|Photos by Vi Waln|
by Debra White Plume
Water is finite, and sacred. “Mni wicozani”, through water there is life. We must drink clean, nourishing water to live. Just as Mother Earth is made up of a lot of water, our human bodies are 70% water. That is why at Full Moon, and the tides change, some human beings have strong, unpredictable behavior. To our Lakota people, mni (water) is our first medicine, our first home. There are entire spiritual and social teachings that we learn as we grow up, our Lakota World View about water. Mni is our relative, and Lakota Law compels us to protect our relatives. Mother Earth is our relative.
This belief led our organization Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way), which is involved with cultural preservation and revitalization, Treaty Rights and Human Rights, to begin looking at disproportionate cancer and diabetes rates on the Pine Ridge Homeland. This research took us places we never thought we would be! We examined air and water quality studies, which led us to the Cameco, Inc. in situ leach uranium mine 30 minutes from our southern border. We learned that ISL uranium mining contaminates an incredible amount of water, on a daily basis. Cameco was up for license renewal and had submitted another application to open a second mine. We researched that process, and found we could submit interventions, based on science and law. We did that, and are now plaintiffs in the case against Cameco’s ‘right’ to poison our water. That was 7 years ago. This work continues.
Water protection work requires constant research, in doing so I learned about the tarsands oil mine in First Nations Territory in the Athabascan River Basin where Ft McMurry is, in Canada. Learning about that mine and its’ impacts to Mother Earth was mind jolting, so I began to speak out more about this horrendous desecration of Mother Earth and our First Nations relatives. The tarsands oil mine is decades old, and has become the dirtiest mining operation in the world. The corporations snuck in decades ago, fooling elected leaders into signing contracts of extraction, contracts that are resulting in increased forms of rare cancer, people are dying, so are fish, moose and other animals that the people depend on for food. It has become a food issue. Will it become a famine issue? The pristine Boreal Forest is being clearcut, the Amazon of the North is being destroyed, millions of birds and other animals have died, species have become extinct. The mine uses 3 to 4 barrels of pristine drinking water to create 1 barrel of oil, each day. It creates so much green house gases, the output can hardly be measured.
Studying the tarsands oil mine led to the discovery of TransCanada corporation’s intent to build and operate the Keystone XL oil pipeline from the tarsands oil mine into Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas where it would be refined and shipped out to who-knows-where. We learned the KXL oil pipeline was three feet in diameter, thin, and would high pressure slurry the heavy crude oil that had to be heated to 150 degrees F to liquefy it enough to push through that pipeline. There is a union worker who turned whistle blower when he was fired for declaring the pipe defective, which corporate workers would re-tag as approved. He gave up a lifelong career. I met him in DC.
The pipeline would cross our Rural Water pipeline, which transports drinking water from the Missouri River, 200 miles away, to our communities on the Pine Ridge. The KXL pipeline would cross 200 lakes and streams and rivers. It would be buried in the Ogllala Aquifer, which irrigates 30% of the food grown in the USA, and which provides drinking water for 2 million people, and for cattle, horses, buffalo and other four legged. Trans-Canada would use a lot of drinking water to mix with that heavy crude. Sacred and social teachings about water propelled me into devoting more and more time into fighting the life and death situation that this oil pipeline had become. I knew the threats to our ground and surface from uranium mining, and learning about this oil pipeline taught me that it threatens our very lives, for where would we get enough drinking water for the 50,000 Oglala Lakota people on the Pine Ridge when the pipeline spilled or leaked? Who would care enough to do something about it? The technology does not exist to clean up this kind of heavy crude. No pipe has been created that does not leak or spill.
Friends from the Indigenous Environmental Network contacted me, and we began a dialogue about water protection, contamination, a number of other topics. Tribes along the pipeline route took action to oppose the pipeline. Every Native Nation organization in the USA raised their voice to say No. I decided to go to Washington, DC to participate in a Senate Briefing Hearing, and meet with the State Department officials about Ft Laramie Treaty violations and violations of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the United Nations in 2007. I traveled with others to Pierre, SD to testify at a State Dept hearing, but was not able to, as I was number 152. I saw drunken union workers testify about how they needed a job welding. They mostly came from out of state.
