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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.

"TransCanada's been nothing but deceitful and a bully the entire time," he said. And in the words of his wife, Nancy, "We felt like we were the sacrifice."

But cowboys don't like to be pushed around. So they told TransCanada to shove it, and joined Bold Nebraska, a four-year-old organization led by Jane Kleeb that has emerged as one of TransCanada's most formidable obstacles. When Bold Nebraska began partnering with tribes in South Dakota, the Allpresses were on board. They've since attended their first tribal council meetings, gone to rallies and public hearings, and written op-eds to Nebraska papers, refuting what Allpress calls TransCanada's massive public relations campaign.

Environmental activism isn't exactly what the Allpresses had in mind when they returned to Nebraska to retire from careers in government and the military, and investing what they had in their land.

"I'm a redneck Republican," Allpress joked. He and his wife are both ex-military. "Standing there in cowboy boots and a hat next to people in peace necklaces and hemp shirts" is a little outside his comfort zone. "It's been—an experience. A good experience. We've enjoyed the hell out of it."

As the sun set on the first evening of the Washington, D.C. gathering, folks sat under a white tent, eating dinner on paper plates and taking refuge from the tourists who swarm the camp, saying, "Look! Real Indians!"

In one corner, the Allpresses were getting advice from fellow rancher Julia Trigg Crawford from Texas. She's been fighting TransCanada for years—despite having to concede temporary defeat when the pipeline was installed and began pumping oil through her family's property. Crawford filed suit and is now waiting for the Supreme Court of Texas to take up her case.

"I'm going down swinging," she said.

The pipeline fight may be these people's worst nightmare, but it has fostered a sense of kinship. All along its path, communities are uniting under a shared narrative of fossil fuel exploitation and resistance. Similar patterns are coalescing along the paths of the other tar sands pipelines around the continent from Vancouver, British Columbia to Portland, Maine.

Like the Cowboy Indian Alliance, partnerships between natives and non-natives have emerged to fight tar sands, and it's part of a larger trend right now across regions and environmental issues. Zoltán Grossman, a professor of Geography and Native Studies at Evergreen State College, has written extensively about such alliances, pointing to examples of tribes and fishermen who prevented dams and logging in the Northwest, as well as Western Shoshone and ranchers who fought bomb testing in Nevada. In recent years members of the Unist'ot'en clan in British Columbia have invited busloads of non-natives from all over Canada to help prevent a slew of tar sands and gas pipelines from crossing their land. The Cowboy Indian Alliance isn't alone.

They speak deliberately, as if their words matter. They do not say "um" or "like."

Fossil fuel fights are also bringing together tribes within the indigenous community, some of whom have never had a formal relationship. The tar sands cover parts of Alberta which various First Nations call home, and Crystal Lameman's Beaver Lake Cree First Nation is among them. Lameman spent much of the week in Washington flanked by Faith Spotted Eagle and Casey Camp-Horinek, two of the leaders who are mobilizing their tribes along the length of the pipeline.

Camp-Horinek is a member of the Ponca tribe, which was forcibly relocated from Nebraska to Oklahoma in 1877. The pipeline, which originates near Lameman's reserve, will carry tar sands along the very same path as the Ponca Trail of Tears. Camp-Horinek sees this as a direct affront to her people's memory. And each of the women consider the tar sands a threat to their sacred land.

Camp-Horinek wears her graying braids down over her shoulders, a black shawl and earrings, round like suns. Lameman is perhaps 30 years younger, with lipstick, outrageously long eyelashes and hair down to her waist. Despite the age difference, they're both emblematic of the indigenous women leaders who are serving as mentors, organizers and spiritual leaders to their communities. They speak deliberately, as if their words matter. They do not say "um" or "like." They sit up straight and laugh often.

Both women's tribes—along with the Cowboy Indian Alliance—are some of the signatories to the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands and Keystone XL. In a show of defiance and unity, several tribal councils in the United States have also passed individual resolutions condemning the Keystone XL. And Idle No More, a grassroots indigenous rights movement that sprang up suddenly in Canada during the winter of 2012, now has 700 chapters in eight countries. Thanks in part to the rise of digital networks, indigenous peoples today are reaching out to each other in ways that were unthinkable even 15 years ago.

Casey Camp-Horinek and Faith Spotted Eagle

Casey Camp-Horinek and Faith Spotted Eagle. Photo by Kristin Moe / Waging Nonviolence.

Creating a spiritually integrated environmental movement

Each morning, the Reject and Protect encampment opened with a ceremony around the sacred fire, which was kept burning throughout the week. As smoke drifted up into the morning sun, the circle of participants — indigenous, white, young and old — would stay quiet as an elder offered a prayer.

What most don't realize is that this would have been impossible until fairly recently. Native ceremonies were illegal for most of the 20th century as part of the U.S. government's effort to hasten assimilation by suppressing native culture. American Indian spiritual practices were only protected by federal legislation in 1978.

The tribal elders have brought ritual to the Cowboy Indian Alliance, rooting every gathering in native ceremony. Faith often makes progressives uncomfortable; the environmental movement, to be sure, has remained stubbornly secular in the interest of inclusivity and scientific rationality. But here, people don't seem to mind. They're solemn; it gives each day a rhythm, a ritual, a reminder that they're all connected to ancestors, earth, and each other.

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