'We've Done This Totally Unarmed': Hip-Hop Artist/Activist Nataanii Means on the Front Lines of #NoDAPL (Exclusive)

Nataanii Means in the video for "Warrior."
Courtesy Photo

Nataanii Means in the video for "Warrior."

Since April, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been demonstrating against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) -- a $3.8 billion crude-oil pipeline slated to go through Sioux 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty land, sacred burial grounds and Standing Rock’s direct water source, the Missouri River, against the tribe’s consent. Over the past seven months, the protest has grown to over 3,000 Native and non-Native protesters organized in peaceful prayer camps along the construction site in Cannonball, North Dakota. But as the movement has grown, the private DAPL security and militarized state police forces have increased in their violence against the self-proclaimed water protectors, hitting them with tear gas, attack dogs, rubber bullets, water cannons and even concussion grenades.

Nataanii Means, an Oglala Sioux and Navajo hip-hop artist and son of prominent American Indian activist Russell Means, has been supporting the #NoDAPL movement on the front lines since August. The 25-year-old water protector has made the Oceti Sakowin Camp his home base, leaving for only a month’s time back in October to perform his resonant, narrative-driven rap.

Means first began making music in 2009 while studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico – it was his first time living off the Navajo reservation in Chinle, Arizona where he was raised. “In college, I was in the white world and I was trying to get a degree, and then I'd go home and I'd be immersed into that culture and dysfunction that isn't normal in regular society,” Means tells Billboard of his undergraduate experience. “Seeing friends drink themselves to death because they're depressed, it's a reality that America doesn't see, and I wanted to portray that in my music and tell them that we're not all just Hollywood Indians on the big screen.” He dropped 2 Worlds in 2013, an ode to this double life contemporary Natives must navigate. In 2015, he was featured in MTV’s Rebel Music: Native America and has since been championing indigenous issues with his music.

Though many celebrated on Dec. 4th when the Army Corps of Engineer’s denied easement for the DAPL -- which halts construction under the protested section of the Missouri River -- Means and other water protectors remain weary. The DAPL’s parent company Energy Transfer Partners have already issued a pointed statement that calls the government’s decision a “purely political action,” meaning they intend to continue construction as originally planned once “President Obama is out of office.” But with the political momentum of the #NoDAPL movement, including a petition signed by 100 artists like Billie Joe Armstrong and Sia, the fight for environmental and indigenous issues is not over. Below, Billboard speaks with Means about police brutality, the healing power of music, and what being a water protector means to him as an Oglala Sioux.

How has the camp changed since August?

It's grown bigger and the awareness has grown because of the non-violent, direct actions we have taken for the media to pick up on [in order] to delay the pipeline. There are a lot of allies that have been here since the beginning, and there are more allies here now. They realize this has been an indigenous movement and they have to take the backseat, but they also recognize that just the color of their skin allows them to do things we can't. We put them through training and a lot of them go to the front lines, try to de-escalate [police confrontations], or put themselves to be arrested first. But they have to know their place here and know that this is an indigenous movement and be respectful of that. This is a way of life for us, so they can't just come here and play Indian. And a delegation that wanted to start a veterans coming to Standing Rock thing have gotten about 2,000 veterans out.


What has your personal experience been with the police brutality happening at Standing Rock?

On October 27th, I was arrested and charged with a felony -- conspiracy to commit endangerment by fire -- and two misdemeanors. We had a frontlines camp that was established, people were camping up there and had their teepees up right on the pipeline route. Warren County, along with other sheriffs from around the country, came and they forcibly removed us from that camp. They beat us, they maced us in the faces, they shot off flash grenades, they set off the LRAD sound cannon. They had all kinds of toys that they were just unleashing on us. It was very traumatic for us because we were watching the workers continue to dig as we were being forcibly removed. That day, I was targeted and pulled in by my hair. They arrested 140 people that day. 

How do you and fellow water protectors deal with this violence?

For me, it's been really hard and my spirit's been detached. When you see something that traumatic, you internalize it. It's hard for us – a lot of us are frustrated, angry, really depressed. A lot of us are detached from reality. Dealing with the PTSD of everyday with the helicopters and hearing the flash grenades, it's been real out here. They hit us with water cannons in [below] freezing temperatures.

We're just water protectors, we've been our here on the front lines. We've done this totally unarmed. There are a lot of young protectors out here who have earned their feathers and paint. In Lakota society, there's ways to earn your paint and feathers -- protect the land, protect the women, protect your children, [things] similar to what we've been doing here, and with that, you earn eagle feathers for your good deeds. They're not being acknowledged in the rightful way.


Literally fighting for clean water. You find a whole new kind of strength knowing you're the ethnicity to be most likely shot and killed by police at a higher rate than anyone else, while you're being surrounded face to face by militarized cops with assault rifles, and armored vehicles. You find another level of that strength when the company they are protecting are bulldozing thru your ancestors sacred sites and burial grounds at that very moment right in front of your eyes, all while you are unarmed and being asked to remain peaceful by others. I believe that takes a lot of strength, it also caused a lot of trauma. Pray for our people. . . Shoutout Unicorn Riot for staying in the front not afraid to document everything

A photo posted by Nataanii Means (@nataanii_means) on


As a Native hip-hop artist, what does being a water protector mean to you?

The other day, I got a chance to be alone in my yurt, and I put on a beat and twelve bars came out of me really fast. It's just therapeutic, and it's bringing back the essence of what hip-hop is to a person and society in general. Hip-hop music is healing. But out here, I'm a hip-hop artist last. I'm an Oglala first, I'm an indigenous man first. I'm a protector and I'm here for the water and that's what's most important. 

What do you wish mainstream media knew about water protectors?

Mainstream media has been very quiet on the subject. They will mention it here and there and they would [write] about an action but not tell the whole story -- they would go over the gist of it and not everything that Warren County did [to us]. Now, it's like this big huge thing, Oh, it's been denied! It's frustrating because we've been trying really hard to get this out there for months. There’s just so much that was missed, so much that was misinterpreted that I start to get angry about it.

How are you feeling about the [Dec. 4] Army Corps of Engineer's easement denial?

Skeptical. I'm not entirely sure how to feel about it – they've done things like this before [in September].

What do you think about celebrities and musicians leveraging their platform to talk about the Standing Rock’s struggles?

Vic Mensa spent a couple days out here, he was in camp walking around and visiting. Just to have them have this on their radar and be socially conscious about our people, I commend them for that because they don't have to care. They don't have any ties to this land or they don't have any real reason to care about us. They can be asleep and be okay with it. But for them to be awake and conscious about our efforts and assisting the cause, that proves this isn't just [an indigenous] cause but it's a human problem. Thank you to all the people with big names that have helped with the awareness of what's happening here.


What are other issues in Native American communities you would like to see get this sort of attention?

Right now as we're speaking, a proposal for the Piñon Pipeline that BLM [Bureau of Land Management] is submitting into Navajo Nation. Line 3 pipelines just got approved in Canada by Prime Minister Trudeau, and that's supposedly supposed to go through Minnesota. There’s the [Apache] Oakflat movement [in Arizona] where they've been fighting off copper mining for the past few years. And with Trump coming in promising to create more jobs with energy, we have our work cut out for us.


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