Debra White Plume death: Oglala Lakota environmental and civil rights activist dies aged 66

Michael Astor
Debra White Plume, who has died, speaking in 2014  (Kent Lebsock / YouTube)
Debra White Plume, who has died, speaking in 2014 (Kent Lebsock / YouTube)

Debra White Plume, a prominent Native American activist who faced down police bullets, uranium mining companies and oil pipeline projects in trying to protect the traditional Oglala Lakota way of life, died on 10 November in Rapid City, South Dakota. She was 66.

The cause was cancer, which was found in her lungs and abdomen, according to her husband, Alex White Plume.

In 1973, Debra White Plume was among the first people to join the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota, over demands that the US government respect its treaties with Indigenous tribes from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The police surrounded the town — the site of an 1890 massacre by US cavalry troops — and a 71-day standoff ensued. Both sides traded fire almost nightly, leaving two Native Americans dead and one federal agent paralysed by a gunshot.

“It was a moment in time — there was the women’s movement, there was the civil rights movement, there was the Vietnam War stuff going on, and we just said, ‘That’s enough for us, too. We’re not going to take this anymore,’” White Plume said in a videotaped interview in 2016 with the independent news organisation Democracy Now!

But little changed. Today some 20,000 Oglala Lakota eke out a hardscrabble existence on the reservation. Unemployment hovers at about 85 per cent, alcoholism is rampant, life expectancy is 30 years below the national average, and treaty rights are routinely ignored.

Those conditions prompted White Plume, in 1999, to help found Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way), an advocacy group dedicated to cultural preservation and the protection of Lakota treaty rights through nonviolent direct action. She became its executive director and held that title at her death.

White Plume came to see that the biggest challenge facing Native Americans was in protecting their water supply. She and others feared that uranium mining, just outside the reservation, could contaminate water with radioactivity and chemicals like arsenic, used in the extraction process. And they saw two major oil pipelines in the works — the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access — as threatening not only ancestral burial sites but also aquifers.

In 2015, White Plume was the lead plaintiff in a still unresolved lawsuit to stop the giant uranium mining company Cameco from expanding its operations at Crow Butte, a sacred site across the Nebraska border and within Lakota treaty territories. (The company has suspended its mining there.) And she had a leading role in promoting nonviolent direct action to protest the oil pipelines.

In 2011 she was arrested outside the White House in Washington during a protest over the Keystone project, a 1,200-mile pipeline that would extend from Alberta, Canada, to Nebraska.

In 2016, at the Standing Rock Reservation, which straddles North Dakota and South Dakota, she helped establish camps for thousands of occupying protesters who for months had gathered to stop the completion of the 1,172-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline.

“I’m Lakota, I’m a woman, and water is the domain of the women in our nation,” White Plume said in a video interview at Standing Rock. “And so it’s our privilege and our obligation to protect water.” She added. “If somebody wants to label me, I guess it would be water protector.”

Debra Richard — her Lakota name was Wioweya Najin Win — was born on the Pine Ridge reservation on 20 August 20, 1954. Her father, John Baptiste Reshaw, held a variety of jobs. Her mother, Bernice Ione (Swallow) Stone, who was from the Cheyenne tribe, helped run a shelter for battered women.

As a youth, White Plume travelled to California under the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which encouraged Native Americans to leave their traditional lands and assimilate in urban areas. She attended high school in San Jose for a time but eventually returned to Pine Ridge, where she graduated from Red Cloud High School and Oglala Lakota College.

The years following the Wounded Knee occupation were a violent time on the reservation, with infighting among its residents and clashes with the police. In the late 1970s, White Plume, along with her mother and one of her brothers, came under fire outside her home. She suffered a graze wound on her arm, and the others’ wounds were not life-threatening. They never found out who shot them but suspected that the attackers were undercover police officers.

She married Alex White Plume in 1988, and the couple settled down in a modest house along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek. There they reared their nine children and raised horses and a small herd of buffalo, which they kept for spiritual and cultural purposes.

The White Plumes gained news media attention in 1998 for planting industrial hemp, one of the few crops that could grow on the reservation, without Drug Enforcement Administration approval. (The crop is a species of cannabis.) Alex White Plume reasoned that because the reservation was sovereign Lakota territory, federal laws prohibiting hemp farming did not apply. The courts, however, disagreed and ordered the plants destroyed. (Congress legalised production in 2018.)

Debra White Plume appears briefly in the Michael Apted documentary Incident at Oglala (1992), about the murders of two FBI agents in 1975 and the conviction of Native American activist Leonard Peltier in the killings. And she is featured in the documentaries Standing Silent Nation (2006), about hemp farming, and Crying Earth Rise Up (2015), about the dangers of uranium mining.

In addition to her husband, White Plume is survived by their children — Johnny Joe White Plume, Lance Martin, Wacinhin Ska Win Rosebud White Plume, Jessica White Plume, Wiwang Waci Win Camp, Vic Camp, Posh Camp, Dallas White Plume and Sam Tall — as well as many grandchildren.

The New York Times

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