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Native Sun News: Sioux Nation takes stand on Keystone XL

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

During a meeting Feb. 17-18 at the Lakota Dome of Prairie Winds Casino on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council unanimously approved a directive to U.S. President Barack Obama and Congress to prohibit TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands crude oil pipeline. Photo by Talli Nauman.

Part II | Part I

PINE RIDGE RESERVATION, SOUTH DAKOTA -- The Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council voted unanimously on Feb. 18 to demand U.S. President Barack Obama and Congress forbid construction of TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL tar sands crude oil pipeline and similar projects that could violate treaty guarantees.

“The Great Sioux Nation hereby directs President Barack Obama and the United States Congress to honor the promises of the United States made through the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties by prohibiting the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline and any future projects from entering and destroying our land without our consent,” states the directive, approved by all seven attending delegations of the treaty council.

The decision and two other initiatives to block the tar sands pipeline passed by consensus at the Lakota Dome of the Prairie Winds Casino during a two-day treaty council meeting that also addressed United Nations channels for treaty enforcement, war veterans affairs and domestic violence. The event took place one week after an Oglala Sioux Tribal Council rally in Rapid City drew pipeline opponents from Navajo and Ute tribes, as well as farmers and ranchers of South Dakota and Nebraska.

During the week, more than 30 organizations nationwide elicited some 800,000 letters to U.S. senators requesting they quash a highway bill amendment to force pipeline approval, in what climate-change activist leader Bill McKibben dubbed “the most concentrated blitz of environmental organizing since the start of the digital age.”

North Dakota GOP Sen. John Hoeven developed the amendment, which passed the lower house and was awaiting Senate consideration at press time. Meanwhile, in the South Dakota State Legislature, lawmakers voted down two bills that would have protected landowners along the Keystone XL route from property condemnation and from pipeline spill liability.

Obama denied TransCanada Corp.’s 4-year-old permit application for the $7 billion project on Jan. 18, and the Calgary, Alberta-based company said it would apply again for permission to enter the U.S with a 1,700-mile pipeline across Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, connecting with Oklahoma and Texas refineries.

TransCanada is continuing to seek condemnation of private lands along the proposed route under the terms of eminent domain, and it is requesting contracts with county commissions to allow for man camps, water, heavy equipment and road-use during construction. Commissioners in Meade County, adjacent to the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, turned down a contract in February and will reconsider it in March.

The company is offering hundreds of thousands of construction and spinoff jobs during the life of the project involving six states, but official documents show the number would be more like 6,000.

The delegates at the treaty council considered the temporary construction industry jobs less important than cultural and conservation concerns, particularly in terms of respecting ancestral customs and maintaining clean water.

The first directive approved by delegates notes, “The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline would cross countless rivers and streams, including the Missouri River, the Yellowstone River, the Cheyenne River, the White River, the Niobrara River and the Platte River, and … in addition to interfering with our natural water sources … would cross the Mni Wiconi pipeline, which pumps water from those sources to our communities on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the Rosebud Indian Reservation, thus endangering our access to clean drinking water. Operation of the Keystone XL pipeline would also threaten the Ogallala Aquifer, which is the drinking water source for millions of people including many Lakota people.”

In the council’s second pipeline directive, entitled “Resolution of the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council Demanding Protection of the Rights of Our Elders”, delegates stated “support for our Lakota elders in their opposition to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.”

The 10 delegates attending represented seven of the nine Indian reservations that make up the council. They were from Cheyenne River, Fort Peck, Lower Brule, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Standing Rock and Yankton reservations.

“Lakota Elders are strongly opposed to the development of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would desecrate Mother Earth, inhibit the replenishing flow of the sacred underground water and disturb the sacred herbs for the Lakota medicine men to cure sicknesses among our people, and (they) are strongly concerned about the future of our takojas who would tremendously suffer from the effects of constructing and operating the proposed Keystone XL pipeline,” the resolution stated.

