Pine Ridge Reservation, United States – Indigenous rights activist and community organiser Deborah White Plume has spent more than seven weeks at the protest camp in Cannonball, North Dakota, where for the last two months thousands have gathered to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).
Energy Transfer Partners, a Texas-based corporation, is behind the pipeline, which will stretch more than 1,900km and carry oil from North Dakota to Illinois.
It will pass through an area bordering reservation land belonging to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose members say it will threaten cultural heritage sites on their ancestral lands, as well as their water supply.
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Speaking to The Associated Press news agency, North Dakota state officials claimed there were no culturally sensitive sites on the pipeline’s route.
On Thursday, North Dakota police arrested at least 141 protesters as officers evicted the activists and indigenous people from a campsite on land owned by Energy Transfer Partners. They fired pepper spray and bean-bag rounds as protesters attempted to evade eviction. Protesters have vowed to relocate and set up another camp on government-owned land.
White Plume, the director of the Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way) nonprofit group, says the DAPL is an “attack” on indigenous nations in the United States. She spoke to Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
Al Jazeera: What statement are you making by protesting?
Deborah White Plume: The camp is set up right north of the little village of Cannonball, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Reservation. When I left [last week] there were easily 5,000 people there. Just being in camp is a direct action; just being in that camp is making a statement. The statement is we need to protect sacred water, not only from DAPL but from the whole fossil fuel industry, from uranium mining and from the many threats that the American people and Mother Earth are faced with on the daily.
Al Jazeera: How has North Dakota’s law enforcement responded to the protest camp?
White Plume: The response of law enforcement in North Dakota is to protect the corporations’ ‘right to mine’ … The corporation has hired private security firms, but those are only a handful of men. Apparently the corporation doesn’t want to hire hundreds and hundreds of security guards at their own expense. So they called on the law enforcement of North Dakota to go out at the taxpayers’ expense to face off with the water protectors who are on the land to say a prayer.
They’re bringing great big military vehicles… They’re armed with bean-bag guns and pellet guns. The rest are carrying live [ammunition] and they have their finger on the trigger.
Al Jazeera: Videos of security guards releasing dogs on protesters have gone viral. What’s the story behind those scenes?
We are seeing to what extent the government will go to in order to protect a corporation.
White Plume: On the day of the desecration, the DAPL’s strategy was to plough up the very earth that [a day earlier] their attorneys [had been informed] was a place of ancient historical and cultural properties. They got the information on Friday and on Saturday morning and came with maybe 10 earth-movers and they were ploughing at the land.
We ran out there crying and hollering at them to stop. ‘Just stop – you’re digging up graves.’ Their security firm had kennels in the backs of their trucks. They ran over there to unlock their kennels and got their dogs out. Some of the dogs attacked us. Some of the dogs attacked their own handlers, biting up the security guards who were trying to release them on us. It was pretty scary. There were maybe 200 women and several men who joined us. But the frontline going in was women, and we were facing these big earth-movers and these security men and dogs. The police stood on the highway, maybe half-a-mile away, watching us being attacked by the security guards and the dogs.
It’s a really frightening situation up there in North Dakota right now. We are seeing to what extent the government will go to in order to protect a corporation.
Al Jazeera: Are the potential risks of the DAPL bigger than just Standing Rock?
White Plume: Where we sit here on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota, our drinking water comes out of a pipeline that gets its water from the Missouri River. And we’re a six-hour drive away from Cannonball, North Dakota, where the camp is set up. This is not a Standing Rock issue. The camp itself is near Standing Rock, but the drinking water is a source for 17 million Americans. It also irrigates the bread basket of … this part of the country. So, it’s an issue that is much, much bigger than the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe – and many of us feel that it’s a global issue.
The Missouri River has a number of pipelines under it already; but now in this age of social media … we know about what’s happening. It’s our privilege to go up there and stand on the land and protect the water for our children and our children’s children. All Americans, I think, should be concerned by this.
Al Jazeera: What does this pipeline mean specifically for indigenous people in the US?
White Plume: You go to any native nation in America and we’re always having to defend our land and our water from the fat-taker corporations who want gold or silver, oil, gas, uranium, water – whatever it is they want – on [Native American] lands. They are accustomed to rolling over whoever is in front of them and taking whatever they want.
We here on the Pine Ridge [Reservation] have fought off uranium corporations, oil corporations, gas corporations and water-bottling corporations. And it’s the same in many places across America. Standing Rock is just one case of exploitation among many that are happening right now all across America where Native nations are having to defend their ancestral territory and their birthright to continue living there unharmed and unpolluted.
Al Jazeera: What do you say to those who argue that the DAPL will bring economic benefits to the region?
White Plume: What we have are competing worldviews. The fat-taker corporations don’t care what they pollute as long as they make a profit. Our worldview is that the water and everything on earth are our relatives. It’s our duty and our privilege to defend our relatives. Those are two very opposing worldviews, and it’s not going to be settled overnight. We want to stop this DAPL because it’s such a major threat. It can mean genocide for the people who depend on that water, primarily native nations.
There are at least 30,000 Oglala Lakotas [tribespeople] on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Where are we going to find enough water for 30,000 Oglalas? That’s just a glimpse into what could happen if that pipeline breaks, ruptures or explodes. Where are we going to find an alternative source for the 17 million Americans who drink water from that river?
There is no alternative source. We are at a tipping point. The average American needs to get off the couch, get out of the mall, get off Facebook, and come to the river to protect the drinking water before you don’t have any left to protect.
It’s a cozy relationship between governments and corporations. To me, they’re the apparatus of oppression together. They are strong allies, and they’re going to protect each other. But they’re not the only game in town. We are using peaceful resistance to protect our water.
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_