- When Big Oil and Gas invaded rural North America to frack, drill and dig the Alberta tar sands, the firms were met by a scattered opposition from Native peoples who developed a novel strategy: oppose new pipelines to keep fossil fuels from getting to market.
- Gradually, First Nations resistance groups in Canada’s East and West joined up with Western U.S. Native groups. Last July, many of their leaders met at a Rapid City, South Dakota Holiday Inn to sign a treaty of alliance against the fossil fuel companies and their ongoing projects.
- In recent months, oil and gas projects that indigenous organizers had risen against began to fold, including the Petronas liquid natural gas refinery project in British Columbia, and TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline.
- In June, the Trump administration removed Endangered protection status for the Greater Yellowstone River Valley grizzly population. The powerful Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion vowed resistance, viewing delisting as both an attack on the sacred bear and as a means of exposing the land over which the bear roams to mining and drilling.
On July 4, 2017, while the rest of America celebrated Independence Day with cookouts and fireworks, Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon of the Kanesatake Mohawk stood before a gathering of North American tribal leaders, vibrating with anger. Simon, a powerfully built man with long, thick, graying hair cascading down his back, has spent years fighting for a pan-Indian alliance to challenge the expansion of pipelines across the continent. Now he quivered with controlled rage.
“Relatives,” he said, “Let’s be realistic. If France did to Great Britain what the U.S. and Canada do to us, it would be an act of war. Well, why isn’t it war now? I keep peace in one hand, but dammit. I’m getting frustrated.”
Simon was speaking out from an unlikely venue: inside a Rapid City, South Dakota, Holiday Inn conference room, addressing tribal leaders from the Western U.S. and all across Canada, who had gathered to sign their names to the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion (TAATSE), a still-growing mutual-defense pact between tribal nations he has built over the last two years.
It was a poignant place and time for the meeting; Rapid City is known as the “City of Presidents,” where, wandering downtown, one may bump into bronze casts of Lincoln or Reagan, amid shops built atop ground that the Lakota firmly consider to be their sovereign, unceded territory — and on the weekend of both July 4th and Canada’s 150th anniversary, patriotic holidays regarded with ambivalence by many Native Americans.
“We have nothing to celebrate,” announced Stanley Grier, grand chief of the Pikani Blackfoot, now of Alberta, but whose ancestral territory once sprawled across the northern Plains. On the podium in front of him a poster proclaimed opposition to what Grier calls “the real Axis of Evil.” Its banner headline read: “TRUMPWORLD INDUSTRIAL GENOCIDE: DAPL, KEYSTONE XL, GRIZZLY BEAR DE-LISTING.”
In his first week in office, President Donald Trump signed executive orders pushing forward the Dakota Access Pipeline and granting approval to the Keystone XL — both objects of intense Native American resistance. Then came the grizzlies.
The battle is joined
In June, Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke formally struck the grizzly population of the Greater Yellowstone River Valley from the list of endangered species, citing as the reason a modest population increase, from 136 in 1975 to 700 animals today.
“This achievement stands as one of America’s great conservation triumphs; the culmination of decades of hard work,” Zinke said in a press statement announcing why, after 42 years, the federal government was now ending federal protection of the grizzly and returning management to the states. “As a Montanan, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together,” Zinke added. He did not mention that a removal of ESA protection status meant the potential for renewed trophy hunts.
Among Native Americans, the earlier announcement last spring that the Department of the Interior was considering delisting the Yellowstone grizzly was met with shock and disgust. The bear is sacred to the Blackfoot and Lakota, and to everyone in that Holiday Inn conference room. Likewise, the reason grizzlies were endangered in the Yellowstone Valley to start with is seen as sacrilege.
There is a picture of U.S. Gen. George Armstrong Custer from the famous, and illegal, 1874 expedition he led to find gold in the Black Hills, and to offer an excuse for seizure of yet another piece of Native soil protected by treaty. In the photo, titled “Our First Grizzly,” he kneels behind the dead bear, and looks off as if in deep contemplation. The expedition, and the mining rush that followed, precipitated the war in which Custer died and in which the U.S. Cavalry finally crushed the Lakota.
To the Holiday Inn gathering, the idea of a free wild being that lived off the land, being hunted for sport, rubbed raw — but Zinke’s announcement brought up practical considerations too. Grier spoke: “And I’ll tell you, if they take that sacred being away, they know what is underneath: minerals, land, water. They want to pillage. But we set aside our differences in the past to stand against enemies, against governments trying to destroy us.” Their Native flag, he said, had flown at Standing Rock, and now it would fly again.
The new rural invasion
In recent decades, the rural U.S. and its Native American citizens have endured a new invasion, potentially as racially toxic as the genocide initiated by Custer. Energy companies arrived in a major way on the High Plains in the 1990s to frack for oil and natural gas, to blast for tar sands oil, to build vast, poisonous waste disposal ponds, and to construct road networks, storage tanks, pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure.
