Act: Inspiration

Climate activists and water protectors honor pipeline resister Joye Braun with a national day of action

February 16, 2023

There was still snow on the ground on April 1, 2016, when Joye Braun set up the lodge that would serve as her temporary home for almost a year. It was on land near the convergence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers, at the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Braun’s structure was the first erected in the famous Sacred Stone Camp — the original encampment at Standing Rock established to protest construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline. She remained an important presence throughout the duration of the protests, serving as a key leader and an inspiration to thousands of people who came to join the resistance to the pipeline. When the camp finally dispersed in February 2017, Braun’s temporary home was one of the last structures to come down.

Braun passed away on Nov. 13, 2022, at age 53. Today, on what would have been her birthday, pipeline resisters and climate activists from coast to coast are honoring her legacy with a day of action called Spark Joy(e), which will include rallies and other protests calling on the Biden administration and financial institutions to act on the climate emergency.

“Joye’s entire life was a testament to climate justice,” said Waniya Locke of Standing Rock, who was also involved in establishing Sacred Stone Camp. “We honor her legacy by continuing to move forward in defending water and land, by speaking out about any injustices we see or experience, and by creating safe spaces.”

Braun will be remembered by many as someone whose life’s work epitomized the defense of Indigenous sovereignty that grew and blossomed at Standing Rock, inspiring similar protests against fossil fuel infrastructure all over the North American continent — or Turtle Island, as it is traditionally known by Indigenous peoples. Yet, Dakota Access was just one of the pipeline projects Braun protested. Few people have done as much as she did to push back against the oil industry and its depredations on Indigenous lands.

Braun was a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Nation, and was born on the Cheyenne River Reservation in 1969. In 2010, she became deeply involved in the fight against the infamous Keystone XL pipeline, whose route was originally slated to cut through the reservation. Braun had recently moved back to Cheyenne River from Washington State, where she began following news about a network of new pipelines proposed by the oil industry to connect major fossil fuel deposits in Alberta and North Dakota to U.S. refineries. The first of these, TC Energy’s Keystone pipeline (not to be confused with Keystone XL), was approved by the George W. Bush administration and began operation in 2010. Keystone XL was meant to complement that project and transport even more oil from the tar sands to U.S. and international markets.

After arriving back on Cheyenne River tribal land, Braun quickly joined the fight against Keystone XL. One of her first projects was to spread awareness about threats posed by the pipeline on the reservation. “My mom was one of the first organizers to start talking with people about Keystone XL,” said Morgan Brings Plenty, Braun’s then-teenage daughter, who helped with her outreach efforts. “In the early days it would be just the two of us standing on a corner during events like the Cheyenne River Fair, trying to catch people’s attention and get the word out.”

As the movement against Keystone XL intensified, TC Energy faced direct action protests on the Cheyenne River Reservation and Tribal Council decrees banning it from transporting equipment within reservation boundaries. In the face of such organized opposition the company adjusted the route for the pipeline to fall just outside the official reservation boundary, although still well within the tribe’s traditional territory. Far from subsiding, opposition to Keystone XL from tribal members like Braun continued to build.

Braun eventually became a volunteer with the Owe Aku International Justice Project, founded by longtime Indigenous rights campaigner Debra White Plume, which organized a series of direct action training camps to prepare activists for resisting Keystone XL in 2013 and 2014. Called Moccasins on the Ground, the trainings were intended to equip Indigenous people and non-Indigenous allies with skills to resist construction of Keystone XL should work on the pipeline begin in a major way. Had this happened, Keystone XL likely would have seen the largest direct action opposition to an oil pipeline in U.S. history.

As it turned out, though, this wasn’t necessary. In a precedent-setting 2015 decision responding to public pressure, the Obama administration rejected the northern leg of Keystone XL that would have crossed through Sioux land. But the following year, the nonviolent direct action skills that pipeline resisters developed at Moccasins on the Ground turned out to be sorely needed in the fight against another pipeline, Dakota Access, to the north.

Joye Braun at the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock. (Facebook/Joye Braun)

As the Army Corps of Engineers neared approval of a key permit for Dakota Access in early 2016, Standing Rock elders issued a call for resistance to the pipeline. Braun, with the experience she developed during the Keystone XL campaign, was one of the first and helped recruit other pipeline fighters from Cheyenne River to join the encampment at Sacred Stone. Many activists who came to join the camp early on had trained with Braun and White Plume, and saw participation in the protests against Dakota Access as the fulfillment of a sacred commitment made at Moccasins on the Ground.

At their height, the Standing Rock protests drew some 10,000 people, including representatives from almost 200 Indigenous nations. Over a period of months pipeline resisters engaged in nonviolent blockades, marches and other peaceful protests intended to interfere with construction of Dakota Access. The resistance continued even in the face of violent suppression by law enforcement, as nonviolent protesters faced tear gas, rubber bullets and attack dogs, and Braun herself suffered lung damage from exposure to chemical weapons. Protests persisted through the winter, dispersing only in early 2017 when pipeline construction was mostly finished. Dakota Access began pumping oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields in June 2017, but a legal fight to shut it down mounted by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is ongoing.

Braun’s involvement in the Keystone XL and Dakota Access fights led to her taking on leadership roles in organizations key to opposing both pipelines. In addition to volunteering with Owe Aku, she was hired as the Indigenous Environmental Network’s national pipeline organizer and became the organization’s representative in the People v. Fossil Fuels Coalition, which includes over 1,200 groups pressuring the Biden administration to declare a climate emergency. She also opposed fracking and uranium and gold mining in the sacred Black Hills.

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In 2017, Braun and other pipeline resisters were once again forced to focus their attention on Keystone XL, revived by TC Energy at the invitation of the Trump administration. That second phase of the fight against the pipeline was relatively short lived, however; Keystone XL was rejected a second time by President Biden on Inauguration Day 2021, which happened to fall on Braun’s 52nd birthday. Today, for a national day of action called Spark Joy(e), activists will honor the anniversary of these two events with protests calling on the Biden administration and other decision makers to take further action against the fossil fuel industry.

“We’re honoring Joye’s legacy by continuing her work,” said Emily Park of 350 Wisconsin, which is organizing an event in Madison. “Here in the Great Lakes region, that means fighting Line 5.” The aging Line 5 oil pipeline currently transports over 500,000 gallons of petroleum per day from Superior, Wisconsin to Ontario, and climate and Indigenous rights activists’ fight to shut it down represents one current front in the ongoing movement to stop oil infrastructure of which Braun was a leader.

Other Spark Joy(e) actions will include protests at banks like Chase and Wells Fargo that fund the fossil fuel industry, a rally in Washington, D.C. calling on the administration to reject all fossil fuel projects and declare a climate emergency, and an event in Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Reservation. More protests will occur in places as far apart as California, North Carolina, Hawaii and even Germany.

From sparking the resistance to Keystone XL to erecting the first structure in the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock, Braun was a climate and Indigenous rights movement leader who provided inspiration to thousands and helped train hundreds of people to nonviolently resist pipeline projects. While her death undeniably leaves a hole that will be hard to fill, those close to her say they are determined to continue the work she started.

“I ask water protectors everywhere to take action big or small to honor my mother, Joye Braun, today,” said Brings Plenty, who campaigned against Keystone XL alongside Braun and later camped with her at Standing Rock. “She was an amazing person and mother who I look up to, and I will continue to honor her legacy along with thousands of other people across Turtle Island.”

Nick Engelfried

Nick Engelfried is an environmental writer and activist. He currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

Tags: pipeline protests, Standing Rock, Water protectors