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In mid-September this year, as sharp winds howled across the Great Plains, indigenous leaders from either side of the U.S. –Canada border held an "emergency meeting" in the basement of a South Dakota casino. They came from all over - one flew in from Canada's frigid Great Bear Lake near the Arctic Circle, a husband and wife drove east on Highway 18 from their reservation, and several more drove west, on Interstate Highway 90.
The casino (official slogan: "A little bit of Vegas on the prairie") itself is not much to look at. The low building sits by itself on the prairie near the southern edge of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, almost straddling the border between Nebraska and South Dakota. For two days the indigenous delegates – men and women, mostly middle-aged and older -- huddled downstairs, drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups, and nibbling on salted peanuts and M&M candies.
How to radically alter the energy policy of the United States, they wondered, and keep a foreign company far away from their land? They prayed to their ancestors for guidance. They took smoke breaks under an enormous grey sky.
After two days they drafted a "Mother Earth Accord" that they hope will galvanize indigenous opposition to the most contentious infrastructure proposal in North America: a privately-built 1,661-mile-long oil pipeline set to carry crude from Alberta's oil sands to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast. Some say they're fighting for the safety of their peoples -- and others, to redress generations of conflict, poverty, and injustice. "Our ancestors protected the land when they were alive," Rosebud Tribal Chief John Spotted Tail said at the meeting. "Our belief is that we need to do the same."
Great Plains country
From the air, South Dakota resembles a tile floor where earthy rectangles of green, brown, yellow, and red line up with geometric precision. The view from the ground reinforces that image, adding texture, sound and smell. Highways run to distant points on the horizon. Fields of corn, wheat, soybeans, and sunflowers ripple in the wind. The odor of manure drifts across the land, sometimes wafting even to Sioux Falls, the state's largest city.
Driving down the interstate highway, you can tune to KBHB 810 Five State Ranch Radio near Rapid City; catch the daily "Farm and Ranch Review" on KWYR Country 1260; or listen to KILI Radio 90.1, the “Voice of the Lakota Nation.”
Scattered among the farmer-settlers, South Dakota has thelargest indigenous population in the U.S., with more than 71,000 Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples ("Sioux", as they are known by outsiders) spread across eight reservations and beyond. Theirs is often a marginalized existence, separated by history and culture, as well as poor health and poverty, from the agricultural mainstream that surrounds them.
But local leaders are hoping to wield outsize influence in coming weeks over one of the most important environmental decisions in Barack Obama's presidency: whether or not to approve TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline.
Keystone XL is the Calgary-based energy company's most important project. Canadian analysts expect it to add Cnd$500 million to $700 million to its balance sheets each year. Those earnings hinge on Obama's acceptance of the argument--promoted by Alberta's oil sands industry and its political supporters--that pumping an extra 500,000 barrels of oil each day from friendly Canada will help wean the U.S. off Middle Eastern oil.
A fierce opposition, including Democratic party members of the U.S. Congress, environmental activists, and local ranchers, has delayed the proposal for years, framing it as a mortal danger to the planet's climate and to the rivers and aquifers of the “American heartland.” For some indigenous peoples on South Dakota's Great Plains, the controversy has an added, historical, significance. They see TransCanada as the latest in a long line of unwanted intruders on their ancestral homeland.
'Something bad is coming to our nation'
"Excuse if me if I just spoke too fast for you to understand," Alex White Plume said, moments after delivering an opening prayer in the Lakota language. His quick laughter softened the joke at the expense of the white English speakers in the casino basement. The 59-year-old White Plume and his wife, Debra, were among the first to arrive at the "emergency meeting" of indigenous leaders at the Rosebud Tribal Casino. They sat at the right arm of a U-shaped table configuration, notebooks open.
The meeting had been organized only the week before, and opening attendance was modest. Down the short end of the "U" to their left were several local farmers, dressed in flannel shirts and blue jeans. Nearby were representatives from the Rosebud Tribal council and on the other side was an anti-pipeline activist from Nebraska. Enclosed in the center, facing a large projector screen, was Marty Cobenais, the pipeline campaigner of the Indigenous Environmental Network and one of the meeting's organizers. An aerial shot of an oil sands operation in northern Alberta filled the projector screen: miles of strip-mined blackness where thick woodland used to be. "Jesus," muttered one of the farmers. White Plume remarked: "Something bad is coming to our nation and to our land."
