Cowboy-Indian solidarity challenges the Keystone XL

Earlier this month nearly 400 students were arrested in front of the White House protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline . The next group of people to head to Washington, D.C. will be the Cowboy Indian Alliance, farmers and ranchers and American Indian communities living along the proposed northern part of the Keystone XL pipeline, mostly based in Nebraska and South Dakota. They will camp out near the White House for a week beginning April 22 (Earth Day), ending with a mass demonstration on April 27th.

The Alliance is representing people on the front lines of the Keystone XL. Their goal is to protect their land and water for future generations. The proposed pipeline is planned to go through the Ogallala Aquifer (Northern Nebraska), which is the largest source of water for drinking, ranching and farming in the area. If there was a spill, and pipeline spills aren’t uncommon, it would put crops, public water supplies and wildlife in danger.

This type of coalition is rare in the Western United States. Ever since the encroachment of settlers onto native lands, many whites and Native Americans have been at odds over water, land, and hunting rights. The U.S. laid its foundation on stolen native land and resources, which further expanded its interests internationally as it became the global power it is today.

Many of those participating in the Cowboy Indian Alliance are fighting to defend land originally theirs under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 and 1868; a legally binding agreement between the Lakota (Sioux) and the U.S. government that was to create the “Great Sioux Reservation.” The territory includes all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River, hunting grounds in Northern Nebraska (the location of the Ogallala Aquifer), North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. The treaty stated that “no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the [territory]; or without the consent of the Indians, first had and obtained, to pass through the same.”

That was before gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1871. The Black Hills are the most sacred piece of land to the Lakota. It is where they believe life came from. In a Wall Street endeavor, mining companies disregarded the 1868 treaty and flooded into the area under U.S. government protection of General George Armstrong Custer and the 7th cavalry. The U.S. officially seized the Black Hills and bloodily split up the “Great Sioux Reservation” into six smaller reservations in 1877, culminating with the Wounded Knee Massacre. One hundred and fifty to 300 Lakota men, women and children were slaughtered by the 7th Cavalry.

Now the Keystone XL pipeline is proposed to go straight through this treaty land. The pipeline would not go directly through any Indian Reservations, though it comes within feet of them and could contaminate the Ogllala Aquifer. Tribes such at the Rosebud Sioux Tribe have taken a formal stands against the pipeline. The Lakota Voice reports:

The Rosebud Sioux Tribal unanimously passed RST Resolution 2014-29, stating that Tribe “objects to and refuses to sign” the amended Programmatic Agreement, a document imposed upon the tribe by the Federal Government to attempt to meet legally required consultation requirements. Council Representative, Russell Eagle Bear, said “It is our job as the Tribal Council to take action to protect the health and welfare of our people, and this resolution puts the federal government on notice.”

Along with taking part in the Cowboy Indian Alliance, the Rosebud Sioux are leading a campaign called Oyate Wahacanka Woecun (“Shield the People”), which will set up encampments along the proposed route to resist the building of the pipeline.

Despite a renewed interested on the part of the federal government in getting approval from tribes for the pipeline, which is legally required, the government reached out late in the game. On May 16th last year, 10 tribal nations walked out of a meeting with the State Department to voice this very concern.

The Lakota,” commented Winona LaDuke, an American Indian environmental activist of Anishinaabe descent, “see a big infrastructure project like the Keystone XL, which moves profits from one corporation to another, across their land, as more than a black snake of the fat taker. It is a threat, and there is no new water.”

Although coalitions like Cowboy Indian Alliance are rare, it is not the first time natives and non-natives have come together to protect their water and land. A clear example is the development of the Black Hill Alliance that fought back against uranium mining in the region in the late 1970s and early 1980s.


In January 1977, when the American Indian Movement (AIM) was in full swing and demanding treaty rights, uranium was found in the Blacks Hills. This was during the Cold War and there were material demands for the U.S. government to find uranium and use it in the arms race. What activists described as “Custer’s expedition part II” began as companies came to drill for profit and help the United States war machine.

The Lakota viewed the rush to drill as an attack on their sovereignty as the U.S. government displayed a willingness to sell off leases without contacting the Lakota and without their consent.

At the time in western South Dakota racial tensions were high between Native Americans and whites following confrontations between AIM and the U.S. Government at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1973 and over a legacy of assaults and deaths of native peoples the outskirts of reservations.

Lakota activist Bill Means and other AIM members, spoke directly with a small groups of ranching families. If the energy corporations had their way, Means told them, there would be little water left to fight over. Describing the dialogue later, Means said he and other Lakota present “didn’t push the racism issue,” but tactfully argued that the treaties could be a legal means to challenge the possible drilling. In turn, he came to sympathize with the concerns of ranchers over low cattle prices and contamination from pesticides and herbicides. Out of these discussions came the 1979 founding of the Black Hills Alliance. Similar to the Cowboy Indian Alliance today, it was comprised of Lakota, ranchers, farmers and environmental activists.

“Ever since white people came [here]” remarked Black Hills Alliance co-founder Bruce Ellison, “corporations have used ignorance, to keep the people most in common with each other at each other’s throats. We wanted to avoid that being an available tactic.”


Through organizing together, people’s ideas started to change.  Non-natives began to see that their struggle was in line with those of the Lakota. Marvin Kammerer, whose family had been ranching in the Black Hills since the land was stolen from the Lakota, told the New York Times:

I’ve read the Fort Laramie Treaty, and it seems pretty simple to me; their claim is justified. There’s no way the Indians are going to get all of that land back, but the state land and the Federal land should be returned to them. Out of respect for those people, and for their belief that the hills are sacred ground, I don’t want to be a part of this destruction.

The Black Hills Alliance demanded that any exploration permit had to be voted on by residents in South Dakota rather than the state just handing over the permits.  As a result of their organizing, through continuous protest and legal pressure, they forced corporations to give up their exploration permits. In one key victory Union Carbide’s license from the U.S. Forest Service to dig up Craven Canyon without preparing an environmental impact statement was successfully contested and the company withdrew all its machinery.

Uranium mining is still being fought by the people of South Dakota to this day. Yet, the experience of the Black Hills Alliance lays out a template of what a multi-racial fight against environmental destruction can look like. Those supporting the new Cowboy Indian Alliance march to Washington this April can learn this hidden history. That so few of us are schooled on the successful resistance to mining in the Black Hills only benefits corporations seeking to divide and conquer. Once again we are starting to see cracks in the racial barriers between whites and American Indians. In D.C., on April 27, those barriers will again be torn down.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission