pipeline. We wanted to bring awareness that the pipeline was going to go underneath the Missouri River, not even a mile or half a mile from, but right to the border of Standing Rock.
Not if, but when, the pipeline breaks, it will affect the part of the Missouri River that we live on. My community will be forced to move again, and there will be nowhere to go except a higher place in our indigenous territory. We won’t have the resources that we have now. Our water will no longer be safe for us, so we will have to find a different source. We will have to find emergency housing for our elders, for our youth, for the people that live there. And we will have all our memories torn from us, from our place we call home. As indigenous peoples, we have a history of finding a home and then having that taken from us. And it is very scary. It is a real-life scenario, and it’s scary.
At the time I saw the flier about the run, I had fallen into alcoholism. It was affecting my job, my schooling, and my well-being. I kind of got into that really heavily, like everyday I would wake up and drink for a good amount of time. I’d only have like one or two days where I was sober in a month and then start drinking again. But, I had gotten into a program called vocational rehabilitation that viewed addiction as a disability. And they gave me an opportunity to work at a courthouse. I was still running on my own. And I was praying for something to come my way to help guide me. You know, trying to get myself straight and back on that positive road. I was running and working at the same time.
I wanted to run for a purpose. But I didn’t know what to run for. So I started asking people in my community. I was thinking maybe I could run to bring awareness about bone cancer. I could run to bring awareness about the word of God, and run with a little scripture attached to my jersey. Or I could have a little place set up and I could talk about being a good neighbor. Everything was going through my mind…and that’s when I read the flier.
So, I messaged the organizer, Bobbi Jean. I was like ‘hey, I just want to run.’ I didn’t know at the time what I was running for, but I wanted to help my community. I went with an open heart and an open mind. And it was later, during the run, that I really knew what I was running for. It brought me closer to my spirituality and knowing what it means to be Lakota.
On the run, we prayed before we ran, we prayed when we woke up, we prayed when we ate, we prayed when we got done running, we prayed before we went to bed. We ran with prayer. Then we found that we were running in ceremony. The things that we were doing brought ceremony to us. Then we really started to talk amongst each other. We started talking about the importance of being Lakota, Nakota, Dakota, about our spirituality, how important it is. How important our words are, our virtues, our values. It is definitely a good thing to go with people on your spiritual journey, even though it is kind of an individual thing. When you get a community or other people on that same wave, it is so much easier for everyone to stay away from drugs and alcohol. It’s easier to get people involved in positive things when we are on that same level of spirituality.
Everything was intertwined with our spirituality, why we need fire to survive, the land, and the air. Bobbi helped guide us and explain that the purpose of running was spreading awareness about the importance of water. Every living being needs water to sustain us. And water is non-renewable. When that water is gone, people will slowly start to die.
Spills threaten drinking water for thousands of people, including the majority of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation. Spills could also destroy critical farmlands in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois (GGJ Alliance).
As of May 2019, DAPL has already leaked 12 times, spilling over 6,100 gallons of highly toxic Bakken crude oil (NRDC).
We started talking about the tree of life, about how each leaf is a vein and those veins are us. The branch that the leaf comes off of, that’s your home. That’s the tribe where you come from, your people, your community. And a bigger branch is your nation and your people’s nation, and the bigger branch is every living thing. And then the roots—that’s where the elements are, and water is part of the elements. When we die, our bodies go back to the earth, and our energy continues to evolve.
So, when we pollute our elements, we are polluting ourselves. When the pipeline breaks, it is going to leak into the Missouri River that we live on. It is going to affect the indigenous people on Standing Rock, first. And then it is going to go downstream, and from there it is going to go all the way down to the Bay River where it meets the Mississippi, and then from the Mississippi down to the Gulf of Mexico. Who knows how much oil is going to be leaking into the Missouri River and how many people use the Missouri River and the Gulf of Mexico to do things, to fish, for recreational purposes.
So, we were running to bring awareness to people. We got to tell them about the pipeline and how it affects the water, how when it breaks it is going to affect 18 million people downstream. It was not only for us, indigenous folk; we did it for everyone. It was for all people, for all plants, for all animals, for everything, every living being on this earth.
Everything got a little intense, kind of scary at first: ‘Gee, this is like the end of our life.’ And that just goes back to being indigenous here in the U.S. We got all our ceremonies taken away from us, we got our languages taken away from us. They said we couldn’t practice our way of life because they had another vision for us. That history of getting our home taken from us…
But a lot of good things happened on the run. I got to know my spirituality and I got to forgive what happened to my ancestors. I forgave the U.S. government, I forgave the military, I forgave the Christian Church. I got a sense of peace, because I understood that it was so much bigger than us fighting the government all the time. We have to open up our eyes and really learn to look at each other. We all come from different cultures and religions, we all speak different languages. But we need each other to survive. We are destroying each other, we are destroying the environment. We won’t have a future here if we keep doing these things. For me, it was very powerful to understand that.
