When LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, learned of what she called “the black snake” — a 1,170-mile-long underground pipeline that would stretch from the shale oil fields of northwest North Dakota to Illinois — she volunteered the use of her land to establish a resistance camp.
That camp became the base for a global protest movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which Allard said would veer too close to sacred burial grounds, including the grave of one of her sons; could contaminate the region’s water supplies if it ever leaked; and violated long-standing treaties between Native Americans and the federal government.
The movement stood not only for stopping the pipeline but also against excavating fossil fuels in general while embracing tribal sovereignty, environmental justice and the protection of water sources everywhere.
Allard died April 10 at her home in Fort Yates, North Dakota. She was 64. Her family announced the death online; local media outlets said the cause was brain cancer.
She established Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock at the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri rivers in March 2016. Neighbors starting bringing food, coffee and wood for a small core group. Indigenous youths spread the word across social media.
Within months, the resistance had turned into a cultural movement, with thousands of people — members of other tribes, environmental and civil rights activists, politicians — joining in, tucking into tents, tepees and trailers in similar camps across the prairie.
The movement also drew what Allard told Teen Vogue in 2017 were “spiritual leaders from every facet of every Indigenous people — Mongolians, the people out of Africa, India, China, Australia and New Zealand,” as well as South America, Canada and the Midwestern United States, all to be part of one of the largest gatherings of Indigenous peoples in more than a century.
Construction of the pipeline began under President Barack Obama. But with demonstrations growing — and security guards attacking protesters with freezing water from pressure hoses, pepper spray, rubber bullets, dogs and mass arrests — the Obama administration later had a change of heart and blocked construction of part of the pipeline.
The reprieve was only temporary. President Donald Trump, who viewed the project as a boon to the economy and a way of weaning the country off foreign oil, ordered the pipeline completed and the protest camps evacuated and razed. Environmental and Indigenous groups responded with legal challenges.
The fate of the $3.7 billion project now lies with the Biden administration and the courts. But while an environmental review continues, the pipeline remains in operation.
As one of the leaders of the resistance, Allard appeared on television; wrote opinion pieces for newspapers, including The Guardian in England; and traveled the world as a keynote speaker on Indigenous history and culture. She argued for the protection of sacred Indigenous lands everywhere. She worked on campaigns to encourage divestment from the fossil fuel industry, and she became an annual speaker at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
“This movement is not just about a pipeline,” she wrote in 2017 on sacredstonecamp.org, a camp publication. “We are not fighting for a reroute, or a better process in the white man’s courts.”
Rather, she said, they were fighting for something much bigger: their rights and for the “liberation” of Mother Earth.
“We want every last oil and gas pipe removed from her body,” she wrote. “We want healing. We want clean water. We want to determine our own future.”
LaDonna Carole Brave Bull was born June 8, 1956, in Fort Yates to Valerie Lovejoy Brave Bull and Frank Brave Bull.
She spent much of her girlhood with her grandmothers and grew up all over, from the Dakotas to California to New England and Florida. She enrolled in Standing Rock Community College, transferred to Black Hills State College and eventually graduated from the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks in 1990.
After college, she went to work for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as cultural resource planner. She also served as its historian and genealogist. She later helped the tribe create its office of historic preservation and a tourism office.
She has said she had been struck by the depth of historical trauma when she visited the site of the 1863 massacre at Whitestone Hill, in south-central North Dakota, where the U.S. Army slaughtered hundreds of Sioux. In a 2017 essay in Yes! magazine, she linked that event with the pipeline’s destruction of hundreds of archaeological sites and sacred places.
“The U.S. government is wiping out our most important cultural and spiritual areas,” she wrote. “And as it erases our footprint from the world, it erases us as a people.”
In 2019, Allard became an official representative for Indigenous peoples within the United Nations Economic and Social Council. She held positions on numerous boards and taught a class on combining Indigenous knowledge with modern technology.
After two early marriages, she married Miles Allard, whom she met at the University of North Dakota, in 1990 and whom a family obituary called the love of her life. He died in 2018.
Her survivors include six sons, William Brave Bull, Freedom McLaughlin, Eric Grey Cloud, Ian Scotty Halsey, Alex Schien and Shannon Meister; two daughters, Prairie Fawn McLaughlin and Nikola Allard; 21 grandchildren; two great-granddaughters; eight sisters; and eight brothers.
Shortly before Allard died, Indigenous youths on their way to a rally against the pipeline stopped by her house and placed signs in her yard saying, “We love you LaDonna” and “Water is Life,” Kandi White of the Indigenous Environmental Network told Indian Country Today.
“Her son told us that LaDonna heard us chanting and knew we were there,” White said. “She told us not to be sad for her but to continue the fight.”