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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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The elephant in the room—or, in this case, the tipi—is the problem of land ownership. What happens when a rancher speaks of "my land" or "my private property" to a room full of people who believe that the land was stolen and never really belonged to them in the first place? How to begin to address the competing claims to land that is central to the identity and culture of both groups?

The Cowboy Indian Alliance doesn't seem ready to address this in public just yet. There are speeches, expressions of gratitude, fortitude, even love. The wounds of history are alluded to, but obliquely. For now, at least, these questions are secondary to the urgency of fighting the pipeline. "The land doesn't belong to us—we're just caretakers" is a sentiment that's frequently heard.

Behind closed doors, however, at the first meeting of the alliance, the tribal elders laid it all out.

"We pulled no punches with them," Camp-Horinek said. "About how the land that they live on now became land that they could buy and sell. It was our blood."

She also insisted that "It's part of their history as well as ours. And it has to be brought out and spoken of, or else there isn't an alliance."

As much as the alliance represents a step towards healing old wounds, it remains just that—a step. As a movement, said Thomas-Muller, "we need to develop an organizing framework that effectively addresses racism, oppression, misogyny and colonialism." That work is beginning, he believes, but there's a long way to go.

While any real dialogue about colonialism has been set aside for the moment, it has by no means disappeared. Grossman, in his study of history's successful alliances, writes that this may not be a bad thing; that the "conventional wisdom" which tells coalitions to emphasize sameness, to downplay the native rights issue in favor of unity, is ultimately self-defeating.

"I've concluded that the conventional wisdom is largely bullshit," he writes. "Emphasizing unity over diversity can actually be harmful to building deep, lasting alliances between native and non-native communities. History shows the opposite to be true: the stronger that native peoples assert their nationhood, the stronger their alliances with non-Indian neighbors."

Grossman has a warning. "There's always going to be an effort…to prevent alliances from coming together," he said, by exploiting racial or class conflicts between groups. Often, that means corporations will make concessions benefiting only the privileged group in the hope that they'll take what they can and leave. According to Grossman, alliances need to plan in advance for the inevitable divide and conquer tactics that are "as old as colonialism."

"And the response should be: we're not going to go home until everyone has their demands met," he said.

Maybe their next meeting at the White House will be with Obama himself. And maybe then, if they decide to walk out, they'll walk out together.

It's more than property rights

In 1882, Bob Allpress' great-grandfather built his homestead on a patch of land south of the Keya Paha River on what was then Lakota land. The land rolls under a wide sky, the hills curving like muscles of the earth.

In 1886, the Lakota signed a treaty with the U.S. government and were relocated to reservations on the other side of the river. According to family lore, though, Allpress' family maintained good relations with their Lakota neighbors. His great-uncle and grandfather both spoke fluent Lakota.

Keystone XL, and industrial projects like it, have engendered a unity among indigenous peoples that is unprecedented in any era.

One hundred and thirty years later, the Allpresses invited members of the budding Cowboy Indian Alliance, including Faith Spotted Eagle, to their farm. Allpress thought there might be sacred sites somewhere on it; he'd found beads and arrowheads. Spotted Eagle, gazing over the rolling landscape, pointed to the highest ridge and told the others what she knew: that this was a burial site, sacred ground.

The pipeline, Allpress said, would "cut right down the middle of that ridge."

He looked down at his hands for a moment before continuing. "I keep trying to tell them, but they don't seem to care. That's what pissed me off. They don't care."

This, of course, is what brings these cowboys and these Indians together: land. For some landowners it's merely a problem of property rights. For most, though, it goes far deeper, down below the grass and soil to the very roots of their identities as either cowboys or Indians, to a sense that they are irrevocably tied to this land, that if you poison it, that they will be poisoned too.

This is why a concurrent event—to Reject and Protect in Washington—took place in Red Shirt, S.D.: a three-day nonviolent direct action training, preparing participants to physically block TransCanada's bulldozers. It was part of a series of trainings in Lakota territory called Moccasins on the Ground that have been happening for over a year in anticipation of Obama's pipeline decision.

"We cannot sit and wait for his decision," the website says. "We must act now and be ready to protect our sacred water, our lands, our families." Keystone XL, and industrial projects like it, have truly engendered a unity among indigenous peoples across North America that is unprecedented in any era.

Meanwhile, when the tipis were rolled back up and the week-long event came to a close, landowners like Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, weren't thinking about a vacation. They've got plans too.

On June 20, TransCanada's pipeline permit will expire in South Dakota — which means that, along with Nebraska, it will be the second state where regulatory holdups are delaying the pipeline. She's got a long list of rallies, political campaigns and court cases to organize around. For the moment, Obama's decision has been delayed until after the November elections. For Kleeb, this is more time to grow the movement. But mostly, she wants to build.

"It takes out a lot of you to be fighting all the time — to be in the ‘warrior stance,'" she said from her car, on her way to a meeting with reporters. According to Kleeb, the focus, post-Keystone — no matter the decision — will be on constructing small clean energy projects, like the Build Our Energy Barn, constructed by volunteers in the path of the pipeline and powered by wind and solar. "Farmers and ranchers and tribes are very self-reliant," she said, and will want to generate their own energy that doesn't rely on imported fossil fuels.

Tipis at Reject and Protect on the National Mall

Reject and Protect encampment on the National Mall. Photo by Kristin Moe / Waging Nonviolence.

Prophesying victory

There is an old Lakota prophecy of a black snake, a creature that would rise from the deep, bringing with it great sorrow and great destruction. For many years, the Lakota people have wondered what the prophecy meant and when it would come to pass.

When they heard news of this pipeline — this tube, immeasurably long, that would pump black oil through the heart of this country — some Lakota people began to wonder if the snake appeared at last.

These cowboys and Indians believe they will win. But what then? Will this alliance fall apart, as others have in the past? If they defeat this black snake, what happens to the other black snakes in other back yards, to the network of pipelines that are spreading across the land like veins? Will the relationships last?

"No doubt," said Kleeb. She's received messages from landowners saying that the week in Washington "touched them to their very core. One of the landowners said that it gave them a deep, emotional respect for their fellow landowners and ranchers but also for the tribes, which they didn't have before."

Casey Camp-Horinek said that she's not privy to the future. "But the people that we are aligning ourselves with," she said, "I really believe they're going to help us uphold those treaty rights."

There is another prophecy that is also spoken of by tribal elders from different nations: the prophecy of the Seventh Generation, which, loosely put, foretells a time when young people would lead an uprising, joining with other peoples to defend land and allow humans to continue living on the earth.

Far from her homeland, in the middle of the National Mall, flanked by monuments to a colonizing nation, Camp-Horinek spoke of the work before her, and for her sons and their children who are also here. Joining with cowboys, she said, "fulfills not only the prophecy, but it fulfills a sacred duty that we were born with."

Kristin MoeKristin Moe wrote this article for, where it originally appeared. Kristin writes about climate, grassroots movements, and social change. Follow her on Twitter @yo_Kmoe.

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