'I Was Born to Be Here': One of the Last Standing Rock Protesters Speaks Out

Last week, North Dakota officials gave the remaining Dakota Access Pipeline protesters a deadline to evacuate the area: 2 PM today. We spoke to Native activist Laura Hinman, who has been posting updates from the camp, about how the fight will continue...

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Feb 22 2017, 7:38pm

Photo courtesy of Laura Hinman

For months, a historic coalition of indigenous nations have gathered at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to stop the construction of the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline. These Water Protectors and their allies face police brutality while living without running water and electricity in temporary camps. Their mission is twofold: to protect land promised to the Great Sioux Nation in 1851 from environmental destruction and to resist the United States government's continued violation of indigenous rights.

Just last fall, the number of protesters at Standing Rock was estimated to be as high as 10,000. But after the Obama administration's decision not to authorize construction on a critical part of the pipeline, most of the camp left. Now, faced with legal losses and new threats from the Trump administration, only a couple hundred Water Protectors still remain, and the numbers are dwindling. Last week, North Dakota's governor ordered that the camp be cleared by 2 PM local time today and warned that state and federal agents would begin arresting any activists who remain.

Read more: 'Miracles Are Happening': Photos of the Tireless Women of Standing Rock

Laura Hinman is one of the protesters still there. Before leaving for Standing Rock, the 24-year-old Kumeyaay Native and Pratt Institute graduate was living in Manhattan's Chinatown. Originally from San Diego, where the Kumeyaay tribe is based, she came to New York to study and became immersed in the fashion world. Last fall, Hinman was freelancing for Vogue and Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld at CR Fashion Book. Then, in September, she suddenly quit her job and left for Standing Rock. "When I heard [that] all these different tribes were coming together, I knew it was a sign to go," Hinman told me. "I couldn't sit in an office while people are being harassed."

Hinman went alone and has relied on the kinship found at the camp for shelter, often referring to her new friends as her family. "We all consider this a meeting of distant relatives," said Hinman. At the camp, she has lived in tents and tipis with members of tribes from Michigan and near the Cheyenne River, sometimes staying with the International Indigenous Youth Council. While at the camp, she also created "Standing Rock Report" videos that document the people and life there.

"What people don't really understand is that tribes don't meet up like this, ever," said Hinman. "We're learning, teaching our youth. There are babies here and they're going to learn from this." At camp, Hinman has met people from all over the country, from the Dakota to Alaska, and they do not plan on leaving their new connections at Standing Rock. "We're spreading and people are connecting," said Hinman.

Hinman protesting in New York. Photo by Rafe Scobey-Thal

United and strengthened by a common cause, the group now faces a president who vehemently supports the construction of the pipeline. Two weeks after Trump's executive order granting permission for the construction of the pipeline, DAPL was expected to be operational in three months.

Hinman and her fellow activists know what the deadline truly means: It is a threat of police brutality, violence, arrest, and prison. These protesters face fire hoses in freezing temperatures, rubber police bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray, though North Dakota officials have committed to providing any protesters who want to leave before the deadline the opportunity for a "graceful exit," including transportation to a transition center, medical evaluations, clean clothes, and a hotel stay. Yesterday, in response to the upcoming deadline, she posted on Instagram, "when they point guns and spray chemical weapons, they want us to cower and run the opposite way. But that's not our way, we will not let these feelings take over. We will stand strong and smile... we are facing the same beast our ancestors have faced for hundreds of years. I feel this fight in my bones, in my blood. I was born to be here."

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Going to Standing Rock has completely altered Hinman's trajectory. For parts of the fall, she would return to New York, but being back in the city between stints at Standing Rock was disorienting. "I came back right after Fashion Week—that used to be my life—but it felt bizarre," she said. "I still respect [fashion], but I've lost my passion for it. I realize I have a responsibility to really learn my language, my own Kumeyaay identity."

Now in the camp's urgent final hours, Hinman continues to ask for a "call to action." As she remains unarmed in the camp surrounded by militarized police she continues her year-long plea to the public: "keep demonstrating, keep talking about the movement and keep us all in your thoughts and prayers."

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