On November 16, 2017, a portion of the Keystone pipeline spilled over 210,000 gallons of oil near the town of Amherst, South Dakota, and adjacent to the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation. It was one of the largest ever onshore oil spills since 2010. This pipeline is operated by TransCanada, the same company behind the controversial Keystone XL in Nebraska, which state legislators approved earlier this week over outcry from activists and environmental organizations. The series of pipeline are designed to bring crude oil from Canada through the United States, and to the Gulf of Mexico.
Indigenous tribes in the US and Canada have opposed pipelines such as Keystone for years, arguing that the proximity of these pipelines to indigenous land and reservations violates Native sovereignty. In addition to this, many Native activists say it’s not a matter of if, but when, leaks like this will occur. Because of the incredibly destructive nature of pipeline leaks, many indigenous activists often see them as part of the ongoing legacy of colonialism.
Indigenous activists—and indigenous women in particular—have long been at the forefront of this fight, warning that a disaster at this scale is imminent if we allow companies to continue erecting such pipelines. Last year, the resistance camps at Standing Rock gained national attention when peaceful activists were beaten—some nearly losing limbs—arrested, and intimidated for protesting against the Dakota Access Pipeline. They were subjected to this treatment for trying to warn us that pipeline leaks just like this are inevitable.
We asked two activists what they thought about the recent leak, the fight for indigenous sovereignty, and what they would like to see done to prevent tragedies like this in the future. (These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.)
Name: Eryn Wise, Next Generations Coordinator for Honor the Earth
Nation or Tribe: Jicarilla Apache and Laguna Pueblo
BROADLY: Can you tell me about your involvement in the fight against pipelines in the US?
Wise: I am a veteran of the #NoDAPL resistance in Standing Rock, North Dakota, and am currently on the ground fighting Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 in northern Minnesota, which goes through the treaty territory of the Anishinaabe and sacred lands of the Dakota. I also do support work for the opposition against the Keystone KXL pipeline in South Dakota.
How do you think the fight for a clean environment and respectful treatment of the land is connected to the fight for indigenous people’s rights and identity?
I think that it’s imperative for people to recognize that the first thing colonizers do is reduce our land to an inanimate being: incapable of feeling, fighting, or resisting their aggression. Once that narrative is written, these same oppressors come into indigenous communities and treat us with the same level of disrespect.
They treat our people like antiquated fixtures, cartoons, or extinct animals in places we are indigenous to; diminish the role we played in the protection and restoration of our sacred lands; and then have the audacity to tell us that we have no right to lay claim to our own mother. We are of this land and exist purely because of it. When they rape our earth with their pipelines and various forms of eco-devastation, and disregard the spirit that lies within the earth, they become a gateway for violence against the protectors of the land. If it doesn’t bother those that come to harm to destroy Mother Earth, it surely doesn’t weigh on them that they are purveyors of violence against indigenous peoples.
"The first thing colonizers do is reduce our land to an inanimate being: incapable of feeling, fighting, or resisting their aggression. Once that narrative is written, these same oppressors come into indigenous communities and treat us with the same level of disrespect."
Do you think women have played an especially important role in this fight?
Women play the most important role in any fight, period. We are sacred beings and life givers. Without women — especially all the grandmothers, mothers, and aunties who have been present to guide us — we wouldn’t have been even remotely successful in getting a fight off the ground. Women see things through the lens of their foremothers, with eyes that see into the next seven generations. It’s our role, as women, to not only see the fights before us, but to use our mothering foresight to protect those not here yet that cannot fend for themselves.
What did the Keystone Pipeline leak in South Dakota mean to you?
It only proved the arrogance of man and their commitment to capitalism and the destruction of the earth. The spill, which we said would happen, happened. The devastation that occurred on treaty territory, directly impacting indigenous communities who vehemently opposed this pipeline, was foreshadowed, and that foreshadowing meant nothing. The leak was inevitable. Apparently, so was the idiocy of the many thousands who rallied in support of something so undeniably virulent.
Emotions and frustrations aside, it doesn’t matter what the leak means to me. It matters what it means for those whose futures will undeniably suffer because of corporate greed and flagrant disregard for our treaties – which, according to the US Constitution, are laws of the land.
If non-Native people wanted to help you in this fight, what are some steps you think they should take?
I’d encourage non-Natives to learn about the unceded territories that they sit upon. Do your research. Learn about the land you call home and the true history behind it. Reach out to your local indigenous communities and learn how you can plug in. Enter indigenous spaces with the awareness that your ancestors, be they colonizers or settler-colonialists, are in some way responsible for the state of affairs Natives find themselves in at present. Join us with a simple commitment: to treat us as human beings who reserve the right to exist just as much as anyone else.
Name: Lauren TwoBraids Howland, Youth Organizer & KXL Opposition Coordinator at Seeding Sovereignty
Nation or Tribe : San Carlos and Jicarilla Apache Tribes and The Navajo Nation
How, in your view, is the fight for a clean environment and respectful treatment of the land connected to the fight for indigenous people’s rights and identity?
Our traditions and cultures are deeply rooted in our spiritual connection to Mother Earth. As such, we consider any violence and desecration to the earth a direct attack on our way of life and our physical bodies.
How have women have played an especially important role in this fight?
Before colonialism, indigenous societies on Turtle Island were prominently matriarchal. This is because, in indigenous cultures and traditions, women are considered one of the most sacred beings on this planet with our ability to produce life. This is why we refer to the earth as a woman, because she gives us life. She is referred to as "Mother Earth."
With that said, we consider violence against our Mother Earth a direct attack on our indigenous women. This is why you see women on the front lines of these fights, because the issue is directly connected to us.
In what ways are indigenous youth especially impacted by pipeline leaks such as this?
Mother Earth is a living, breathing, beautiful, life-giving being. She needs to be treated with respect and empathy.
"We consider violence against our Mother Earth a direct attack on our indigenous women. This is why you see women on the front lines of these fights."
What would you like to see the US government do in response to leaks like this in the future?
I don't want a "response." A response is a reaction. I don't need a reactive government—I need a proactive one. I need the US government to be proactive in the saving and protection of our Mother Earth. By saving her, we are saving ourselves as human beings. The US government and Canadian government continue to forget that we need the Earth to live. We need her and her life-giving energy. She is the reason you and I are here. She is our life-giver. She is our Mother. Without her, you would not exist. The US government would not exist.
If non-native people wanted to help you in this fight, what are some steps you think they should take?
First and foremost, we need you to understand that we as indigenous people do not need a "savior." We know what we are doing. We have that connection with our Mother Earth still. What we need is for you, as a non-indigenous person to Turtle Island, to re-establish your connection with her through your own indigenous practices and culture. You once had that connection. We need you to find it again. Not through our indigenous Turtle Island cultures and traditions, but through your own. You were just as connected to her at one point. We need you to realize that and recognize yourself as an indigenous person to the earth, because although you aren't indigenous to Turtle Island, you are indigenous to somewhere.
After we all as the human species have that connection with her again, everything will fall in place. The health of her is directly related with the health of all. Recognize that.