Leo Yankton

Leonard Yankton poses for a portrait at his home on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

When Native Americans protested the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, a Lincolnite joined the protest. He started his mission there, and then he kept going. 

Leo Yankton, a Native American activist, received the Fulfilling the Dream award at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s MLK Commemorative Celebration on Jan. 28 for his efforts to break down the stigmatization of indigenous people. 

“I would have to accept [the award] thinking that I will earn this. I will keep continuing to make efforts to earn this,” Yankton said in his acceptance speech. 

Yankton is part of the Oglala Lakota nation from South Dakota. He has always helped his community, but he started calling himself an activist in 2016. Yankton said his efforts primarily aim to increase awareness of Native American societal issues through discourse. 

Yankton and Lory Dance, UNL associate professor of ethnic studies and sociology, have been friends since 2014. When Dance got more involved in activism, she invited Yankton to Sweden in 2016 to talk about Standing Rock issues. 

After garnering attention from Sweden through her Facebook page, Dance decided to invite Yankton to speak to activists in Sweden and Denmark as someone with first hand knowledge of the oppression Native Americans face.

Together, Dance and Yankton went to Europe and spoke in front of various people, including the Sámi, indigenous Scandinavians who face similar problems as Native Americans. Yankton and Dance also got the support of Swedish activists to go protest at a Swedish bank that supported building the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

Yankton has organized projects within Lincoln, like the First Friday Native Art Show, to showcase Native American artists’ work. He also coordinated a fundraiser to help save the Lincoln Indian Center from shutting down and helped Lincoln recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“The secret to all these accomplishments is to not wait for someone else to fix all these problems that are bothering you,” Yankton said. “You have to be the one to initiate small change and be willing to be proactive.”

Yankton revealed that many Native Americans endure hardship because they’re all in “survival mode.” He said his tribe has become the poorest reservation in the United States. According to Running Strong for American Indian Youth, Pine Ridge Reservation has the lowest life expectancy in the Western Hemisphere, aside from Haiti. 

“My goal is to make my people more self-sustaining so we can heal from the systematic oppression and historical trauma of genocide that was inflicted on us to make this country,” Yankton said. 

Dance said that they have collaborated on projects relating to indigenous people across Nebraska, such as speaking to members of the legislature or attending rallies. Dance has also invited Yankton to speak at UNL, so students can see the perspective of Native Americans. 

“Leo is an organic intellectual, because intellectuals can come from anywhere. Intellectuals can come from grassroots spaces. These are people who think deeply and complexly about matters,” Dance said. 

Although Yankton has many achievements, he had hurdles along the way. One of the biggest challenges he encountered is discrimination in fighting for more Native American rights. 

“A lot of [issues] are getting people to recognize that we are from the same fundamental origin,” Yankton said. “There’s a small group of people in power who pull the strings that cause the exploitation. The rest of us are pitted against each other to keep us weak.” 

Yankton said he continues to elevate his tribe, even through COVID-19. Now, he said he helps people in Lincoln and Omaha replace grass with permaculture farming to grow food to sustain themselves through the pandemic. 

“I think people need to understand that they are a part of nature,” Yankton said. “By feeling this way, it can solve issues of cruelty and disconnection between humans, animals and the environment.”