Historic alliance rides on D.C.

April 28, 2014

Brian Ward reports from Washington, D.C., on a week of protests that united Native communities with ranchers and farmers from the Great Plains states.

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 is a coalition of Native communities, ranchers and farmers who are on the front lines along the proposed northern route of the pipeline.

The Alliance 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 the spring--will be delayed until after the midterm elections in November.

Hundreds of people joined the Cowboy Indian Alliance in the streets of Washington
Hundreds of people joined the Cowboy Indian Alliance in the streets of Washington (Brian Ward | SW)

The move was further evidence of the pressure against the KXL project that has been mounted by activists across the country. Obama obviously didn't think that it would be a good idea to approve the pipeline with the Democrats needing a good turnout from their base in November--though, of course, he still has refused to deny the permit to TransCanada to construct the pipeline.

IN WASHINGTON, the Cowboy Indian Alliance provided yet more proof of the brewing anger with the Keystone project.

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 reading: "Standing in the water could get me arrested. TransCanada pollutes drinking water and nothing happens." This was in 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, there was a march to the home of Secretary of State John Kerry--whose State Department is the agency responsible for handling TransCanada's petition to construct the pipeline--in Georgetown. The march ended with a round dance that blocked a major intersection in D.C.

The alliance is a historic one. Natives and non-Natives on the Great Plains have been at odds since the first settlers moved westward onto stolen land. But Dallas Goldtooth of the Lower Sioux Nation said "that time is behind us" now, and the two groups' dependence on the land has brought them together. Vincel, a farmer from Holt County, Nebraska, agreed. "This is bringing us together," Vincel said, "and it's bringing all the Indian tribes together."

"This is historic," said Nathan, originally from eastern Montana and now a student in Ithaca, N.Y. "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 in this struggle: "It's about life and death--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.

Bryan Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said, "If President Obama signs the KXL, it's a death warrant." 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 were 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--to represent the tipis that will be put up in the way of the pipeline in the spiritual camps if the KXL is approved.

THE WEEK of action was about more than the KXL, but all the environmental destruction happening on Mother Earth--as well as 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. For example, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, made with the Lakota, reserves the whole western part of South Dakota to be their land. The U.S. government long ago broke that treaty--and now the pipeline is going across this land.

The pipeline 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, a beautiful sight of resistance. Gitz Crazyboy, of the Dene and Blackfoot Nations from Northern Alberta--at ground zero of the tar sands ecological disaster--admitted it was difficult to have hope while watching your land destroyed, day by day.

Then he paused and looked out at the thousands of people gathered on the Mall--and said: "This is the hope of resistance."

Co-published at System Change Not Climate Change.

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