As she watches the red sun dip past the window of her home deep in a South Dakota valley, Beth Lone Eagle says she isn’t prepared to see a tar sands pipeline tarnish any bit of “God’s country”.
With the US Senate scheduled to hold a vote on the Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday, the Lakota woman says ranchers, landowners and tribal nations throughout the midwest are girding for a fight regardless of how the process in Washington plays out.
The debate over the controversial pipeline, which would run from Alberta’s tar sands to Gulf coast refineries, has over the last few years become a defining struggle over the future of energy politics in America.
Under the new banner of No KXL Dakota, Lone Eagle is intervening with a number of environmental and rural organizations in South Dakota’s Public Utilities Commission hearings in an attempt to deny TransCanada a construction permit.
It’s a process that could delay TransCanada beyond even its current entanglement in Nebraska, where a lawsuit is before the state supreme court over the constitutionality of a statute giving the governor the right to approve pipeline decisions instead of the state’s public utilities commission.
Active in urban politics in the 1980s, Lone Eagle moved to the Bridger community on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation to live a more quiet life with her husband and children – only to find herself drawn into a new fight against a pipeline that would run two miles from her home and over the Cheyenne river, which local residents rely on to stock their freezers with fish and game.
This is a storied area for many. Bridger was the last refuge camp set up in 1890 by Lakota, pursued by the US cavalry, before hundreds of men, women and children were killed in the infamous Wounded Knee massacre in Pine Ridge. Survivors returned to establish a community in Bridger.
Every December, the Lakota conduct a pilgrimage horse ride over land the proposed pipeline would follow, retracing the steps that led to Wounded Knee. Last year, Elizabeth’s 11-year-old son was the only person to complete both the horse ride and a multi-day run back home.
As the pipeline fight has heated up, Lone Eagle and other tribes have joined up with ranchers and landowners in a loose coalition – at times described as the “Cowboys and Indians” alliance.
One of those non-Native Americans is lifelong rancher Paul Seamans, a 67-year-old former chair of Dakota Rural Action. Under threat of having his land in central South Dakota expropriated through eminent domain, he initially signed a deal with TransCanada to accept a 1.5-mile segment of the pipeline.
But as he’s learned more, he has become one of the leading voices of opposition in South Dakota.
“A lot of people have been taken in by the inflated jobs claims,” Seamans says. “TransCanada and the politicians realized how well the jobs line would play – so they kept inflating it all the time. First they said 5,000 jobs, then a hundred or even two hundred thousand, and now they seem to have settled on 40,000. But I’ve never seen credible studies of how they arrived at even that.”
A US State Department report earlier this year found the pipeline would create 35 permanent jobs, leading Obama to call Keystone XL’s potential impact on jobs creation a “blip”.
Another study by Cornell University’s Global Labour Institute concluded the pipeline project could in fact kill more jobs than it would create, through oil spills, pollution, and an increase in gas prices.
Locals call South Dakota the “Mississippi of the North” because of its history of racism, but the pipeline battle has drawn Native American and non-native people closer than ever before.
“An alliance might seem unlikely, but it’s not really,” says Seamans. “We have a lot of the same interests. Historically it may have been so, but things are changing. Especially with the advent of social media, which has made it a lot easier to keep in contact. A lot of us have given more consideration to their Native American treaty rights and see things more from their perspective now.”
Some of these partnerships date back to the 1970s, and have resulted in the blocking of uranium and coal mining and toxic waste dumps.
Earlier this year, in April, many of the local activists rode horses side-by-side through Washington DC, where they presented a painted tipi symbolizing protection of water to President Barack Obama. Lone Eagle says it’s been a “tentative step toward righting these relationships”.
Seamans says ranchers’ views have evolved, as they have learned a lot about the potential environmental and climate impacts of Alberta tar sands development through meetings with tribal nations.
“I’ve always been irritated by the eminent domain laws that favour the oil companies and don’t protect landowners,” he said. “But as I’ve learned about what the tar sands is all about, I know it’s very destructive. I would as soon as they leave it in the ground.”
Having delayed TransCanada’s pipeline already for three years, the North American-wide movement has been responsible for costing oil companies $17bn in investment in Alberta’s tar sands, according to a recent report by Oil Change International. The report anticipates that increasing protests and escalating costs for oil companies will stall the construction of pipelines, slowing the expansion of Alberta’s tar sands and reducing carbon emissions.
“Many of us have taken a personal pledge: they will physically have to go through us,” said Lone Eagle. “Whenever Indian people take action, no matter how non-violent, we know whose blood gets shed. They proved that to us at Wounded Knee. But we have to draw the line somewhere. Our horses are ready –people think that’s figurative, but it’s not.”
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