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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.
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Tribal leaders at Reject and Protect

Tribal leaders at Reject and Protect. Photo by Kristin Moe / Waging Nonviolence.

A radical departure

While native/non-native alliances have been forming in various places to prevent all kinds of industrial projects, it is Keystone that has galvanized the environmental movement in a way not seen since the anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1980s. The fight has sparked hundreds of marches, rallies and legal challenges, as well as one of the largest mass civil disobedience actions in the history of the environmental movement. Time magazine wrote in 2011 that it was turning out to be a watershed, the Selma and the Stonewall of the climate movement.

That remains to be seen. What's certain is that the campaign against Keystone has already altered the political landscape.

The environmental movement has remained stubbornly secular. But here, people don’t seem to mind spirituality.

The environmental movement has long come under criticism for being led by the so-called Big Greens—largely white, middle class membership groups whose interests don't often represent those actually living in the frontline communities where the pipeline will be built. But the coalition of cowboys and Indians offers a radical departure from this history. Moreover, it is a model of relationship-based organizing, rooted in a kind of spirituality often absent from the progressive world, and—given the role of indigenous leaders—begins to address the violence of colonization in a meaningful way. It may be that these so-called unlikely alliances offer the only chance of forging a movement strong and diverse enough to challenge a continent's deeply entrenched dependence on fossil fuels.

When TransCanada, the pipeline company, began claiming the right to run the Keystone XL through private property, ranchers and landowners said they finally understood, in some small way, what it might have felt like for Native Americans to lose their land. In speaking of the ranchers, Casey Camp-Horinek, an activist and elder of the Ponca tribe, said, "They, too, are suffering under things like eminent domain. They, too, have had their lifestyles impinged upon by these major corporations."

The nightmare that's fostering kinship

The day after Nebraska rancher Bob Allpress rode through the nation's capital on horseback in a cavalry contingent of ranchers and tribal members, he was a little stiff. He doesn't ride much anymore. But Allpress, with his bandana, boots and well-groomed mustache, still looks every inch the cowboy.

When the pipeline route through Nebraska was changed in 2012, ostensibly to avoid the ecologically-sensitive Sandhills, the newly proposed path now cut straight through the Allpress' alfalfa field. If built, the pipeline would lie just 200 yards from their house.

This is no ordinary pipeline, just as tar sands is no ordinary oil. According to a Natural Resources Defense Council report, tar sands oil is 3.6 times more likely to spill than regular oil. It is also highly corrosive and nearly impossible to clean up. Residents who live near the path of Keystone 1—a smaller, already-existing tar sands pipeline operated by TransCanada—know this story already. They saw 14 spills along its route from Canada to refineries in Oklahoma and Illinois during the pipeline's first year of operation.

The Cowboy Indian Alliance offers a glimpse into what a spiritually integrated environmental movement might look like.

The southern portion of the Keystone XL has already been built through Texas, in spite of grassroots resistance; now, the last northern section remains. Allpress fears that a tar sands spill would contaminate his land and water, rendering it unusable for years to come.

TransCanada used what Allpress calls "the old slap and tickle" when it notified him that the pipeline would go through his land: a nice offer of some compensation up front, but a warning that under the law of eminent domain, the pipeline would go through no matter what.

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