A composite image of three portrait photographs of members of the UK Nanas. All three are older women wearing bright yellow tabards. The woman in the left photograph is mid-chant, with her fist in the air; the center portrait is an extreme close up of a woman looking directly into the camera; the portrait on the right is of a third woman, standing stoically in her yellow tabard, which she has decorated with various buttons, and the text "Nana Dancing Queen." Behind the women is a fence adorned with tied scraps of yellow fabric.
Photos by Rory Payne / Design by Victoria Rosselli

Meet the Anti-Fracking Nanas

Why older women are dedicating their retirement to leaving a better world behind.

“I can’t get up!”

It was 5 a.m. when the dawn chorus was interrupted by a cry for help. An elderly woman had fallen while sneaking into a field with 25 other nanas, and the group rushed to her aid. “Are you alright?” one asked. They helped her stand up, brushing off her clothes and smoothing her hair. After ensuring she was fine to walk, the group pushed forward.

No nana could be left behind: These women were setting up an occupation.

It was a balmy August morning in Lancashire, a county in North West England known for its sweeping landscapes and greenery. But back in 2014, their idyllic community was facing an outside threat: Cuadrilla, an oil and gas giant and the only company in the United Kingdom with a license to frack, was about to commence shale gas exploration. If the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, went ahead, then the site beneath the nanas’ feet would soon become an industrial wasteland—and the county’s residents would be forced to live with the consequences, unless someone was able to stop it.

A close-up photograph of a bee that has landed on a bit of yellow fabric that has been knotted on a fence.
(Rory Payne)

The nanas clambered over fences, quickly putting up signs and wrangling tent poles. By 6 a.m., the first tent was up. The women sat on the ground, drinking tea and watching the sun rise above the field that would be their home for the next three weeks. Technically, they weren’t all grandmothers, but before long, this group of anti-fracking activists from Lancashire would be known as the Nanas, both at home and abroad. They’d regularly stage demonstrations, roadside tea parties, and eventually, even a protest outside Buckingham Palace.

And they wouldn’t be alone: In other communities being torn apart by fracking, older people around the world have also been taking the fight into their own hands, spending their golden years in protest. But what makes someone dedicate their later life to activism? To give up the dream of pottering around the garden, pushing grandchildren on swings and enjoying long vacations and their long-awaited retirement?

As it turns out, many of them felt they didn’t have a choice.

Becoming an Activist

In the weeks leading up to their field occupation, the UK Nanas meticulously planned their invasion. What would they wear? How would they get there? Who would bring tea and cake? On the big day, at 3 a.m., they secretly gathered in a hotel basement nearby. Those in charge of wardrobe revealed what would become the Nana uniform: yellow tabards with a graphic of the red rose of Lancaster, proclaiming “Frack Free Lancashire,” alongside matching yellow headscarves. Tina Rothery, now 61, looked on with pride. She was a recent convert to activism, and her role was public relations. Just before leaving the hotel, she hit send on the press release announcing the Nanas’ 21-day field occupation to the world—having no idea that their fight against injustice was about to hit headlines and dominate her life.

As the women adapted to living in a field and spending their nights under canvas, the local milkman began making morning deliveries. Neighbors arrived at the site to indulge their curiosity, bringing ice to help the Nanas keep their food from spoiling or, in some cases, Tina says, to vent their anger.

“Why would you do this? It’s private land,” some of them would ask. But Tina was ready.

“Here’s the thing: You get us, 26 women with a bunch of tents and tent pegs—that’s bad, yeh?” she’d reply. “Or, you get at least a decade of drill rigs, and man camps, and all that goes on, and the noise, and the pollution, the threat to your water and all of that. These are your choices.”

“We’re here to let you know you do have a choice,” she’d continue. “You can stand up, and you can object.”

Older women in yellow tabards dance in a circle in front of a former fracking site, holding hands. The photo is reminiscent of Matisse's La Danse.
The UK Nanas. (Rory Payne)

Besides a few naysayers, though, Tina says the protest was relatively peaceful. She recalls the police weren’t too bothered by the presence of 26 older women, and largely left them alone. She says the police were, however, very concerned about the dozens of activists who soon descended on the field next door in support of them. These new protestors were from a group called Reclaim the Power, and they were organized. They brought solar panels, wind turbines, and compost toilets. On the final day of the Nanas’ occupation, they also led a pier-to-pier march, decked out in classic Nana-yellow with placards held high.

That same day, after three weeks of sleeping under canvas, soaking up activism knowledge from Reclaim the Power, and sharing their fears with a growing anti-fracking community, the Nanas took down their tents and searched the field to make sure they’d left nothing behind. They stuck a note on the farmer’s house, whose property they’d been occupying, and notified the police that they’d left. Despite nearly a month sleeping on the scratchy ground in makeshift beds, they felt stronger than ever.

