On the tar sands trail

By Lesley Danger

I am huddled up in blankets by the wood stove in a tipi, sipping the coffee that is brewed at all hours here as the wind howls across the fallow cornfields that surround our little camp. Outside you have to squint to see lights off in the distance, but the sky is freckled with more stars than I have ever seen before. A small handful of us are gathered here, listening to a story first told 160 years ago.

The story is about a gigantic black snake that comes to cut across the land and poison the air and water. In the story, people from the four corners of the world must unite in a struggle for survival if they are to conquer the snake.

We have come here to fight the Keystone XL pipeline, a massive tar sands pipeline that pumps crude bitumen, mined from the Athabascan region of Alberta, Canada and shipped down to refineries in Houston, Texas, that spit toxic black clouds into the air for whole neighborhoods to choke on. Activists from the Sicangu Lakota tribe on the Rosebud reservation have set up this Spirit Camp to block construction.

The story of the black snake haunts us.

All along the route of the Keystone XL pipeline people have congregated to learn direct action tactics, fight the TransCanada Corporation that is building the pipeline, and stop construction. The Keystone XL pipeline is one of many pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure projects that threaten our climate, our water, and our social systems.

Sitting at home in California, I saw as people climbed trees and locked themselves to equipment in order to stop the Keystone pipeline, and I was incredibly inspired by their bravery and creativity. But when the southern leg of the Keystone pipeline was successfully built I realized that more help was needed, and wanted to do whatever I could to support the work of people living in front-line communities along the northern pipeline route.

In March I packed a backpack and set out on an hitchhiking adventure that took me from the plains of South Dakota to the booming Houston metropolis. My own experiences as a white, middle-class, institutionally educated person necessarily shaped my interpretation of the world, and I have tried to stay critical of the problematic tendency of white settlers to dominate environmental movements.

Along the way I collected stories from people who were either dragged into the fight against the pipeline as TransCanada and the US government seized their backyards or threatened their livelihoods, or who came willingly, looking to share their skills. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, some are uplifting, all have something to teach us.

My journey began at the Spirit Camp in South Dakota, just a small circle of tipis on a slight hill in the middle of miles of fields, stretching out to the horizon. Hay bales are stacked around the camp to shield campers from the wind, and also as a buffer against gunfire, in case the camp is attacked. Each morning, campers greet the sun with prayer and each evening a sweat lodge is held to offer prayers to stop the pipeline.

On my first night at the camp, I was sitting in the kitchen tent talking to Gary Dorr, a Nez Perce organizer, and I asked him if he had been an activist before the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. He looked at me and said “I am an Indian. An Indian is an activist every day”.

The Keystone XL pipeline is just one more attack on a population that is always on the defensive. When I ask why people are camping here, almost everyone gives me the same answer. They are here because the water they and their children drink is imperiled by the pipeline plan. Because they have watched tribes up north in Canada disintegrate and First Nations people die of cancer from the water pollution. For the people at the Spirit Camp water is life. As crude bitumen flows over the Missouri river and the Oglala aquifer, their existence is being threatened, yet again and on just another front.

While folks on Rosebud are praying to stop the pipeline, neighbors at the Pine Ridge reservation are training, getting ready to use a variety of tactics. Oglala leader Debra White-Plume has worked through Owe Aku (meaning Bring Back the Way) to organize a series of non-violent direct action trainings called Moccasins on the Ground.

I left the Spirit Camp to join in this year’s training, which brought organizers fighting fossil fuel extraction from all over the U.S. and Canada to share knowledge and skills. Over the weekend there were workshops on writing press releases, using lockboxes, climbing trees, etc. to get people ready to put their bodies in the way of the Keystone Pipeline. While the training was specifically teaching non-violent direct action, many expressed that that was one of many tactics people were prepared to use.

It was at the Moccasins on the Ground training that I first got connected with people from Tar Sands Blockade, the Texan direct action group responsible for the well publicized tree-sit in the way of the pipeline as well as a number of other actions.

