Native Sun News: Moccasins on the Ground battles Keystone

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

At the Left Forum in New York, Debra White Plume stands with forum stalwart Noam Chomsky, who is holding an announcement of her documentary film called “Crying Earth Rise Up." Photo courtesy/Owe Aku

Moccasins on the ground
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

BRIDGER - In the wake of three public-school emergency preparation drills that cast Keystone XL Pipeline and uranium mining dissenters as “terrorists”, the grassroots Native American non-profit Owe Aku (Take Back the Way), announced its upcoming Moccasins on the Ground training would be held on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation June 14-16.

The teach-in would be the latest in a series to demonstrate means of peaceful resistance to the Canadian corporate proposals, said Owe Aku founder Debra White Plume, a Lakota grandmother from Manderson. White Plume told the Native Sun News that the dissenters are not a threat, rather “The KXL and uranium mining: That is what all communities need protection from," she said.

The training in Bridger will focus “on skills, tactics, and techniques of nonviolent direct action, such as blockading heavy equipment,” in the event that the U.S. President Barack Obama approves a permit allowing the private fossil-fuel distribution project to proceed, Owe Aku International Justice Project spokesman Ken Lebsock said in a written statement.

“An organized, prepared community is our best protection if President Obama chooses to issue the KXL permit,” White Plume added.

Based in Manderson, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Owe Aku is among hundreds of groups worldwide that oppose TransCanada Corp.’s proposal to build a line to pump diluted bitumen from the tar-sands mines of Alberta Province through the Great Plains to the Gulf of Mexico for refining and shipment overseas.

A May 14 emergency-preparedness drill in the western South Dakota public schools of Hot Springs, Custer and Deadwood called for practice lockdowns of classrooms in response to an imagined threat from opponents of the proposed pipeline and of uranium mining in the state.

Planners chose the "environmental issue" of Keystone XL and uranium mining because it is a "hot-button" and "relevant" in the area, so it would "add realism to the scenario," they told Brookings resident Phyllis Cole-Dai, a co-founder of Fast for the Earth.

The international organization, launched in South Dakota last year is a conglomeration of groups, including Owe Aku, which reject the pipeline proposal, partly on the grounds that it threatens sacred sites, water and treaty lands.

In addition to the proposal from TransCanada, Powertech (USA), Inc. a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Canadian penny stock Powertech Uranium Corp. is seeking state and federal permits to use South Dakota water for a 20-year in-situ leach mining and yellow-cake milling operation 50 miles west of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Custer and Fall River counties.

In the school system’s mock emergency, a simulated threat came in the form of a letter from supposed terrorists, warning that “things dear to everyone will be destroyed unless continuation of the Keystone pipeline and uranium mining is stopped immediately,” Hot Springs reporter Curt Nettinga revealed.

The insertion of politically loaded content into an emergency-preparedness exercise with schoolchildren drew criticism from Cole-Dai and others who objected to the inference that pipeline and uranium mining opponents were characterized as a threat to security.

“The planners' identifying this drill with a particular group of people holding a particular point of view is not legitimate,” Cole-Dai said. “It stigmatizes their position and their right to dissent, and also criminalizes it, at least in hypothetical terms.”

Madville Times blog Editor and Publisher Cory Allen Heidelberger, of Madison, questioned: “What practical purpose was served by creating a little fairy tale about opponents to two big West River business projects going nuts and threatening violence?”

Firedoglake blog Founder and Publisher Jane Hamsher, of Washington, D.C., worried in print: “This might be the start of a nationwide movement, intended or not, to get children to fear all dissent. If we speak up now, we might be able to nip this in the bud, or at least make it so that it doesn’t paint an unrealistic picture of who would be most likely to target a school,” she suggested.

However, Pure Pierre Politics blogger Bob Mercer, who reports for five South Dakota newspapers, said he saw masked protesters in combat fatigues at a Keystone XL Pipeline federal hearing in Pierre last year who “were dressed as real eco-terrorists,” adding: “Actually, folks, the Hot Springs school district and the Fall River County emergency manager probably don’t know how right they were with their made-up letter about a bomb threat by supposedly fictional eco-terrorists for a recent drill.”

Bret Clanton, a landowner whose property would be crossed by the controversial pipeline balked: “I have lobbied and testified at the state level for safeguards on this pipeline and for eminent domain reform,” he said. “Does this mean I am an eco-terrorist, Bob?”

The threat scenario, featuring a terrorist in opposition to the KXL or uranium mining, originated in the ranks of local-level planners. Its co-authors are Lawrence County Assistant Emergency Manager Ken Hawki, who chairs the Lawrence County Local Emergency Planning Committee, and Butte County Pre-Disaster Mitigation Planner Fred Wells, a volunteer fireman and military veteran specializing in anti-terrorism.

