FORT YATES, N.D. — Nearly 500 Indigenous students stood in a circle surrounding two 16-year-old climate activists and their fathers Tuesday morning, Oct. 8, in the Standing Rock High School gym.
A medicine man blessed the girls — Tokata Iron Eyes and Greta Thunberg — in what’s known as a smudging ceremony. Then, a circle of men played the drum as everyone in the gym slowly turned to face the four sacred directions.
One of the drummers, Hans Young Bird Bradley, of the Standing Rock Environmental Protection Agency, said the tribe has “no choice but to support them, hold them up” on their mission to spread awareness about climate change.
“We shouldn’t leave it on the back of two little girls to do this,” he said. “It’s too much weight to carry for them. It should be all of us doing our part.”
Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist who came to fame after traveling to the U.S. on an emissions-free boat, spoke to world leaders at the United Nations climate action summit in New York last month and has since traveled North America to continue talking about climate change.
She told the crowd of Indigenous students she was honored to be speaking at “this symbolic place of resistance” where just three years earlier thousands of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline. Though the line was eventually installed, the tribe has continued to fight it in court as others from the Standing Rock Sioux Nation have built on momentum from the protest to create a more sustainable future.
Thunberg met Tokata Iron Eyes — one of the Standing Rock citizens who helped garner support for the Dakota Access oil pipeline protests in 2016 through the Rezpect Our Water campaign — at a September event at George Washington University.
The two activists became friends from there, and Iron Eyes invited Thunberg to her homelands. First, the two visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota Sunday, then protested the Keystone XL oil pipeline Monday before heading to Standing Rock.
To see two teenagers take the stage in the Standing Rock High School gym, “it’s inspirational,” said 13-year-old Chante Baker, who sat in the bleachers with her classmates.
The event is “showing how our country is relying on the youth,” said 17-year-old Wacantkiya Mani Win Eagle, who supported the pipeline protests in 2016.
“It took two youth to get us all together,” said Cody Two Bears, the head of nonprofit Indigenized Energy which opened a solar farm last month near the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. “It’s a very powerful thing to be part of and witness this today.”
In her message to her peers, Iron Eyes said, “We all need clean water and clean air and a safe place to call home. As Indigenous people, our culture and way of life is inherently tied to the environment.”
Tyrel Iron Eyes, a 23-year-old from Standing Rock, said he’s proud of his cousin Tokata, and of Thunberg for getting people to listen to them.
“They inspire,” he said. “And at the end of the day that’s what we need is people to be inspired to make changes in their lives.”
In her remarks to the crowd, Thunberg said climate change is “going to affect everyone of us in the future.”
“This is a global fight; this is not just in my home country in Sweden,” she said. “We need local solutions to this global problem, and of course global solutions as well.”
Tokata said the world is “at the edge of a cliff as to how much time we have to save our communities.”
“No 16-year-old should have to travel the world in the first place sharing a message about having something as simple as clean water and fresh air to breathe,” she said.
Thunberg added: “We as teenagers shouldn’t be the ones taking responsibility. It should be the ones in power.”
In a closing ceremony, former Standing Rock Chairman Jay Taken Alive gifted Thunberg with a Lakota name: Maphiyata echiyatan hin win, meaning “woman who came from the heavens.”
“Only somebody like that can wake up the world,” he said. “We stand with you. We appreciate you. We love you as a relative.”