Many of the organizers in South Dakota are full of hope, confident that the pipeline plan will be rejected and excited about the connections that are finally being made. In Texas, however, where the pipeline is already built and pumping tar sands, people are still healing from the trauma they experienced.

“We threw everything we had at this pipeline,” one organizer confided, “and we still lost. Where do we go from there?”

The Tar Sands Blockaders spent months sleeping in rural squats, collecting climbing equipment, preparing to stop construction. They had been approached by a landowner, David Daniel, who had been coerced into signing a contract with TransCanada, and who wanted to fight the company off. The tree-sit they organized lasted for three months, until TransCanada routed the pipeline around the protestors.

Some members of Tar Sands blockade had decided early on that appealing to conservative Texas landowners was the best way to gain traction with the public, while others wanted to focus on appealing to radicals. The majority hoped to create an alliance across political boundaries. While several landowners did end up on the frontlines fighting TransCanada’s attempt to roll through their land, others were either uninterested, or fought the company with Tar Sands blocade until the stakes were too high or the incentives improved. TransCanada offered money to those who were resisting, and when that didn’t work threatened to sue them. Several, including David Daniel, signed out of fear that they might lose their property, families, and businesses if they continued to fight. Those who signed contracts allowing the pipeline on their land were made to sign gag orders saying they would not speak out about the project, and refused to speak to or work with the group again.

A number of other blockades popped off in Texas, eventually leading TransCanada to sue the Tar Sands Blockade. Internal stresses and fear of the lawsuit led some organizers to split off and head north to Oklahoma, where Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance organized a series of blockades, including locking down to construction equipment. Two organizers in Oklahoma were absurdly accused of bioterrorism after unfurling an anti-tar sands banner in a public oil company building, spilling glitter on passersby.

While many of the organizers are still grappling with legal charges and what the eventual construction of the southern piece of the Keystone Pipeline means for them, they have also started pushing in other directions, some focusing on building solidarity with communities in the Houston area, where the tar sands end up to be refined. The refinery area in Houston is a veritable hellscape that stretches for miles, pushed right up against low-income neighborhoods, primarily occupied by people of color. The air is thick with the black waste that spews from the giant processing plants, and associated health problems are rampant.

In Oklahoma, Bailey, one of the “glitter terrorists” tells me that while there is a lot of disappointment there’s also a lot of energy and excitement for what comes next.

“We can’t just attack all the pipelines. ALL pipelines go through Cushing, Oklahoma. It’s all coming here. It’s all hitting us. We’re trying to step back, reflect on what we learned, start building connections, and start pushing back against a dominant culture that needs to change. It’s not something immediate we can fight back against, it’s not something we can go chain ourselves to. It’s more complicated than that.”

Back up in Nebraska, the fight against the Keystone Pipeline rages on. There, a lawsuit filed in Nebraska has stalled the permitting process, giving organizers needed time to prepare to fight the construction, and opening up the possibility that the pipeline will be flat-out rejected throughout the state. A number of projects have been created by the group BOLD Nebraska, a liberal group focused on stopping the exploitation of eminent domain, which is used by the government to usurp privately held land for projects that supposedly are for public use and which has been used to force the pipeline through unwilling landowners’ backyards.

The group has planted a sacred strain of Ponca corn and built a clean-energy barn in the way of the proposed route, hoping to exacerbate legal barriers to construction. One landowner, Tom Genung, says that getting involved in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline has changed his life, inspiring him to get arrested in Washington DC and introducing him to many people who are now his close friends.

“Who would ever have imagined that this would happen? You know? It wasn’t part of my life plan,” Genung says.

Back up at the Spirit Camp, the legal challenges in Nebraska have delayed construction in South Dakota so that the permits have expired. In order to construct the pipeline TransCanada will have to go through the long permitting process all over again. When I began my journey we huddled to keep warm as snow piled outside. I returned to the camp as the hot South Dakota sun beat down and flies swarmed. Still the camp goes on, with prayers offered every day.

For more stories from activists along the pipeline route, pick up a copy of the zine Fueling Dissent, or visit fuelingdissent.org