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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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Since many of history's most powerful social movements—from civil rights to anti-apartheid—have gained strength from a firm grounding in faith, it begs the question of whether something has been lost by remaining steadfastly irreligious. And in a country where 80 percent of the population claims some spiritual affiliation, there's a preexisting organizational network that's largely untapped by the environmental movement. 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.

Part of embracing ceremony is slowing down to a more human pace of organizing — one where priority is given to relationships. Naturally, the alliance organizes on conference calls and on smart phones, but they make time for in-person gatherings, some of which last for several days, where time is given to sitting around and just talking. Telling stories, introducing their grandkids, spending time out on the land. They know that an alliance like this, tenuous and young, lives or dies by the strength of its relationships.

Jane Kleeb, Bold Nebraska's fearless leader, says that these relationships are a part of the strategy. The early alliance meetings were about "sharing stories and building trust, so that whatever TransCanada tries to do, we were a stronger alliance that they couldn't break." Since the alliance lacks TransCanada's bottomless bank account, she laughed, "The only thing I can do is build those relationships."

By supporting native rights, the Cowboy Indian Alliance is beginning the dialogue not just about broken treaties, but about the long history of colonization, the effects of which are ongoing among some of the United States' poorest populations. Clayton Thomas-Muller, an indigenous organizer from Canada, said that the alliance "represents an important step towards reconciling America's bloody colonial history."

This is perhaps why the scene on that first sunny morning of Reject and Protect was so symbolic. In accordance with custom, the alliance leaders gathered before the Chief of the Piscataway Tribe, Billy Red Wing Tayac, and formally requested permission to enter Washington, D.C. — what was originally considered Piscataway territory.

And so it was that Bob Allpress, a fourth-generation rancher, born and raised on what was once Lakota land, found himself presenting an offering to Chief Tayac, encircled by a throng of photographers. The weight of history bore down on them all — the forced removals, the outlawing of native traditions and ceremony, the theft of land guaranteed by treaties the U.S. government never really intended to keep. With the Capitol dome looming pale behind him, Chief Tayac accepted the handmade blue-jean blanket and said, "We welcome you, and we welcome all cowboys in the fight against the pipeline."

The Cowboy Indian Alliance marches in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kristin Moe/ Waging Nonviolence

The Cowboy Indian Alliance in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kristin Moe / Waging Nonviolence.

Standing on the shoulders of earlier alliances

"Unprecedented" is a word that's heard often in the Cowboy Indian Alliance. What most don't realize, however, is that there is a long history of successful alliances between natives and non-natives, particularly around industrial projects that residents see as a threat to land and water.

This is actually a later incarnation of an alliance that was first formed in 1987 to prevent a Honeywell weapons testing range in the Black Hills, one of the most sacred sites in Lakota cosmology—where, in the 1970s, alliances successfully fended off coal and uranium mining. In 1980, a rancher, Marvin Kamerer, hosted 11,000 visitors at a Black Hills Survival Gathering to learn about native rights, sustainable living and clean energy. According to Grossman, similar alliances prevented a toxic waste dump on Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in 1990, a hog farm and coal trains in the early 2000s, and Kevin Costner's resort complex in 2002—to name a few.

Although the alliances have generally dissolved after each campaign, each one set a precedent for future collaboration. And while they haven't been easy, they've been remarkably effective.

Alliances like this go unreported, Grossman believes, because "they're more dangerous to the status quo" than stories of conflict—that is, because they might inspire people to work together.

"The Keystone pipeline effort is standing on the shoulders of earlier successful efforts at alliance-building," he said. "So I'm not surprised that it's been as powerful as it has been."

"We pulled no punches with them about how the land that they live on now became land that they could buy and sell."

In August of 2011, 1,253 people were arrested at the White House protesting Keystone. Indigenous activists came from all over North America, going to jail side by side with non-native activists. Thomas-Muller, who also organizes with Idle No More, said that—one of the major facilitators of the action—made the move to reach out to the indigenous community and that "resulted in the biggest civil disobedience since the Vietnam War."

The choice to focus on the pipeline came after a spectacular failure of a political strategy in which Big Green threw all of its weight behind the climate bill—officially known as the American Clean Energy and Securities Act. After the bill failed in the Senate, there was widespread disenchantment with the political process, a sense that the one chance for federal legislation had been lost, that the influence of the fossil fuel industry in Congress was too great. What resulted was a shift in focus away from Washington and toward local fights over coal, oil and natural gas—and a recognition that a movement isn't really a movement unless it's led by its grassroots base.

Enter Keystone. This was everything the climate bill was not: concrete and easy to understand and get behind.

"You're either for it or against it," said Jason Kowalski, political director of, which helped support Reject and Protect. "The oil either flows, or it doesn't."

By physically connecting impacted communities in America's red-state heartland from Alberta to Texas, it also offered a way to connect them through shared opposition—and, ultimately, shared values.

Since then, some mainstream environmental organizations have begun to step back and allow environmental justice organizations to come to the fore, something that Kowalski says hasn't always happened.

"The indigenous people who are here have been doing this longer and in a more heartfelt way than any of us can imagine on the frontlines of this fight," Kowalski said.

Ultimately, though, there's only one person who will make a decision on Keystone: President Obama. And so on Wednesday, April 23, nine leaders from both the cowboy and tribal contingents met with three staffers from the Obama administration to ask the president to reject the pipeline.

There was a buzz in the air at the encampment when they returned—Camp-Horinek, Spotted Eagle and their compatriots were still charged from the encounter.

Each had taken a turn in the meeting telling their stories to the three staffers in an effort to demonstrate that, in Camp-Horinek's words, "We're part of a devastating pipeline story that is as clear and as connected as they want Keystone XL to be."

But the representatives of the administration, she said, remained "100 percent stone-faced."

These were the presidents of the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux nations—sovereign nations whose treaties entitle them to meet with similarly ranked heads of state, she noted, before asking, "Where was the president of this nation to meet with us?" So they walked out.

Tribal relationships with the United States government have, for obvious reasons, been fraught with bad feelings. Centuries of land theft, racism, genocide and forced assimilation cannot be erased overnight.

The cowboy contingent stayed, wanting to take advantage of this chance to tell their stories—hoping that some part would make its way up the ladder. But they left feeling equally discouraged. The distance between Washington and Nebraska seemed great indeed.

The White House couldn't be reached for comment. But, according to the meeting attendees, there was something good that came out of it: assurance that the Obama administration had taken note of the coalitions, the "very different people that are coming together" around the pipeline, said Camp-Horinek. "They're paying attention."

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