The Unlikely Alliance That Could Stop Keystone and Transform the Democratic Party

Natives and ranchers are teaming up to save their water and land from corporate takeover.

Kate Aronoff September 26, 2017

Offi­cial­ly, the fate of one of the most high-pro­file cor­po­rate infra­struc­ture projects in a gen­er­a­tion now rests with an obscure reg­u­la­to­ry body in one of this country’s most sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed states: Nebraska’s Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion. Unof­fi­cial­ly, the home­grown move­ment that blocked the Key­stone XL pipeline once before is ready to stop it again — even if com­mis­sion­ers give it a green light.

“We can start to think about what running a decolonized nation in 2017 looks like.”

A rul­ing isn’t expect­ed until Novem­ber, but after the commission’s lat­est hear­ings adjourned August 10, Jane Kleeb, one of the pipeline’s high­est-pro­file oppo­nents and now the chair of the Nebras­ka Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty — flanked by landown­ers who live along its pro­posed route — made an uncon­di­tion­al pledge: Stand­ing Rock was a dress rehearsal com­pared to what this will be. We are not going to let an inch of for­eign steel touch Nebras­ka soil.”

A gaunt­let had been thrown.

It’s unclear whether Tran­sCana­da even wants to build the pipeline, with the price of crude oil falling. But the White House has put its clout behind fin­ish­ing both Key­stone XL and the Dako­ta Access Pipeline (DAPL) — the one that sparked last year’s his­toric encamp­ments at Stand­ing Rock.

What­ev­er the fate of the pipelines, their polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion is poised to endure. Pipeline resis­tance — ini­tial­ly ener­gized around issues of land and water rights — has sparked a pro­gres­sive pop­ulism in red-state Amer­i­ca, defined by unlike­ly mul­ti-racial alliances and an excite­ment about win­ning elec­toral pow­er. That pop­ulism may just hold the key to trans­form­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty into a force that fights against cor­po­rate pow­er and for work­ing peo­ple — and wins.


Faith Spot­ted Eagle was born in 1948 along the Mis­souri Riv­er. One of her first mem­o­ries is of watch­ing her rel­a­tives in the Yank­ton Sioux (Ihank­ton­wan Dako­ta Oyate) tribe flee their land in advance of a man-made flood. They were stand­ing on one of 552 square miles of reser­va­tion land being inun­dat­ed by order of Con­gress under the Pick-Sloan Plan, which autho­rized the Army Corps of Engi­neers and a slew of pri­vate con­trac­tors to take over large swaths of the Mis­souri Riv­er Val­ley. They were mak­ing way for what are now five of the world’s largest earth­en dams — dams that dis­placed an esti­mat­ed 3,538 Native peo­ple via emi­nent domain. Spot­ted Eagle, who lives in South Dako­ta, says, My com­plete com­mu­ni­ty was essen­tial­ly killed.” 

Spot­ted Eagle has emerged as one of the nation’s most promi­nent anti-pipeline orga­niz­ers, nur­tur­ing the growth of alliances between Native tribes and groups his­tor­i­cal­ly at odds with Plains Indi­ans over land and resources: white farm­ers and ranchers.

Today’s water pol­i­tics in the High Plains are no less tox­ic than in Spot­ted Eagle’s youth. The com­pa­ny behind DAPL, which ini­tial­ly con­sid­ered rout­ing the pipeline across the Mis­souri Riv­er just north of the 92-per­cent-white city of Bis­mar­ck, rerout­ed it through land pro­vi­sioned for the Sioux by the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties, in part to pro­tect Bismarck’s water sup­ply. The now-oper­a­tional pipeline instead cross­es the Mis­souri Riv­er just upstream from where the reser­va­tion of the Stand­ing Rock Sioux Tribe gets its drink­ing water. The Key­stone XL pipeline, too, would cross over treaty land and the Mis­souri, as well as the mas­sive under­ground Ogal­lala Aquifer, which pro­vides 81 per­cent of the water used in the arid High Plains.

One of the biggest prob­lems with all this is that pipelines tend to leak. There have been almost 9,000 sig­nif­i­cant pipeline inci­dents — explo­sions, leaks and spills — over the last 30 years in the Unit­ed States, involv­ing thou­sands of tem­po­rary evac­u­a­tions and hun­dreds of human deaths. DAPL sprang two leaks before it even came online, although both were quick­ly contained.

Water con­t­a­m­i­na­tion is of spe­cial con­cern for the tribes. If any one phrase cap­tures what has ani­mat­ed the bat­tles against Key­stone XL and DAPL, it’s Mni Wiconi, Lako­ta for water is life.”

It’s the first med­i­cine,” Spot­ted Eagle says. When a baby is being born there’s water, and two-thirds of our bod­ies are water, which is a reflec­tion of Moth­er Earth.”

