The Lakota: It’s About Survival.
The Lakota people have vowed to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, which would move tar sands through their homeland and water sources. All along the Keystone XL route, from Alberta, Canada, to Houston, Texas, communities have been rising up against it. Tar sands spills — like what happened in Mayflower, Arkansas — are impossible to clean up and do irreparably damage to water and farmland. That’s why the Lakota people have been holding nonviolent direct action training camps to prepare to stop the pipeline from going through the territory that is their home.
From June 14-17, a group of people from Peaceful Uprising, Indigenous Students and Allies for Change, Utah Tar Sands Resistance, and Canyon Country Rising Tide went to the Moccasins on the Ground action camp at Eagle Butte reservation in the area that the U.S. government has designated as South Dakota. We went to learn, to meet new friends and allies, and to share skills we’ve gained through our own work. On this journey, our group deepened its own understanding of climate justice, met incredible new allies in the regional effort to stop tar sands mining and pipelines, and joined in a powerful action to halt alcohol-based exploitation of the Lakota people.
The weekend at Moccasins on the Ground showed us — on the ground — what climate justice means to the Lakota people in the region. Social issues like alcoholism and exploitation of women are inseparable from the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline. Solving those problems is part of their survival as a people, part of building the strength to resist massive corporations like TransCanada. There’s no luxury of single-issue campaigns; everything is intensely interconnected, part of the same daily fight for survival.
Protecting the Sacred
The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council has told Obama that “the result of allowing these pipelines to cross Indian Country will be an ecological and environmental disaster.” The Keystone XL pipeline, if built, would threaten the people’s water supply. The pipeline would cross under the Cheyenne River and over the Ogallala Aquifer, so if it leaks or bursts — as tar sands pipelines do — it would poison the people’s water supply and land.
In January, indigenous leaders from many nations came together to sign the Protect the Sacred Treaty, which rejects the Keystone XL pipeline and other tar sands development. Faith Spotted Eagle, secretary of the Ihanktonwan Oyate Treaty Steering Committee, which organized the signing, spoke at Moccasins on the Ground. “The most colonized behavior is working in isolation,” she said, asserting that indigenous peoples and allies throughout the region must stand together for the sake of the water and land they depend on.
During the weekend-long trainings, many speakers talked about the issues the Lakota people face, how the pipeline would affect their land and water, and why bold direct action is needed. Elders spoke, saying they were ready to put their bodies on the line to stop the pipeline from coming through, and calling on others to join them. As Lakota grandmother Debra White Plume has stated, “every door to opposing the KXL is closing one by one. Soon the only door left open will be direct action.”
On Sunday, we all took part in a water ceremony by the Cheyenne River to bless the river and celebrate our connection with one another. In deepening our awareness of the bonds we share, we strengthened the broader community of regional resistance and began to understand each other as a family who must protect what is sacred to us all.
Living the Connections
Many social issues came up over the course of the weekend, aside from the Keystone XL pipeline. And yet they were not separate from the pipeline struggle, and more importantly, people didn’t experience them as separate. No one needed to explain why alcoholism is related to the struggle. People live that reality every day. The town of White Clay, Nebraska — with only twelve official residents — sits just outside of the Pine Ridge reservation, and exists solely to sell alcohol to people of the reservation, where alcohol is prohibited. On any given day, dozens of people wait for the liquor stores to open in the morning and sleep on the streets at night, part of a slow genocide of the Lakota people that preys on those who are already vulnerable.
It was obvious how exploitation of women relates to the pipeline, too. In Canada’s tar sands boom towns and other urban centers flooded by tar sands money, indigenous women are suffering unspeakable atrocities. A woman named Jo Seenie Redsky from Manitoba spoke about her work in searching for missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. She works with mothers and families to find their missing children and sisters. In urban centers like the cities of Alberta, there is an epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. Profiteers in the sex trade prey on them, targeting low-income girls and young women and promising them a better life, then kidnapping them as sex slaves. Indigenous women have a high likelihood of being raped, beaten, and murdered, or exploited in other ways. The rampant social problems in tar sands boom towns like Fort McMurray, Alberta, could soon plague indigenous women in places like the Rosebud Reservation in the South Dakota area, where a man camp for pipeline workers would be set up. Man camps are notorious hubs of social chaos, filled with transient male workers with money on their hands who often take drugs like speed to stay awake during long shifts. At Moccasins on the Ground, many people expressed grave concern about how man camps would further exploit indigenous women, who already deal with some of the worst abuses of any social group in the U.S.
Issues like alcoholism and exploitation of women affect the survival of a people just as surely as a pipeline does. Brought about by a long history of oppression — in which white oppressors stole traditional lands and ways of life, and locked children up in boarding schools to deprive them of their language, culture, and identity — these problems have deep roots. They keep a community from being as strong and healthy as it would be otherwise, and they sometimes keep the most affected members of a community from being able to stand up against threats like tar sands pipelines.
Many of the people of the Pine Ridge reservation have been focusing a lot lately on shutting down the town of White Clay, Nebraska, just off the reservation. Existing only to sell beer and liquor, largely to people suffering from alcoholism, White Clay profits from addiction and death. Alcoholism causes rampant social problems on Pine Ridge and elsewhere, such as abuse of children and deaths from drunk driving.
That’s why on the Monday following the trainings, people gathered at the Zero Tolerance Camp at the edge of the reservation, bordering White Clay. Here, people have been camping out to maintain a continued presence, and holding weekly blockades to stop trucks from bringing in alcohol. On Monday, people joined together to stop the beer trucks from delivering.
Things escalated quickly after the arrival of President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Bryan V. Brewer, Sr. As the beer trucks arrived, he marched in the center of the crowd as it moved down the street into White Clay. Police approached him and, after a brief interaction, arrested him with no explanation of what he was being charged with. The crowd surrounded the cop car for several minutes before allowing it to drive away as Brewer motioned for them to step aside.
As people marched to block the beer trucks, police held tasers to people’s hearts and necks, violently pulled people’s hair, wrestled people to the ground, and forcefully pushed people. Crowds gathered around, screaming to let them go. We saw how, in White Clay, brutality was the first resort of the police although the Lakota people had no recourse other than direct action to stop White Clay from plaguing their people. But people held their ground, and the two Budweiser trucks that had come into White Clay never made their deliveries that day. Together, we all let out a massive cheer when the trucks finally drove away.
Growing the Regional Resistance
People from the Tar Sands Blockade and Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance came to the camp to help with trainings and connect with other affected communities. People spoke about how communities around the country and world are taking direct action to stop extreme extraction. Seeing the tremendous local resistance against the pipeline, and hearing about the massive regional and cross-continental resistance from people who were visiting from other places, we felt our power growing. In Utah, we know that we have allies across the country who will come to help stop tar sands mining here when the time comes. And we know that when our Lakota allies and others need to present a solid front against the pipeline, we’ll be there. Together, we are a community — a far-reaching community set on climate justice, ready to put our bodies on the line to protect the land and water for ourselves and for all the generations to come. And as a community, we can bring into being the world we want to live in — a just and healthy world, where we protect what is sacred: the land, the water, and, of course, each other.