Protests and demonstrations happen almost every day in Washington, D.C., but this one was unusual. On April 22, a circle of tipis went up between the Capitol building and the Washington Monument. Nebraska ranchers offered gifts of food, tobacco, and cloth to elders from the Piscataway tribe, who welcomed the visitors to their traditional land. Then the group got on horseback—the indigenous contingent in traditional beads and feathers, the ranchers in cowboy hats and bandanas—and rode through downtown demanding that President Barack Obama reject the Keystone XL pipeline.
The pipeline, if approved, will be built on land guaranteed to the Lakota people in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
That action—the first event in a five-day gathering on the National Mall—was the largest mobilization yet from a group called the Cowboy Indian Alliance, an unlikely coalition of farmers, ranchers, and members of Native American tribes from across the Great Plains, all united by their opposition to Keystone XL.
That unity flies in the face of centuries of conflict between indigenous people and settlers, but participants from both sides hope this is a sign that old wounds are beginning to heal. They hope that the pipeline, which has caused them both much distress, will be a catalyst for reconciliation.
Both “Cowboys” and “Indians” are concerned about the significant climate impacts of the tar sands industry, which is more carbon-intensive than regular oil and more likely to spill. But mostly, they fear the pipeline spills they see as inevitable will contaminate the land and water upon which they both depend, and upon which they both base their identities and cultures.
“We’re here to defend our land, our farms, our ranches, our treaty territory,” Faith Spotted Eagle told the crowd on a bright morning on the first day of the camp. “We’ve come to say enough is enough. We are not going to let Transcanada pass our treaty lands.”
The pipeline, if approved, will be built on land guaranteed to the Lakota people in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868—a treaty only temporarily honored by the United States government. The land was subsequently taken from the Lakota, but they still claim it as theirs by law.
The various segments of the Keystone pipeline have been developed as separate projects, most of which are already in operation. The southern portion of pipeline, which runs from Oklahoma to refineries in Texas, has already been completed, despite opposition from the Cowboy Indian Alliance and virtually every other environmental organization in the country. The northern leg known as Keystone XL is the last remaining piece, and needs to be approved by the president because it crosses the U.S.-Canada border.
If Obama signs off, the pipeline company Transcanada will install this final segment, connecting Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Kansas, and pumping 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands crude across the American heartland.
A match made in history
I had a chance to speak with two members of the Cowboy Indian Alliance: Faith Spotted Eagle from the Ihanktonwan Dakota/Nakota tribe of South Dakota, and Tom Genung, a Nebraskan landowner.
While they both see the relationship to land as sacred, what that means in practice is different for each.
The Cowboy Indian Alliance was Spotted Eagle’s idea; she believes it’s her responsibility to defend her people’s land and water. An elder and spiritual leader of her tribe, she wore a long skirt and a blue blanket around her neck. Her long gray hair hung in braids over her shoulders.
Genung, sporting a scruffy beard, cowboy hat and a red bandana around his neck, has been equally vehement in his opposition to the pipeline, which will cross two miles from his property. He’s defiant of any “foreign corporation” that would claim rights to his private property, or anyone else’s.
Genung first met Spotted Eagle through his work with the anti-Keystone organization Bold Nebraska. Visiting reservations, taking part in native ceremony and culture—all these things were new to him. “I got to be a witness to some very special things—some sacred things,” he says.
That first meeting was only a year ago, but they talked together with the ease of old friends. They spoke about their relationship to the land, which is deeply spiritual for both. They sense that the reconciliation their work is a part of has a historic importance, something healing for both settlers and natives—and both feel that it is, in some way, destined to happen.
“We heard about the pipeline in 2008, and we began mobilizing,” Spotted Eagle says. “I kept thinking, who will be able to stand with us?”
Their neighbors would, she soon learned. And yet, it’s clear that opposing Keystone together hasn’t erased centuries of difficult history. Relationship to land is a central difference—and source of tension—between settlers and indigenous people. While both Spotted Eagle and Genung see the relationship to land as sacred, what that means in practice is different for each.
“I remember going out on a visit to a farm, and they were plowing, and that earth was being turned over,” Spotted Eagle says. “I get angry when they turn over too much earth, because they’re destroying so much land.” There are sacred Sioux sites all over that region, she explains, that are destroyed by farming.
“So I was standing there watching this tractor. And he was plowing up the ground, and he said, ‘There’s nothing like the smell of Creator when that fresh earth overturns.’” Spotted Eagle laughs, remembering. “I looked at him and I thought, well, I never thought of it that way.”
“That was a teaching,” she says.
Softening the heart
Both say that they have much to learn from each other. In particular, says Spotted Eagle, the long history of violence between natives and settlers has yet to be dealt with. “At some point we have to backtrack and unpack our bags, and begin to figure out what happened between us as neighbors.”
“Ranchers and landowners like Tom get it in a way that politicians don’t.”
Native people “sometimes feel like we have a monopoly on this trauma,” Spotted Eagle says, “because we’ve lost so much land.”
“Because we’ve had a holocaust happen to us,” she continues. But ranchers and landowners also have a long history with land—and, she says, “seeing them cry about the loss of their land has softened our hearts. And that made a difference.”
On Wednesday, April 23, Spotted Eagle and other tribal leaders were preparing to meet with White House staffers. She sat down in a moment of quiet. She didn’t seem particularly hopeful. Indeed, she has good reason to mistrust the government, which has consistently broken the treaties it made, not just with the Lakota, but with indigenous people all over the country.
Instead, Spotted Eagle places her faith in her people’s ability to survive as they have always survived—and now, increasingly, in these new alliances with non-indigenous neighbors. “Ranchers and landowners like Tom,” she said, “they get it in a way that politicians don’t.”
What they “get” is a connection to land, the sense that one’s identity is rooted in a particular place that cannot be sold or exchanged for another. And it may be that this land, which has divided nations and driven them to bloodshed, will be the thing that brings them back together.
Later that day, Genung thought about what would happen after the week was over. He would go back to Nebraska, he said, and continue the fight until it was over—“win, lose, or draw.” But, he said, “This pipeline fight is pulling us together in ways that we can’t even recognize.”
Kristin Moe is a writer, storyteller, and multimedia journalist. She is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and has coordinated storytelling programs at The Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University.