‘Cowboys and Indians’ challenge the Keystone XL pipeline

The Cowboy Indian Alliance arrived in Washington, D.C. last week to send its message of resistance against the Keystone XL pipeline and the threat of further environmental destruction on the Great Plains and beyond.

The Alliance – a coalition of Native communities, ranchers and farmers who are on the front lines along the proposed northern route of the pipeline – announced its arrival on Earth Day, with protesters on horses and on foot heading from the U.S. Capitol building to the National Mall. There, demonstrators set up an encampment of tipis and wagons for the duration of the week of protests. Around 200 people from the Great Plains and Canada came to Washington to show Barack Obama the faces of those affected by the pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta in Canada to the Gulf Coast of the U.S.

The week of actions in the capital came several days after the Obama administration announced that it was once again pushing back a decision on final approval for the Keystone pipeline. According to the White House, the decision – which was expected sometime in the coming weeks after the State Department released an environmental impact statement in late January that seemed to set the stage for Obama to green-light the pipeline sometime in this spring – will be delayed until after the midterm elections in November.

The move was further evidence of the pressure against the Keystone XL project that has mounted across the country. Observers have speculated that, by Obama’s calculations, it would not be a good idea to approve the pipeline with the Democrats needing a good turnout from their base in November.

In Washington, the Cowboy Indian Alliance provided yet more proof of the brewing anger with the Keystone XL.

On Wednesday, protesters gathered outside the Canadian Embassy to call on Canada to honor its treaties with First Nation peoples. The next day, two activists waded into the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial and held a banner that read, “Standing in the water could get me arrested; TransCanada pollutes drinking water and nothing happens” – a reference to the Ogallala Aquifer, which lies beneath the Great Plains states in the U.S. and is threatened by pollution if the pipeline goes through.

On Friday, the Alliance marched to the home of Secretary of State John Kerry – whose agency is responsible for handling TransCanada’s petition to construct the pipeline – in Washington’s upper-crust neighborhood of Georgetown. The march ended with a round dance that blocked a major intersection in the capital.

Natives and non-Natives on the Great Plains have been at odds since the first settlers moved westward onto stolen land. But, as Dallas Goldtooth of the Lower Sioux Nation, put it “that time is behind us” now. The two groups’ dependence on the land has brought them together.

Vincel, a farmer from Holt County, Nebraska, agreed. “This is bringing us together,” she said, “and it’s bringing all the Indian tribes together.”

“This is historic,” added Nathan, originally from eastern Montana and now a student in Ithaca, NY, who, like Vincel, declined to give his full name for fear of retribution from pro-pipeline neighbors back home on the range. “It’s usually not even a cordial relationship between Natives and non-Natives in eastern Montana.”

Phyllis Young, a member of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation Tribal Council, talked about the high stakes of the struggle. “It’s about life and death,” she said, “not just for the Lakota, but for all humans.”

The highlight of the week came on Saturday, April 26, when thousands of people came down to the mall to march in solidarity with the Alliance.

“If President Obama signs the Keystone XL, it’s a death warrant,” said Bryan Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. ” Spiritual camps have been set up along the planned route of the pipeline—they will be centers of resistance if the project is okayed.

Jaymes Crow Dog, a medicine man from the Rosebud Indian Reservation, put it simply: “People back at home are ready to fight.”

From the stage and throughout the rally and march, there were references to Idle No More, a First Nations-led movement in Canada to protect the land and rights of Native peoples. Activists from Canada were in Washington to stand in solidarity with their Indigenous brothers and sisters in the U.S.

There were famous faces at the rally, too, including Neil Young, who has played shows in Canada in support of the Idle No More movement, and Daryl Hannah, an actress and environmentalist.

The march featured signs that read, “Keystone XL = Pipeline to Hell” and “President Obama, Protect our Sacred Waters.” The Saturday march was led by five members of the Cowboy and Indian Alliance on horses and the flags of the tribes represented at the march. A tipi, which was painted throughout the week at the Mall encampment, was delivered to the National Museum of the American Indian during the march, representative of the tipis that will be put up in the way of the pipeline in the spiritual camps if the Keystone XL is approved.

The week of action was about more than the Keystone XL; it was a stand against all the environmental destruction happening on Mother Earth, along with broader social justice issues.

The Cowboy Indian Alliance is talking about historic injustices committed against Native Americans and educating people about treaty rights and the need to force the government to abide promises made in the past; an extremely important component of the movement given the fact that the U.S. education system tells the story from the point of view of the conquerors.

The multiracial space provided by the Alliance has allowed Natives to speak out, and to help non-Natives see that the treaties signed by the government are one possible tool to be used to stop the pipeline. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, for example, made with the Lakota, reserves the whole western part of South Dakota as their land. The U.S. government long ago broke that treaty and now the pipeline is going across this very land.

The Keystone XL and other destructive resource extraction practices represent more than just another fight to American Indians. Challenging them is part of the same struggle they have been putting up since Europeans set foot on this continent.

The Cowboy Indian Alliance gathering took place in the middle of the Global Climate Convergence, 10 days of action between Earth Day and May Day to call for putting people, planet and peace over profits. Like the Alliance, the Convergence is showing how the climate justice movement is stepping up the fight over environmental issues, while making connections to broader questions of global justice.

The Saturday march concluded back at the National Mall encampment with a round dance.

Gitz Crazyboy, of the Dene and Blackfoot Nations from Northern Alberta—tribes at ground zero of the tar sands ecological disaster—admitted it was difficult to have hope while watching your land destroyed, day by day. Yet, pausing to look out at the thousands of people gathered on the Mall, he remarked,“This is the hope of resistance.”

This article appears in collaboration with SocialistWorker.org.


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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)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission