WASHINGTON—It was an emotional scene at the White House Friday as dozens of tribal citizens traded their precious freedom in exchange for the hope of protecting Mother Earth—not to mention their own cultures, health, and livelihoods.
In all, 166 people were arrested for committing acts of civil disobedience at the White House gates facing Lafayette Park. Their crime was carrying signs too close to the gates—signs printed with the words “Obama Honor the Treaties” and “Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline”—as they verbally implored President Barack Obama not to sign off on the creation of a vast cross-border pipeline project that could prove environmentally and culturally dangerous. The president was scheduled to be in residence at the time the arrests began, and he planned to travel to Camp David later in the day.
The Obama administration, led by Hillary Clinton’s State Department, is considering its position on the matter as top Canadian officials and energy magnates have already come out in support of the pipeline’s expansion through the U.S. If approved, the development would stretch from the northern reaches of Canada through the Great Plains and down south to Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. Protesters cite environmental destruction, health and cultural impacts, and a lack of consultation with Indigenous Peoples who are already feeling the impact of the development as reasons for their concern.
“We have to stand up for Mother Earth. We have to stand up for our sacred water—for our children, our grandchildren, for the coming generations,” said Lakota activist Debra White Plume at a rally prior to her arrest. She said that the aftereffects of oil sands drilling that would come along with the expansion of the pipeline would likely desecrate the freshwater Ogallala Aquifer near her homelands in Pine Ridge, S.D.
“It is with great honor that I come here today to ask President Obama to stand with us for Mother Earth against Father Greed,” Plume said, adding that the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty could be violated if the pipeline crosses Native lands.
When White Plume was arrested as hundreds of onlookers watched, she calmly placed her arms behind her back as officers from the U.S. National Park Service cuffed her arms and led her to be taken to the city jail to be booked and released later in the day. Several Indians followed suit, peacefully submitting to arrest to document their displeasure for the history books, while hoping to have an impact on the immediate future.
The oil in Canada that would flow if the Keystone XL Pipeline expansion becomes a reality is contained in large underground formations called tar sands, and the extraction process is widely observed to be harmful to the land and can also pollute water sources. Another concern is that the company that owns the project has had several accidents involving its drilling projects in recent years.
Of those arrested, many were indigenous citizens of United States and Canadian tribes who journeyed long and far to the nation’s capital to make their voices heard against the development. One of the visitors, Chief Bill Erasmus of the Yellowknife Northwest Territories in northern Canada, said that fossil fuel development already taking place near his homelands, development that the proposed pipeline would expand upon, has already been a destructive force for Natives in the form of environmental pollution.
In light of his concerns, Erasmus was part of a group of indigenous citizens who recently sent Clinton a letter explaining their rationale for opposition. “Our people, in some areas, can no longer eat the fish,” he said at the rally. “Our people can no longer drink the water. Water levels are decreasing. Where I’m from, it’s never been like that before.”
In addition, such development is not necessary, he added.
“We’re saying that this pipeline is not needed,” Erasmus said. “The oil is not for America. The oil is for the highest bidder.”
According to indigenous and environmental organizers of the event, Obama has the ability to stop the pipeline in its tracks, even though its initial stages have already begun in Canada.
“If President Obama would just listen to what’s in his heart and not to the corporations, Barack you would know what to do,” said Kandi Mosset, who works with the Indigenous Environmental Network, at the rally. “Your heart tells you. Look at your little girls… What do you want them to remember from you when they grow up?”
Organizers said the number of people arrested during the indigenous gathering on the 13th day of ongoing protests was high compared to the numbers on previous days of arrests, which saw celebrities Daryl Hannah, Margot Kidder, and Tantoo Cardinal, a well-known Cree actress—as well as hundreds of non-famous citizens—arrested for the cause.
Beyond those arrested, hundreds more attended the late-morning protest, which drifted into mid-afternoon by the time everyone had been handcuffed. Throughout, the protesters remained in strong spirit, joking with each other as they waited their turns with police, and occasionally bursting into group chants such as, “No tar sands, no pipeline, no problems,” and, “This is what democracy looks like!”
Representatives of the National Congress of American Indians did not officially take part in the demonstration, even though the D.C.-based Indian advocacy organization in August issued a statement against the pipeline, saying it poses a major threat to Indians.
“The National Congress of American Indians is not involved in the civil disobedience actions at the White House,” said NCAI spokesman Thom Wallace. “However, we continue to communicate and stand firm on the position from our resolution that the pipeline poses grave dangers to tribal nations.”