Nearly fifty years ago, when active uranium mining was poisoning the water supply in the Southern Black Hills of South Dakota, Lakota women were suffering heartbreaking reproductive health crises overlooked by mainstream media and federal regulation. Women of All Red Nations (WARN), a coalition of Indigenous women determined to make change, stepped up to stop it.
History books do not often mention WARN, and if they do, they rarely capture the courage and efficacy of this group of unrelenting Indigenous matriarchs and their impact on history. Through action and organizing, WARN stopped the uranium mining corporation from further contaminating South Dakota’s water, and successfully spurred lasting institutional change for Indigenous women and children in the United States. From small reservation communities to the United Nations, WARN was a force to be reckoned with.
Now, WARN is back to face another threat to water and Native women: the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. According to a recent court filing from TC Energy, pre-construction activities for the pipeline are slated to begin near reservation lands next month.
An intergenerational group of Native women clad in WARN shirts recently gathered in South Dakota for the O'maka Tokatakiya/Future Generations Ride, also known as the Big Foot ride: an annual horseback ride to honor ancestors lost in the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee and pray for the future generations. But with KXL on the horizon, the ride took on additional meaning this year.
The women, some original WARN veterans, and some relatives or descendants, rode as a symbolic border patrol along the southeastern boundary of the Cheyenne River Reservation to send a clear message to KXL and its incoming man camps: “you are not welcome on our homelands.”
As the battle over KXL gets closer, WARN is resurrecting its intersectional, decolonial agenda to saddle up to protect women and water. This time, the movement is even bigger than before.
“Let this be a WARNing” — History of WARN
Established in 1974, WARN was born out of the American Indian Movement (AIM). This collective of Indigenous women, “grandmothers, mothers, aunties, nieces, sisters,” was, in the words of AIM leader Ted Means, “the backbone of the struggle … the backbone of the American Indian Movement.”
Three active members of AIM — Lorelei DeCora Means, Madonna Thunder Hawk, and Phyllis Young — founded WARN as an organization focused entirely on the issues most pertinent to Indigenous women. Today, Thunder Hawk and Young are both community organizers for the Lakota People’s Law Project.
WARN’s inaugural conference in Rapid City, SD hosted 300 women from 30 tribal nations across the United States. The broad coalition aimed to address the issues most immediate to Indigenous women: “sterilization abuse, political prisoners, education for survival, the destruction of the family and the theft of our Indian children, the destruction and erosion of our land base.”
Over the next several years, WARN held conferences, participated in educational events, and distributed newsletters all over the world. It helped mobilize the alliance of “Cowboys and Indians” into the Black Hills Alliance, seeding the roots for ongoing rancher-Native solidarity in environmental matters. Reports and written testimonies from Indigenous women brought light to horrors happening in Indian country: uranium contamination, forced sterilization, and the taking of children.
A newsletter segment from WARN, titled “The Theft of Life,” exposed the cruel reality of forced hysterectomies and tubal ligations on Native women — a clear act of genocide against Native people.
They took our past with a sword and our land with a pen. Now they’re trying to take our future with a scalpel.American Indian Journal
For decades prior, Native women on and off the reservation were entering hospitals and doctors’ offices for other procedures and being sterilized. Some women had no knowledge sterilization was performed; others were coerced into it by medical personnel or asked for consent while heavily sedated. Some were afraid their children would be taken away if they did not agree to the operation, and some were unaware of the implications of the procedure on their future reproduction.
WARN’s public education campaign is credited with helping to bring national and international awareness to forced sterilization of Native women, and it induced the creation of federal regulations around consent and sterilization in 1979.
Emphasizing that “the future is the family,” WARN’s efforts to protect Indigenous culture focused on protecting and educating the youth. Organizers in WARN sharply criticized the removal of Native children from Native communities and placement into non-Native homes. Women intervened in custody battles, appeared as witnesses at court hearings, penned letters and testimonies, and ultimately built the momentum that led to Jimmy Carter signing the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978.
A critical point in WARN’s work was that of the Survival Schools — autonomous Native-run schools with curricula focused on Native history and treaty rights. Thunder Hawk and Young played instrumental roles in the creation of Survival Schools. The program aimed to equip Native children with a sense of pride in their culture and identity, along with the knowledge to confront future assaults on Indigenous sovereignty. Created at the close of the century-long Boarding School Era, Survival School presented a new model for Indigenous education and reclamation of culture and identity. Today, the legacy of Survival School is alive and well in modern Indigenous activism.
WARN’s success in creating change came about due to its constant vigilance and dedication to preserving Indigenous culture via matriarchal leadership. Its work weaved a cohesive front in the fight to combat the many different issues impacting Native women, and it laid the foundation for the Indigenous revitalization occurring in the modern moment.
“Because we’re a land-based people, we’re always concerned about the environment and extracting corporations,” Thunder Hawk, who is still leading the charge, told France 24 in October.
With construction plans filed and permits approved, KXL is coming. The crossborder project is slated to cross at least five major aquifers and carry 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day. Like the Dakota Access pipeline, Keystone XL stimulates the conflict between two worldviews: that which values Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection vs. that which promotes extraction and corporate greed.
KXL not only threatens the water and climate; it also threatens the Native women along its path.
Along with its machinery and oil, KXL will bring “man camps” to treaty lands. Man camps are the temporary sites created to house those sent to work in a “boom-and-bust” extractive project (mines, pipelines, etc). The worker communities — comprised predominantly of men flush with disposable income and little to do during their off shifts — pose a risk to the women and girls in nearby Native American communities.
History shows that the ongoing crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls is exacerbated by the man camp phenomenon. Native women are more likely to go missing than non-Native women, and they are ten times more likely to turn up murdered when found. Extraction industry near Native communities allows for predators to prey on already vulnerable populations, and it can be an ideal breeding ground for drugs and human trafficking. With small numbers of law enforcement officials and federal loopholes in jurisdiction, such crimes can exist alongside extraction with impunity.
Where oil booms, so does violence. Williston, ND in 2012, following the Bakken oil boom, saw a 300 percent rise in reported rapes. Tribal police in nearby Fort Berthold, N.D. reported more “murders, fatal accidents, sexual assaults, domestic disputes, drug busts, gun threats, and human trafficking cases than any year before.”
At the Big Foot Ride, WARN women on horseback accompanied a riderless horse carrying an empty cradleboard symbolizing the women and children who are not here due to ongoing colonial violence.
A Cheyenne proverb tells us that “a nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.” That’s why it is critical to acknowledge the connection between violence against the earth and violence against Indigenous women. When we allow for the destruction of one, we enable the destruction of the other.
As Keystone XL’s parent company, TC Energy, readies for pre-construction in South Dakota, Lakota communities and allies are standing with the WARN matriarchy and mobilizing a movement against further assaults on Native land and people.
Please stand with the matriarchs by supporting the Warrior Women Project and the Lakota People’s Law Project. You can follow Warrior Women on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and use the hashtags #WARNRidesAgain and #FollowTheMatriarchs.