Coming together over KXL

March 19, 2014

Brian Ward provides the backdrop to the emergence of the Cowboy Indian Alliance.

FOLLOWING IN the footsteps of the nearly 400 students arrested in front of the White House on March 2 for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline is one of the most unlikely coalitions yet to stand for ecological justice.

On April 22--Earth Day--the Cowboy Indian Alliance says it will "ride into Washington, D.C., for the next, and perhaps final, chapter in the fight against Keystone XL." According to the alliance's statement at the Reject and Protect website:

On that day, we will set up camp nearby the White House, lighting our fire and burning our sage, and for five days, we will bear proud witness to President Obama's final decision on Keystone XL, reminding him of the threat this tar sands pipeline poses to our climate, land, water and tribal rights.

As Brianna Elliott writes at the Huffington Post:

This rally gives a voice to the communities that would be most impacted by Keystone XL, and their message is clear--to protect land, water and climate now and for future generations. The Keystone XL would cross several rivers and the Ogallala Aquifer, which would put wildlife, public water supplies and croplands in danger if a spill were to occur, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Members of the Cowboy Indian Alliance join with other climate justice activists at a Nebraska protest
Members of the Cowboy Indian Alliance join with other climate justice activists at a Nebraska protest (

THIS TYPE of alliance is rare. Ever since the encroachment of settlers onto Native lands, many whites and Native Americans have been at odds, whether over water rights, land rights, hunting rights, etc. Settler expansion laid the foundation for the formation of the U.S. nation state to have access to resources and further expand its interest internationally.

Many of those participating in the Cowboy Indian Alliance are fighting to uphold the protections of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 and 1868. The Lakota (Sioux) signed a document with the U.S. government to create the "Great Sioux Reservation," to include all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River, including hunting grounds in Northern Nebraska, 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."

The federal government signed the treaty before gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1871. The Black Hills are the most sacred piece of land to the Lakota. Mining companies disregarded the 1868 treaty and flooded into the area, under the protection of the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry commanded by Gen. George Armstrong Custer. The U.S. seized the Black Hills and split up the "Great Sioux Reservation" into six smaller reservations in 1877. This culminated with the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which 150 to 300 Lakota men, women and children were slaughtered by the 7th Cavalry.

Now the Keystone XL pipeline would run across this treaty land. The pipeline would not run directly through any Indian reservations, though it comes within feet of them, and it could contaminate the Ogllala Aquifer, the source of water for the whole region. Tribes such at the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (RST) have taken a formal stand against the pipeline. As the Lakota Voice reported:

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."

The RST is leading a campaign called Oyate Wahacanka Woecun ("Shield the People"), which will set up encampments along the proposed route to resist construction of the pipeline. Gary Dorr of the Nez Perce Tribe called out the Obama administration about its lack of consultation with tribes on MSNBC's The Ed Show:

I would ask him to look at his own initiative on consultation and these tribes that are all along from Montana all the way down to Texas. We deserve that consultation, we enjoy a special relationship with the United States as a nation-to-nation government.

Despite the federal government's renewed interested in getting approval from tribes for the pipeline, it comes late in the game. Last May, 10 Tribal Nations walked out of a meeting with the State Department over this very concern.

Winona LaDuke, an American Indian activist, environmentalist and vice presidential candidate of the Green Party in 1996 and 2000, was frank about what the KXL represented to the Lakota:

Basically, the Lakota, like many other Native people see a big infrastructure project like the KXL pipeline, 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.

Even state courts are coming down against the pipeline. In Nebraska, a judge last month sided with three property owners who claimed that the state governor's decision to agree to the pipeline violated the state's constitution by taking the decision out of the hands of the public service commission that should to review the pipeline.

THOUGH THE Cowboy Indian Alliance is a rare occurrence, it isn't the first time Natives and non-Natives have come together to protect their water and land. One clear example is the Black Hills Alliance (BHA) that fought back against uranium mining in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In January 1977--at the same time that the American Indian Movement (AIM) was talking about treaty rights and the Lakota's rights to the Black Hills at the height of the red power movement--uranium was found in the Blacks Hills. What came to be known as "Custer's Expedition Part II" began as companies came to drill for profit and to help the U.S. war machine in the midst of the Cold War.

Since the Black Hills is a watershed for much of western South Dakota, Native peoples as well as local ranchers and farmers objected to uranium drilling, because it would pollute and contaminate their drinking water.

This wasn't only about using land for energy extraction--it was also an attack on Lakota sovereignty, since the U.S. government was willing to sell off mining leases with no contact with the Lakota, much less their consent.

At this time, tensions were high between Native Americans and whites in western South Dakota because of the AIM occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 and the legacy of assaults on and deaths of Native peoples on the outskirts around reservations.

Bill Means, a prominent AIM member, eventually spoke directly with small groups of ranching families, with the message that if the energy corporations had their way, there would be little water left to fight over. Means said he and other Lakota argued that treaties could be a legal means to challenge the mining. In turn, he came to understand the concerns of ranchers about low cattle prices and contamination from pesticides and herbicides.

Out of these discussions, the Black Hills Alliance (BHA) was founded in 1979, organizing Lakota, ranchers, farmers and local environmental activists together, as the Cowboy Indian Alliance does today. Bruce Ellison, one of the co-founders of the BHA, remembers: "You could feel the tension in the air...ever since white people came [to the region], the 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."

As the organizing continued, people's ideas started to change. Non-Natives started to see that their struggle was in line with that of the Lakota. Marvin Kammerer was a case in point. His family had been ranching in the Black Hills since the land was stolen from the Lakota. In a New York Times interview, he said:

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 BHA demanded that any exploration permit had to be voted on by residents in South Dakota, rather than the state government just handing over the leases. As a result of the BHA's organizing through continuous protest and legal pressure, many corporations were forced to give up their exploration permits. For example, in 1979, Union Carbide's license from the U.S. Forest Service to dig up Craven Canyon without preparing an environmental impact statement was successfully contested by the BHA.

Uranium mining is still being fought to this day by the people of South Dakota, but the experience of the BHA can guide us to what a multi-racial fight against environmental destruction can look like.

Those who support the Cowboy Indian Alliance's march to Washington, D.C. to oppose the pipeline can learn from the tradition of the BHA. It is part of the hidden history of struggle that we need to revive in the fights of today.

A version of this article appeared previously at System Change, Not Climate Change.

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