Keystone XL pipeline means “death” for Native Americans

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – At a recent Native American conference here, a celebrated American Indian leader, Onondaga wisdomkeeper Oren Lyons, said, “If Obama approves the pipeline, this is the dealbreaker.” He was referring of course to the Keystone XL pipeline (KXL). The KXL project, if approved, would stretch 1,179 miles to transport tar sands oil, the dirtiest in the industry, from Canada through the U.S. Northern Plains to refineries in Texas.

Now, just in the past few weeks, President Obama in a speech on climate change stated that the pipeline would not be approved if it resulted in more “carbon pollution.” This statement is being interpreted in different ways. For those who oppose the pipeline Obama is setting the stage for rejection of Keystone; for those who favor the pipeline he is hinting at approval.

One thing is certain: If Obama follows the logic of his statements, the pipeline is “dead in the water.” The pipeline, by scientific analysis, would result in massively more “carbon pollution,” in fact 600 parts per million CO2. The maximum safe limit for the atmosphere is 350 parts per million. (Also, note this breaking news: On July 6, a Phillips 66 pipeline spilled an estimated 25,000 gallons of gasoline on the Montana Crow Indian Reservation.)

But, another thing is certain: Native Americans are prepared if Obama approves the heinous project. Native communities are preparing for massive civil disobedience, “direct action,” to stop the pipeline from crossing the Northern Plains.

Indian people are in special training for a project called the Moccasins on the Ground Tour of Resistance from South Dakota to Oklahoma. Moccasins on the Ground has  already begun nonviolent direct action training on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation at Eagle Butte, S.D.

Eagle Butte would be the first Lakota community to face the tar sands oil headed south in the KXL pipeline, if it is approved by Obama. Moccasins is holding training on Street Medic Training, Legal Rights Under Civil Disobedience, Strategic Media, Building Solidarity, Lakota Sacred Teachings on Water, Human Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and many other subjects under the canopy of direct action.

Moccasins is taking the Tour of Resistance to all Native communities that request the training. Trainers include activists from a host of Indian organizations and also the National Lawyers Guild, Great Plains Tarsands Resistance, People’s Media Project of Chicago, Christian Peacemaker Team, Deep Green Resistance and the Texas Blockade. Native organizers welcome all who want to join in this monumental struggle. (Article continues below video.)

Moccasins on the Ground (video by Lakota Law Project):

This has all the makings of a huge movement to challenge the ongoing corporate destruction of Mother Earth. If Obama approves the KXL project, Moccasins will organize robust, uncompromising direct actions to block the pipeline. A veritable united front is being organized by Indian people around this critical issue.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that the pipeline will elevate U.S. annual carbon pollution emissions to 27.6 million metric tons – the equivalent of adding 6 million cars to the roadways.

For Native people the KXL pipeline means death. The Keystone oil, extracted from tar sands, is “environmental racism,” they say. We have only to look at what is happening in Canada to Native people exposed to this pipeline. The toxic burden has contaminated the water, and arsenic has been found in moose meat, a staple of the Native Canadian diet. It has also brought extremely elevated rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems. This is death!

In Alberta, Canada, extraction of tar sands oil has already been linked to a 30 percent elevated rate in rare cancers and rare auto-immune disorders. Again the pipeline means “death.” It means genocide.

To emphasize the utter seriousness of this threat, in Rapid City, S.D., representatives of 11 Native American nations angrily stormed out of a May meeting with federal government officials in protest of the pipeline, calling it “environmental genocide.” Tribal officials refused to meet with low level government representatives. Oglala Sioux President Bryan Brewer said, “We will only talk with President Obama.”

Another Indian spokesperson recently said, comparing the Keystone project to the wars, diseases, and removals of prior centuries that wiped out millions of Native people, the pipeline is just “another form of genocide.” Also, the pipeline would run through sacred sites and traditional burial grounds and would pollute the Oglala Aquifer that provides water to millions of citizens, including non-Indians.

Indian people are prepared to put their lives at risk by standing in front of the bulldozers. With Natives vowing to put their lives on the line, how will it look for Obama to find his hands awash with the blood of innocent Native Americans? As for the bulldozers, the battle cry is ramping up to: “They shall not pass.”

But this is not just a fight for Native people, this is a fight for all people of the U.S. environmentalists, landowners and ranchers are joining with Indian nations in opposition to this abominable project. It is looming, thus far, to be the “battle of the century.”

At a recent press conference, the tribes said, “Tar sands pipelines will not pass through our collective territories under any conditions or circumstances.” This is a life-and-death struggle for Native Americans.

Photo: Moccasins on the Ground training session in March, 2013. Moccasins on the Ground/Tar Sands Blockade.


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.