The next day, they were sued by Cuadrilla. The legal papers said they were being fined thousands of pounds for the “eviction,” despite the fact they’d left of their own accord and had informed the landowner, press, and police. One of the Nanas would need to put their name forward and take on the cost. Though she couldn’t afford the fine, Tina stepped forward.

“You can’t get blood from a stone,” she says.

Still, they tried. Cuadrilla embroiled Tina in a legal battle for two years, first serving her the court papers at the Buckingham Palace protest. They wanted more than £55,000 (over $78,000) in legal fees and threatened her with a stint in prison if she didn’t pay up. After Tina finally provided evidence that she couldn’t pay the fees, the case was eventually dropped.

A portrait of Tina Rothery, an older woman with long, straight strawberry blonde hair, wearing a yellow tabard and standing in front of a fence with yellow ribbons tied across it.
Tina Rothery. (Rory Payne)

Before getting involved with the Nanas, Tina had little experience in activism. She’d recently spent a year and a half caring for her sick mother, staying by her bedside and reminiscing about when they’d globe-trotted from London to Australia to Hong Kong together. This powerful woman, once a leading business executive, was dying, and there was nothing Tina could do. The feeling of helplessness consumed her. She couldn’t help her mother, and she couldn’t change the state of the world beyond her, which at the time, felt like it was spiraling towards further and further injustice. Both the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street dominated the news. She watched as uprisings against ruling parties unfolded, and looking to regain some semblance of control, Tina finally decided to join Occupy London in 2011, ending up as a de facto spokesperson.

By the time she received a leaflet on Cuadrilla’s fracking plans from a local residents’ action group, Tina had zeroed in on how best to fight the whole system: You had to start closer to home. Until now she’d been trying to get to what she calls the “belly of the beast,” but this new awareness of fracking on her doorstep shifted her mindset—this single issue told the whole story of a broken system. The way she saw it, fracking was one very specific example of how the government was taking risks with people’s lives and affecting individual communities. The fight had come to her, and it was impossible to ignore. Instead of returning to London to join more protests aimed at the government and the wider system, Tina remained in Lancashire to fight Cuadrilla.

She was right about fracking’s impact on her community. In 2019, researchers Anna Szolucha from the University of Bergen, Norway and Damien Short from the University of London carried out a study published by research journal Geoforum to examine how people’s lives were affected during the fracking planning and approval process in Lancashire—and the results were harrowing. They called what they found a collective trauma: a slow-burn shock that ripped apart social lives and damaged the feeling of community.

“You can stand up, and you can object.”

“Some residents experienced severe stress and anxiety. Many reported that they lost trust in the police and democracy,” Szolucha says. Residents felt a sense of loss, fear, betrayal, guilt, and anger as the fracking consultation went through its various stages. Notably, Fylde, the area of Lancashire where Cuadrilla planned to drill, has a high population of older people. Residents feared their once quiet country lives would change overnight, punctuated by trucks, drills, and an influx of workmen. The people of Lancashire objected strongly to this, and the County Council voted against moving forward with the fracking. But the Secretary of State overrode their decision, sweeping aside resident wishes, and approved the work. Residents felt betrayed and powerless.

They mounted a legal fight, but even as the case made its way through the courts, Cuadrilla continued preparing the worksite. The locals couldn’t stay silent. They did everything they could to delay the drilling, from slowing down the trucks to showing up to the site every day. Although it wasn’t a specific part of their research, Szolucha says she noticed older campaigners seemed more traumatized than their younger counterparts.

“Older campaigners, many of whom used to be Conservative voters or simply had a pretty Conservative outlook, were often enraged or in tears when they spoke to me about how disappointed they were with their political representatives and the police, who, in their eyes, allowed fracking to happen,” she says.

A photograph pointing at a blue sky, from the center of a circle of UK Nanas, holding their hands to the sky.
(Rory Payne.)

A Big Fight in a Small Town

The residents in Fylde aren’t the only ones to have experienced this collective trauma, although not every town has been so unanimously against it. In Gloucester, Australia, when energy companies AGL and Halliburton began “consulting” with the locals about fracking for coal seam gas in 2009, it splintered the community—and made enemies out of neighbors.

“Don’t come near my place,” one woman in her eighties yelled at Dominique Jacobs and her foster children during a protest. “I’m going to fucking shoot ya!”

