FARGO — Tokata Iron Eyes was just 12 years old when she spoke in a video, calling for help in the Standing Rock Sioux Nation’s battle against the proposed route of the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
“Respect our water. Respect our land, and respect our people. Join us and sign our petition,” she said in an April 19, 2016, video that helped start the "Rezpect Our Water" social media campaign. In another video about a week later, Iron Eyes said Indigenous people have “a very close connection with Mother Earth because she’s the one that provides for us, nurtures us.”
The campaign helped draw thousands of national and international visitors to Standing Rock to fight the pipeline in a protest that lasted nearly a year. The pipeline, though, was eventually installed, crossing Lake Oahe on the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock Reservation. Even so, the tribe's environmental protection agency continues to fight the line in court, as others from the Standing Rock Nation have built on momentum from the protest to create a more sustainable future.
One of those people is Iron Eyes, who is now a junior in high school and sits on the board of a new sustainable energy group called Indigenized Energy. The group, run by Cody Two Bears, has installed a solar farm near the site of the 2016 protest.
During the solar farm’s opening ceremony on July 26, the Bismarck Tribune reported that Iron Eyes told the crowd, “I don’t know if you guys know what this means to me right here. It means I get to have a safe future, it means my children get to have a safe future, it means that I get to see grandchildren. This is the beginning. I cannot wait to build more of these.”
In September at George Washington University, Iron Eyes met Greta Thunberg — the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who came to fame during the United Nations climate action summit in New York. Iron Eyes then invited Thunberg to her homelands, according to a news release from the Lakota People’s Law Project.
Iron Eyes' father is Chase Iron Eyes, lead counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project. In 2016, he ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate for North Dakota's lone seat in the U.S. House.
“A friendship was formed by the two teens, who may come from very different backgrounds but nevertheless have much in common,” the release said.
Sunday, Oct. 6, the two teens spoke about climate change and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where Tokata Iron Eyes is now a student.
On Monday, Thunberg and Iron Eyes were to appear at a climate rally in Rapid City, South Dakota. Tuesday morning, the two will take the stage again, but this time at the Standing Rock high school in Fort Yates, North Dakota.
South Dakota Public Broadcasting reported about 250 people attended the event at Pine Ridge Sunday, and quoted Iron Eyes saying: “We are at the edge of a cliff in regards to our timeline to save this planet and the Indigenous people will be the ones to lead the movement off of the edge."