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How a "Black Snake" in the Heartland Brought Spirit to American Environmentalism

It's possible that the Cowboy Indian Alliance offers a glimpse into what a spiritually integrated environmental movement might look like, honoring diversity while resisting cooptation.

This article originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.

Photo by Kristin Moe/ Waging Nonviolence

Rancher Bob Allpress with Gabrielle Tayac. Photo by Kristin Moe / Waging Nonviolence.

It began with a dream and a memory.

Faith Spotted Eagle slept. In her sleep, she saw her grandmother lying on a table, wrapped in a blanket with her white braids on her chest.

Her sister appeared. "What's going on?" Spotted Eagle asked.

"I don't know. They told us to come."

A door opened; a room full of people, ancestors, stared silently. She felt in their stares a sadness, but also a strength. Another door opened to another room with the same scene. She knew that if she were to keep opening doors, all the rooms in the house would be filled with those watchful, silent ancestors.

Spotted Eagle closed her eyes, unsure of what do to, but knowing that it was impolite to stare back. Then her grandmother's voice came to her.

"Look at the treaties. There's something in the treaties."

That's when she woke up.

“We welcome you, and we welcome all cowboys in the fight against the pipeline.”

Spotted Eagle is a Dakota/Nakota elder of the Ihanktonwan tribe in South Dakota. She wears skirts that brush her ankles, and her white braids hang over her shoulders like her grandmother's—but when she puts on sunglasses, she looks like a badass.

She didn't know exactly what the dream meant, but she believed it was the answer to a problem she'd been thinking about for some time: How to prevent the Keystone XL pipeline from going through Lakota traditional territory, sacred land.

"Who will be able to stand with us?" she thought. "We have to stand with somebody."

She prayed. And then she remembered the 1863 treaty between the Ihanktonwan and the Pawnee that was the first recorded peace treaty between tribes. She also remembered that throughout the last several decades alliances of natives and non-natives in the Northern Plains had formed and re-formed to defeat threats to land and water. Recently, Lakota elders had made moves to resurrect a new Cowboy Indian Alliance—this time to take on Keystone XL.

In late January of 2013, exactly 150 years after the signing of that first treaty, Spotted Eagle and other activists convened tribal representatives from across the continent on the Ihanktonwan reservation. Their purpose was to ratify the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands and Keystone XL, a document based on that first 1863 peace treaty. It represented unprecedented unified action from North American indigenous people with one new addition: This new treaty also included a few of the ranchers from the Great Plains, who feel their lands are also threatened by the tar sands pipeline.

The pipeline fight may be these people’s worst nightmare, but it has fostered a sense of kinship.

Spotted Eagle told visitors of how landowners and tribal members had come together in the past, and how they had successfully driven industry off their land. This was a version of the cowboy-Indian story these cowboys hadn't heard.

Meanwhile, Jane Kleeb—an organizer of landowners with Bold Nebraska—was also looking for support for her small but somewhat isolated band of dissidents back home. Phone calls flew back and forth between South Dakota and Nebraska. Kleeb brought ranchers north to meet with Spotted Eagle and other indigenous leaders; the visitors were nervous and polite, unfamiliar with tribal customs—yet it became clear that they were connected by this pipeline, as well as everything they stood to lose if it went through. An alliance looked promising.

Since then, the alliance has developed, tentatively, through shared purpose. Last week, from April 22 to 27, members of the budding Cowboy Indian Alliance joined with activists and representatives from tribes across North America in a five-day convergence on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., called Reject and Protect. Wearing moccasins and dusty boots, they ate and prayed together, protested, danced, met with elected officials and led a 5,000-person march through the streets, beginning each day with a ceremony. Their message hung clearly on a banner by the circle of tipis: "No Damn KXL."

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