This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on 18 January 2019. Alex Cohen, Talia Fox, Fatima Hashmi, and Marisa Granados also contributed to the production of this story.
Jasilyn Charger is an indigenous environmental protector and activist from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. This is her story:
“My name is Jasilyn Charger. I’m 23 years old and I’m from Cheyenne River Reservation located in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Growing up, I understood that what I wanted to do with my life wasn’t what normal kids wanted to do. I was focused on how am I going to protect the land that our ancestors fought and gave their lives for, for us to utilize and prosper on.
This land is the only real thing that we have left, besides our culture, of our past. What I’ve been taught as I’ve been growing up is that the Earth is not something that you can own or possess; she's something that we need to take care of and that will outlive us as a people, so we need to make sure that she's here to take care of the next generation.
My understanding of climate justice now as an adult is completely different than when I was a child. Now I actually see the ins and outs of industrialized companies really tearing apart this nation and see the effects that reach out to the economy, reach out to people of color, and really affect the lower class of America. But, when you actually gather people who are like-minded, you make a lot of change. Climate justice has really taught me that the people have the power.
When I was a kid, my mother and her friends would always tell me stories about being part of movements. They went to the marches, they went to the meetings in the Black Hills. My relatives told me that in the 70s, they fought against uranium mining in the Black Hills, and they told me about how that affected our community. It was just stories for me to hear as a little kid, but I thought my relatives were superheroes.
I have a twin sister and my mom would always take us to Bear Butte. Bears usually have two cubs just like me and my twin. We would hike up a bit, and my mom always taught us to take good care of the place. We always went up there each year, laid down tobacco, and made a prayer. We did this almost every other year from the time we were babies. One year we went up and there were so many people there, uncles and grandpas, and so many spiritual people. I remember asking my mom, ‘Why are we walking with all these people? Why’d they join us? Do they just want to walk with us?’ And my mom ended up telling us that they were going to be putting a bar right across the street from Bear Butte, and that we don’t want a bar across the street from where we hold our ceremonies. The bar is still there today. It’s called the Full Throttle Bar. It has gotten a lot of attention—Sturgis Road Rally, a lot of people go there for that. I saw people getting angry, saw some confrontations with non-natives that I didn’t understand, like ‘Why were they being so angry and hostile?’ I didn’t understand the confrontation or why they were there.
I remember some guys were trying to ride up Bear Butte on their motorcycles. My Uncle Rick was like, ‘No we don’t do that, you can’t do that here.’ He was explaining to the guy that this is our church; you wouldn’t ride your motorcycle into a church. I couldn’t understand why that person didn’t understand that this is who we are, this is respecting and paying respect to Mother Earth and giving back to her, giving her appreciation and love. You know, we would go there for ceremony and to release all of the bad things in our hearts into that one place. Now that I’m an activist, I’m like wow, that was a crazy thing for a child to be a part of and witness.
Sometimes I have to put it in really harsh terms. We tell people who aren’t from here, ‘When you are gone, when your children are gone, when your great-great-grandchildren are gone, you’re not going to have the house you live in, you’re not going to have the car that you have, you’re not going to have everything that’s in your house. That’s not what’s really important—it’s the land that you and your people were on, it’s the land that you made your family on, it’s the land that people died on, it’s the land that’s still going to be there.’ That’s how we really connect to our past. When blood is spilled, the land remembers. When we go to these sights, we go to sights that for thousands of years our people went to and walked on. That’s how we connect to our past, and that’s how we keep looking forward to the future, because we understand that no matter what happens, we still have this connection. We can still peer into our past to see who we were and to see how we can be better as a people and as a nation. Really trying to get that across is such a hard thing to do. You can't make someone see if they don’t want to open their eyes.