The most exciting thing that probably ever happened to me and the thing that I really cherish was that on the run I got to know who I was, I got to find myself. I really gained a pride of being Lakota, being indigenous. I was kind of embarrassed to be Native American at first, just because there is a high rate of alcoholism and drugs because of the trauma of being forced to live on reservations. But, being on the reservations while on the run, I got to learn my spirituality, my culture, my traditions as a Lakota. I wasn’t embarrassed to say that I was Lakota anymore. I felt empowered to be who I was. It is a good day to be Lakota. And it is a good day to die as a Lakota. On the run, we started living that way, and we lived the best of our lives because we don’t know if we have tomorrow.
And when we finished in Omaha, Nebraska we were like, ‘What do we do from here? We are done running. Now we have to go back to our communities, back to our same old lifestyles, our households, our drugs and our drinking. Then one of our mentors who went on the run with us was like, ‘This is not the end of it. You still have a camp to go back to. You have to bring awareness to the people in your community. You got to keep spreading the message. Who knows? Maybe we are not done running, maybe we’ll run to Washington D.C. and knock on their doorstep.’
So I went back to work, and I got a message from Bobbi Jean, saying ‘hey, we’re gonna to run to Washington D.C. Are you down? Can you help us chaperone?’ I was just like, ‘heck yeah…I’m down.’
The run to D.C. was a little bit different. We still gave thanks, we still prayed. And we were still bringing awareness about the Dakota Access pipeline. But it was a little bit different. Before, we were running in indigenous territories to Omaha, Nebraska, so we could relate to people. We were comfortable running there. On this run, we would get slurs thrown at us. All I could do was brush them off and forgive them and help the other people that were on the run forgive them and see that what they were saying was closed-minded. It was a challenge.
But when we got to Washington D.C., some people jumped in with us and were running. We ran with Shailene Woodley and Malia Hulleman. And they were like, ‘We are coming back to Standing Rock with you. We’re gonna tell people to come up and stand with us.’ They welcomed us with open arms. Some people actually rode back to Standing Rock with us, and some people met us later.
The camp at Standing Rock was a different experience because we had to be on the front lines and stop construction. And we had to remind people why they were there, help them remain in peace and in prayer. We asked them questions: ‘Do you know where you come from? Do you know your ceremonies? What did you used to practice before Christianity? What was your language before colonization? Where are your roots? And it’s okay to say that you don’t know them; I don’t know them!’ I think it really helped to do that at Standing Rock because we had a lot of cultural backgrounds, a lot of people coming. We used that, I use that, definitely, to help bring people together. Knowing who you are and where you come from can definitely give you a grounding and some peace of mind.
It helped, too, inviting them back to the circle of life, back to our very basic necessities: most of our body consists of water, we need oxygen to survive. It really helps us understand why it is important to stand up for the environment, why it is important to protect the water, why it is important to protect the land.
Unfortunately, the petition to stop the pipeline didn’t work, but we still brought our awareness. Moving forward, I just keep reminding myself why we ran, how we got to bring everyone together. Everyone around the world seems to be having fights with their governments. And I want to acknowledge that we are all people of the same kind, we all need the same things to survive. We may practice our different spiritualities, our different cultures, our different religions. But we are all on the same tree of life and we are all living in this one world. We need to forgive people, to talk about inter-generational trauma.
I want people to know that they are not alone, that there are other people out there. There is love out there. There are times when we feel like we are against the world, but that feeling is temporary. Acknowledge that feeling, and then try to remind yourself that you are not alone in the things that you are going through. Take a look outside and see what you have. The trees look for us, we look for the trees. The animals look for us, we look for the animals. We take care of each other. Listen to other people’s stories, younger people—the stories of how they are stepping up. And elders’ stories, of how they kept going, how they fought, and how they continue to fight.
I want to tell people not to be scared. It is a big fight. But look for information, look online. There are a lot of environmental organizations out there that are willing to welcome people. There is someone in every community who wants to do something but doesn’t know how to. Someone is going to read your post or find what you are reading and want to talk about it with you. It’s just taking that first step and reaching out and saying ‘hey, I want to talk.’ It takes one person to not be scared to do it. Because once you get going and get supporters… you will get to know people who run the same path as you. Water is not a trademark or an accessory, it’s a necessity and giver of life.”