This development of the rural plains brought with it gigantic drilling rigs and wells, lit by night, flaring natural gas into the sky in towers of flame, wiping out the stars. The industrial facilities sometimes leaked fracking fluids, waste and oil into aquifers and streams; drowned rural silence with the round-the-clock roar of compressors and the rumble of tank trucks coming and going. The fossil fuel assault also altered quiet Plains communities beyond recognition as roustabout trailer parks sprang up, with attendant drug, crime and prostitution epidemics, and their boom-and-bust economics.
But that invasion has also driven a wave of alliances and treaty building among Native communities, starting on the Plains, then spreading across the North American continent, with the Standing Rock episode the most visible — though by no means the only — expression so far.
As Trump backs a further expansion in fossil fuel pipelines and a rollback of existing environmental protections, these Native alliances have expanded to the point that they now pose serious obstacles to corporate attempts to export North American oil on both coasts, in both the U.S. and Canada.
To Brandon Sazue, chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Trump is seen to have done one good thing. “Look at these Canadian allies!” he said gesturing to those convening at the Holiday Inn. “He’s uniting us all.”
The coming of the monster
The Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion began as the brainchild of Grand Chief Simon of the Mohawk. The Mohawk are members of the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations, popularly known as the Iroquois Confederacy, which once controlled a vast republic stretching from New England up through New York State to Quebec and west and south to the Ohio Valley. Under Canadian rule, the Kanesatake, Simon’s people, were settled at Oka, at a spot just upriver from the Island of Montreal, where the Saint Lawrence is so broad and shallow one can walk half a mile into the stream without getting your knees wet.
“It’s a nice place,” Simon said, “when no one is shooting at you.”
As a younger man, he had taken part in the Standing Rock of his day: in 1990, when the city of Oka, just up the Saint Lawrence River from Montreal attempted to take Mohawk land for a golf course, without consultation and using eminent domain, a group of Mohawks blocked access to the disputed area. The mayor, a golf course proponent, called in the provincial police. The affair, now dubbed the Oka Crisis, degenerated into a 78-day armed standoff that, much like Standing Rock 30 years later, would bring indigenous land rights into the national consciousness.
In the end, the Mohawks lost the land, and Simon was left bitter and wiser. “When [the U.S. and Canada] sign their treaties with us,” Simon would tell the leaders in Rapid City, “they sign them as long as the grass grows, as long as the rivers flow. And then when they break them, oh, it’s just a promise made to Indians.”
Fast-forward 20 years beyond Oka: It was 2013 and Simon was now the elected grand chief of the Kanesatake First Nation. He heard about a new invasion, TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline, a $12 billion, 4,800-kilometer (3,000-mile) project meant to fulfill a long-held Canadian energy-sector dream linking the Alberta tar sands to “tidewater” — a seaport, in this case in New Brunswick. However, that project would also require the companies to cross through Kanesatake Mohawk Territory.
Simon, like the local leaders before him, did some research into precisely what the Energy East would be carrying, and decided he wanted no part of it. In Canada, diluted bitumen makes up 97 percent of the country’s national petroleum reserves; bitumen not being liquid oil, but rather a heavy, sticky tar melted out of the ground beneath Alberta’s boreal forests, and a substance far more hazardous environmentally than conventional crude.
Still, the company dubbed the proposed payload of the planned Energy East pipes “crude oil.” But the name masked the danger: should that bitumen burst from its pipe (more likely than with crude, because the thick substance must be pumped under high pressures), and should that spurting “crude” spill into freshwater, it would not rise to the surface to be easily skimmed off. Leaked bitumen would sink to the bottom of any river, melding with stream sediment and likely penetrating aquifers. Compare that with the size of Energy East — a million barrels a day, twice the capacity of Keystone XL — and the project chilled Simon’s blood.
“That thing is a monster,” he said.
Simon started looking for allies to help fight the beast. The Quebec chiefs were reluctant to take a position against it; Standing Rock notwithstanding, Native American tribes and Canadian First Nations can be just as ambivalent about pipelines and petrodollars as any other Americans and Canadians. But Simon got something almost as good: a promise from the other provincial grand chiefs to support the Kanesatake’s right to resist.
He began riding the circuit, reaching out to American and Canadian tribes in the path of proposed bitumen pipelines, and he became witness to the spontaneous emerging network of resistance spreading across British Columbia.
In September 2016, as the Standing Rock protests were beginning to heat up south of the border, representatives of more than 50 First Nations met at parallel ceremonies in Montreal and Vancouver to sign the first Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion. (Nearly all of those who attended were Canadian, although Dave Archambault, former tribal chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, flew in from the active conflict to Montreal to sign the treaty.)
