On October 27, 2016, Deborah His Horse Is Thunder made her way up North Dakota Highway 1806 to a parcel of land that Energy Transfer Partners planned on excavating for its Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). She joined a larger group of water protectors there who had settled in with their tipis and tents. This new camp, named after the Treaty of 1851 which guaranteed the Great Sioux Nation’s legal authority over the region, was the frontline in the struggle to stop DAPL from tunneling under the Missouri River and threatening the water source for the Standing Rock Sioux and everyone else down river.
As His Horse Is Thunder entered the 1851 Camp, a sense of confusion gripped the crowd. Helicopters and drones buzzed overhead, circling and surveilling. Some people began chattering that the police were coming and that everyone should leave immediately. Then came an announcement affirming that three buses filled with 500 to 600 riot police were on their way to disperse the camp. Tribal leaders directed the water protectors to form a line and gave a hastened refresher on civil disobedience and what to do when the police used tear gas. The tension mounted as the buses approached. Some panicked and left. Deborah His Horse Is Thunder stayed.
An educator, administrator, and researcher, Deborah His Horse Is Thunder has been a key figure in the tribal college movement for nearly 25 years. She is Nakota from the Wadopana band and was born at the Indian Health Hospital on the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana. She attended primary and secondary school on the Fort Peck reservation, and eventually went on to enroll at the University of Montana where she earned her Doctor of Education in guidance and counseling. After teaching for a spell at her alma mater, she took a position at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, as the institution’s chief academic officer. Returning home to Nakota Country, she served in this same capacity at both Fort Peck Community College and Aaniiih Nakoda College.
Her versatility and experience led the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) to recruit His Horse Is Thunder to head its membership services and to spearhead its leadership program. She worked out of an office at Sitting Bull College (SBC) on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation where she met her future husband and then president of SBC, Ron His Horse Is Thunder. The two have been married for over 14 years and have been called the “dynamic duo” of the tribal college movement.
After founding her own consulting firm, Wiya and Associates LLC, Deborah went on to direct AIHEC’s Native American Research Centers for Health (NARCH) project where she has focused on historical trauma. She is helping tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) develop their research capacity, pointing out that there has been a dearth of support for research on behavioral health in Indian Country. For His Horse Is Thunder, addressing the legacy of colonialism, and the resulting historical trauma that continues to plague Native people, is the key to behavioral health in tribal communities.
To this end, she and her husband Ron help organize the annual Future Generations Ride to confront past tragedies and injustices that the Great Sioux Nation has suffered. Participants gather on horseback and ride from the place where Sitting Bull was killed to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. The trek takes two weeks and is held during the dead of winter, showing a solidarity with their ancestors who endured harsh realities that most people today cannot imagine.
It was through these Future Generations Rides and her work with TCUs in confronting historical trauma that His Horse Is Thunder became actively involved in the struggle to stop DAPL. In April of 2016, her husband Ron helped organize a separate ride from the Standing Rock Sioux’s tribal offices to the Sacred Stone Camp, the initial camp that a group of young activists established to protect the water from DAPL. Thereafter, His Horse Is Thunder became a sort of mother to the water protectors, bringing them fresh baked goods and doing their laundry. “It’s only 10 or 12 miles [from home], so it’s easy to provide food and do laundry,” she said.
But as events at Standing Rock escalated in the following months, His Horse Is Thunder became increasingly involved at the frontlines. “So many young people had been beaten,” she recalls. “There was such harsh treatment of people.” It was this concern for all of those young people—the kids she had looked after, fed, cared for—that led her to the 1851 Camp on October 27. As the riot police emptied out of the buses and tore into the camp, Deborah and Ron were among the 140 people who were surrounded, taken down, shackled, and carted off. “Ron and I were taken separately,” His Horse Is Thunder says. They were both locked in makeshift jails that the Morton County Sheriff’s Department had cobbled together. The cells were virtual dog kennels stuffed into a parking garage. “We sat on a cold cement floor for over eight hours with over 50 women in two kennels with all of our clothing taken away—so no jackets, no sweaters, no shoes, no means of warmth,” she says. Officers gave each woman a number, which they scrawled on their arms with permanent markers. The following night, she was loaded into a barred bus and shipped to the Cass County Jail in Fargo, where she and the other water protectors were held for two more days.
Upon her release, His Horse Is Thunder and all of the others who were arrested on October 27 faced felony charges. But despite the injustice of it all, she remained positive, even optimistic about the struggle and what it all meant. “There’s been a lot of lessons,” she said. “There’s a real sense of purpose. We’ve had our share of social problems, but at the camp everyone has a purpose.”
Today, she continues to stand tall and hold her ground. “It is time that we demand that our concerns be heard. We cannot let this happen—we as Native people and all who support us,” she states. “There’s a paradigm shift in this country where Grandmother Earth has to be taken care of. This is truly about the future of our children, our grandchildren, and our great grandchildren. If we don’t stand up and do something now, we’ll destroy ourselves and the world for our children.”
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal.
Read Current Reflections where Ron His Horse Is Thunder Speaks Out on Standing Rock.