Water infra­struc­ture in the rur­al areas on and around reser­va­tions tends to be either dras­ti­cal­ly under­fund­ed or nonex­is­tent. Accord­ing to a 2013 report from the Indi­an Health Ser­vice, a fed­er­al agency, 7.5 per­cent of Native Amer­i­can and Alas­ka Native homes lack safe drink­ing water. Com­bined with reser­va­tions’ stun­ning­ly high pover­ty rates (43.2 per­cent at Stand­ing Rock), the destruc­tion of the area’s main source of drink­ing water could pro­voke seri­ous health crises.

Water qual­i­ty is also a seri­ous con­cern for farm­ers and ranch­ers, whose liveli­hoods depend on clean water for crops and cat­tle. Fifty-four per­cent of land on the Ogal­lala Aquifer is used for agri­cul­ture, includ­ing the sev­er­al-hun­dred-mile stretch through Nebras­ka and South Dako­ta where many Tran­sCana­da oppo­nents live. Farmer Art Tanderup, an anti-pipeline advo­cate whose land Key­stone would cross, explains that the farm­land on the Ogal­lala is basi­cal­ly a sponge,” mak­ing it excep­tion­al­ly vulnerable.

It would be dev­as­tat­ing,” he says of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a major spill. We would not be able to have drink­ing water here … or to farm or build up topsoil.”

Like many farm­ers and ranch­ers, Tanderup first encoun­tered Tran­sCana­da when com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tives turned up on his doorstep, offer­ing a five-fig­ure sum to lay pipe under his land. (Key­stone XL and DAPL are both under­ground pipeline projects.) To hear many landown­ers tell it, these inter­ac­tions quick­ly turned sour and com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tives moved to start emi­nent domain pro­ceed­ings against those who didn’t accept their offers. Along­side fears of water con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, many in the area object­ed out of prin­ci­ple, see­ing an encroach­ment upon their prop­er­ty rights. In response, sev­er­al landown­ers — work­ing with the statewide non-prof­it Bold Nebras­ka — filed law­suits to halt the TransCanada’s emi­nent domain pro­ceed­ings against them. Tran­sCana­da dropped the pro­ceed­ings in late 2015, about a month before the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion blocked the pipeline.

Spot­ted Eagle recalls meet­ings in 2013 about Key­stone XL between the tribes and landown­ers. We watched their emo­tion­al trau­ma of their land being tak­en,” she says. That’s very famil­iar to us. They were fac­ing emi­nent domain. I think a lot of peo­ple had nev­er dealt with that in Amer­i­ca. When we saw that hap­pen­ing, the imme­di­ate thing that came to our mind was that, because of their pain, these could be allies.”

As a result of those expe­ri­ences, Spot­ted Eagle and sev­er­al oth­er orga­niz­ers with the Yank­ton Sioux revived the Cow­boy Indi­an Alliance, tak­ing on the man­tle of a 1980s coali­tion against ura­ni­um min­ing and muni­tions test­ing in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Since reform­ing, the alliance has been a leader in the Key­stone fight. In 2014, farm­ers and trib­al elders rode side-by-side on horse­back to the Nation­al Mall, where they set up a week­long encampment.


The new ener­gy on the ground in the Great Plains isn’t stop­ping with oppo­si­tion to pipelines. In states across the region, coali­tions that formed to chal­lenge the oil indus­try are now push­ing to take local offices.

In Nebras­ka, bat­tling pipelines has primed peo­ple around the state for a broad­er set of pro­gres­sive ideas, while pro­vid­ing invalu­able infor­ma­tion about what works and what doesn’t out­side the more lib­er­al Lin­coln and Omaha.

One of the most pub­lic faces of the resis­tance against Tran­sCana­da in Nebras­ka now hap­pens to run the state’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Elect­ed in June 2016, Jane Kleeb has spent the last sev­er­al years dri­ving around the Corn­husker State con­vinc­ing farm­ers and ranch­ers, many of them Repub­li­cans, to join what’s become one of this century’s biggest anti-cor­po­rate campaigns.

Nebras­ka has had Repub­li­can gov­er­nors since 1999. Since 1995, it has only once elect­ed a Demo­c­rat to Con­gress. Kleeb found­ed the advo­ca­cy group Bold Nebras­ka in 2010, and knows what it means to orga­nize uphill in a red state.

Gen­er­al­ly, they hate big,” Kleeb says of the landown­ers she’s met through the course of the Key­stone fight. That’s big gov­ern­ment, but that’s also big cor­po­ra­tions that want to take their land through emi­nent domain, or big agriculture.”