“The Lakota people have never consented to the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline through our lands, and such malevolent use of Lakota treaty lands by TransCanada would violate the traditional law, the natural law, the traditional beliefs, and the sovereignty of the Great Sioux Nation,” it noted.

“Be it resolved, that we, the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council, hereby stand behind and voice our support for our Lakota elders in their opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline,” it concluded.

A third resolution recognizes the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council’s Feb. 8 decision to oppose both the original Keystone XL Pipeline route and a new route. The company agreed to reroute the pipeline after the Nebraska State Legislature blocked construction that the environmental impact statement allowed through the fragile Sand Hills ecosystem overlying the Ogallala Aquifer.

The treaty council’s authority stems from the traditional indigenous form of governance, while the tribal councils, consisting of elected officials of tribes, are entities created by the 1934 federal Indian Reorganization Act, or IRA. Treaty council delegates commonly also hold tribal council positions.

“We will send Uncle Oliver up there to meet with Obama. He wants to meet with us,” said Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council Interpreter Alex White Plume, former Oglala Sioux tribal chairman. “So we’re going to talk about how do we get there,” he said.

Oliver Red Cloud is the chairman of the treaty council and he presided over the meeting. His great grandfather, world-famous Lakota Chief Mapíya Lúta was at the signing of the 1868 Treaty, which left jurisdiction of what now are western South Dakota and parts of nearby U.S. states and Canadian provinces to the Great Sioux Nation.

Four generations later, nonagenarian Oliver Red Cloud, itancan of the Oglala Lakota Band of the Great Sioux Nation, leads the band’s efforts to have the treaty upheld according to international law. He received a tanned buffalo robe at the council meeting, in honor of his service. His son Jim Red Cloud and family sponsored a give-away of blankets to the some 50 participants in the meeting.

Participant Milo Yellow Hair, a former Oglala Sioux Tribe vice president and American Indian Movement activist, called for more than resolutions. “I like these resolutions,” he said, “but they don’t go far enough.” He proposed asking the IRA governments to commit $5,000 apiece to the treaty council’s efforts to stop the pipeline and tar-sands mining.

“We can at least slow down the process and talk about conservation,” he told delegates. Let’s go further with these things. Lets demand action, lets create action,” he added.

Four Sioux tribal governments filed a federal lawsuit in 2008 to stop TransCanada’s first pipeline proposal in the United States, the 1,000-mile Keystone I Pipeline, from the tar-sands deposits in the Canadian border province of Alberta through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri and Illinois.

In the legal action, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska, and the Yankton Sioux Tribe charged former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and her staff with breaking treaty obligations, violating trust relationships and ignoring religious cultural protections. Subsequent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton successfully filed for dismissal of the case, based on the argument of lack of jurisdiction.

When the Keystone XL permit application came up for consideration in 2009, the tribal governments considered that the ruling in the first case was a clear signal that they could not block the pipeline in federal court, according to Cheyenne River Sioux Senior Tribal Attorney Steve Emery.

“How the decision was written in the first place tells you that you need to put your resources in a different direction,” Emery told the Native Sun News.

Instead, the tribal governments of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe, Rosebud Sicangu Oyate, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe each passed resolutions opposing the project.

Now constituents must tell state and federal elected officials to stop the pipeline, Oglala Sioux Tribal Attorney Jennifer Baker said at the Rapid City rally on Feb. 11. “Everybody needs to contact your Congress people," she said.

Emery agreed. “These are the kinds of things we need to be working together on, instead of fighting to get federal dollars and win tribal elections,” Emery advised rally-goers. “When we say ‘mitakuye oyasin’, if we really mean ‘all our relations’, this can’t be just about our human relations; it has to be about everything,” he added. “Looking out for seven generations is a huge responsibility.”

South Dakota Dist. 26 Rep. Ed Iron Cloud said he received a lot of letters from landowners on the pipeline route who didn’t want it, but when “the Keystone XL lobbyists came in and said if a bill was passed it would slow things down to the point of stopping it”, other lawmakers voted down the initiative.

