“I’m here to tell President Obama, the great white father, the government of the United States of America, that we do not want this pipeline,” she said. Keystone XL, she said, “is against mother earth. It is against our sacred waters.” It needed to be stopped, she added, in part because it “is killing the people where the oil comes from, with the First Nations in Canada. This is genocide for First Nations people.”
She was building to a finale that arrived with a fist slammed on the podium and arms pumping in the air. “Rise up and say no – no to this pipeline! No to death! No no no no!”
Applause broke out. Nearly two years later, the rising up has begun, as large numbers of First Nations heed the call and prepare to stand in the way of pipeline construction.
The historic extermination of aboriginal people from the prairie landscape in Canada and U.S. was so brutally effective that for much of its path south, Keystone XL passes little First Nations territory. Even in South Dakota, the route stays outside reservation boundaries.
It does, however, pass through traditional Sioux territory, where an uprising is in the making around the Missouri River, which Keystone XL will cross twice. Fort Thompson is a small town perched on the Missouri, next to the Big Bend Dam, an important South Dakota source of hydroelectricity. It is home to the Crow Creek Sioux, a place with all the trappings of meagre circumstance: rundown houses, potholed roads, people drinking mid-afternoon beer on a rickety picnic table.
The tribe gets no revenue from the dam, and every winter faces the ugly irony of having people cut off from the power generated in their backyard.
“Prices are sky high, so a lot of our members can’t afford to pay their electricity bills,” says Roland Hawk, a councilman and treasurer for the Crow Creek. “If it’s in the middle of the winter and they get shut off, we usually try to get them housed somewhere, or in a hotel.”
It happens, he says, routinely. Keystone XL is unlikely to change that: the Crow Creek expect no benefits from the pipeline.
“Nothing,” Mr. Hawk says. “Not here.”
On the downside, “if that pipeline leaks, it could have a pretty good impact – especially if it got into our water system.”
With those worries circulating, a resolution by the Oglala Sioux Tribe ordered President Barack Obama to prohibit “the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and any future projects from entering and destroying our land without our consent.”
Now, many South Dakota Sioux are moving beyond angry words. They are making ready to actively block its construction. They offered a taste of looming action last year, when five Sioux people – including Ms. White Plume – were arrested after taking over a road to stop the passage of two pieces of oil sands equipment moving from Texas to Alberta.
Many more seem set to do the same. In March, hundreds gathered for Moccasins of the Ground Frontline Activist Training, a three-day course in “non-violent direct action.”
Helped by the environmental groups Great Plains Tarsands Resistance and Tarsands Blockade, they learned “how to take a stand” against construction equipment, says Paula Antoine, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
It was, she says, “blockade training.”
Read more from Nathan VanderKlippe on our Keystone XL pipeline page.