The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Cowboys and Indians, Part 1


This is the first of a three-part series on the most recent Keystone pipeline protest in Washington DC. While this article focuses on the experience of being at the march, future articles will focus on the organization that lead the march, the Cowboy Indian Alliance, and on the media reaction to the Keystone issue.

Spotting two bald eagles while on the way to a protest in Washington DC has to be a good sign.

We, my husband and I, knew that various tribal groups were staging a protest against the planned Keystone XL pipeline. Its route crossed their lands, making the probability of eventual oil leaks a direct existential threat to them. We didn’t know who, really, had organized the protest, what the specifics of their concerns were, or what their other plans were. But we agreed with them that oil pipelines are bad and Native sovereignty is good, so we were happy to show up.

We drove as far as the first subway stop but used public transportation from there. It seemed the right thing to do, considering, although work being done on the track meant we had to go part of the way by bus. Once on the Mall, we had a little trouble finding the actual protest. Some tipis were evident–an unusual sight, and clearly related somehow, but we couldn’t see any crowd. What sounded like the notes of “Amazing Grace” floated up and out of the little group of peaked tents, played on what sounded like a musical saw. Nearby, a small group labored around a square event tent and a small stage, but nowhere were there any crowds. Nothing happening. So we walked on, towards the Washington Monument. The day was warm and sunny, the sky nearly cloudless, and tourists walked here and there just as though nothing special were going on. Had we gotten the day wrong?


The little encampment of tipis and the stage and the event tent and the few people around them were it. We returned there and joined the small, gathering crowd and wandered around for a while between the musicians on the stage (no musical saws among them) and a press conference conducted in front of one of the tipis and entirely hidden by a small, tight crowd. Most of the tipis were plain, or nearly so, though one was brightly painted. One had no covering at all, just a cone of bare poles. In among the tipis was a small wooden wagon with hoops of wood arching over its rectangular back. A covered wagon? Except it had no cover. It was elaborately carved but empty. There were no people available to explain these obviously meaningful objects, no sign whether any of these tipis were simply props or actually inhabited–were people camping on the national lawn? –or what the symbols on the tipi coverings or the wooden wagon were. Red-vested volunteers moved here and there and a modest crowd swelled slowly. Some of the people wore buttons bearing the letters CIA, referring, as we learned, to the Cowboy Indian Alliance. Others carried long bamboo poles hung with red flags printed with odd, angular symbols that turned out to be the brands of ranches along the proposed pipeline route. A man wearing a tuxedo and a pig mask carried a globe and a sign reading “Oil Pig.” We drifted towards the stage.

The speeches began around eleven, before we all stepped out on a short march to the Museum of the American Indian and back. The day finished back at the tipi encampment with more music and dancing.

It was curious, moving through an event created largely by Indians. The entire rally was subtly but definitely based on different cultural assumptions than I am used to. I felt somewhat out of place, not an intruder but a guest. That seemed about right.  Most of the people who spoke began and ended with a few phrases in languages other than English, and no one bothered to explain what they said or why because they were speaking largely to people who already knew. Curiously, a lot of people spoke with the same soft accent, whether they were Lakota, Dakota, Ponka, or Dineh-Athabaskans down from Canada where the tar sands are. Sage smoke drifted across the crowd.

I thought of asking questions, though I know some Native American cultures frown on questions. My husband thought I should ask, because anyone at such an event should be prepared to explain themselves, but I did not ask because I thought perhaps these people wanted to assert their right not to explain, to be the majority for once. One of the emcees politely asked anyone in the crowd wearing face paint to please wash it off. He said those designs are culturally specific; he said those designs are war paint and this was a peaceful gathering; he said you have to earn the right to wear those designs and not just anybody could do it.

