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Lakota Tribes “Refuse to Cooperate” With Tar Sands Proponents

A protester against the Keystone XL pipeline is arrested outside the White House in this screengrab from "The Indigenous Call: Take Back Our Future." (Image: StopKeystoneXL)

The Keystone XL pipeline and a message from indigenous resistance.

As people gather to protest the greed and corruption of Wall Street in downtown Manhattan and throughout the world, the territories of indigenous peoples and nations have been the front lines of this conflict for a long, long, time.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, of the Pukatawagan Cree Nation, is an anti-tar sands campaigner with the Indigenous Environmental Network, and is responsible for coordinating an indigenous team which operates both in the United States and Canada supporting locally led tactics and strategies aimed at stopping the Canadian tar sands expansion and its encroachment into traditional and treaty territories of first nations in Alberta and British Columbia.

This intervention, says Thomas-Muller, also includes the United States and binational pipelines such as the existing Keystone pipeline as well as the currently proposed Keystone XL, which will travel over 1,500 miles from Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Explaining his job to Truthout, Thomas-Muller says, “Our approach to attacking critical issues of environmental racism like what the tar sands Keystone XL pipeline proposal and what US and Canadian energy policy in general represent, is aimed at the disproportionate targeting of our people, our way of life and of our homelands becoming the sites for the fossil fuel regime and becoming batteries, I guess you could say, for America's unsustainable energy consumption needs.”

The reason it's called tar sands is that around 90 percent of it is actually comprised of sand, clay and water, while only ten percent is a hydrocarbon liquid called bitumen, which can be extracted and refined into crude oil.

“The environmental impact assessment the state department issued,” according to Thomas-Muller, “is horrifically inadequate. It did not include analysis on the pump stations along the way of this 1500 mile pipeline which is typically where blowouts and leakages occur. It did not include assessments on the environmental justice impacts on local communities in the Gulf Coast and what they would experience in an increase of the processing of the world's dirtiest form of fossil fuel in their backyards. It did not include the environmental justice assessment on the impact on local indigenous communities in Canada in northern Alberta and what they would face as a result of a 30 percent increase in extraction that is directly tied to the construction of this pipeline.”

Thomas-Muller points out how, “Jordan in the Middle East, the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, Venezuela in Latin America and Russia in Asia, all have this same type of dirty oil. All of them are listening to Canada to negotiate technology for ownership stake arrangements with private sector Big Oil that's operating in Canada to develop their tar sands resources. And we have to stop this.”

Invading Treaty Territory

Pat Spears serves as president of Intertribal COUP, the Council on Utility Policy, which represents the energy policy and renewable energy development interests for 15 tribes in the Northern Plains, surrounded by the Fort Laramie Treaty lands in the states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming.

The Fort Laramie Treaties, guaranteed by the US Constitution, secure the lands of the Lakota Nation for the Lakota People. The tar sands Keystone XL oil pipeline would pass through these lands while crossing the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world's largest, which supplies fresh water to the surrounding reservations as well as eight US states.

In his testimony during a US State Department meeting in Pierre, South Dakota, on September 29, Spears, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and a former tribal chairman stated, “The mining and pipeline transport of tar sands oil from northern Alberta has a devastating impact on the lands, water, forests, ecosystem, wildlife and the health of the Cree and Dine Nations and all indigenous people in Canada. This high carbon extraction process combined with the future burning of fuels compounds the impact on global warming. If tar sands oil mining is fully expanded, the impacts of climate change will be irreversible.”

At a recent summit on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, non-Native ranchers and land owners from lands surrounding the proposed route of the tar sands Keystone XL oil pipeline, gathered to voice opposition to the project's construction.

Attending the summit was Lakota grandmother and activist Debra White Plume. The construction of the pipeline, according to White Plume, is a continuation of the destruction of her culture and of her nation.

White Plume told Truthout, “To us this oil pipeline coming in across our drinking water and surface water source, if our water line is contaminated by that oil it will be genocide for our Oglala Lakota people. There are 50,000 of us on the Pine Ridge Reservation,” she continued. “Our Mni Waconi water line is our only source of drinking water so if the pipeline contaminates that it is genocide for our Oglala band of the Lakota Nation. A lot of us look at that in terms of the same impact the buffalo hunters had in exterminating the buffalo herds which sustained our people.”

To the Lakota, the Keystone XL pipeline will be like a train running through their culture, as White Plume explained, seeing the relationship between how, “the railroads coming in through our territory all those generations ago not only split the buffalo herd in two, it impacted our access to the buffalo. It was also the transportation which brought the settlers and the pilgrims into our treaty territory and impacted our way of life and our freedom,” she said.

At the meeting in Pierre, according to White Plume, about 75 percent of the people testifying in support of the construction of the TransCanada pipeline were union workers bussed in from the surrounding states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

“We saw personally with our own eyes,” explained White Plume, “some of these union workers going to the bar right next to where the hearing was held, drink a few shots of whiskey and go right back into the hearing room to get in line to make their comments.”

As the ranchers complained about being intimidated into signing an easement under the threat of their land being taken by TransCanada declaring eminent domain, White Plume's response was clear. “Those were the conditions we faced back in the era before treaties were made,” she said, referring to the Fort Laramie Treaties, which are under constant violation by the US government and transnational corporations.

“I told them that they are now the Indians of today,” White Plume said.

A Message to the President

In a fiery campaign speech before his election, President Obama said, “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Spears is pleading for the president to remember his words.

“The XL Pipeline project is not in the tribal, nor the US national interest. We urge the State Department and President Obama to deny the permit for construction. Let this administration be remembered as one that respects the earth and the people of the earth,” said Spears.

Thomas-Muller's message to Obama is similar, “we were all overcome and awash with inspiration and positive emotion with the election of President Obama. Some of the things he said were very enchanting – that this would be the generation that our grandchildren would look back on and say that's when they took action on climate change. But through the continuation of deep sea exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, the permitting of Shell to drill for offshore oil resources in Bristol Bay in the outer continental shelf of Alaska, with the expansion of the fracking industry and now with the consideration of the Keystone XL pipeline, we know that Obama hasn't been able to meet his commitments to social movements in America that helped get him elected.”

White Plume's message to TransCanada is one in which many who are filling town squares and city parks across the globe seem to be relating to in recent weeks. She told Truthout, “TransCanada needs us to be silent. TransCanada needs us to stay home. TransCanada needs us to be idle in order for them to build this pipeline and I refuse to cooperate with TransCanada.”

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