One of my friends started a group called One Mind Youth Movement in our community. I went to one of the meetings. They were talking about racism and I was telling them my experiences working in a news station that was all white, all men. They ended up sending me and another one of my friends out to Washington, DC for the Our Generation Our Choice march, and that was my very first time speaking in front of people. To actually see a community that has such a diverse group coming together and talking about issues that you don’t really see in normal conversation, like immigration reform, climate change, and racism in communities and in school and public spaces was amazing. There were people holding hands, there were people singing, people dancing, and there were people chanting.
As young people we started learning how to community organize, which was a trial-and-fail type of thing. We failed at times. Coming from not knowing anything, going into a space where people were making change, and then coming back to this place where change is desperately needed… was life changing for me. I understood that I had power, that I had a voice, and that if I used that voice, I could alter everything. I could make a wave of emotion across thousands of people—just me standing up there and saying what I had to say. I wasn’t a professional speaker or anything, but getting up there and telling them who I am, where I’m from, and why I’m here affected so many people. Now I have more confidence and knowledge as an organizer. I have more experience as a protector, but not only that—as a human being too.
You don’t really notice when that seed has been planted in you, and you just give it so much energy that it explodes from you and goes to someone else. I will always remember how angry I was that I didn’t have any power over my life. And now, I have so much power that I have to give it back to the people, back to where I came from. They in turn empower you back.
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).
One of the main things that everybody always asks me about is Standing Rock. That was where my organizing skills got put to the test. Before that, I had actually been organizing and speaking in front of natives within our fight with the Keystone XL pipeline back in 2014-2015. I was more into community organizing where we marched in our own community and held meetings for youth to talk about and bring more awareness to what was happening in our community. My nephew, who was my mentor at the time and whose name is Joseph White Eyes, was a community organizer when I was just starting off. He taught me everything that he knew, he brought me to the meetings and introduced me. That’s where I honed in on my skills to really explain a situation. I gained all of this knowledge just from sitting in and listening, just hearing from what other mentors in my life were having to deal with in the court rooms or on the front lines or in marches or even just in community council meetings here on the reservation. Everything that I’ve learned, I’ve transferred over to the Standing Rock movement.
We had young people really putting their lives on the line and expressing through their bodies. A lot of them couldn’t really speak or they were really shy, but we express our points of view by using our bodies, and we get that message across the country. Being a part of that development and being a part of that monumental, life-changing event, that’s a milestone. That’s a great big achievement for our people. You don’t really see us very often, in social media or out in the world, but we make it known that we as a people don’t agree with this. We will run to you, we will use our bodies and our voices. At that time, nobody was really paying attention to us, nobody wanted to listen, and the tribal governments were fighting with each other about whose fault it was and who was going to take the lead, who was going to do what, who was going to go to court hearings. We were kind of tired of it.
We were going to stand together, but in the beginning, we didn’t know each other. We decided to do a long run across the country to bring attention to the Standing Rock situation. At the beginning, none of the runners knew each other, they didn’t grow up around each other. It was their first time meeting, and you know, we got through it together. If something came up, we got through it ourselves.
We got a lot of criticism from older people—lots of men, lots of non-natives, like ‘why are you running?’ When we got to Washington D.C., we actually met with the two-star General of the Army Corps of Engineers. We got to meet with representatives from Congress, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We got to meet with all of the representatives that were in the White House, and a few senators who were representing Native communities, who fought for Native causes. No adults got to go into the meetings; it was all young people.
The second youngest runner said, ‘I’m running for my children.‘ She was only like four years old at the time. It was really powerful for me to see that she recognizes that there is an extension of her spiritually, there’s gonna be descendants. For us to think about that was really a powerful thing because seven generations ago, people died for us because they knew that they wanted us to have a life in western society. They wanted us to have a voice, they wanted us to have everything that we needed, and they wanted us to all know that we mattered. It really touches hearts, when someone says that. It comes from our elders shouting, ‘this is for our seventh generations,’ but to have that seventh generation speak for itself is a really powerful thing to do, and we constantly encourage it.
