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These Native American Youths Are Running 2,000 Miles to Protect Their Water

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Source: ReZpect Our Water/Facebook

“Most of us coming from the reservation have never been this far from home,” Bobbi Jean Three Legs, a resident of the Standing Rock Reservation, told PEOPLE on her 18th day of a 2,000-mile journey.

Three Legs spoke with PEOPLE from Frederick, Maryland – the last stop she and a group of 37 other Native Americans, mostly teens, made before completing a 2,000-mile run to Washington, D.C. to deliver the most important message of their lives.

The group ran from the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota all the way to Washington to hand over a petition started by Three Legs, 25, and Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer, 13, to stop construction on a massive oil pipeline that would cross the Missouri River, putting their community’s sole water source at risk.

The petition, addressed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which approved plans for the pipeline in July, has earned 157,000 signatures and garnered support from a long list of celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Shailene Woodley and Jason Momoa.

“The support has been tremendous,” Three Legs said. “I hope we’re opening a lot of people’s hearts and minds to the reality that protecting water isn’t just a native issue – it affects everybody.”

Native and environmental groups alike have been protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,168-mile conduit that would carry fracked oil from North Dakota all the way to Illinois, for two years. They argue that the Missouri River, which the pipeline would cross under, is too precious a water source to risk contamination from an oil spill or leak.

“They plan to push through 570,000 barrels of crude oil a day, can you even imagine the damage 20 gallons of oil would do to our river?” Three legs asked.

The project’s sponsors, Energy Transfer, who did not return requests for comment for this story, have said a leak is unlikely.

The young people disagree. Rain Yellowhammer pointed out that there were 300 oil pipeline spills between 2012 and 2013 in North Dakota alone. This includes a spill of over 865,000 gallons of oil from a Tesoro Logistics pipeline in Tioga, North Dakota in 2013, as reported by the New York Times.

“Once that oil gets into our water, life around it will be ruined,” Three Legs said. “What are we going to do if we don’t have water?”

Rain Yellowhammer said the exclusion of the Standing Rock Reservation in the pipeline’s environmental assessment reinforces the idea that the future existence of her community has not been taken into account.

“Native Americans are still part of this country,” she said. “People act like we’re gone but we’re still here.”

So, Rain Yellowhammer and her group ran between 30 and 70 miles per day, through rain and sweltering heat, to show everyone they can that they deserve a future.

“I want people to know what our lives are like on the reservation so they can understand how it would feel to have this pipeline threatening our river,” Three Legs said. “We use the river to cook, to bathe, to quench our thirst, my family is at the river every day.”

On Saturday, the group will hold a rally in Washington’s Lafayette Square, across from the White House, and on Sunday, they’ll continue to raise awareness in New York’s Union Square. They said they won’t stop until the pipeline is defeated – they feel they don’t have a choice.

“What keeps me going is imagining what life would be like if we gave up and the pipeline broke,” Three Legs said. “It would affect my daughter, it would affect my grandchildren that aren’t even born yet and it will affect generations and generations after that.”

“It feels like nobody’s thinking about our future,” she continued. “We deserve a future too.”