Dominique is a 59-year-old resident of Gloucester, and for nearly a decade, she’s dedicated herself to the fight against fracking—something not everyone agrees with. Sometimes, this means being on the receiving end of her neighbors’ threats during a peaceful demonstration through the town center. She brushes off these encounters with a laugh often bubbling under her voice. But in a town where so few people speak out against fracking, she feels like a pariah. It’s a small town, a farming community of around 3,000 residents. Everyone knows everyone’s business—and many don’t like hers. Even now, there are people her husband has worked with for 15 years who won’t speak to her because of her anti-fracking activism. There are shops she doesn’t go into. People were banking on the jobs fracking had been promising, and as they saw it, people like Dominique were standing in the way. But Dominique says the fracking companies don’t actually care about the community, and that part of why she became such a vocal activist against them was to prove it.

A portrait of Dominique Jacobs standing in a field, wearing a yellow t-shirt, a couple necklaces, and her sunglasses on her head.
Dominique Jacobs. (Derek Henderson)

“They just leave this broken wreck of a place behind them,” she says.

Where Tina discovered activism in her later years, Dominique’s inner activist had been bubbling under the surface for most of her life. In her 20s, she was desperate to join the Franklin River blockade against a proposed dam, but couldn’t afford the travel expenses to get there. Instead, she and her husband spent the following years taking part in environmental campaigns and learning about climate change, but as soon as they became parents, their activism took a back seat. Three decades disappeared. Then, the protests appeared on her doorstep, and Dominique couldn’t sit back and watch any longer.

At first, Dominique didn’t know much about fracking. When it first arrived in Gloucester, she had been working in a preschool, and she recalls one of the parents who worked for the energy company trying to sell her on the benefits of allowing fracking in their town. There would be more job opportunities, for starters, they said. At the time, Dominique didn’t know any better, so she believed what they’d told her.

But soon, the big machinery arrived, care of Australian energy company AGL, drilling four wells in their once quiet town after initially proposing 110. In 2011, a group of local residents blockaded the corner of a dairy farm to prevent four more. Dominique started joining the protestors for a few hours at a time. The work slowed down, and as everyone awaited the results of a court challenge, the frackers eventually disappeared. By 2014, though, they’d returned.

“By then, we were really up to speed. We knew exactly what it was all about by then,” Dominique says. The local activists were no longer naive. They had a body of knowledge about what would happen to the landscape, the environment, and the people if the fracking were allowed to continue.

In October 2014, people gathered on the main road of Gloucester in a peaceful protest, populating the area with signs raising awareness about the negative impacts of fracking, like the contamination of land and water. As the small group of anti-fracking locals got into the swing of their protest, Dominique’s eye caught two yellow-clad women sitting on folding chairs, knitting needles clicking away. Fascinated, she walked over. The women were the Knitting Nannas Against Gas—a separate group from the UK Nanas, with similar motivations, tactics, and uniforms (but a slightly different spelling to their name). They were using what they called “gentle activism” to peacefully protest fracking.

If she wanted to join them, they told her, she should put on some yellow and get to knitting. So she did.

The Knitting Nannas. (Derek Henderson)

Dominique started spending three days a week manning a peaceful vigil in a little rotunda with a few other members of the community, but soon, knitting didn’t feel like enough: They wanted volunteers for arrestable actions. Dominique was fearful. She was a foster parent, and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that and lose her children. She chose to stick to the peaceful vigil, while others in the group went down to the gates of the fracking site and locked themselves onto it—a tried and true way to kick up a fuss. Dominique watched on as police arrested around 30 people.

Then, something happened that transformed Dominique from gentle activist to risk-taker; an experience that opened her eyes to the environmental devastation fracking could soon cause in her community. In January 2015, she and her family took a trip to Tara, Queensland, where fracking was much more developed than in Gloucester—and she was horrified.

“There was really no life anywhere,” she says of the ravaged areas she drove through. She describes two or three kilometers of road lined by huge ponds holding fracking wastewater. Forests were blocked off by metal fences. “Private property. No trespassing,” signs were plastered on the gates. Trailers, rigs, and grey infrastructure dotted the landscape. She was surprised by how industrialized it had become. Less than a decade earlier, it had been a farming community. Now, it was a wasteland.

“They just leave this broken wreck of a place behind them.”

Driving through Tara, Dominique thought of the image the fracking company had sold the people of Gloucester. A little well, some cows grazing out on a green field, perhaps, and everyone enjoying a peaceful life, with no discernible difference to their community.

“When you go up there to Queensland, you go, ‘Oh my god. We’ve got no idea,’” Dominique says.

What she saw in Queensland was bleak, and a stark contrast to the traditional portrayal of Australia, one of sprawling landscapes teeming with biodiversity. But what happened in Queensland was far from unusual. Travel to Oklahoma, where fracking first began, and you’ll find a similar picture. Drills, industrialization, and wastewater ponds abound. Phillips 66, which used to be a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips but split in 2012, fracks the land there, and has become one of the largest energy exploration companies in the world. They produce millions of barrels of oil a day and are estimated to be worth around $50 billion—and some of its residents are furious about it.