When we left Standing Rock in August, there were only 30-40 people in the camp, but when we came back there were thousands of people at our camp. I never thought it would get as much attention as it did. I think that as Standing Rock got bigger over the months and as it got colder, it was really hard for younger people to be heard. The adults were really taking over, which really challenged me as an organizer. They wouldn’t let us in the meetings, they wouldn’t let us listen in on the council meetings or be a part of them because they said we were too young or we were women. So that was a big barrier for us. To get around it, we created our own council where we could facilitate ourselves and govern ourselves in the way we wanted to be represented. The older ones didn’t really take too well to that; they thought we were challenging their authority, which as indigenous people, we don’t do. You listen to your elders and you’re taught to obey, so a lot of people were really angry. But then people were like, ‘if you’re going to do this, we are going to help you build it,’ and that’s the effect that we wanted. We want people to help us rather than govern us and try to lead us.
Toward the end, a lot of those groups that came to Standing Rock kind of drifted apart, a lot of people left and I was there at the end, on the very last day when everybody got pushed out. There were tons of people there. A lot of people were older. Me and two other people, we were the youngest people in the camp at this point. It was really hard to see—to have built something, and then to have the same thing taken down by people who were there to protect you. I watched the tents come down, I watched the sacred fire be extinguished, the fire keepers get dragged away. It’s really hard as an organizer when you see something get destroyed, something you helped fight for and build. It was really hard for me because that was my first big project as an organizer, and to see it end like that made me feel like I failed. But you do have failures, and how you come back from them really defines how you treat other things. When you lose that first love, it's really hard because you’ve worked so hard on it. I gave it my all, I gave it my everything. Just to see something end the way Standing Rock did, to see the people being treated the way they were, it can really break someone, and it broke a lot of people.
Being away from home for a whole year on the run made me realize how much work there is to be done socially, how much groundwork and grassroots work. This past year, we started to see a lot more suicides in our young people—a lot more. When we feel like we don’t have any power or we feel like we don’t have anything to fight for, we feel like we don’t deserve to be here anymore. This past year hurt a lot of people, it hurt a lot of youth, it hurt a lot of friendships, and it hurt a lot of families. And now, too, one of my cousins recently got shot, and he was shot by a sixteen year old. But to see young people destroy ourselves rather than build each other up, it’s really the coal that feeds the fire. It’s the cause and effect. When you see something traumatic happen, you want to do something positive about it. That’s how movements are built, that’s how you make change.
A lot of us are scared of TransCanada Energy—the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline and the upcoming Keystone XL pipeline—and what they’re going to do to our water and land, just from what happened at Standing Rock. We’re honestly just scared because this is our home now, this is where we dance. It's in my backyard, on my reservation, my community, and it's scary. We’re scared, but we have enough strength to move past that fear and turn it into courage.
At Standing Rock, we planted a seed in someone and it's their choice what they do with it. If you give that seed a chance to grow, something really beautiful comes out, something really amazing. You really give them that fire, the fire to really have that courage. It's like giving birth to a baby—you have a seed and its inside your heart and your body. But how do you get that outside and into other people, into the world and into the community? It’s a birthing process. It’s a movement about water. Women, we carry water when we carry our children, they’re swimming in water, they’re grieving in water. For us, water is our first medicine, it’s what our children need, its what’s in our bodies. We are people of water. It's so easy to get caught up into the greed and the really masculine part of the world, paying attention to war and to Trump and his mess. We forget to have compassion and look at the world with femininity and compassion.
TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, which would cross the Cheyenne River, has plans for construction despite opposition from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe (Inside Climate News).
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).
If we come at it as a united front, our organizing can be so much more. I’m really looking forward to building with this movement and building with these young people and giving them a chance to shape their own future, to take our future back, and make what we want out of it for our kids, for our next generation. I’m looking forward to really holding people accountable, teaching them to be confident and strong, but also to have compassion and understanding for other people.