Key­stone, Kleeb says, was the first issue that they saw up close and per­son­al that the politi­cians in office weren’t rep­re­sent­ing their best inter­est and were turn­ing their back on a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of con­ser­vatism: pro­tect­ing indi­vid­ual prop­er­ty rights.” Nebraska’s rul­ing GOP had been a con­sis­tent boost­er of the project. Tran­sCana­da spent near­ly a mil­lion dol­lars lob­by­ing in Nebras­ka over the course of their push to build Key­stone XL.

An anti-estab­lish­ment ethos is by no means new to Nebras­ka. In the ear­ly 1890s, the People’s Par­ty — the Pop­ulists — swept through the Great Plains and the South­ern Black Belt. In 1892, the party’s Oma­ha Plat­form includ­ed calls to nation­al­ize the rail­roads, tele­graph lines and phone lines, as well as for the then-utopi­an idea of an eight-hour work­day. Nebras­ka was the epi­cen­ter of the People’s Party’s agrar­i­an pop­ulism, elect­ing two Pop­ulist gov­er­nors and sev­en con­gress­men. Part of that wave was Demo­c­rat William Jen­nings Bryan, who ral­lied sup­port­ers against East­ern elites” who made it hard­er for farm­ers to bring their crops to mar­ket through high-inter­est loans and monop­oly con­trol of the railroads.

Farm­ing is the core of Nebraskan pride, and today’s revived pro­gres­sivism has been primed by increas­ing cor­po­rate dom­i­na­tion over the agri­cul­tur­al sec­tor. That’s also what has led sev­er­al of the farm­ers who In These Times spoke with to opt out of con­tracts with the big grow­ers that dom­i­nate the state, like Cargill and ConAgra.

Among them is Jim Knopik, a farmer who lives just west of Fuller­ton and has been deeply involved in the Key­stone fight with Bold Nebraska.

It’s the cor­po­ra­tions ver­sus indi­vid­u­als and small pro­duc­ers,” Knopik says. You have your big oper­a­tors who are run­ning four to five thou­sand-acre farms now under one manager.”

That Tran­sCana­da would mis­treat farm­ers isn’t all that sur­pris­ing to those who’ve watched Big Ag take over their indus­try. It’s also why Knopik and many oth­er rur­al Nebraskans are fans of Bernie Sanders, who won the state’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Primary.

He thinks about peo­ple as a whole, not just a select­ed few,” Knopik says. That’s what elect­ed offi­cials are sup­posed to do.” His face lights up describ­ing a cam­paign ral­ly for Sanders he attend­ed in Lin­coln, where 1,500 peo­ple were turned away because one of the city’s largest audi­to­ri­ums hit capacity.

Kleeb notes one major chal­lenge for the Nebras­ka Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty (NDP) is the nation­al party’s dis­in­vest­ment from red states and state par­ties in gen­er­al. She says this not just as the leader of the NDP, but as a mem­ber of both the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Committee’s Uni­ty Reform Com­mis­sion and the board of direc­tors for Our Rev­o­lu­tion, which grew out of Sanders’ campaign.

Because we had pres­i­dent Oba­ma in office for eight years, peo­ple got very com­fort­able with poli­cies and cul­ture and meth­ods com­ing from the White House,” Kleeb says. And it com­plete­ly then starved all of the basic infra­struc­ture that actu­al­ly wins elec­tions at the local level.”

While the NDP is back­ing Demo­c­rat Jane Ray­bould in her chal­lenge to incum­bent Sen. Deb Fis­ch­er ®, much of the party’s rebuild­ing efforts con­sist of run­ning can­di­dates for hyper-local offices, in many cas­es for the kinds of unsexy posi­tions pipeline fight­ers have become well acquaint­ed with. These include seats on the Nebras­ka Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion, now delib­er­at­ing on Keystone’s fate. Vir­tu­al­ly any­one who’s been deeply involved in anti-Key­stone efforts can rat­tle off intri­cate details about Nebraska’s reg­u­la­to­ry pro­ce­dures. As the par­ty attempts to regain lost ground, that knowl­edge could come in handy.

I’ve been in pol­i­tics now for 20 years, and this is the first time I feel like peo­ple are com­ing out of the wood­work to say, I want to run,’ ” Kleeb says. One of the first things we tell new peo­ple is, let’s look at Nat­ur­al Resource Dis­trict offices. Let’s look at pub­lic pow­er dis­tricts,” which con­trol Nebraska’s elec­tric util­i­ties. Let’s look at the Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion. Imme­di­ate­ly peo­ple think of Con­gress, gov­er­nor and state leg­is­la­ture. If you care about ener­gy and cli­mate change and water, though, it’s these bod­ies that have real power.”

The NDP is look­ing to mount can­di­dates for the two Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion seats up for grabs in 2018. While high­ly spe­cial­ized, these posi­tions are key to deter­min­ing every­thing from water qual­i­ty stan­dards to where towns get their power.

