They call it the “black snake from the North.”
For the past century, Lakota spiritual elders have had visions of a giant black snake winding through their land, according to Sioux tribes in the Dakotas.
Now, many Sioux believe that the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, set to burrow an underground link between Canada and Texas, is that famed and feared black snake — and they’re doing everything they can to stop it.
Native American groups have been solidly protesting the pipeline’s construction since it was proposed in 2008. Last fall, “spirit camps” and traveling protests on horseback popped up along its potential route. This was a test run for what Russell Eagle Bear, of South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Tribe, says is about to ramp up into one united protest all the way from Hardisty, Alberta, to Houston, Texas. The Sioux tribes have allied with Canadian First Nations groups, whose strong resistance to pipelines led to reports that the government was spying on them.
“We’re not decision makers in this whole process,” Eagle Bear said, “But we should have been. They’re leaving us out of the loop.”
Eagle Bear told VICE News that the Rosebud Sioux oppose Keystone XL on three primary grounds. Firstly, the pipe could cause huge potential damage to the environment, especially the contamination of drinking water. Secondly, the Sioux fear possible violence against Native American women that they say accompanies construction worker “man camps.” Thirdly, there’s confusion over land rights.
“If they went through tribal lands, federal law comes into play and they’re avoiding that. But they’re running right alongside tribal lands,” said Eagle Bear.
The pipeline would also run directly through Indian land boundaries as set by treaties from the turn of the 20th Century.
“We also have our aboriginal boundary area,” said Eagle Bear, “which is very important to us.”
An unnamed Sioux woman in a video released by opposition group Oyate Wahacanka Woecun (which means Shield The People in Lakota) describes the land conflict in a series of concentric circles: “There’s the reservations, there’s the treaty land, and then there’s our aboriginal lands.”
Indigenous tribes aren’t the only ones protesting. Paul Seamans, board chair of Dakota Rural Action, explained in an email to VICE News that he believes the presidential permit required for the Keystone XL pipeline could ultimately be denied.
A Department of State spokesperson told VICE News that a Transboundary Permit is required whenever a company proposes infrastructure crossing into the United States from Canada or Mexico. The permit requires an environmental impact study, which the company itself has to pay for. But, according to the state department, the corporation funding the study has no influence over findings.
A long-awaited final environmental impact review on the pipeline was published in January 2014. This played down the effect that Keystone XL would have on climate change and put pressure on President Obama to approve the project.
Seamans doesn’t agree.
“Doing environmental impact statements isn’t something that Department of State does on a regular basis and it is understandable that they might not do the best job,” he said. “The Environmental Impact Statement is quite inaccurate and I believe this will be borne out when federal agencies, such as the EPA, comment in the next 90 days.”
Seamans also raises questions about the researchers contracted by the state department to perform the research: “The latest study was done by ERM, who is known to have had major business dealings and ties with TransCanada.”
Environmental Resources Management (ERM) is a global sustainability consulting firm that was indeed proven to have ties with TransCanada, the company that wants to build Keystone XL.
Both Dakota Rural Action and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe have concerns about drinking water contamination resulting from the pipeline’s run through the shallow water table Ogallala Aquifer that is located beneath the Great Plains. “Chemicals like benzene, that will travel great distances, will cause major problems when, not if, the Keystone XL leaks into the Ogallala,” said Seamans.
“Water is life. No one can live without water,” Eagle Bear said. He also pointed out the extreme economic depression in the South Dakota reservations, and the low number of jobs created for area workers by the proposed pipeline.
“We’re in an economically depressed area, and with the promise of jobs they think we’re going to jump on the bandwagon,” said Eagle Bear.
“We want to protect the water, the air, our natural resources. We’re not thinking about today, we’re thinking about the future.”
Photo via Michael Fleshman