Being an activist is hard, but being a woman activist is even harder, because you have so many constrictions of your culture and culture of America and the sexism that comes with that. It's really hard to be a leader and be seen as a strong, motivational person to young people in my community because it's so patriarchal. Our leaders are men, our Tribal Chairmen are men, our medicine men are men... To really be seen and to go into the ceremonial spaces in front of those leaders is intimidating. You have all this masculinity, but at the same time, you’re still trying to be powerful, you’re still trying to show that you are the woman and are making change. It's really hard for me because when I do community events, I have to apologize to my elders for speaking English in front of them or just to present myself in front of them because usually women don’t do that. Right now I’m a staff carrier, and in our culture women don’t do that, because that signifies a leader position. Women don’t hold them, they don’t carry them, and they don’t have that responsibility. I was presented with a staff. The person who had it before me wanted me to have it because they saw me as a leader. They told me to carry this for all the women that have been forgotten, for all the women who don’t have men in their lives to protect them, and for the LGBTQ community, because that doesn’t get recognized in our community either. If I went to a ceremony and I presented myself as a man, that isn’t accepted, even though I have a masculine soul and spirit. I have to fight for change in my own culture and the culture of America at the same time.
I get put down a lot. I get torn down a lot by elders, and that hurts. But I’d rather it be me being torn down than a twelve or thirteen year old who feels that same way as me. I want to have them see me and think wow, someone is actually standing up to them, someone is actually making a difference instead of hiding themselves and having to change themselves and lie. They should be able to be free and be themselves but also be accepted by their community. I accept everything that is coming at me because I’m trying to pave the way for women after me to walk the same road of being a leader and to really be in the fields that they want to go into. I want them to be who they are, who they want to be. Being able to be a part of that is awesome, but the emotional, physical, and mental toll it takes on me is a lot to deal with. I often feel like I’m going against so much but no one else is there, like I’m just one out of a hundred.
There are a lot of things that I am going to face being an organizer. But I’m used to it, knowing that I’m doing it for all those little girls at home that are looking in the mirror and just don’t feel normal. I’m doing it for them, to say ‘You are normal, you are worth it, you are worth fighting for, you’re going to be amazing, and every part of you is awesome.’ I never imagined that I would be where I am today or be who I am. To be this version of me is pretty crazy.
It doesn’t take an extraordinary person to do extraordinary things. It takes a person willing to want change. A lot of young people are dealt situations that they don’t deserve, but they make something beautiful out of their pain. My grandma used to tell me, ‘The best things come from out of tears of sadness.’ It took me a long time to understand what she meant by that, but when you cry about something and you do something about it, it becomes an amazing thing. Because you were at a point where you thought you couldn’t do it. You went from having that self-doubt to a point where you made something incredible, not only for yourself, but for other people, for your environment, and for the people you talk to.
When people have an opinion about me, that’s just one person’s opinion. Your opinion of me doesn’t trump my opinion of myself. I went through a lot of hurt and pain when I was younger, because of the government, because of people who were in positions of power. They were saying they were protecting me, that they were taking care of me. Sometimes that makes me depressed. I think about all those children and the detention centers, all the people at the border, all those families, people in Europe, the children in Europe who aren’t going to school because they feel like the adults aren’t making a change for their future. I think about what the Palestinians are going through right now, reclaiming their land and getting shot and killed. It's horrible, but I know that I can make a change that might echo across the world and reach those people, to show them that you are not alone and I’m here for you. No matter where we are in the world, we are cosmically linked through the change that we are making through the movement, through the chants and through the songs, through the pain. We are all together, we are all on the same front lines, we are all at the forefront. Whether in South America, in Sweden, in Hawai’i, in Palestine, in Panama, in the Amazon, we are all fighting the same thing together. We are all on the same line. I stand with my relatives for Mauna Kea. Aloha aina.”