Signatories staked themselves in opposition to all the large pipeline projects attempting to break out of the Alberta Tar Sands in a race to pump bitumen to the sea and foreign markets. Those lines included TransCanada’s Keystone XL, pumping oil to the U.S. Gulf; Energy East, aimed at the Atlantic Coast; Kinder Morgan’s Transmountain, targeted for Canada’s West Coast; and Enbridge’s Line 3, to run down into Minnesota, and on to Chicago and Gulf ports.
To Simon, the indigenous treaty served a dual purpose. First, it established a principle of moral unity between the signatories. Second, it committed all to collective action in defense of their territorial sovereignty: pipelines would not cross their land “without a hell of a fight.” And lastly, Native leadership of indigenous communities would hopefully lead their onetime persecutors to a better world.
On the reserves, “We raise our children between misery and injustice,” Simon said. “But we are becoming the conscience of the industrialized countries.”
The tribes soon learned that pipelines, like rivers, could connect people who seem to have nothing else in common. TAATSE became just one of a number of regional alliances to spring up in the wake of the massive expansion in oil-and-gas exploration over the last decade. The resistance gained strength, even as the U.S. sought energy independence by drilling for fossil fuels at home.
In far western Canada, a union called the Yinka Dene Alliance, started among the nations of the British Columbian interior, began to spread east. It mirrored Simon’s eastern-based alliance that was then expanding west. The two groups have now combined their efforts.
In May 2016, representatives from 5 coastal and upriver nations in the Skeena River watershed, in northern British Columbia near the Alaska border, signed the Lelu Declaration, committing to united opposition against provincial attempts to cross their territory with pipelines carrying liquid natural gas.
These Canadian efforts have since joined with efforts on the other side of the “Medicine Line,” in the United States. When representatives from TransCanada’s Keystone XL tried to cross the American Great Plains, chiefly the Dakotas and Nebraska, they kicked up resistance among both white farmers and ranchers, and some of America’s best-organized tribal governments. Dakota and Lakota leaders have stood in the vanguard of the Native sovereignty movement since the 1970s, and tribal opposition to the pipeline broke out almost immediately.
On the Lower Brule reservation, when it was learned that the tribal chairman signed a deal with TransCanada in secret, members of the local American Indian Movement established a spirit camp blocking the line, one of many that sprang up across Indian country in 2014 and 2015. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe apportioned part of its budget to fund their spirit camp, at Pte Win; the Rosebud Sioux put up another.
The Rosebud, like Grand Chief Simon, actively sought allies. They collaborated with the Bold Alliance, a group of Midwest landowners angered by Keystone XL’s threat to local water, along with TransCanada’s use of eminent domain to force access across their lands. Eventually this loose working group evolved into the Cowboy and Indian Alliance — a tongue-in-cheek reference to a defunct Black Hills anti-uranium mining coalition.
Out of this alliance, as in the north, gelled a suite of activist ideas: foremost, that the world was under unprecedented threat from climate change and an unprecedented global expansion of Big Oil, and that Native peoples were both uniquely exposed and uniquely positioned to stop that expansion. And in the hands of the resistance, the oil pipeline, once a humble piece of energy infrastructure, was transformed into a fearsome and terrifying symbol: the Black Snake, a figure borrowed from Lakota folklore that symbolized cosmic evil.
And since the source of that cosmic evil, the tar sands, was located up north in Alberta, it was inevitable that Lakota chiefs ended up there too.
After Standing Rock
In April 2016, Brandon Sazue, the chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux, went up to Alberta at the request of Grier, the Pikani chief, to see the Alberta tar sands up close. Like many in Indian country, he had been radicalized by months at Standing Rock.
“I spent six months making friends, telling dreams, telling stories, singing through the night, imagining life like it was 200 years ago,” Sazue recalled. He also got arrested by the Mandan County Sheriff’s Department, along with prominent Cowboy and Indian Alliance leader Casey Camp, sister to famed American Indian Movement leader Carter Camp.
“When they took me and Sazue, we were praying,” Camp laughed. “I said, ‘What, was my song off-keyyyyy?’”
When the two traveled to Alberta to film a documentary inside, as he said, “the belly of the beast,” Sazue began thinking about ways to connect the Dakota and Lakota alliance with what he saw happening to the north.
Zinke’s delisting of the grizzly provided that opportunity. The grizzly bear is sacred to a great many of the nations of the Plains; many consider it a relative or a supernatural being; some consider eating it to be cannibalism. As a result, Plains tribal leaders greeted the Trump administration’s plan with great suspicion, moral disgust and outrage.
At the TAATSE treaty signing, Grier and Sazue shook with anger as they described grizzlies stalked by trophy hunters. “Those beings adhere to Creator’s will,” Grier said. Grizzlies “know when to hunt, when not to hunt, when to hibernate, when to wake up. They want to kill this harmless animal, just to put them on a wall and brag to their friends.”