Though Democ­rats seem to agree they need a 50-state strat­e­gy that oper­ates between pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycles, the real­i­ties of get­ting there are thornier. Kleeb laments, The mis­take that Democ­rats and pro­gres­sives have made over the last 20 years is that they have writ­ten off rur­al com­mu­ni­ties as racist and not progressive.”

Fol­low­ing Trump’s elec­tion, pro­gres­sives have focused on build­ing the resis­tance” in solid­ly blue states like New York and Cal­i­for­nia. This excite­ment tends to ignore the fact that tens of mil­lions of poten­tial pro­gres­sive vot­ers are scat­tered through­out so-called Trump coun­try, too — often in places with lega­cies of anti-estab­lish­ment pol­i­tics that don’t fit clean­ly on the left-right spec­trum of Belt­way politi­cos. Indeed, the pri­or­i­ties of today’s new strain of rur­al pop­ulism, such as ral­ly­ing for prop­er­ty rights and against for­eign cor­po­ra­tions, might chafe against some vari­ants of coastal left­ism. In this con­text, any one-size-fits-all approach to beat­ing the GOP may well be dead on arrival.


In Nebras­ka, the nature of the Key­stone coali­tion has meant that the state’s trib­al nations are play­ing an impor­tant role in the state’s pro­gres­sive resur­gence. Nebras­ka is one of just three states that has elect­ed Natives to serve on the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee. When Kleeb ran for state par­ty chair, she asked the then-chair of the NDP Native cau­cus, vet­er­an Win­neba­go activist Frank LaMere, to run with her, and he was elect­ed her second-in-command.

Cur­rent Native Cau­cus chair Mechelle Sky Walk­er says the show­down at Stand­ing Rock has been more of a gal­va­niz­ing force in Native com­mu­ni­ties than the one over Key­stone XL. It was total­ly dif­fer­ent,” Sky Walk­er says. Stand­ing Rock was ful­ly Native-based. It was one tribe stand­ing up to an oil com­pa­ny, and they asked for help.” She made two sup­ply runs to the North Dako­ta encamp­ment before water pro­tec­tors were evict­ed from the site in Feb­ru­ary, and helped orga­nize ral­lies in sup­port at home in Lincoln.

Aside from the myr­i­ad struc­tur­al bar­ri­ers to vot­ing on reser­va­tions, Native vot­ers are under­stand­ably skep­ti­cal about elec­toral pol­i­tics. There’s a lot of dis­trust with the state,” Sky Walk­er says, relat­ing her expe­ri­ence work­ing for the Nebras­ka state gov­ern­ment. If you look at his­tor­i­cal trau­ma, there’s no rea­son in hell why they should trust you.” Key to over­com­ing that, she argues, is tak­ing the time to actu­al­ly build in-per­son rela­tion­ships on reservations.

In South Dako­ta, vet­er­ans of the Stand­ing Rock and Key­stone XL fights are fig­ur­ing out how to trans­late that ener­gy into the bal­lot box. Chas Jew­ett, a Lako­ta woman and long­time cli­mate orga­niz­er, has been work­ing with Sanders del­e­gate Alli­son Renville to found a PAC called Dako­tas For Amer­i­ca, aimed at increas­ing vot­er turnout in Indi­an Coun­try and help­ing Native can­di­dates run.

It wasn’t just the most rad­i­cal of us who protest every­thing [at Stand­ing Rock]. It was insti­tu­tion­al, it was pro­fes­sion­al peo­ple in our com­mu­ni­ties,” she says. Jew­ett tells me she’s seen a lot of inter­est in peo­ple run­ning for office in the months since the evic­tion. We’re try­ing to encour­age our peo­ple to jump into races for local and statewide offices, not just trib­al offices,” she says. The ideas that have kept [Native peo­ple] alive for the last 500 years can help us all tran­si­tion to a more earth-friend­ly nation.”

For her, elec­tions and vot­er turnout efforts are about much more than pipelines or spe­cif­ic poli­cies. They’re part of a larg­er push to upend cen­turies of bru­tal dis­crim­i­na­tion. She says, We can start to think about what run­ning a decol­o­nized nation in 2017 looks like.”

I love Amer­i­ca. I think what we’ve got here is some­thing good and it has poten­tial, but it’s not a real­i­ty. If you’re com­fort­able in Amer­i­ca, you’re part of the prob­lem,” she told In These Times over the phone in mid-August. News had just bro­ken that a coun­ter­pro­test­er had been killed at the Unite The Right ral­ly in Char­lottesville, Va. We have two options: We can come togeth­er and see what jus­tice looks like in Amer­i­ca, and have a hard con­ver­sa­tion. Or we con­tin­ue as-is. In South Dako­ta, we’re try­ing to have a bet­ter conversation.”

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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