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Concern for the environment in the Nebraska and South Dakota region has unified members of a wide range of communities against Keystone XL. (Cole Stangler)

‘Cowboy Indian Alliance’ Takes a Stand Against Keystone XL

Ranchers, tribal communities, allies and activists camp out in Washington to protect their land.

BY Cole Stangler

'Water is the giver of life for everything. You, me, for every person on this planet. It’s all about water. And where they’re trying to put that pipeline is right above one of the largest freshwater sources in the country. So we’ve got to win it.'

Cliven Bundy wasn’t the only rancher to air his grievances against the federal government last week.

In Washington, D.C., a more inclusive, environmentally conscious and politically progressive pack of ranchers and farmers joined up with tribal communities and activist allies to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. This disparate coalition set up an encampment on the National Mall.

Citizens living along the route of the proposed pipeline formed the “Cowboy Indian Alliance” to both strengthen their own ties and to build solidarity nationwide. Dubbed “Reject & Protect,” the protest culminated in a several-thousand-person march on Saturday, April 26, afternoon and interfaith prayer ceremony on  the following Sunday.

“Today, boots and moccasins showed President Obama an unlikely alliance has his back to reject Keystone XL to protect our land and water,” said Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, which helped organize the event. Kleeb’s group has played a major role in galvanizing Nebraskan opposition to the pipeline, and it has backed several anti-KXL activists in state and local races this fall.

Activists started building their tipis on the Mall days after the Obama administration announced it was—once again—delaying its final decision on whether or not approve the pipeline. This time, State Department officials say they’re indefinitely extending their final review process until Nebraska courts can resolve a dispute over a controversial eminent domain law that paved the way for the current proposed route. In February, a county district judge found that 2012 law to be unconstitutional, and the Nebraska Supreme Court is now considering an appeal from the state attorney general.

The White House’s cold feet did little to detract from the energy and sense of urgency shared by protesters.

“Every time TransCanada gets delayed, it gives us more time to speak up and tell the truth,” Meghan Hammond, a sixth-generation Nebraska rancher, told the crowd on Saturday.

“Keystone XL is a death warrant for our people,” said Oglala Sioux Tribal President Bryan Brewer, who led the presentation of a hand-painted tipi to the National Museum of the American Indian—the main stop along the march route, which circled around the eastern edge of the Mall. “President Obama must reject this pipeline and protect our sacred land and water. The United States needs to respect our treaty rights and say no to Keystone XL.” 

Saturday’s actions featured a cross-section of the burgeoning climate justice movement that has united around opposition to TransCanada’s Keystone XL.

“We’re here in solidarity with our Sioux relatives, fighting this KXL pipeline, because what happens to them is going to happen to us ultimately,” says Coreen Roy, an activist with the Minneapolis-based Honor the Earth.

Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper Project would carry oil from Tioga, North Dakota, across Roy’s native White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota en route to a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. Other pipelines would then ship the oil to eastern Canada and the United States.

Irving Standing Soldier drove to Washington from Columbus, Ohio with his girlfriend and two sons. Born and raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Soldier says he came out to “support my people”—the Lakota.

“No sleep, long drive, cause it’s worth it,” he says. “We have to win this. Failure’s not an option. … It’s about water. Water is the giver of life for everything. You, me, for every person on this planet. It’s all about water. And where they’re trying to put that pipeline is right above one of the largest freshwater sources in the country. So we’ve got to win it. ”

“There’s still a lot of racism out there,” Soldier says. “In the border towns [of Nebraska and South Dakota], there’s a lot of racial tension, but this brings us together. And we agree on one thing. What I liked is the non-Indians said, ‘You guys, now we know what you’re talking about. We’ve got to protect our water.’ I love that, oh my god.”

Franklin & Marshall College senior Spencer Johnson came from Lancaster, Pa., where he helped found his school’s fossil fuel divestment chapter. In recent years, hundreds of such groups have sprung up on campuses across the country, demanding that their colleges and universities divest from holdings in the fossil fuel industry.

“We’re all part of this ecosystem,” Johnson says. “There’s that idea that there is no away—nothing ever goes away, it’s all just somewhere else, someone else is dealing with it. That’s the problem we’re going to see here. Because D.C.’s going to stay relatively spotless, but over in Nebraska and along the Keystone XL route, there’s going to be decimation of sacred land … That’s why I’m out here. I’m here because these people are the ones worth fighting for. We want to help them fight their fight. I think it’s important to show respect and not overstep your boundaries. Meet people where they’re at, just come out together and hold hands and make change.”

By nearly all accounts, protesters respected those boundaries.

At one point during Saturday’s rally, speaker Wizipan Garriott asked any protesters wearing face paint to wash it off their faces. Face paint, Garriott noted, is reserved for battle—not peaceful protests—and needs to be earned before being worn. According to this reporter’s unofficial analysis, nearly all of the culprits heeded Garriott’s call.

Republicans and pro-KXL Democrats have long complained about the Obama administration’s delay tactics. Democrat Mary Landrieu, the new chair of the Senate Energy Committee who’s up for re-election in oil-and-gas-rich Louisiana, called the decision “irresponsible, unnecessary and unacceptable,” and vowed to use her power as committee chair to push through approval. Others, like TransCanada, accuse the White House of pandering to environmentalists.

If that’s the case, America’s climate radicals do not feel the love.

“It’s a delay tactic,” says Spencer Johnson, when I ask what he thinks about the State Department’s latest extension of the review process. “It shows our government is inactive on climate change.”

He points to last year’s report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which warned that current fossil fuel consumption trends will lead to runaway climate change—in other words, a long-term average temperature increase in the range of 3.6 and 5.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, well above the 2 degree limit that climate scientists and policy experts have agreed on. The IEA report called for a transformation in energy generation. 

“They always say now is the time,” Johnson says. “But now is really the time. It’s time to crack down. It’s time to escalate, it’s time to get arrested, it’s time to fight, stand up for what you believe in.”

 

Cole Stangler is an In These Times staff writer and Schumann Fellow based in Washington D.C., covering labor, trade, foreign policy and environmental issues. His reporting has appeared in The Huffington Post and The American Prospect, and has been cited in The New York Times. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @colestangler.

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