Infrastructure & Environment

American Indians Versus the Pipeline

by | February 18, 2014
 

By Rob Hotakainen

Faith Spotted Eagle figures that building a crude oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast would bring little to Indian Country besides more crime and dirty water, but she doubts that Native Americans will ever get the U.S. government to block the $7 billion project.

"There is no way for Native people to say no _ there never has been," said Spotted Eagle, 65, a Yankton Sioux tribal elder from Lake Andes, S.D. "Our history has caused us not to be optimistic.

... When you have capitalism, you have to have an underclass _ and we're the underclass."

Opponents may be down after a State Department study found that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would not contribute to global warming. But they haven't abandoned their goal of killing what some call "the black snake."

In South Dakota, home to some of the nation's poorest American Indians, tribes are busy preparing for nonviolent battle with "resistance training" aimed at TransCanada, the company that wants to develop the 1,700-mile pipeline.

While organizers said they want to keep their strategy a secret, they're considering everything from vigils to civil disobedience to blockades to thwart the moving of construction equipment and the delivery of materials.

"We're going to do everything we possibly can," said Greg Grey Cloud of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who attended a two-day conference and training session in Rapid City last week sponsored by the Oglala Sioux Tribe called "Help Save Mother Earth from the Keystone Pipeline." He said tribes are considering setting up encampments to follow the construction, but he stressed that any actions would be peaceful. "We're not going to damage anything or riot or anything like that," he said.

Like much of the country, however, tribal members are divided over the pipeline. In South Dakota, the battle pits those who fear irreversible effects on the environment and public safety against those who trumpet the economic payoff and a chance to cash in on a kind of big development project that rarely comes along.

In Winner, S.D., where the population numbers fewer than 3,000, Mayor Jess Keesis is eager to welcome construction workers from a 600-member "man camp" that would open just 10 miles from town if President Barack Obama approves the pipeline.

"Out here on the prairie, you know, we're a tough people," said Keesis, who's also a member of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation in Kansas. "We deal with drought and 8-foot blizzards and all kinds of stuff all the time, so anytime we can get something like this to give us a shot, it's a good thing."

Opponents say the risks are too great.

Two weeks ago, an alliance of Native American groups approved a statement saying emphatically that no pipeline would be allowed in South Dakota and that tribes stand ready to protect their "sacred water" and other natural resources.

That includes Native women, who opponents of the pipeline say would become easy prey for thousands of temporary construction workers housed in work camps. According to the federal government, one of every three Indian women are either raped or sexually assaulted during their lifetimes, with the majority of attacks done by non-Native men.

"If you like to drink water, if you like your children not being harmed, if you don't want your women being harmed, then say no to the pipeline," Grey Cloud said. "Because once it comes, it's going to destruct everything."

Keesis said the project carries risks but ultimately would be a winner for the region. He said the city of Winner and surrounding Tripp County would get a windfall of roughly $900,000 a year from construction workers patronizing the town's restaurants, bars and its recently upgraded digital theater. Even the city would make money, hauling liquid waste from the nearby construction camp to its municipal facilities.

Besides the short-term construction work, Keesis said his city would gain another 30 to 40 permanent residents who would work on pipeline-related jobs. He said Winner needs a lift, noting that since the city shut down its strip clubs a few years back, fewer pheasant hunters are visiting, opting to stay in big hunting lodges nearby.

"When I moved here, during the first three weeks of pheasant season, you couldn't find a parking space," he said. "Now you can park anywhere."

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