Tribes begin defense against Keystone XL pipeline, spiritual encampments planned along proposed routes


With the release of a U.S. State Department environmental impact study of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that reported no significant impact, tribes and environmental groups across the Northern Plains rallied against the project’s advancement.

Over the next 90 days, during which, the federal government begins its final review process for approval of the pipeline, an alliance of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes in South Dakota and Nebraska – known as the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires), analogous to the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe – have gone on a defensive campaign against TransCanada, the company responsible for the proposed pipeline.

Of those tribal nations dissenting, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe has taken the lead in opposing the pipeline approval process. It launched an initiative called Oyate Wahacanka Woecun (“Shield the People”) through its Tribal Historic Preservation Office, that is calling for action from all corners of the political world beginning with environmental activists all the way up to the White House. One of the project’s direct actions in opposing the pipeline will be to set up a series of tipi encampments along the proposed route in South Dakota and Nebraska, beginning at the end of March and going throughout the summer.

According to a video produced by the project, and featuring tribal officials and spiritual leaders, including Leonard Crow Dog, Sr., a set of tipi sites will be erected to, “provide awareness on the need for cultural preservation based on the existing treaties with the United States government and to shine a light on the root cause of the XL Pipeline … greed.”

Project public relations coordinator Aldo Seoane highlighted consultation by the State Department as the impetus for the tribes’ resistance to the Keystone XL project. “We’re oposing the pipeline for several reasons. The main is the programmatic agreement, we weren’t approached to be a part of [it]. And even the land survey and site survey they did wasn’t done properly.”

He continued by detailing what the tribes believes were missteps in the company’s research methodologies. “The Tribal Historic Preservation Office was not contacted – [TransCanada] actually went with the Yankton Sioux Tribe … [it] did not do an on-the-ground survey. We don’t think [Yankton] was aware that that was what they were going to use the information for. But when you look at the EIS report, it doesn’t show any culturally-significant areas. When we went and did our study of just one section of the pipeline route, we found cultural marking. THPO found a turtle effigy on the pipeline route, right where the pipe is going through, south of Colome.”

While the tribes have been largely silent to media on the issues, Seoane explained they saw it as an internal political matter to be handled at the top federal levels. “They’ve been fighting since Keystone 1 was put in the ground, six years ago. A lot of the tribes initially took the stance of silence, like we’re not going to acknowledge it because it fell under treaty responsibilities: it’s the Department of Interior’s treaty responsibility and trust responsibility to look after our resources.”

However, with the federal government’s most recent EIS report, the tribes have taken a new approach to making their case against the pipeline. “When we saw that those responsibilities weren’t being held by them, that’s when we began to act. We saw this work that’s being done by TransCanada and this report that’s being generated, we knew we had to take a stand. So we created [Shield the People] through THPO.”

The fight against the pipeline began in earnest in October when Rosebud started utilizing its tribal officials to lobby the Obama administration at every level. Included in that strategy were multiple partnerships with activist organizations such as the Sierra Club, and Bold Nebraska. The latter organization, an alliance of landowners in Nebraska, had been primarily focused on fighting the use of eminent domain by TransCanada to clear the pipeline’s path.

On Feb. 19, Lancaster County Judge Stephanie Stacy ruled that a 2012 state law that allowed Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman to employ eminent domain against landowners overreached his authority. The ruling allowed the process to be handled by the state’s Public Service Commission. TransCanada said it disagreed with the decision but remained silent on whether or not it would appeal the decision at the state level.

In addition to legal avenues by allies, the tribes have started their own political pressure on the Obama administration. A small delegation from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe traveled to Washington, D.C. in late February to confront officials in the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. According to the tribe, the errors in the programmatic agreement and the EIS were glaring and required correction. Tribal President Cyril Scott, Council Representatives Russell Eagle Bear, Gabriel Medicine Eagle and Ben Rhodd, a tribal archaeologist, met with administration officials but received no immediate word on whether or not their objections would be weighed in the final decision. “We haven’t gotten anything back from them and it’s really disheartening. We’re really disappointed that they take their responsibilities so lightly. We hope that we have the opportunity to meet with the president and that he would weigh the concerns of the people along with his own guidelines on consultation,” Seoane said.

