Two years ago, when I was 15, I met President Obama. He inspired me to take action to protect my people, and today I hope he’ll help me again: I am running more than 2,000 miles to deliver a message asking him to stop a dangerous pipeline that could poison my community.
Growing up on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, it was easy to feel like the rest of the country didn’t care about us. The Standing Rock Reservation has very few resources for young people, and those that do exist are constantly shutting down for lack of funding. We have no teen center and few job or educational opportunities. Our people are dying of drug abuse and alcoholism. I’ve lost far too many loved ones to suicide.
I shared this with the president when he met with myself and a small group of young people from our tribe in 2014. It was an emotional meeting for all involved. We told him stories about our struggles on the reservation, and he cried with us when one of my friends talked about having to leave college in order to come home and care for his siblings after his mother became addicted to meth. We told the president what it was like to feel that, after centuries of violence and oppression toward Native American people, our country still doesn’t care about us.
In response, the president told us about how he and Michelle had also once felt like they were on the outside looking in, but by persistently raising their voices, they had been able to affect positive change for their communities and, ultimately, for the entire country. That day I knew I wanted to become a warrior for my people.
Now, three years later, I have embarked on a 2,000-mile journey across the country with 30 other young people from our reservation to ask the president and the Army Corps of Engineers to protect our home from the Dakota Access Pipeline. When we learned that the proposed pipeline would cross the Missouri River less than a mile from the Standing Rock Reservation, we started our first relay race to the Army Corps’ regional headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. Now that the Army Corps has granted a construction permit for the project, we are running all the way to Washington D.C. to demand that the decision be reversed.
The proposed 1,172-mile pipeline would transport 570,000 barrels of crude oil per day from North Dakota to Illinois. We know from experience that it’s not a matter of if the pipeline will leak, but when: from 2012 to 2013, there were nearly 300 oil pipeline breaks in the state of North Dakota alone. If this pipeline gets built, the next leak could go directly into my family’s drinking water.
For weeks we’ve been running along the path of the proposed pipeline. We take turns running and riding in support vans, and at night we stay in campgrounds or in the homes of people who have volunteered to house us. We run even when we are tired, even when the heat is almost unbearable.
We are carrying a message, just like our ancestors before us used to send runners to communicate between tribes. But this time we have the support of over 140,000 people from all over the world — including celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Shailene Woodley, and Ezra Miller — and our message is for the Army Corps of Engineers and the White House.
In addition to our change.org petition, I’ve personally written a letter to President Obama, asking him to use his influence and authority to stop this dangerous pipeline. Before I had the opportunity to meet with the president, I thought the world would never listen to a Native American girl like me. But since that day, and since I helped start this campaign, I know that I won’t stop raising my voice until we are heard.
This campaign has inspired the entire Standing Rock community and reminded the young people of the power each of us has to make change. I’m running so that Native American girls like me can see that people do care about us — we hold the strength of our ancestors, and they didn’t stop halfway to the finish line. We may be too young to vote in this election, but our cry for safe and clean water will be heard.
We are running to honor our ancestors and to ensure the safety of future generations of our tribe. We are running for our lives.
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