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"Change only comes from people standing up and doing what they think is right."

That's how Jennifer Pedroza summed up her family's trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in September to support the tribe's efforts to block construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline under a Missouri River reservoir.

Pedroza, her husband, Victor, and their 8-year-old son, Xavier, camped at the reservation for a weekend. There, they heard first-hand from Native Americans united in the fight against what they call "the black snake." Tribal leaders have said the pipeline threatens cultural sites and water resources.

"It was a truly amazing experience. I really hope it continues to gain the attention it needs because it's important," Pedroza said. 

Their decision to drive overnight to the encampment came in response to reports of private security guards releasing dogs Sept. 3 during a confrontation with protesters. 

They canceled plans they had made for Victor's birthday during his "long week" off from ArcelorMittal, left their 2-year-old son, Gabriel, with his grandparents, and packed up their camping gear and food for the weekend. They arrived Sept. 16, after an early setback that required a stop at a 24/7 tire repair shop in Chicago.

The Pedrozas' concern for environmental issues started several years ago, in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. As with a growing number of people, social media — Facebook, in the Pedrozas' case — played a vital role in their path to activism. 

'What's right for our kids?'

Jennifer, 34, a Gary native who graduated from Bishop Noll Institute, and Victor, a Lake Station native who graduated from Andrean High School, first participated in a protest during the March Against Monsanto in 2013 in Chicago.

"We had been reading up about organic. We wanted to change the direction of our family," Jennifer said. "We were thinking, 'What's right for our kids?'"

They "friend bombed" people on Facebook with like-minded ideas and have stayed connected. The Deepwater Horizon disaster prompted them to begin looking for information on other issues, including water contamination, she said.

"It worries me as a mother. We live here, where there are so many mills," she said. "My husband works in the mill. ... I used to take my kids to the beach and didn't think about the mills being right there."

She's concerned about the number of children with health conditions, including some that can be linked to environmental pollution, she said.

"All these environmental issues — they strike me where my heart is," she said.

The Pedrozas, parishioners at Nativity of Our Savior Catholic Church in Portage, think Americans should worry about maintaining pipelines already in the ground, not building new ones. Any economic benefits, including new jobs, aren't worth the risk, she said.

Since the 2013 March Against Monsanto, Victor Pedroza joined the picket line during the United Steelworkers' strike in 2014 at the BP Whiting Refinery. The couple also organized a donation and delivery drive for the homeless, Jennifer Pedroza said.

'It's making people ask questions'

As they drove along Highway 1806 after leaving Bismark, North Dakota, the afternoon of Sept. 16, they began to see signs made of sheets, Jennifer Pedroza said.

National Guard personnel stopped them about 6 miles from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and asked if they knew what was going on there.

"We said yes, and they let us go on our way," she said.

The first camp they came upon was called Sacred Ground. It was there they found David, a friend from Facebook, whom they met in Chicago in 2013. At one point, David posted he felt compelled to go to Standing Rock and had since become a leader at the Sacred Ground camp.

After asking David is he needed anything, the Pedrozas continued to the main camp, Oceti Sakowin. They began setting up camp, but a couple approached and said the area might be used for a pow wow. The Pedrozas set up camp next to the couple, who came from two different Native American tribes, and their young children.

The woman, Rose, is considered an old soul by her tribe, a designation reserved for those who at a young age show a deep capacity for learning, Pedroza said. Rose taught the Pedrozas about Native culture.

"This is a prophesy for them. They believe the Seventh Generation will rise up and fight what they call the black snake, which they believe is the oil pipeline," Jennifer Pedroza said.

It was a quiet weekend, several weeks before North Dakota called in law enforcement — including about a dozen officers from Northwest Indiana — under a nationwide compact and confrontations became violent.

While they were there, the Pedrozas broke bread with the people they met. They prayed, and their son had a blast playing with other children.

When they left, they donated their gear to the Sacred Ground camp. They have continued to share news about Standing Rock on Facebook, and have found people they wouldn't expect sharing and liking their posts.

"It's making people ask questions. 'What's so important? What's going on?'" Jennifer Pedroza said. "Every little bit is important, and that's the reason we went. We feel like if we have the means to do it, then we need to be the ones to do it."


Public safety reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.