The future of oil?
Whatever your view of Alberta's oil sands industry, there's no denying its sheer visual spectacle. Picture the boreal forest, like a great green blanket spread across northern Canada. Now picture a gash in the fabric that reveals 426 square miles of toxic lakes and bare, black earth, where shovels and trucks the size of small buildings mine "bitumen," a thick mixture of sand, clay and oil. (A tiny patch measuring 0.64 square miles has certified by the provincial government as reclaimed). At the edges of this rip, the green blanket appears to fray, cut through with production wells, pipelines, access roads, and processing facilities -- essential elements of the system of high-pressure steam injections that let producers access deeper deposits. Each year, this frenzy of industrial activity pumps out close to 40 megatonnes of greenhouse gases, more than all the cars on Canadian roads.
Much of the bitumen produced here is diluted with a chemical cocktail of industrial solvents -- including benzene, a known carcinogen -- and then sent via pipeline to the U.S. Midwest. So much of this "dilbit" is shipped south, in fact, that Canada has become the number-one supplier of crude oil to the U.S., shipping one million more barrels each day than Saudi Arabia.
And this output is only the beginning. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers expects production to more than double in the next 14 years. But for that to happen, the Cnd$100 billion industry needs a way to get that oil to foreign markets. It needs pipelines. "If there was something that kept me up at night," Alberta energy minister Ron Liepert told the Globe and Mail this summer, "it would be the fear that before too long we’re going to be landlocked in bitumen. We’re not going to be an energy superpower if we can’t get the oil out of Alberta.”
Climate change activists hoped to keep Liepert sleepless in late August, when they began staging a massive protest against TransCanada's Keystone XL. Each day for two weeks, people from across the continent stood, sat, and chanted in an off-limits area in front of the White House in Washington DC. More than 1,250 activists, including actress Daryl Hannah, writer Naomi Klein, and environmental leader Bill McKibben were led away in handcuffs. (After some time in a detention center and payment of a $100 fine, all the detainees were freed).
"We're pretty sure that without serious pressure, the Keystone Pipeline will get its permit from Washington," reads a release signed by McKibben, Klein, and others. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper countered during a visit to New York, calling the project a "complete no-brainer,” and telling reporters: “I'm confident that it will be built."
Then, near the end of September, more than 100 activists were arrested leaping police barricades at a solidarity protest outside the Canadian parliament in Ottawa. Rancor over the pipeline continued to crescendo at emotional public hearings in the six U.S. states along Keystone XL's proposed route. News reports detailed how one packed eight-hour meeting in Nebraska pitted local ranchers, fearful of oil leaks into their water supplies, against blue collar workers, insistent the project will create thousands of much-needed construction jobs.
With the Obama administration expected to step into this political war zone by year's end to decide the fate of the pipeline, chances to intervene are dwindling..
Against this high-stakes environmental showdown, indigenous voices have struggled to be heard. But in the basement of the Rosebud Casino, tribal leaders began enacting a compelling battle-plan.
Four hours into the Rosebud casino meeting, the Canadian delegation arrived: Dene Nation leader Bill Erasmus, from Great Bear Lake in the North West Territories and George Stanley, a tribal leader from northern Alberta's Frog Lake, right near major oil sands operations. The basement group welcomed them like long-distant friends. In fact, meeting organizer Cobenais had been at the Washington DC, protests with Erasmus and Stanley only weeks before. It was there that Erasmus had experienced a bit of a revelation. "Our peoples in Canada and the U.S. have been working in isolation to fight [Keystone XL]," he said. "I became intrigued by the idea of bringing us together."
Many North American indigenous communities do not recognize the 49th parallel, preferring to think of themselves as continental peoples. Yet to date, local priorities and distance had thwarted cross-border cooperation on Keystone XL. The plan at this meeting was to draft a unified two to three-page "Mother Earth Accord" opposing the pipeline.
