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'I'm Still Here': North Texas Student Says Dakota Pipeline Protest Honors Her Ancestors

Courtesy of Stephanie Vielle
Stephanie Vielle spent a few days at the Standing Rock camp in North Dakota.

A Dallas company is behind a controversial oil pipeline in North Dakota. Energy Transfer Partners says the Dakota Access Pipeline will pump millions of dollars into local economies and generate jobs.

Pipeline protesters, who call themselves "water protectors," have gathered in recent months at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. They say the pipeline threatens the Missouri River, a water source for 18 million people, including the Standing Rock Sioux. Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered the protesters to evacuate the Oceti Sakowin Camp, the primary protest site at Standing Rock, by Dec. 5.

Stephanie Vielle, 34, is a student at the University of Texas at Arlington, and the former president of the school's Native American Student Association, the longest running Native college group in Texas. She spent time at Standing Rock in October. She’s a member of Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana, and she says she went to North Dakota to support her people and to protect the water.

She talks about what protesting the pipeline means for Native people, Native American identity and how younger generations are trying to find their place in modern America.

Interview Highlights: Stephanie Vielle…

...On why she went to North Dakota:

"I feel like the United States is stabbing me in the back; they’re doing this to my people. If they’re able to get a bunch of weapons, and a big arsenal and people in riot gear to put down the water protectors, it's really hard to have a voice when the U.S. government won’t allow you.

I always had this idea in my mind that they killed a lot of my people, but I'm still here. So we’re the product of surviving warriors that just wanted to preserve their way of life. It’s about remembering our ancestors and what they had to witness, and we’re just living up to our ancestors’ will to live."

...On Native American stereotypes:

"People already have this idea of what being a Native American is. We’re all Plains people [with] the big headdress that people wear to the Redskins football games or the Braves with that one pointy feather. I think they get most of their ideas from Hollywood. I know one gentleman told my boyfriend that he hated the Sioux because of the movies that he watched — like the Sioux were really bad, the enemy of the cavalry."

...On the ways Native American history is and isn't being taught in schools:

"I wish I could change the education system because I think Native American history isn’t being taught. I lived near a reservation, but I went to a predominantly white school off my reservation, and they taught us that Native Americans were "hunter-gatherer people."

Instead of saying the words, “hunter-gatherer,” I would like to see "families" and "research." They say we wandered with the buffalo. Well, we didn’t wander with the buffalo. Plains-wise, we followed the buffalo and we migrated with them because that was our main source of food."

...On what is means to be Native today:

"It's just being human; it’s not being a mascot or a movie icon, like Pocahontas. We are a representation of the United States; we are a population, a real population.

Growing up in Browning, Montana, I never thought anyone would ever want to talk to me about me. There’s so much interesting stuff about Native people and their contributions to the United States, and that’s what I want to do. I want to figure out how to get people to learn about that."