The effort to fight the Obama administration on the pipeline was made even more poignant when tribal activists on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” called on the president to honor treaty obligations, by invoking his adopted Apsaalooke (Crow) family name. In 2008, Obama was adopted into the tribe by Hartford and Mary Black Eagle and given the name, “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.” Gary Dorr, Nez Perce, said, “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.”

Another point at issue for tribes in the Oceti Sakowin is the mixed messages sent by the administration. In 2011, the Interior Department launched its Tribal Consultation Policy, which advocates say was left largely ignored throughout the Keystone XL approval process.

“The major concern we have is obviously the effect that it could have on the natural resources, on the people, on the sacred sites. And the fact that the tribe has not been consulted, multiple tribes have not been consulted, as part of this process, which is required under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and it’s also required by the Presidential Initiative on Tribal Consultation,” Dorr said. According to a press release, the tribes were invited to sign the programmatic agreement as a concurring party and not as a signatory party, a distinction that allows for the tribes to execute, amend or terminate any memorandum of agreement on any tribal issue.

But for all the political posturing and legal wrangling, the most alarming account of the interactions between the company and tribes was, according to Seoane, when tribal representatives sought out an interaction with a company representative, known only as Mr. Anderson. “We met with them – it wasn’t because they asked us – we actually heard they were going to be in a neighboring community of Winner. So we went out there to give them a copy of our resolution against TransCanada and we had previous resolutions drafted and various talking points. But this one is very specific to us not acknowledging the pipeline and our intent to stop them,” Seoane said.

An overwhelming issue for tribes in the path of the Keystone XL pipeline is the potential for sexual violence, stemming from the work camps which could be made up of up to 600 men. Given reports of sexual violence in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields, the tribes are not eager to expose their citizens to more potential for sexual violence. “We asked their representatives various questions they couldn’t answer. Our biggest concern – along with the water and treaty violations – was what happens to our women and children because of the jurisdictional issues that are associated with having non-Native men so close to Native women? And that was something they hadn’t considered and they couldn’t give us a response,” Seoane said.

With the statistical realities that one in three Native women have been exposed to violence and of those, 86 percent of those crimes reported are perpetrated by non-Natives, the tribes are mindful of the potential risks in exposing their communities to situations like those in North Dakota.

“There was a situation that occurred in North Dakota where a young boy was passed around for three months, between trailers before people found out. And like, how are you going stop that? How are you going to stop women from being taken, abducted, or how are you going to stop all the violence that occurs? And we even asked them, ‘what are your background check requirements? Do you have pedophiles in your organization, working for you?’ And [Anderson] couldn’t respond – he said, ‘well that’s the responsibility of the subcontractor but we stress upon them … ‘”

Although education and advocacy remain the first weapons for the tribes in fighting the pipeline, they remain realistic about expectations. “The tribes would continue to object to it because there’s no way TransCanada can meet any or all of those terms. We’re talking about the fact that the pipeline is the entire length of the state, it falls under the 1868 [Ft. Laramie] Treaty, so they have to consult with all of the bands and all of the bands have to agree that they can go through that land,” Seoane said.

“We’re going to stand our ground. A lot of the pipeline route – we don’t acknowledge the act after the Ft. Laramie Treaties – a lot of the route is going through treaty land and it’s right next to allotted land. Even with their easement, maybe their easement isn’t on directly on property land but they have to have 150-foot easement on either side to bring the machinery in – their easements are on our property, too. So we will take a stand, we will have our spiritual camps on the route. We will try to come from a peaceful place in the hope that the government will not turn their back on their responsibilities.”