Ranchers and tribal communities bury the hatchet and unite to fight a common enemy.
By Francesca Rheannon
The Cowboy-Indian Alliance
Cowboys and Indians rode into the nation’s capital on Earth Day to inaugurate a multi- day spiritual gathering to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline through their lands. Billed as “Reject and Protect,” the protest was organized by the “Cowboy-Indian Alliance” – the “new CIA,” as one tribal leader joked.
I had been alerted to the protest by an email from 350.org, one of many environmental groups supporting the gathering, that called for participants to join the march planned for Saturday, April 26.
I barely registered that Native Americans were organizing the event as it was at the persistence of my 10-year-old granddaughter that I was debating whether to go. Ever since going to the big climate rally in February 2013, she has developed a serious passion for demonstrating on the streets on environmental issues. For months she had been asking me "when the next demonstration was happening” and whether we could go. Now we could.
5,000 Strong, a Rally to Inspire
Over the years, I’ve become kind of blasé about such events – it always seems to be the same people giving the same speeches to the same old throng. But this time was different.
It wasn’t just that the people up on the rally’s outdoor stage represented an alliance of old enemies. As one tribal leader from Canada said, “There was a time when the Cowboys and Indians fought. That time is behind us. Today we stand united.”
It wasn’t just that working class and poor people from America’s heartland had put their lives on hold to come thousands of miles to petition their government for protection from an existential threat to their livelihoods and traditions.
It was that the gathering was more than a political rally – it was a spiritual celebration of the Earth, the power of community and the responsibility of stewardship. And for this jaded old demonstrator, as well as for neophytes like my granddaughter—and everyone in between—it rocked.
The Black Snake in the Black Hills
Last week I wrote about the need for climate advocates to talk more about global warming’s impact on people and less about the impact on animals. Not because animals aren’t as important as people, but because the folks we need to convince – the 80 percent who haven’t yet put climate change on their personal radar – aren’t going to put it on their radar until they think they are going to get hurt, personally.
The Keystone XL pipeline is, of course, not just a climate disaster, but a full-service environmental catastrophe with a smorgasbord of impacts, from water to soil to the atmosphere we breathe.
At “Reject and Protect,” Rock star Neil Young referenced an ancient Native American story about a black snake that would come to threaten the first nations of North America. “This is it,” Young said.
The ranchers and Indians of the lands threatened by the “black snake” have been ahead of the curve of most Americans in understanding what’s at stake for them. As one young woman rancher said about the pipeline, “We have nothing to gain [from it] and everything to lose. TransCanada, we are not going away.”
Multiple Impacts, Widely Spread
So how would the KXL pipeline hurt them?
First of all, “them” encompasses residents of a vast stretch of U.S. territory. The northern end of the KXL pipeline (President Obama already approved the southern end, which is being built) would traverse six states: Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
The National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution against KXL that summed up the threats:
“The Keystone XL pipeline … would threaten, among other things, water aquifers, water ways, cultural sites, agricultural lands, animal life, public drinking water sources and other resources vital to the peoples of the region in which the pipeline is proposed to be constructed.”
Tar Sands Crude a “Pipeline Destroyer”
The pipeline would send highly corrosive, volatile “dilbit,” the tarry crude from Alberta right over “the most heavily used aquifer in the United States,” which “supplies about 30 percent of the groundwater pumped for irrigation nationwide,” according to one report. For the Nebraskans at the rally, the stakes are even higher: the Oglalla Aquifer supplies 78 percent of Nebraska residents and 83 percent of its irrigation pipes with water.
Dilbit is so corrosive; it has been termed a “pipeline destroyer.”
In other words, expect lots of leaks. The Crow Nation has already experienced a close call with such a leak when an Exxon Mobil pipeline spilled 42,000 gallons into the nearby Yellowstone River, affecting 240 miles of the waterway. Those along the route were severely affected.
The Keystone 1 pipeline spilled 12 times in its first year of operation, with a total of 30 spills so far, exceeding TransCanada’s spill rate prediction by factor of 84 to 1.
Once dilbit leaks, it is extremely difficult to clean up (although Kinder Morgan, another pipeline company transporting crude from Alberta, touts the benefits of pipeline spills: They create jobs! In pipeline cleanups!).
Protecting a Way of Life
Up on the rally stage in D.C., surrounded by her family, a solidly built Nebraska farmwoman spoke about her family farm, passed down for six generations. Would her generation be the last, she wondered. In effect, she was asking, “What price is an entire way of life?”
Spiritual values—or moral values, if you prefer—are the glue that holds communities and cultures together. But those don’t make it into the metrics of the Environmental Impact Statements crafted by the oil experts with their corporate ties. Calling out the three major pipeline companies transporting tar sands oil from Alberta, a Native speaker nailed the point:
"Enbridge, Keystone and KinderMorgan are dysfunctional because of their greed. They won’t look out for future generations because there’s something disconnected in their spirit — in who they are. It’s the opposite of what I am taught here by my spiritual family."
Political activism on the environment is usually motivated by anger—righteous anger, to be sure. But anger is a two-edged sword: it can energize but also burn one out. It can turn people away who don’t share the urgency.
But Reject and Protect [emphasis added] in D.C. last week balanced righteous anger with righteous celebration. It brought, heart, mind and soul together. And in bridging the ancient rift between “cowboys and Indians,” the rally showed the power of ordinary people to make change.
All photos were taken by the author at the Reject and Protect Rally, April 26, 2014.