First Nations and ranchers' Keystone XL protest a turning point in gathering storm against oil pipelines
Indigenous organizers say Reject and Protect gathering in DC marked the culmination of years spent building solidarity across nations and across borders, and that more will be on the way.
When energy campaigner and school teacher Crystal Lameman arrived in Washington DC on Sunday for the "Reject and Protect" Keystone XL protest, she saw dozens of First Nations people from all over Canada and the U.S.. Some were dressed in full regalia and many had brought drums.
Standing among them, talking and preparing for the morning's opening prayer ceremony, were numerous ranchers and farmers in cowboy boots and hats, wearing shirts with "Cowboy and Indian Alliance" printed on them.
“It was just this complete mixture of people in this crowd, working together, organizing and planning," she said.
But what really floored her were the actions those ranchers and farmers would take over the next several days.
When a group of delegates stormed the Canadian Embassy, ranchers led the way. When another delegation of protectors stepped into the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall to prove their point — an arrestable offence — a non-Indigenous rancher spoke loudly to the public about governments’ responsibility to uphold the treaties with Indigenous peoples.
“Coming from Alberta...to have that rancher step forward and acknowledge the treaty obligations of the beneficiaries of his treaty and remind the farmers and the ranchers that it’s their treaty, too, it was beautiful,” said Lameman, who is from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation near Alberta's oil fields.
The Cowboy Indian Alliance's "Reject and Protect" protest in Washington is the result of a groundswell that has been years in the making.
When the proposal for Keystone in appeared in 2008, just days after the financial collapse, few people took notice. It would be several years before the current anti-pipeline movement would begin to take shape as First Nations in Canada and Native American nations slowly formed alliances and drafted solidarity documents. It would take longer still for that network of nations to join forces with the landowners along the Keystone XL route.
Lameman said this protest is a sign of how much things have changed, even in the last year-and-a half.
“I can say with conviction that prior to the whole Cowboys and Indians Alliance … when I first started doing this organizing, it was very difficult, because even some of our own people were not actively engaged or involved,” she said.
A turning point
But as a new article in Bloomberg points out, in 2012, the Harper government passed omnibus bills to help quicken the building of pipelines to new oil markets. Idle No More was born, and the very framework of protesting began to change in an important way.
“Non-Indigenous people really started to step forward and the climate change people, organizations working on climate change and global warming, started to make the connections to what we’ve been talking about for years,” she said.
Sundance Chief Rueben George from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in Burrard Inlet, who also spoke at last week's event, has been a driving force behind cross-border agreements against all forms of tar sands development.
He was directly involved in the creation and signing of the Treaty to Protect the Sacred From Tar Sands Development, a legal treaty signed by nations and organization across North America committed to fighting the tar sands, and He’s now working with Lummi and Tulalip nations in Washington State to organize a new cross-border summit for both Indigenous leadership and state and federal political leaders.
He said the hard work is paying off, and the different branches of resistance have begun to better understand each other.
“It’s the same language. It’s the actions of the Alberta tar sands and the Canadian government and Keystone -- their actions aren’t acceptable and everybody in the battle has been quick to come together in solidarity, whether they’re First Nations or not," he said.
Ottawa-based Cree organizer Clayton Thomas-Muller agreed that last week’s gathering, with actions, speakers and a march that drew hundreds of supporters from all over the continent, was nothing short of a turning point.
“This week marked a culmination of six years of intense grassroots community organizing all along the proposed right of way of Keystone XL in the great northern plains of America,” he said.
Feet on the ground
Thomas-Muller said one of the hard lessons organizers have had to learn is that both grassroots and political activists need each other. Without the political clout of the large groups, policy initiatives won’t gain traction.
But he said it’s the feet on the ground, the mass mobilization of people on the land and in the streets, that drive systemic change.
“We have a long way to go, but most certainly this week is one of the iconic moments in time where historically perceived enemies stood shoulder to shoulder and sent the government a very clear message that another world is possible, and we’re going to do everything we can to usher that world in as soon as possible.”
In addition to growing connections between groups working on either side of the border, Thomas-Muller said, groups engaged in fighting tar sands development are beginning to broaden the scope of their social justice work.
He has started to see groups within the environmental movement, both grassroots and larger organizations like NGOs, adopt a framework that recognizes the overlap between social movements and better incorporates issues of race, class, gender and other systems of oppression into their work.
“If those can be dealt with in a healthy way, our coalitions that have risen up in response to climate justice will continue to grow in power rather than becoming fractured.”
More connections being re-built
Dallas Goldtooth works with the Lakota and Dakota nations mainly on language revitalization projects, building curriculum and teaching indigenous languages. To him, the path from there to Keystone XL protests made perfect sense.
“When looking at revitalizing our language and our culture, they ultimately lead toward other things, things on a larger scale, and we have to adjust,” he said. “It's a trickle-down effect. It (Keystone XL) affects our ability to communicate, to have healthy lives, to have the freedom to put attention toward our education or learning our languages rather than just focusing on surviving.”
Goldtooth said one of the strongest aspects of the resistance has been the rebuilding of communications between Indigenous peoples all across North America
“For a long time -- numerous generations now -- the lines of communication between First Nations communities have been disconnected. With social media, Internet, use of digital media, we’re able to reestablish old communication networks that, because of colonization, have been disrupted.”
He said the process of joining with nations and organizations in Canada has been incredibly motivating.
“I think out of the negativity of fighting against something so immense, multinational corporations with billions of dollars, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But at the same time the experience of working with people in Canada, hearing the stories of our relatives in BC, the Dene and Cree folks, you also get a sense of how immense the resistance is and I think that where the motivation comes from.”
Invisible borders, tangible support
Oglala Lakota organizer Debra White Plume has been heavily involved in cross-border support and solidarity, and she knows her work with Moccasins on the Ground and Unite to Fight direct action training transcends the border. But she also knows there are real consequences to trying to cross even an imaginary line.
“We’re anticipating having difficulty getting across the border just because of the work we’re doing," she said. "We're preparing to meet those challenges.”
She will bring the workshops, held on the lands of the nations who have requested the training, to BC for a month over May and June, working with the Unist’ot’en camp near Houston, the Secwepemc and others.
She also hopes to visit Alberta in July. Her goal is to strengthen resistance nations in Canada, particularly the Beaver Lake Cree, Athabasca Chipewyan and other nations next to the tar sands where people have been affected by industry-caused health problems.
It’s a spiritual foundation that unites all First Nations, she said.
“We’re all red nations, people protecting Mother Earth and sacred water. As red nations, we understand we’re in a time of prophecy. So we’re privileged to do this work together.”