Julia Carrie Wong in Cannon Ball, North Dakota/Thursday 8 December 2016 06.00 EST
Frank Archambault says he at last found something to be proud of: ‘Back home, it’s drugs, alcohol, no jobs. It’s hopeless.’ Photograph: Sara Lafleur-Vetter
Frank Archambault’s tent sits on top of a small hill in the middle of Oceti Sakowin, the largest encampment at Standing Rock. It is easy to spot him on the small rise, wearing a long black coat, feathered hat, and yellow, red, white and black ribbons on his arm that mark him as a member of Iktčé Wičháša Oyáte – A Common Men’s Society.
Archambault founded Iktčé Wičháša Oyáte shortly after he arrived, with his five children and grandchild, at the “water protector” encampments in August. He saw that there was work around the camp that wasn’t getting done, and he saw that there were men around camp not doing work. Now the group helps run security and coordinates work crews.
It’s a big change from Archambault’s previous life in Little Eagle, South Dakota, a community of about 300 people within the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. A recovering meth addict, Archambault describes the existence he left behind, before he joined the movement fighting the Dakota Access pipeline: “Sad.”
“Back home, it’s drugs, alcohol, no jobs. People don’t really know how to survive. It’s hopeless,” he said. “All we have left is the river.”
Many of the Native American activists, also known as water protectors, who have gathered on the windswept plains of North Dakota to defeat a multibillion-dollar pipeline, come from reservations ravaged by poverty, substance abuse, and a legacy of historical traumas that reach well into the present.
“This is like an awakening,” Archambault said as he surveyed the camp from his spot on the hill. “Something I’ve been struggling with my whole life is doing something to be proud of.”
‘You can’t leave’
Before Lauren Howland travelled to Standing Rock, she was back home at the Jicarrilla Apache Nation reservation in Dulce, New Mexico, taking a break from the University of New Mexico to help her family through some hard times.
“I was a bad kid,” she said of her life before Standing Rock. “I was always drinking, always with my hoodrat friends doing hoodrat stuff, just being a typical Native American, giving into the stereotype that we’re all drunks and druggies and we just get our checks and get drugs.”
“It’s not hard to be that way when it’s all you see,” she added.
Howland, who is San Carlos Apache and Navajo, calls herself a “recovering alcoholic”. When we spoke, in early November, she was 31 days sober.
“Back on the rez, there’s nothing really to do. All there is do is drink and kill yourself,” she said. “I’m only 21 and I’m an alcoholic. I know 13-year-old alcoholics, 11-year-old alcoholics. I started drinking when I was, like, seven.”
Surveys by the National Institute of Health conducted in 1991-1992 and 2001-2002 showed that Native Americans were almost twice as likely as other racial and ethnic groups in the United States to be alcohol dependent. However, a more recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona, looking at the period from 2009-2013, found no elevated rate of alcoholism in Native American populations.
And among young adults, Native Americans are more than twice as likely to take their own lives than other racial groups, according to a 2015 study by the US Centers for Disease Control.
For the Cheyenne River Sioux, the crisis is even more acute. Between 2002 and 2003, the tribe suffered 17 youth suicides, according to multiple news reports.
In 2005, Julie Garreau, the executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that there were between three and seven attempted suicides on the reservation every week.
Before getting involved in the Standing Rock movement, Jasilea Charger, 20, was working at a Taco John’s and living on the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, in her hometown of Eagle Butte, South Dakota.
On the reservation, she said, she felt “stuck”. She lost friends and family to the suicide epidemic. Her father died before she was born, and her mother has “lost her way”.