An Unlikely Alliance Remaking The Climate Movement

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Kristin Moe | PopularResistance.org | May 4 2014

It began with a dream and a memory.

Faith Spotted Eagle slept. In her sleep, she saw her grandmother lying on a table, wrapped in a blanket with her white braids on her chest.

Her sister appeared. “What’s going on?” Spotted Eagle asked.

RancherNativeAlliances

I don’t know. They told us to come.”

A door opened; a room full of people, ancestors, stared silently. She felt in their stares a sadness, but also a strength. Another door opened to another room with the same scene. She knew that if she were to keep opening doors, all the rooms in the house would be filled with those watchful, silent ancestors.

Spotted Eagle closed her eyes, unsure of what do to, but knowing that it was impolite to stare back. Then her grandmother’s voice came to her.

Look at the treaties. There’s something in the treaties.”

That’s when she woke up.

Spotted Eagle is a Dakota/Nakota elder of the Ihanktonwan tribe in South Dakota. She wears skirts that brush her ankles, and her white braids hang over her shoulders like her grandmother’s — but when she puts on sunglasses, she looks like a badass.


She didn’t know exactly what the dream meant, but she believed it was the answer to a problem she’d been thinking about for some time: How to prevent the Keystone XL pipeline from going through Lakota traditional territory, sacred land.

Who will be able to stand with us?” she thought. “We have to stand with somebody.”

She prayed. And then she remembered the 1863 treaty between the Ihanktonwan and the Pawnee that was the first recorded peace treaty between tribes. She also remembered that throughout the last several decades alliances of natives and non-natives in the Northern Plains had formed and re-formed to defeat threats to land and water. Recently, Lakota elders had made moves to resurrect a new Cowboy Indian Alliance – this time to take on Keystone XL.

In late January of 2013, exactly 150 years after the signing of that first treaty, Spotted Eagle and other activists convened tribal representatives from across the continent on the Ihanktonwan reservation. Their purpose was to ratify the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands and Keystone XL, a document based on that first 1863 peace treaty. It represented unprecedented unified action from North American indigenous people with one new addition: This new treaty also included a few of the ranchers from the Great Plains, who feel their lands are also threatened by the tar sands pipeline.

Spotted Eagle told visitors of how landowners and tribal members had come together in the past, and how they had successfully driven industry off their land. This was a version of the cowboy-Indian story these cowboys hadn’t heard.

Meanwhile, Jane Kleeb — an organizer of landowners with Bold Nebraska — was also looking for support for her small but somewhat isolated band of dissidents back home. Phone calls flew back and forth between South Dakota and Nebraska. Kleeb brought ranchers north to meet with Spotted Eagle and other indigenous leaders; the visitors were nervous and polite, unfamiliar with tribal customs – yet it became clear that they were connected by this pipeline, as well as everything they stood to lose if it went through. An alliance looked promising.

Since then, the alliance has developed, tentatively, through shared purpose. Last week, from April 22-27, members of the budding Cowboy Indian Alliance joined with activists and representatives from tribes across North America in a five-day convergence on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., called Reject and Protect. Wearing moccasins and dusty boots, they ate and prayed together, protested, danced, met with elected officials and led a 5,000-person march through the streets, beginning each day with a ceremony. Their message hung clearly on a banner by the circle of tipis: “No Damn KXL.”

A radical departure

While native/non-native alliances have been forming in various places to prevent all kinds of industrial projects, it is Keystone that has galvanized the environmental movement in a way not seen since the anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1980s. The fight has sparked hundreds of marches, rallies and legal challenges, as well as one of the largest mass civil disobedience actions in the history of the environmental movement.Time magazine wrote in 2013 that it was turning out to be a watershed, the Selma and the Stonewall of the climate movement. That remains to be seen. What’s certain is that the campaign against Keystone has already altered the political landscape.

The environmental movement has long come under criticism for being led by the so-called Big Greens — largely white, middle class membership groups whose interests don’t often represent those actually living in the frontline communities where the pipeline will be built. But the coalition of cowboys and Indians offers a radical departure from this history. Moreover, it is a model of relationship-based organizing, rooted in a kind of spirituality often absent from the progressive world, and — given the role of indigenous leaders — begins to address the violence of colonization in a meaningful way. It may be that these so-called unlikely alliances offer the only chance of forging a movement strong and diverse enough to challenge a continent’s deeply entrenched dependence on fossil fuels.

When TransCanada, the pipeline company, began claiming the right to run the Keystone XL through private property, ranchers and landowners said they finally understood, in some small way, what it might have felt like for Native Americans to lose their land. In speaking of the ranchers, Casey Camp-Horinek, an activist and elder of the Ponca tribe, said, “They, too, are suffering under things like eminent domain. They, too, have had their lifestyles impinged upon by these major corporations.”

The nightmare that’s fostering kinship

The day after Nebraska rancher Bob Allpress rode through the nation’s capitol on horseback in a cavalry contingent of ranchers and tribal members, he was a little stiff. He doesn’t ride much anymore. But Allpress, with his bandana, boots and well-groomed mustache, still looks every inch the cowboy.

When the pipeline route through Nebraska was changed in 2012, ostensibly to avoid the ecologically-sensitive Sandhills, the newly proposed path now cut straight through the Allpress’ alfalfa field. If built, the pipeline would lie just 200 yards from their house.

This is no ordinary pipeline, just as tar sands is no ordinary oil. According to a Natural Resources Defense Council report, tar sands oil is 3.6 times more likely to spill than regular oil. It is also highly corrosive and nearly impossible to clean up. Residents who live near the path of Keystone 1 — a smaller, already existing tar sands pipeline operated by TransCanada — know this story already. They saw 14 spills — along its route from Canada to refineries in Oklahoma and Illinois — during the pipeline’s first year of operation.

The southern portion of the Keystone XL has already been built through Texas, in spite of grassroots resistance; now, the last northern section remains. Allpress fears that a tar sands spill would contaminate his land and water, rendering it unusable for years to come.

TransCanada used what Allpress calls “the old slap and tickle” when it notified him that the pipeline would go through his land: a nice offer of some compensation up front, but a warning that under the law of eminent domain, the pipeline would go through no matter what.

TransCanada’s been nothing but deceitful and a bully the entire time,” he said. And in the words of his wife, Nancy, “We felt like we were the sacrifice.”

But cowboys don’t like to be pushed around. So they told TransCanada to shove it, and joined Bold Nebraska, a four-year-old organization led by Jane Kleeb that has emerged as one of TransCanada’s most formidable obstacles. When Bold Nebraska began partnering with tribes in South Dakota, the Allpresses were on board. They’ve since attended their first tribal council meetings, gone to rallies and public hearings, and written op-eds to Nebraska papers, refuting what Allpress calls TransCanada’s massive public relations campaign.

Environmental activism isn’t exactly what the Allpresses had in mind when they returned to Nebraska to retire from careers in government and the military, and investing what they had in their land.

I’m a redneck Republican,” Allpress joked. He and his wife are both ex-military. “Standing there in cowboy boots and a hat next to people in peace necklaces and hemp shirts” is a little outside his comfort zone. “It’s been — an experience. A good experience. We’ve enjoyed the hell out of it.”

As the sun set on the first evening of the Washington, D.C. gathering, folks sat under a white tent, eating dinner on paper plates and taking refuge from the tourists who swarm the camp, saying, “Look! Real Indians!”

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