Fracking and the Ponca Tribe

Environmental ambassador Casey Camp-Horinek has lived in Ponca City her whole life. She’s an Elder and Hereditary Drumkeeper of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, and has recently turned 74.

When hundreds of people were arrested at Standing Rock in 2016, Casey was there. The Ponca people once lived further along the Missouri River, in a different region, and on that particular day, Casey was at a Tribal Historic Preservation Office meeting around 20 miles away. Mid-prayer, they got news that militarized police were heading to Standing Rock. They were going to forcefully evacuate the people at Treaty Camp who were standing up against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

A portrait of Casey Camp-Horinek wearing a feather headpiece and beaded earrings. She's wearing a red velvet turtleneck with a white vest over it.
Casey Camp-Horinek. (Ryan Red Corn)

Casey and the other Elders from the meeting arrived as observers, and found hundreds of people peacefully praying. Over the hill and across the road, militarized police lined up shoulder to shoulder, advancing. As they came closer, Casey stood in prayer with the other Elders. Her son was in a nearby prayer circle of around 50 people. Others were singing, drumming, or in ceremony. The peace was soon shattered. Armored trucks and tasers invaded the scene; peaceful protestors were blinded with pepper spray as they prayed. A security helicopter thundered overhead. Sound cannons erupted.

“It was a scene from a horror movie,” Casey says. She speaks slowly and deliberately, frequently pausing to think. “It was like what happened to us all throughout history, going through it again.”

The police reached the Elders. Casey was pulled down and her hands zip tied behind her back. Her son called out, asking them to at least leave the Elders alone. That day, 142 people were arrested by armed police in riot gear, numbers written on the detainees’ arms. Casey was Standing Rock 138. She had to watch as her son was beaten and dragged away, unsure of when she would see him again.

In the cells, tear gas hung on their clothes. Dozens of women were bundled into what Casey describes as dog cages.

“We sang prayer songs and victory songs, and we celebrated with each woman who was shoved into the cage with us and honored her for her bravery,” Casey says.

In many ways, it was nothing new. Casey’s stand against fracking and the extractive industries is inseparable from the disastrous consequences of colonialism that the Ponca Nation has suffered: the forced removal to Oklahoma from northeastern Nebraska, the children harmed at the boarding schools they were made to attend. There’s no short answer, she says, to explain how she got to where she is today.

“I guess one has to begin with the fact that I’m a daughter, and a granddaughter, and a great-granddaughter, and a survivor of a holocaust of when the Europeans came to these shores,” she says, speaking in her calm, grandmotherly tone. While Tina was new to environmentalism, and Dominique had spent decades as an activist in waiting, the struggle forced on Casey encompassed not only her whole life, but generations before her.

“We celebrated with each woman who was shoved into the cage with us and honored her for her bravery.”

Casey uses strong words to describe what has been done to the Ponca Nation. She calls it a genocide. Nearly a third of the Ponca Tribe died due to their forced removal in the late 1800s. This history has been passed down through generations using oral traditions, which is how she continues to pass them on today. Many of the abuses she details have been well documented, ranging from colonizers gifting Indigenous people blankets laced with smallpox, to countless treaties made and broken, and the Ponca Nation’s 1.5 million acres being reduced to just a small township in Nebraska.

When the Ponca people were forcibly removed to Oklahoma, Casey’s grandparents were only around five or six years old. Their tribe was made to walk hundreds of miles, and many lives were lost along the way.

“At that time, Oklahoma was called Indian Territory. And it was to be the dumping grounds, the killing grounds, of all Native Americans,” Casey says. The Ponca people reached Oklahoma without their seeds and hunting instruments and were newly vulnerable to foreign diseases. Many of those who survived the journey did not survive the new territory.

And then, in 1911, the extractive industries arrived on Ponca land, looking for oil. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal agency designed to manage relationships between the government and Indigenous communities, made decisions about their land without their consent. She says the extractive industries created “killing fields.”

A portrait of Casey Camp-Horinek wearing a feather headpiece and beaded earrings, and holding a small purse with a red flower on it. She's wearing a red velvet turtleneck with a white vest over it, a layered skirt, and beaded shoes.
Casey Camp-Horinek. (Ryan Red Corn)

As it was for Dominique’s community in Gloucester, fracking was presented to Indigenous communities with a positive spin. Today, energy giant Phillips 66 describes itself as “engaging with our communities in an environmentally just way.” A sustainability web page says that they are committed to “providing energy today with an eye on tomorrow,” and that they have the highest levels of responsibility and ethics. Their 2023 sustainability report makes bold claims of supporting biodiversity and restoring park land, and even has a section on connecting with Indigenous peoples “to build meaningful relationships, honoring them and their connection to the land in the regions where we do business.” The front cover of the report shows a sprawling refinery against a blue sky, with a solitary bird soaring overhead, assessing its industrial habitat.