Erasmus and Stanley, who sit on the executive of Canada's Assembly of First Nations, hoped to get the document adopted by the wider leadership (which they did, not long after the meeting). Cobenais, in turn, would help push it to the National Congress of American Indians, the biggest indigenous lobby group in Washington, DC (still an ongoing process). Both organizations eventually hope to present the "Mother Earth Accord" directly to President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. "With an accord at that level," Cobenais said, "we believe the administration would have a hard time saying 'yes' to this pipeline."
450 mile Benzene Plume
During a break in the meeting, Alex White Plume smoked a hand-rolled cigarette under a small alcove outside the casino. "The ones with filters give you bad breath," he explained. Dark clouds spat rain onto the parking lot in front of him. For White Plume and many other indigenous peoples, Keystone XL is both a risk to the safety of their peoples, and the latest chapter in a centuries-old struggle to defend their land.
Although TransCanada's proposed route does not enter any indigenous reservations as it slices diagonally across South Dakota, the pipeline will burrow under several tributaries of the Missouri River (the White, the Bad and the Cheyenne) that flow near or alongside tribal territory. Earlier this summer John Stansbury, a professor of water resources engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, released a report on Keystone XL, predicting 91 major spills over a 50 year life period. "If this thing ruptured into a waterway," Stansbury told this reporter in an interview, "the oil itself wouldn't go too far. But what would happen is [that] chemicals in the oil, like benzene, would start to dissolve and form a plume, possibly stretching for 450 miles."
TransCanada disputed Stansbury's report, telling Nebraska media that "as a pipeline operator across North America for over 60 years, safety is a top priority...We would not put our reputation or the public at risk." And a final environmental assessment from the U.S. State Department predicted "no significant impacts" from Keystone XL.
Descended from Crazy Horse
Hundreds of years of history and personal experience have made White Plume skeptical of the promises of outsiders. Still smoking his cigarette, he explained how his attempt to grow industrial hemp 11 years ago ended with a gun pointed in his face. Some 36 heavily armed U.S. federal agents raided his Pine Ridge Reservation farm, and shut it down by enforcing a law that drew no distinction between hemp and marijuana. The incident strengthened his resentment toward big business and the U.S. government, and his belief that, in the end, his peoples have little say over their land or future.
This widely-held conviction among local tribes dates at least to 1851, when Washington signed the first Treat of Fort Laramie with Lakota leaders, giving them control over tens of millions of acres across the Great Plains. Then, generations of settler encroachment, renegotiated treaties, and all-out war shrank tribal sovereignty to the confines of a few poverty-stricken reservations. Some believe the full 1851 territory is still indigenous land, and are rankled that TransCanada's Keystone XL might gain the legal power to slice right through it.
Historical grievances cut especially deep for White Plume, who is descended from the same tribal band as Crazy Horse, the famed 19th century Lakota warrior who helped wipe out General George Custer's cavalry regiment at Little Big Horn. "When the settlers came and killed off all our buffalo, they wiped out an ecosystem that we depended on," White Plume said. "And now they're trying to bring dirty oil through our country." He paused for a second, then began to laugh. When he finished the only sound came from the prairie wind.
'Saudi Arabia of wind energy'
Only a hundred yards or so from the Rosebud Tribal Casino, some tribal leaders see a different future: It is bone-white, 190 feet tall, and has three slender blades. Built by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in 2003, this wind tower, the first in Indian country, powers the casino and an adjoining hotel. The reservation sells surplus electricity to the Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City.
The project is modest, no doubt, but local observers see the start of something much bigger. "The Great Plains is the Saudi Arabia of wind energy, representing the potential to generate more than 300,000 megawatts of power," reads one indigenous e-newsletter. (To put that in perspective, Keystone XL would produce the energy equivalent of about 16,000 megawatts, according to University of Waterloo professor Jatin Nathwani).
And a recent report from the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab argued a phalanx of wind towers on tribal land could one day provide up to 14 percent of all U.S. electricity needs. Still, progress crawls, hobbled by tribal poverty, poor infrastructure, and sometimes-complex regulations.