Then my family and I decided I would go to Washington DC. I participated in a civil disobedience direct action, trespassed at the White House and got arrested, along with 1200 other people who wanted to help get this issue into the minds of mainstream America and the attention of President Obama. There were a dozen of us Native Nations people who were arrested. The Lakota people on Pine Ridge hosted Tom Weis, who rode a solar powered bike from Montana to Texas to raise awareness along the KXL oil pipeline route. We hosted a Rally for Mother Earth in Pine Ridge, and a march. We hosted a Ride for Solidarity with ranchers, farmers, Lakota people, and an American movie star, Darryl Hannah. We had radio shows, wrote articles, attended events. Next thing I knew, I was on the Tour of Resistance, I flew 10,000 miles in 5 weeks. Halfway through, I lost my hairbrush, my comb, and only had one sock. Good thing it was almost over by then! On January 15, a group of us Lakota people hosted Winyan Ituwan, a women’s gathering with the focus on Mother Earth and Sacred Water, with guest speakers including Kandi Mosset of IEN and Tantoo Cardinal, a Cree movie star from Canada. All to raise awareness and resistance to uranium mining and the KXL oil pipeline and the tarsands oil mine, and protection for our sacred water.
Nebraska started out to protect the Ogllala Aquifer, but became involved in negotiations to allow the pipeline in along an undetermined route. South Dakota GAVE KXL $30 million in tax breaks to come here, Montana made concessions as well. However, individuals and groups got involved, big time. Environmental groups, many other civic groups, thousands of people on both sides of the Canadian/USA border spoke with the same voice, STOP THE PIPELINE. Nobel Laureates, Native Nation and First Nation Chiefs and Presidents, scientists, retired military, Olympic Medalists, Senators, Congressmen, actors, writers, students, people from all walks of life raised their voices and risked their freedom to stop the pipeline. Rarely did USA’s mainstream media cover any of this, but in the little towns and small cities, local newspapers and radio shows did. Word got out, numbers of resisters grew. The last time I went to DC, I spoke at a rally of 15,000 people, we circled the White House 4 times. People came from all over, to speak with one voice. We made friends and allies.
Nebraska politicians had a special hearing to allow KXL to come in, but the White House heard the message to protect the Ogllala Aquifer. Then TransCanada pushed the USA to make a decision, and elected politicians lifted their voices to support the KXL, attached a new bill as a rider to a jobs bill, gave the White House 60 days to let KXL in or to reject the pipeline as against the national interest.
On January 18, 2012, the State Dept and President Obama rejected the pipeline, as 60 days was inadequate to conduct environmental impact studies. However, TransCanada can still apply for a new permit.
Each of us who worked on this life and death situation, we are a thread in this fabric of resistance. Folks wrote letters, gave speeches, cooked food, wrote emails, tweeted, did FaceBook postings, made banners, pitched in gas money, made tshirts, made phone calls, did research, made copies, stood in line to testify, got arrested, lobbied Senators and Congressmen, babysat, loaned out their cars, offered a couch or a spare room, musicians/artists doing pro bono benefits, shared frequent flyer miles, took pictures, raised money, it was truly a collective action to protect our water and Mother Earth.
There is no one person, nor one organization, that stopped the pipeline, this victory that may be temporary, this partial victory, as the tarsands oil mine is still operating. It was the love of the many, for Mother Earth and coming generations, the many prayers and sacrifices that gave this movement its power. I believe love is stronger than greed. I believe that people working together can be just as effective as the world’s richest corporations. I believe Mother Earth wants to live, and we cannot live without Her. I believe our Lakota prophecy, “Someday the Earth will weep, She will cry with tears of blood. You must make a choice. You help Her, or She will die. When She dies, you too will die.”
All over the world, events are unfolding, 200 tornadoes in two days last summer? Earthquakes and shakes where there have been none for hundreds of years? Floods? Droughts? All common weather events, but uncommon in the repeated occurrences or place of occurrence. Every summer has been hotter than the last since 1996. Mother Earth is telling us something, She is crying, and She is rising. Crying Earth Rise Up! Whatever befalls Mother Earth, befalls the people of Mother Earth. Such a struggle is made up of many, many threads, together we form a beautiful fabric of resistance, and protection for our Mother, Mother Earth.
The last time we left DC, my friend and I saw a huge red tailed hawk, he swooped over us, and over the White House, and he flew to the west. The day of Winyan Ituwan Winter Gathering, we saw a bald eagle circle over us, and he flew off to the West. Sacred messages ... if we listen, we can hear, if we hear, we can understand. When we understand, we give thanks. Lila wopila iciciyapi. Hecetuye.