But once the companies arrived, a different reality emerged.

Casey had heard many sustainable claims like these before learning the truth about how water is used in the fracking process. To start, hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh water are injected into the earth, per well. The pressurized water, along with chemicals and sand, break open cracks below the surface and release gas. The unusable wastewater is then held in tanks, laced with fracking chemicals like hydrochloric acid, methanol, and petroleum distillates. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report shows this toxic cocktail can leak into drinking supplies from unlined pits or spills, or even be injected directly into groundwater resources. Across a six year period ending in 2012, there were 151 spills in 11 states, according to the EPA’s analysis. They don’t have enough data to definitively say how much this is happening on a national level.

In the US, an average of over 3 million gallons of water were used per well between 2005 and 2015 and at least 239 billion gallons have been used across the US since 2005. This is according to a report from Environment America Research & Policy Center, an organization which researches and educates about environmental issues. At this scale, the potential harm is monumental: A report published in Nature Communications shows that fracking can increase radiation levels by as much as 40% over the background level, putting those living within about 12 miles of fracking sites at increased health risk. Casey says she has seen countless cancer cases in Ponca families, and that many children have developed breathing difficulties since fracking began in Oklahoma. Similar symptoms have been seen elsewhere, as well, with researchers at the Yale School of Public Health finding carcinogens from fracking could be contaminating air and water, increasing the risk of childhood leukemia. The Center for Environmental Health has also warned of how pollutants from fracking might impact children’s respiratory health.

“They don’t tell you that it’s creating radiation that they’re going to dump into your yard,” Casey says.

It isn’t just humans who have felt the impact, either. Casey says that deer are sick from living off the polluted land, echoing a link made by the Bureau of Land Management between fracking and the sudden reduction in deer in Pinedale Mesa, Wyoming, whose herds have declined by 36% since fracking began. Ponca residents have also witnessed fish lying dead on the river banks, and since then, images of catfish floating lifeless in the water have been plastered on local media year after year. Wastewater from local wells is pinned as the most likely cause, according to the Department of Wildlife Conservation.

“We are dying. We are being killed. We are suffering environmental genocide,” Casey says.

But however hopeless it might seem, Casey refuses to give up on fighting for this planet and its inhabitants. She is a part of nature, too, and that’s why she keeps pushing back.

“We are dying. We are being killed. We are suffering environmental genocide.”

She’s not the only one fighting back in North America. Jesse Cardinal, Executive Director of Keepers of the Water, a group of Indigenous communities and environmental groups working together to protect nature, works with Elders responding to extractive industries across the Arctic Ocean Drainage Basin.

“The thing with the Elders is they remember a life where you can drink water without it having to be treated; they remember drinking straight from the streams; they have lived that life,” she says. They have seen the increase in sickness, mental health issues, and loss of culture, both since colonization and during this current period of extraction. Many Indigenous communities across North America are surrounded by lakes, streams, and creeks, but they are buying bottled water: We’re living in a time now, she adds, where our children don’t know that you can drink pure water.

“The Elders are amazing because having seen all this and lived through all this, they’re still the voice of reason, and they’re telling people what needs to be done,” Cardinal, who is from the Kikino Métis Settlement in Canada, says. She explains how they attend the rallies, go to meetings, and participate in workshops. “They know right from wrong,” she continues. “They also know that their time is going to end soon, and they don’t want to leave this behind for future generations. They’re so desperately trying to make change where they can before they leave this place.”

This sentiment seems to be a universal one for fracking’s elder protestors, whether in North America or elsewhere: They’ve lived the past, and many feel they have no choice but to protect the future. The only difference is in how they choose to do it.

With a key role in the UK Nanas, Tina tries to be the voice of reason and to speak up about what needs to happen to stop fracking. She leads demonstrations and raises her voice until she can’t be ignored—but does so in a way that welcomes others to join: She uses gentle protest.

The Craft of Gentle Activism

During the demonstrations in Fylde, Lancashire, the UK Nanas would meet at the community hub every Wednesday around 9:30 a.m., all dressed in white. Together, they would walk up the hill, arrive at the gates of the fracking site, and form a long line. They would then stand in silence for fifteen minutes in what they termed the “Call for Calm.” It was a moment of peace between the police and activists: The women tied ribbons to the gate, singing groups joined, and then they broke into a choreographed dance. People brought stews, quiches, vegan chocolate fudge cake. Once, actor Emma Thompson even made an appearance.