Winner, South Dakota rancher John Harter, said he is facing eminent-domain proceedings to condemn his land on the proposed route, even though TransCanada’s Presidential Permit application has been denied. He told rally participants it would cost him $25,000 to obtain a property assessment necessary to fight it in court.

I"I don’t have the money,” he said. “As a white person, I have found I don’t have civil rights, so I’m really depending on the tribes to stop this thing at the Mni Wiconi line,” he added, drawing a hearty round of lilis from the crowd.

Harter asked rally-goers to support him by attending his court hearings March 7-8, in Tripp County, adjacent to the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

“Let them know people do not agree with the way they’re endangering our life,” he said. “Our well is only 36 feet deep. They won’t recognize that our water needs to be protected.”

The South Dakota Public Utilities Commission has told TransCanada Corp. that the High Plains Aquifer is very close to the surface in Tripp County “and is a water source for several domestic farm wells near the pipeline, as well as the public water supply system.” The PUC ordered the company to treat the area as a “hydrologically sensitive area” when developing emergency response plans. The agency said the company should treat any other vulnerable aquifers the same way during its ongoing route evaluation.

TransCanada submitted paperwork to that effect on Feb. 7 when it requested the Meade County Commission vote on a proposed agreement for the company to use and fix more than a dozen roads under jurisdiction of the county adjacent to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Sections of its approved environmental impact statement show that the county roads, together with U.S. 212 and S.D. 73, would be used as “primary haul roads” to transport workers, water, and equipment during the construction phase.

The commission scheduled the contract request to be reconsidered at its next monthly meeting, March 6-7, in Sturgis.

The plan envisions setting up man camps for a work force “in dormitories that do not include facilities for families.” Crews would be bussed between the dorms and the work sites, although some employees would drive their own vehicles or utility trucks or welding rigs.

The company would contract local security guards to staff the camps round-the-clock. It would provide the camps drinking water “by drilling a well where feasible”. Municipal drinking water or trucked-in water would be the alternatives. Wastewater would be handled by public facilities where available or on-site, with discharges compliant to regulations.

Faith is the most frequented town in the Meade County construction area, which reaches from the northern county line to the Cheyenne River.

Approximately 400 temporary access roads would be needed to provide adequate access to the construction sites and approximately 50 permanent access roads would be needed. These would “require completion of cultural resources and biological surveys and consultations and approvals” of state and federal officials, according to the environmental impact statement.

The statement notes that the officials outlined 57 conditions the pipeline must meet to assure safety from toxic spills or other accidents. The Keystone I Pipeline experienced 14 spills within the first year of operations.

Meade County rancher Marvin Kammerer, speaking at the rally, said no amount of pipeline revenues offered to local governments could compensate for the spills.

“Conservation is the key to denying the Keystone XL Pipeline and to providing Mother Earth a life,” he said.

Nebraska rancher Cindy Meier, who spoke at the rally, noted that her state government’s actions to protect land and water from the pipeline succeeded in a promised change of route to avoid the Sand Hills formation but not the entire Ogallala aquifer.

“I feel like our Nebraska leaders are misrepresenting rural Nebraskans. I feel like our leaders are representing their political party and oil money. I don’t think it’s worth the risk to our water and land for a foreign company’s profits,” she said.

In the face of conservationists’ pressure and Nebraska state government moves to protect the Ogallala aquifer, the Obama Administration ruled late last year that a determination of national interest required more time and postponed the decision until at least 2013, after presidential elections. However, Republicans in Congress, who favor pipeline construction for increasing oil supplies and temporary jobs, approved a rider on the employee income-tax relief bill in December that forced the President to decide. Obama then decided against the permit, again citing lack of time for proper consideration.

Indigenous Environmental Network pipeline organizer Marty Cobenais, Red Lake Ojibway who traveled to the rally from Minnesota, stressed the commonalities of cowboys and Indians facing the specter of sacrificing natural resources to the pipeline.

