Milwaukee freshman basketball player Jaye Dawn Two Bears protests pipeline from afar

Freshman Jaye Dawn Two Bears, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, focuses at a Milwaukee practice last week. Courtesy Milwaukee Athletics

This should be one of the most fun times in the life of Jaye Dawn Two Bears, a 5-foot-10 freshman guard who is living her dream as a University of Milwaukee women's basketball player.

But instead of being able to focus on text books, jump shots and the Panthers' season opener on Nov. 17, the native of Cannon Ball, North Dakota, is keeping her ear to the ground for news some 750 miles away. Two Bears is gravely concerned about the welfare of her family and thousands of other people who live along the Missouri River.

Two Bears is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. And since April, she has gotten involved as much as she possibly can with the protests started by her tribe against the Bakken pipeline project, which is funded by a company called Dakota Access.

The $3.7 billion project is a 1,172-mile underground pipeline for oil that crosses through four states -- North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois -- and would shuttle approximately 470,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Proponents say the pipeline will make the United States less reliant on imported oil. Protesters, including Two Bears and her family, argue that the pipeline would damage the environment, impact climate change and poison the water they need to survive. "Mni Wiconi," they say. Water is life.

"We are not against pipelines or oil -- we are against putting it up under our water," Two Bears said. "This is where we get 90 percent of our drinking water.

"Originally, the pipeline was supposed to run north of Bismarck, North Dakota. But the residents of Bismarck said they didn't want it, and Dakota Access decided to move it toward the reservation."

That's when protesters acted.

In August, the Standing Rock Sioux filed a request for a temporary injunction of the pipeline construction. A federal judge denied the request in September. A federal court denied the tribe's appeal in October.

Protesters, which number in the thousands, have drawn international attention. They have pitched tents and teepees at a campsite that is less than two miles from Two Bears' home. On Thursday, more than a hundred protesters were arrested after a standoff with police in Morton County. At least one person was injured. The battle has even moved to Facebook, where users opposing the pipeline are checking in from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, some claiming the change in location will "overwhelm and confuse" law enforcement.

"The camp and the protests started in April, while I was still home," said Two Bears, who graduated in May from Shiloh Christian High School in Bismarck. "The camp has continued to grow, and over 180 tribes are with us. They have sent letters and posted their tribal flags."

In addition to the issues regarding the environment, a Standing Rock tribal chairman said construction crews and their bulldozers have already destroyed and desecrated sacred burial grounds.

Two Bears, a four-time all-district and all-region player in high school, capped her prep career by celebrating a state title her senior season. It was Shiloh Christian's first state title, in any sport, in school history, and Two Bears has been able to use her local celebrity status to draw added attention to the cause.

In fact, Two Bears said the protest group has received support from all over the world.

"So many indigenous tribes and people are with us," she said. "We are even getting support from cities and administrators in places such as Dallas and St. Paul [Minnesota].

"It's made me feel like we are going to win this battle, knowing we have so much prayer. We want to stop the pipeline and protect our water and our sacred sites. We are not only fighting for our Native people but also for everybody along the Missouri River."

Two Bears, whose brother Cody is a tribal official, said her teammates and coaches at Milwaukee support her activism, and they realize how hard it is for her to be at college when there is so much turmoil back home.

On Sept. 17, Two Bears was able to go home briefly in order to put on a basketball clinic for kids. She was there along with University of Wisconsin men's basketball player Bronson Koenig, who is a Native American from the Ho-Chunk Nation Tribe.

While home, Two Bears visited the campsite and the protesters and came away impressed.

"Seeing people come together, no matter the color of your skin," Two Bears said, "it's beautiful, honestly."