A close-up of one of the UK Nanas' yellow tabards, for "Nana Julie." It has various pins for Frack Free Lancashire, and "FRACK FREE EVERYWHERE" written in Sharpie.
(Rory Payne)

To help bolster their efforts during this period, Tina heavily utilized social media, where she regularly live streamed the daily lives of the Nanas and their demonstrations. Across roughly 1,000 days between 2014 and 2019, Tina shared livestream after livestream on her Facebook page, where she cracked jokes, argued with police, captured people dancing and venting, and fumbled with the technicalities of filming in a beautifully human way. Most importantly to Tina, anyone could easily watch these videos and write comments in real time—wherever and whoever they were.

“I want anyone watching to think, ‘I could do that.’ So if you’re eighty, and you’re sat at home, I want you to feel it’s accessible,” Tina says.

While the UK Nanas relied heavily on social media, in Australia, the Knitting Nannas have so far utilized a more unusual approach to their gentle activism: They play on people’s assumptions about sweet old ladies and use it to their advantage. They turn up to work sites, politicians’ offices, and anywhere else where a demonstration is needed, and they knit. While police officers might assume the Nannas are harmless, it can be a split second before they’re caught off guard and an elderly woman has chained herself to a fence.

In Oklahoma, Casey has a different approach to spearheading change: She is using legal frameworks to her advantage. Although the Ponca Nation passed a moratorium on any future fracking on their land, Casey says this was ignored, and fracking continues to this day. She grew frustrated. Then, she learned about the Rights of Nature.

At first, Casey was skeptical. She was at a meeting of Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, where around 100 women from across the world spoke and presented solutions to various environmental issues. It was the co-founder of Movement Rights, Shannon Biggs, who introduced her to the Rights of Nature: a legal framework that recognizes that ecosystems have the right to exist, in the same way that humans do. Within this law, nature is no longer treated as property, and communities could stand up in court and fight for the rights of ecosystems.

“We’re not protecting nature—we are nature, protecting itself.”

Casey was reminded of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. At the time of its introduction, her brother had scoffed and said, “If religion were truly free, why would they need to put a law around it?” She felt the same way about the Rights of Nature. But over time, as Casey talked to Shannon more, she began to see its potential. With the Ponca’s ability to create their own laws within their tribal jurisdiction, it could be a form of protection.

At the time, Casey was on the tribal council. She created a resolution, the Immutable Ponca Rights of Nature, and it became law in their court—the first time ever that an Indigenous community had recognized the Rights of Nature in tribal law. But Casey describes it as an old concept that’s just new on paper.

“This land is here forever. This water is here forever. These winds that blow are forever. You cannot eat, drink, or breathe that paper money or that plastic money. So the only way to go forward is for all of us, all human beings, to get on board and become those water protectors and land defenders. Because again, we’re not protecting nature—we are nature, protecting itself,” she says.

This approach to activism is a different path from the ones Tina and Dominique have chosen. While their activism is about creating impactful moments and disrupting the system, Casey’s is about finding and implementing solutions—and loopholes. But for all of them, it’s ultimately about protection. When fracking threatens the natural world, these women have felt they have no choice but to be its protector.

The Switch

In a research paper on what they term “Nannagogy,” Larraine Larri and Hilary Whitehouse set out to discover what motivates older women to step out of their comfort zone to fight for the planet they will soon leave behind.

“What we found were women who had been marginalized due to age and gender, who were determined to be productive and creative social change agents taking action for a low-carbon future. Our data show many of these women had never done anything like this before,” they wrote.

When it comes to the specifics of that activism, Larri and Whitehouse refer to the Knitting Nannas’ activities as “Craftivism,” a term originally coined in 2003 by crafter and activist Betsy Greer, the “godmother of Craftivism.” In another paper, Larri writes, “In the case of the Nannas, Craftivism emboldens and empowers older women to challenge gender and age-related stereotypes to become vibrant and central actors in the broader social movement.”

Five of the Knitting Nannas stand in front of a fence, each wearing at least one item of yellow clothing and holding signs from various protests they've participated in.
The Knitting Nannas. (Derek Henderson)

But are gentle actions enough? Tina says the UK Nanas all had moments where they “switched,” where they decided that they were going to become more defiant. A lot of these women, she says, grew up in an era where they had to be obedient to their husbands, and during their activism, they had this moment of realization: Enough is enough.

Tina’s moment came in 2018, when she decided to take part in her first arrestable action. Up until that point, in all of their demonstrations, Tina had never technically done anything illegal. But as anti-fracking efforts started ramping up, eventually, she was asked to take part in a lock-on, where she would physically attach herself to a static object and block the gates to the fracking site in Lancashire. This would put more pressure on Cuadrilla. It would also break the law: Jail time would be imminent for anyone blocking the fracking site.