“These guys are much like us,” he said of the private landowners. I actually call them the New Indians, or Modern Indians, because their land is threatened by a foreign government and company.”

Last year tribal government officials opposing the tar sands and pipelines wrote and signed a Mother Earth Accord together with representatives of Canadian First Nations and of numerous non-Indian organizations. The tribal leaders delivered the letter to the U.S. State Department and to Obama in October at the time of federal hearings in Washington, D.C. on whether the Keystone XL Pipeline is “in the national interest.”

However Deep Green Resistance activist Deanna Meyer, who like Baker traveled from Colorado for the rally, said she is “no longer willing to plead with politicians who don’t care if eagles, polar bears, salmon or bees disappear forever. I will no longer stand by and watch life on this planet being murdered,” she said. “We can’t kill the planet and live on it too. The tar sands must be stopped by whatever means necessary and we are willing to take those actions. We must start putting our bodies between what is left of life on this planet and fossil fuels,” she said.

Rapid City’s American Indian Movement Grassroots Chapter President Tom Cheyenne read a statement signed by AIM Grand Governing Council Member Clyde H. Bellecourt conceived “to challenge all the races of humankind to stand with us once again for the protection of our sacred Mother Earth.”

Diné activist Loretta James from Shiprock, New Mexico, told the rally, “This fight goes all the way back to the 1800s. The issues are the same – protecting the land, the water, the people. There will be unity,” she said.

The Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association resolved in September to oppose the pipeline, adding in its resolution: “The United States is urged to reduce its reliance on the world’s dirtiest and most environmentally destructive form of oil – the ‘tar sands’ – that threatens Indian country in both Canada and the United States [and] to take aggressive measures to work towards sustainable energy solutions that include clean alternative energy and improving energy efficiency.”

The National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest national organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, resolved to stop the pipeline at its June mid-year session in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, including caveats opposing the tar-sands mining and use of highways to haul heavy equipment for the projects.

“The pipeline is unnecessary, as a number of other pipelines are not at full capacity to carry oil from Canada to refineries in the U.S., and the oil is also not likely to end up on the U.S. market but will be exported to foreign countries,” NCAI noted in its resolution.

“Based on the relatively poor environmental record of the first Keystone pipeline, which includes numerous spills … it is probable that further environmental disasters will occur in Indian country if the new pipeline is allowed to be constructed,” the resolution continues.

“The First Nations of Canada … have unanimously passed resolutions supporting a moratorium on new tar-sands development and expansion until a ‘cumulative effects management system’ is in place and are also in opposition to the pipeline,” it says.

Colorado American Indian Movement activist Scott Denver Jacket of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe noted that people’s health and welfare are affected at the mining end of the process, all along the pipeline, and at the refinery communities receiving the Canadian tar sands in the United States.

“The pipeline is important but the main issue is the tar sands. The Athabascans are fighting for their lands. We should be fighting with them. Once we can stop tar sands, hopefully we can stop refineries,” he told the rally.

He announced a protest demonstration March 3 in Commerce City, Colorado, where a November leak from Suncor Energy’s tar-sands oil refinery polluted drinking water and spilled into Sand Creek, a tributary of the South Platte River. Cleanup continues three months after the leak was spotted. Refineries, such as one slated for Elk Point, on the Missouri River in extreme southeastern South Dakota, , are tooling up to process the heavy crude and chemical slurry.

The Keystone XL Pipeline is among several slated to carry Alberta’s tar-sands crude to distant refineries in the next several years. Other high profile routes include the Enbridge pipelines through Canada and the United States. Enbridge Inc. has offered First Nations in Canada 10 percent of revenues from a proposed 730-mile Northern Gateway Pipeline that would carry the oil from Alberta to the Pacific Coast.

But 54 bands have refused to acquiesce to routing through their homeland reserves, due to environmental issues and alleged lack of meaningful consultation. This puts pressure on the oil industry to seek routes through the United States.

(Talli Nauman is the Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun News and contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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