The utter disregard of Native sovereignty by the United States only deepened the rage.
“Zinke claimed he called all the tribal leaders before the delisting,” Sazue said, speaking at the Holiday Inn last July. “I got no such call. Have you?”
To Sazue and others in the Rapid City conference room that day, the implications of the delisting were obvious: the Endangered Species Act operates as a sort of umbrella that, by protecting one species, like the grizzly, protects entire landscapes. Take away protection from the Yellowstone Grizzly, and you take away the protection of the Yellowstone Valley watershed itself, which flows into the Missouri watershed and the Lakota homelands.
“They’re trying to wipe out a race again. That’s what the president is doing to all of us,” Sazue said.
Which of these perceived outrages — the spiritual or the practical — was more relevant to those attending the South Dakota meeting? It is hard to say. Lakota and Plains leaders described threats to the bear in the same aggrieved tones, the sense of wrongness, which many Americans might when considering desecrations of the U.S. flag or the Bible.
This wrongness was reflected as well in how they discussed the pipelines. Grier talked about the unfairness of killing bears with high-powered rifles — “That’s just technology, anyone can do that” — almost in the same breath as he decried the collapse of Native access to clean water, “the 136 northern nations under boil-water advisories.”
Ponca chairman Larry Wright Jr., from Oklahoma, spoke about oil extraction with the same ringing indignation he used to describe the effigies and graves vandalized during the conflict at Standing Rock. “We don’t know where our people are buried; we don’t have Christian ceremonies; we don’t leave a headstone. We may not know where they are, but that’s how it’s supposed to be. Leave them there.”
Similarly, he raged: “Mother Earth has that oil for her own reason. It isn’t meant for us. Leave it there.”
Unbroken and defiant
In the months that followed the conference in Rapid City, oil and gas projects that indigenous organizers had risen against began to fold.
The month after the conference, the Malaysian company Petronas bowed out of its liquid natural gas refinery projects in Northern British Columbia. In October, to Simon’s pleasure and surprise, TransCanada announced that it was suspending Energy East (leading some energy analysts to conclude that the firm will be going all in on Keystone XL). Both companies blamed the plunge in oil prices; neither mentioned the land dispute or the organized resistance.
But the facts are plain: despite the uneven legal playing field that favors the industry in both the U.S. and Canada, the pipeline companies couldn’t gain control of the land needed over which their bitumen would flow. The last major undefeated routes out of the Alberta tar sands are Keystone XL — subject to a ruling any day now from the Nebraska Public Service Commission as to whether it will go through — and Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain Expansion, which would terminate in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia.
In both cases, activists and landowners have engaged in novel strategies: building structures and planting crops along the pipeline routes, even erecting solar arrays in the case of Keystone XL, and settlements of tiny houses in the case of TransMountian. And if legal options ultimately fail, leaders in both places say that mass civil disobedience and further conflict are nearly certain.
Treaty conferences, as many of those interviewed for this story remarked, are a common feature of Indian country. But what was striking about the Rapid City meeting last July was the sheer diversity, not just geographic but also ideological, present at the gathering. In the environmental fights of past decades, there have often been bitter divisions between elected tribal governments and Native grassroots rebels; between, say, people like Brandon Sazue and Casey Camp.
Last July, they all met in the room together; everyone was on best behavior, with personal rivalries and bitter histories put aside. There was some ribbing: Stanley Grier told the Lakota, cheerfully, that seeing as their tribes were no longer on a war footing, the Blackfoot wouldn’t be stealing anything from the Lakota camps … this time. And when the Ponca recounted the history of how the U.S. Cavalry displaced them from their homeland, their leaders politely failed to mention that this relocation had been at the prompting of, and a benefit to, the Sioux.
Near the end of the meeting, Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux, took the stage to declare, “Even if we lose, I’m going to be able to look my grandson in the eyes and tell him we tried.” My host, a grassroots activist and survivor of many battles with tribal leadership, turned to me with wonder in her eyes. “I can’t believe I’m seeing the chairman here and not wanting to curse him out.”
After the signing, the group caravanned out to Bear Butte, a mountain north of Rapid City — a gigantic hunk of bedrock protruding above the Plains that looks, for all the world, like a massive grizzly that slept so long that the grass grew over her face and legs as a shaggy coat.
Simon stood off to one side. Do you think the government will notice this time, I asked. He scowled. “They will never notice,” he said, “They are too afraid.”
Members of one of the British Columbian tribes put on their bear regalia in the fierce July sun — bear skin, head, claws, rattles — and they danced the bear dance, circling three times as the gathered elders grabbed their backs and rubbed their fur, some of them crying openly.as the bear-men danced on, singing, their voices carrying high and lonesome over the Plains.
SAUL ELBEIN’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Texas Observer and on This American Life. This story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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