“I had always said no because I still want to set the example that you don’t have to break the law to win,” she says.

Still, she thought, what if it made all the difference? If Tina was going to do a lock-on, it was now or never. With an upcoming injunction that would prevent trespassing on the exploration site, she was running out of time. So, she and her niece both said yes. The demonstration was called the Caravan of Love, and took months of planning. A group known as The Cooks invented devices for the protestors to lock onto, using hard to cut materials like cement and elevator cable. Lock-ons often end with police cutting through similar contraptions, power tools whirring close to activists’ arms. They were hoping that wouldn’t happen by creating something too dangerous for the attempt—not that this had stopped police before.

Tina remembers hiding up at the camp near the fracking site gates on the day of the demonstration, trying to keep away from the glare of security.

The fight had come to her, and it was impossible to ignore.

“We knew that at just after 2 a.m., someone was going to dump a whopping great caravan in the middle of the entranceway,” she says. The caravan concealed six men who were each locked onto a large household appliance, and once in place, would drop a huge cement foot from inside. The trailer was going nowhere. Its arrival was their cue. Two women ran up and thrust their arms into the vehicle, clipping themselves onto the men inside. Another pair locked themselves onto one side of the trailer together, and then, on the other side, Tina and her niece reached their arms through either end of a torpedo-shaped lock-on device with “love to my mum” written on it. They each clipped themselves onto a hook inside.

Tina stayed like that for 21 hours wearing incontinence pads and battling the discomfort of the outdoors. Eventually, she felt she couldn’t breathe, and the activists hatched a plan to help her escape. First, they’d distract the police, who were watching close by. Next, they’d make the switch.

“When you’re ready,” one of the other activists said.

“Quick, quick, I need some help with my pad,” Tina called out, doing her best to pretend that she really did need help, while the Nana who was attending to their personal care rushed to her “aid.”

This made the policeman standing nearby so uncomfortable, she says, that he walked off. Two other activists ducked under the tarpaulin covering Tina and her niece’s connected arms, taking their place as the two women snuck out. Tina stood up and tried to casually walk away from the scene. She was, of course, immediately arrested.

While Tina had been reluctant to do anything illegal in her anti-fracking efforts, however, after what she’d witnessed in Queensland, Dominique had been ready. Only a couple of years after becoming a Knitting Nanna, she traveled to the town of Pilliga in New South Wales, roughly 250 miles away from her home, to join their local fight against fracking—and jumped at the chance to escalate her actions.

“You kind of get to the point where you’ve done everything you possibly can do,” Dominique says. “What is there left to do except that? You’ve written so many letters, you’ve signed petitions, you’ve talked to your politicians, and they just leave you with no options. It’s kind of empowering that you’ve finally been able to do something that has actually stopped something.”

In a field, an abandoned white building with a rusty roof that reads "MINING KILLS COMMUNITIES."
(Derek Henderson)

Early in the morning one January day in 2016, with yellow parasols in hand to defend against the sweltering heat, Dominique and two other Nannas snuck up to the wire gates outside the fracking site, unfolded their chairs, and looped bike chains around their necks, attaching the opposite ends to the gate. Dominique settled into the lock-on and got out her knitting. Each Nanna had a buddy to support her, and eventually other Nannas arrived, throwing out tablecloths and setting up a high tea.

The police eventually ordered the buddies to leave, and tried to persuade the Nannas to do the same, Dominique recalls, telling them they’d made their point.

The Nannas didn’t budge. They knew they were likely to get arrested, but they weren’t going to give in.

The police got out the bolt cutters. They gave the Nannas one more chance to leave, and when they refused, each Nanna was arrested. They walked themselves to the police van. At the station, they weren’t put into cells but sat in the main office while their papers were processed, still wearing the straw hats that had protected them from the sun. When they finally left, it was to the sound of cheers as all the other Nannas lined the path in a guard of honor.

Dominique makes light of the situation now, but makes it clear that it was a desperate measure. They were out of options. Fracking was still happening, and gentle protest wasn’t making a big enough impact. Like Tina, she felt the same mounting pressure to force someone to listen.

“It’s kind of empowering that you’ve finally been able to do something that has actually stopped something.”

But for both women, that risk had been a choice—while for others, like Casey, even quiet protest was enough to be considered an offense. When she was arrested at Standing Rock, it wasn’t for something she’d chosen; it wasn’t for a moment of defiance. She was arrested while praying, arrested in spite of her peaceful presence, arrested in spite of the fact she was participating in the exact same vein of quiet protest that Tina and Dominique and countless other nanas around the world had participated in without punishment.

“I applaud the bravery of anyone who chooses to do nonviolent, direct actions. If that involves chaining themselves to equipment, I applaud that,” Casey says, making a particular point that she’s behind those other nanas in their actions. “I feel as if it’s time for everyone to take a stand in whatever form is necessary.”

