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Why Yuroks stand with Sioux against North Dakota pipeline

Protesters sit in a prayer circle in October to oppose the North Dakota Access Pipeline. Members of more than 200 tribes from across North America have come to the encampment.
Protesters sit in a prayer circle in October to oppose the North Dakota Access Pipeline. Members of more than 200 tribes from across North America have come to the encampment. The Bismarck Tribune

On my wedding day, Uncle Raymond gave me a framed photograph of two boats on the Klamath River. In one boat is my great-grandmother, a full-blooded Yurok Indian less than 5 feet tall and in her 70s, and my grandmother holding a fishing net. In the other boat are men in police uniforms, wearing helmets and holding machine guns.

In 1978 and 1979, federal agents came to my homeland on the Yurok reservation in the far northwest corner of California to prevent tribal members from fishing in a river that goes back to our beginnings. They beat tribal members and raided homes in the middle of the night. Bumper stickers read, “Can an Indian, Save a Salmon.”

My people held strong throughout those times, known as the salmon wars. We won and continue to protect and fish the Klamath River today. This is my family story.

Lately, I have been following a new story. It’s about an oil pipeline in North Dakota and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s fight to protect its sacred sites and water rights. This month, I traveled there to visit the tribe’s people and the thousands of others from around the globe supporting the fight.

Since April, the Oceti Sakowin Camp in Cannonball has served as a rallying place for native people and their allies. The Standing Rock reservation is near the Missouri River, where construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline continues. The $3.8 billion project would connect two oil production areas in North Dakota and would carry 470,000 barrels a day of crude oil across four states. The developer argues that the project will generate tax revenue and jobs, but the tribe contends that the pipeline will lead to contaminated drinking water and the destruction of sacred burial and cultural sites.

As outlined in the Constitution, the federal government has a trust responsibility to protect all Indian nations’ water resources. The government must take action now to ensure the Standing Rock Sioux’s rights are recognized and resources are safeguarded for future generations.

Standing Rock tribal members and supporters rally daily near the construction site. Elders sing and lead prayers. These peaceful demonstrations have been met with police in riot gear, resulting in more than 150 arrests over the last two weeks alone.

Two leaders with Building Healthy Communities, Del Norte and Adjacent Tribal Lands were jailed for three days. It’s particularly ironic that Kevin Vue, 18, of Crescent City, whose family fled violence in Laos, was arrested while peacefully supporting Native Americans.

In this incredible moment of unity, it’s important to remember that injustices facing native communities today are far more widespread. Here in California, the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribes have been fighting for the health of the Klamath and Trinity rivers for decades. Youth living on our reservations face high suicide and drug abuse rates. Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than other ethnic groups.

We can all be part of this most important cause. Read and pay attention. Take a stand in opposition to violence directed at native people. We must do our part to change the narrative.

Geneva Wiki, a Yurok tribal member who lives in Crescent City, is the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities program manager for the Del Norte and Adjacent Tribal Lands. She can be contacted at gwiki@calendow.org.

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