Text by Kristin Moe, photos by Garth Lenz, for the International League of Conservation Photographers.
On April 22, 2014, the dozen or so leather-booted ranchers mounted their horses and lined up in the midday sun. Facing them were an equal number of American Indians, in the regalia of tribes from across the U.S. The two groups stood still, waiting for the signal. Around them, the crowd cheered, photographers snapped photos, and in the background loomed the dome of the U.S. Capitol.
But this was no showdown. Nor was it – despite the banners that said “No Tar Sands, No KXL” – a protest. This was the opening ceremony of Reject and Protect, a five-day gathering of the Cowboy Indian Alliance: a coalition of tribal members, ranchers, and landowners which over the past forty years has come together again and again to fight industrial incursions onto their land. This time, the fight is over the Keystone XL pipeline.
The Cowboy Indian Alliance isn’t an anomaly. Across the continent, the fight to stop tar sands – and in particular the fight over Keystone XL – has catalyzed the creation of unlikely coalitions. And increasingly, it’s the “frontline” leaders from the most at-risk communities who are taking the lead.
The horses began to move. When a moment ago they had been facing one another, the two groups – “cowboys” and “Indians”— got into formation and led a procession through downtown Washington, now walking side by side. “We came in separately, but we marched together,” says Julia Trigg Crawford, a landowner from Direct, Texas who has been fighting Keystone XL since 2008.
If completed, the pipeline would transport diluted bitumen from the tar sands of Alberta 2,000 miles to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. The southern portion of the pipeline has already been built. And despite a massive grassroots movement that has coalesced around stopping the critical northern segment, President Obama recently delayed his final decision until after the November election.
Keystone XL already runs through Crawford’s fields, and the oil began flowing in January. This week, the Supreme Court of Texas rejected her case against the pipeline company TransCanada, who claimed right of way to her land through eminent domain. But Crawford hasn’t given up.
At the Reject and Protect encampment in Washington, tipis were set up in a circle around a sacred fire that burned continuously for all five days. Members of the Cowboy Indian Alliance, many of whom live near the path of the proposed pipeline, mingled with supporters, including tribal members from across the continent. They spent the week protesting, speaking and lobbying elected officials, infused each action with indigenous ceremony and prayer.
Crawford fears that the tar sands pipeline will one day spill, destroying her land and polluting her water. This isn’t an unthinkable supposition: According to an NRDC report, tar sands diluted bitumen is 3.6 times more likely to spill than regular oil. If that weren’t enough of a red flag, the proposed path crosses the Ogallala aquifer, which provides drinking water to eight states—threatening not just the drinking water for millions of people, but the stability of the region’s agricultural economy.
The pipe buried in her land is seafoam green, Crawford says, “but it should be blood red.”
Keystone XL will also cross through land considered sacred by various American Indian tribes as part of their traditional territory. Dallas Goldtooth, one of the event’s organizers and a member of the Lower Sioux Dakota Nation, says that “no matter the reservation boundaries, we still have a right to protect the land within the boundaries of that treaty,” – the Fort Laramie Treaty – “which goes from the far eastern side of South Dakota past the Black Hills.” Contaminated land and water, Goldtooth says, would further endanger an impoverished part of the country that already has a history of being targeted for industrial projects.
Tar sands also have big implications for climate change. In 2011, NASA climate scientist James Hansen issued his now-famous warning that tapping the vast tar sands carbon reserves could mean “game over” for the climate. No one believes that stopping one pipeline will actually stop climate change. What the members of this coalition do hope is that halting its construction will be a turning point, the point at which the United States decided to say “no” to fossil fuels and “yes” to clean energy—and when citizens themselves begin to slow the cycle of extraction and consumption.
Natives and nonnatives uniting behind a common cause might seem a little unlikely, given the bloody history of colonization. But there’s a long tradition of alliances all over the country – and particularly around the geographic center of this alliance, in the central Plains. These partnerships reach back well into the 1970s, and have successfully fended off a host of industrial incursions into land that, native or not, many consider sacred. Together, native/nonnative coalitions have prevented uranium and coal mining, weapons testing sites, hog farms, toxic waste dumps, and even luxury resorts.
Part of Goldtooth’s role at Reject and Protect was to be a bridge between the indigenous and nonindigenous alliance members – to facilitate communication between two groups who still have significant differences. His role is emblematic of this generation of young native activists, which, he says, is at an “intersection of sorts between old school and new school.” Younger people like Goldtooth have inherited traditions from their forerunners, but – thanks to social media – are part of networks that are connecting both indigenous and nonindigenous people in truly unprecedented ways.
These indigenous leaders, ranchers and landowners share a healthy mistrust of both big government and industry, but it is ultimately the land itself that unites them; their cultures, identities and histories are all rooted in these hills, and this soil.
“It’s no surprise to me that Mother Earth is what’s bringing us together,” says Goldtooth – literally, on “common ground.”