In her younger years, Casey took part in similar actions that she describes as “pushing the envelope.” But now, as an Elder, her activism looks different. As an Indigenous woman, putting herself in the way of police would come at a higher price for Casey than it would for white activists.

“It always has,” she says. “I don’t see that as a changing trend.” Indigenous people have the second highest incarceration rate of any racial group in the United States. Casey says that if she drives her car to town with tribal tags on it, she knows she’s more likely to get stopped than if she had an Oklahoma tag.

“Yes, racism is alive. And Indigenous men and women on the front line are flagged by racist laws that are being put in place in places like Oklahoma, South Dakota, and many other places where there’s large Indigenous populations,” she says. Specifically, Casey is, in part, referring to a law where anyone protesting against fossil fuels can face $100,000 fines or 10 years in prison. In stark contrast, both Tina and Dominique’s cases were eventually dropped, both still have clean criminal records, and both were treated with respect, even while getting arrested. Casey was not.

Something else happened for both Tina and Dominique and their local communities, too: Eventually, the fracking stopped. The same cannot be said for Casey and the Ponca Nation.

A drone shot of a former fracking site in Gloucester, now bright green.
Gloucester. (Derek Henderson)

A Fight That’s Never Won

In summer 2019, people in Lancashire felt their homes shaken by tremors measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale. They were the UK’s largest fracking-related earthquakes to date. That November, the government halted procedures following a damning safety report that concluded there was no way to predict the probability or magnitude of future earthquakes. It finally felt like the fight was over—but Tina isn’t convinced.

“It’s only a moratorium, and all we did was keep them at bay until we had enough seismic events and time to diminish their resources for it to impact them,” she says. Today, Tina stays vigilant because she still feels a responsibility to make the most of her time. “I feel like I got here really late, and so I’ve got a lot to do before I go,” she adds.

There are certainly still people in government who aren’t on the Nanas’ side: In the fall of 2022, during her short stint as UK Prime Minister, Liz Truss promised to lift the UK’s ban on fracking. While just a few weeks later, the new Prime Minster Rishi Sunak reversed the decision, it was definitive proof the fight is far from finished in the UK.

Meanwhile, in Australia, less than a month after Dominique’s lock-on in Pilliga, she was at home when the phone rang: The fracking in Gloucester was over. The energy company AGL was withdrawing, citing disappointing production volumes. It was so sudden and unexpected that she could barely believe it. She remembers feeling euphoric. The activists all hurried into town, gathered in the street, and popped bottles of champagne.

“No one could wipe the smiles off their faces. It was so beautiful,” she says. It was a small group of people from a small town who had fought something bigger. She says a lot of people called it the mouse that roared. But not every battle has been won.

“I feel as if it’s time for everyone to take a stand in whatever form is necessary.”

In Oklahoma, fracking continues.

“We have so many societal ills caused by these colonists that it is just shameful. And that’s not on us. I will not allow my people to ever feel guilt,” Casey says.

She continues to speak about solutions to environmental destruction and the Rights of Nature. She fights fracking because she has not been given any other choice. As of 2020, Oklahoma was the fourth-largest producer of natural gas in the US. There are 43,232 wells in the state, according to US Energy Information Administration data from 2019. The number of rigs is falling, but slowly; and earlier in 2021, a natural gas pipeline exploded in northwestern Oklahoma. But Casey is not giving up the fight.

None of them are. For Tina, Dominique, and Casey, their work will never truly be over, even if the battles in their hometowns have been won—or will be. For all three women and the hundreds of others fighting fracking, there will always be another energy company arriving, another community being ignored, another generation facing a threat. They persist because they feel they must, because they want to leave a better world behind. They fight because they feel you must do everything you can to stop injustice, even if you might not see the change in your own lifetime.

Which is why Tina has stayed so vigilant, even four years after the last work truck left Lancashire. It’s why Casey still leads prayer walks, taking her strong and peaceful demeanor directly to Phillips 66 refineries across Oklahoma. And it’s why every couple of weeks, you’ll find Dominique stationed outside the Federal Politician’s Office in New South Wales, Australia. Fracking in Gloucester might be over, but the drills are still in the ground in much of the country, and for as long as they are, she will be there—dressed in her yellow clothes, forcing the government to listen, and knitting.

A gate for one of the former fracking sites in the UK. The Nanas have tied dozens of yellow ribbons on the fence, and separately wrapped yellow ribbon so that it spells FRACK FREE.
(Rory Payne)

Photography by Rory Payne, Derek Henderson, and Ryan Red Corn. Additional editing by Mariana Heredia. Fact checking by Tadhg Stevens.