While national and international organizations caution that the term “terrorism” is difficult to define, the U.S. State Department considers it to entail “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

The Custer school system announced the exercise in advance, saying, “This regional training drill will involve multiple emergency entities in a collaborative effort to practice security procedures and make our schools safer.”

Cole-Dai said the authors of the threat scenario presented the idea to “a 15-20 member group that was planning a crisis-management drill in three schools. Members of the group were representatives of local emergency responders, local emergency management, and the three school districts involved,” she related, after interviewing Hawki and Wells.

The group gave its consent to use the men’s script, and it then prepped to meet federal guidelines for such drills, according to their account.

The script was supposed to remain a secret of the planning group, Cole-Dai said. It was “never meant to be made public [and] was intended only for the eyes of school principals who would carry out the drills,” she related.

She said the scripters admitted being aware of the fact that no known threat of violence has been made in South Dakota by people opposed to KXL or uranium mining.

They claimed their primary objective was not to push or attack a particular environmental or political position but simply to run a drill to help evaluate the crisis plans meant to protect schoolchildren against terrorist threats.

They also told Cole-Dai it was never their intent to offend anyone with this script, and they are very sorry that it has given offense.

Cole-Dai argued against their concept of “using a threat from ‘an environmentalist,’ which is a gross mischaracterization or oversimplification of the opposition to the KXL and uranium mining projects in South Dakota.” She said it “does not add ‘realism to the scenario’ because it's unrealistic. In fact, the opposition has been explicitly nonviolent in its resistance,” she noted.

Lebsock emphasized that the three-day training session in Bridger would consist of workshops on strategic media, street medic training, knowing legal rights in civil disobedience, building solidarity, human rights and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as Lakota sacred teachings on water.

“Delegations are coming from the four directions to participate in this training, all people who want to learn are welcome,” says Vic Camp, organizer for Owe Aku.

Among activist presenters expected are: White Plume and Camp; actress Tantoo Cardinal of Ft. McMurray, Canada; Winona LaDuke of Honor the Earth; Kandi Mosset of the Indigenous Environmental Network; Nina Waste of Idle No More, Manitoba, Canada; Bruce Ellison of the National Lawyers Guild, Alex White Plume of the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council; Faith Spotted Eagle of Treaty to Protect the Sacred, and Jo Red Sky of the Warriors Alliance.

Trainers also were expected to include representatives of the Great Plains Tarsands Resistance, Texas Blockade, People’s Media Project of Chicago, Protect the Sacred of Ihanktowan Nation, Christian Peace Maker Team, Lakota Media Project, Deep Green Resistance and many other organizations and individuals.

The training was set to take place at Takini School not far from the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline route across the Cheyenne River and was endorsed by Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Councilor Robin LeBeau.

“It is my job to educate our people on their rights, and how to protect their rights: This KXL pipeline may be the biggest issue of our lifetimes,” LeBeau said in a written statement. She recently invited a pipeline company representative to leave the reservation.

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Steve Vance is expected to speak at the training about sacred sites that are along the proposed pipeline route.

““As the process of public comment, hearings, and other aspects of an international application continue, each door is closing to protecting sacred water and our human right to water,” White Plume said. “Soon the only door left open will be the door to direct action,” she warned.

“We must act now and be ready to protect our sacred water, our lands, our families, so we take the Moccasins on the Ground Tour of Resistance to Lakota communities that invite us to provide the training,” she said, noting that more trainings are scheduled through the fall.

White Plume joined Janene Yazzie, a Diné of Sixth World Consultants youth counseling, and Tiokasin Ghosthorse (Hwokoju Lakota) of First Voices Indigenous Radio on June 8 in New York City to address the largest progressive gathering in the United States, the Left Forum, which featured the theme of “Mobilizing for Ecological and Economic Transformation.”

White Plume said the theme “fit in very well with the Lakota-Diné panel presentation called ‘Indigenizing Our Paradigms: Restoring Sacred Sustainability.’ As the title suggests, the panel was designed to offer alternatives to the corporate plutocracy now controlling the political and economic devastation around the world,” she said via a Lakota Media Project news release.

“We’re here to create consciousness amongst potential allies in a place that may be far from our homeland but nonetheless is facing the exact same devastation from nuclear power, fracking, pipelines and extractive industries,” she said.

“In presenting at the Left Forum we hope to create a basis for resistance that will ally with us in our grassroots and on-the-ground struggle to protect Unci Maka (Mother Earth),” she added. “Everyone has a right to know how their water is threatened and we want to also present folks with a means to create real ‘ecological transformation’ through projects like Owe Aku’s Moccasins on the Ground.”

Although Indigenous peoples and issues are not a significant part of the Left Forum, “Indigenize Our Paradigms” was one of the best-attended panels according to conference participants. “We original-peopled the place!” Tiokasin Ghost Horse remarked.

(Contact Talli Nauman at

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