FORT YATES — Two 16-year-olds, one from Sweden and the other from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, sat side by side Tuesday in a high school gym with a common message: climate change is here, and young people need to stand up now and demand action.
“Lots of indigenous communities are at the front line, and you are the true warriors,” Greta Thunberg told students gathered in the Standing Rock High School gym in Fort Yates. “I have so much respect for you, and I am so grateful that you have taken on this fight.”
Next to her was Tokata Iron Eyes, who invited Thunberg to visit the reservation after striking up a friendship with the Swedish activist last month when they met at an event in Washington, D.C. Thunberg has emerged as a leading figure in the environmental movement to address climate change, first drawing international attention when she began skipping school last year to sit outside the Swedish parliament with a sign that read “school strike for the climate” in her home country’s language.
Iron Eyes also has a long history of speaking out on environmental issues and is among the Standing Rock youth active in fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
On Tuesday, she told students about her first experience as an activist at age 9, when her mother took her to a meeting about a proposed uranium mine in South Dakota’s Black Hills.
“It was simple what I said, but just the act of making my voice heard and standing strong and my own opinions and truth was huge for me when I was young,” she recalled. “It made me realize there was something I could do to be a part of the solution, to be able to protect our people and our homelands from these extractive industries.”
She said she still gets nervous when she speaks in front of groups about the environment, but she has learned to take ownership of her voice and recognizes that she has a right to share her opinions.
“At the beginning, especially when I was younger, it was really hard because often I found I was either the only brown person in a space, or the youngest, or the only Native in the room,” she said. “When you’re in that predicament, a lot of times you feel unheard, and you also find that you’re always fighting to make space for yourself.”
Thunberg said there’s no one moment that sparked her activism.
“It was a slow process,” she said. “I started to educate myself about the climate and ecological crisis, and I just started to understand the urgency.”
As she learned more, she said, she became “furious” because people around the world are already dealing with impacts from climate change, and it will continue to affect young people in the future.
Her activism has inspired students around the globe to join the cause, and last month millions walked out of class on consecutive Fridays in solidarity. Thunberg joined them, the first Friday in New York and the second in Montreal. In between, she spoke at a United Nations climate summit, chastising world leaders for their “empty words” and failure to act to ward off the effects of global warming as “people are dying” and “entire ecosystems are collapsing.”
Since then, she has traveled around North America giving speeches and leading rallies.
Thunberg has drawn criticism from some who believe she is ill-informed, doesn’t understand complex global issues and has been manipulated to serve the interests of others.
As Tuesday’s event wrapped up, students and guests filed out of the bleachers to meet the young activists, forming a long line that wrapped around the gym.
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Among them was Lexus Fox, a junior at the White Shield School on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, who along with her friends posed with Thunberg and Iron Eyes for a photo. She leaned over to whisper in Thunberg's ear to tell her how big a fan her science teacher is.
“We listened in class to some of her speeches,” she said. “She has some guts.”
Fox said she did not spend a lot of time thinking about global warming before hearing Thunberg, but that changed the more she listened to her message.
Shennelle Feather, her teacher, said she planned to debrief with her students when they returned to class and talk about environmental issues in their area.
“What I would like to do is for all of my students to come up with a proposal for what we can do in White Shield,” she said. “It would be a local solution to a global problem.”
That’s something Thunberg suggested students take away from the event on Tuesday.
When she and Iron Eyes finished speaking, Sioux spiritual leader Arvol Looking Horse bestowed a Lakota name upon Thunberg, “maphiyata echiyatan hin win,” which means “woman who came from the heavens.”
Former tribal chairman Jesse Taken Alive suggested the name, telling Thunberg “You have awakened the world. We stand with you.”
Thunberg's visit to Standing Rock comes after she traveled to South Dakota, visiting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation over the weekend and Rapid City on Monday.
Indigenized Energy, a nonprofit responsible for the new solar farm in Cannon Ball, hosted her North Dakota visit.
Kendrick Eagle, director of the youth-focused arm of the organization, said her visit came about quickly. Iron Eyes texted him last Thursday at 1 a.m. informing him that Thunberg was coming to South Dakota and wanted to visit Standing Rock as well. Iron Eyes, who is the daughter of activist Chase Iron Eyes, advises the group, which is known as Indigenized Youth.
They promptly got to work arranging Thunberg's trip. Numerous tribal and school officials sat on-stage in the gym during Tuesday’s event, and several addressed Thunberg and the crowd.
Eagle said he was impressed that Thunberg and her father, whom she travels with, have been driving around North America in an electric vehicle loaned to them by actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. They came to America by boat, sailing across the Atlantic in a vessel designed to have zero emissions when it operates.
Thunberg's father, Svante Thunberg, said they had to temporarily leave the electric car in Rapid City due to a lack of charging stations in the Dakotas. They hitched a ride to Standing Rock with several journalists driving there and plan to use the electric car again for their future travels. Svante Thunberg said they will next visit Colorado and the oil-rich Alberta tar sands region.