The rally began with a prayer, as many events do. A man sang to the six directions (the extra two are up and down) while an older woman used a jar of water from the Oglalla Aquifer and a bucket of soil from the proposed pipeline in some small ceremony. The crowd turned to each direction as the singer addressed it and the song washed over and through us. The elm trees had just released their small seeds and the ground was busy with them. DC’s famous cherries were just leafing out, their flowers spent. I kept thinking I almost understood the words of the prayer-song, almost had it already memorized, since I heard it echo syllable by syllable in my mind. But of course I had no idea.

But the Cowboy Indian Alliance is not just Indians and the next man to offer an opening prayer was a Protestant Christian preacher, a white man and a farmer. He is part of a group called Pray No KXL and has committed to pray every day for God to direct the United States Government to do the right thing. He prayed in English, using the same kind of phrasing, the same rhythm, that my brother-in-law (also a preacher) uses to say table Grace, but this man’s version of Christianity seemed inclusive and almost animist. He assumed everyone prayed to the same God in their own ways and he spoke of God as the breath present in all our lungs, as the power that receives animals and plants when they die and creates them again. He spoke of repentance and thanksgiving and asking God to guide President Obama and Secretary Kerry.

Most of the farmers and ranchers who spoke were women; their men, as they explained, were back at home working, since it is branding season in Nebraska. As the “cowboys” of the Cowboy Indian Alliance, these women represented a culture far more alien to my experience than were the Native prayers. Farming is in my family, but not cattle. I’ve never been to the Great Plains, and I certainly haven’t studied their culture in school. These smiling, passionate women were a revelation. They spoke of living on the land for six generations now, of recognizing specific creeks as the source of their livelihood because that’s where the cattle drank, of building a barn inside the pipeline (could I possibly have heard that right?) to keep the oil from flowing. They spoke of trespassing surveyors, oil company representatives who lied, and a governor who threatened to call out the National Guard when the ranchers refused to let the pipeline cross their land.

In almost none of this did anyone mention climate change. Those few who did were not Indians and did not seem to be ranchers.

Climate change is inherent to the KXL pipeline debate, of course. The tar sands crude it is supposed to carry has a huge carbon footprint and there is enough of it that tar sands oil could keep the price of petroleum too low for renewables to be able to compete.  The pipeline is only one of the many routes that fossil fuel can travel from ground to sky and it isn’t even the only pipeline–other pipelines are already in operation carrying the same crude oil. But KXL has become something of a line in the sand for the anti-climate change movement, a rallying point for the nearly forty percent of the American population who passionately object to its construction. As a rallying point it is somewhat arbitrary, but then lines in the sand usually are. It’s just important to draw the line somewhere at last.

But for these cowboys and Indians, opposing Keystone is not arbitrary. It is not about climate change per se. For them, the issue is water.

The issue is that the pipeline route crosses rivers and streams that water their crops and their game and themselves. The pipeline crosses the Oglala Aquifer, the vast underground resource that feeds much of American agriculture. Pipelines leak; the pipelines that already exist are already leaking, some causing dramatic environmental disasters. Sooner or later, the Keyston XL pipeline, if built, will leak also, and if that happens it will destroy these peoples’ livelihoods, their health, and the health of the land that they love.

Climate change, of course, will be no picnic for the cowboys and Indians either. The central part of the United States is likely to become more prone to drought and that could hurt agricultural production there, especially since the current use of the Oglala Aquifer is already unsustainable. But for them, water pollution from crude oil is clearly the more immediate danger.

Maybe this is why only about a thousand people showed up, in contrast to the tens of thousands we joined over a year ago–that protest had a clear focus on climate change and the support of big-name climate activists, like Bill McKibbon. I have not yet looked into the question formally, but my husband and I follow a lot of large environmental groups online and we don’t remember seeing anything about this week’s protest from most of them. Maybe they didn’t see this as their issue so they didn’t bother to get involved and get the word out?

If true, their reticence is a strategic mistake.

The atmosphere and its steadily rising carbon dioxide concentration is a problem for all of us; the climate warms for the just and the unjust alike. But by the same token, climate change is a bit abstract. It is hard to get angry about a problem that develops gradually, hard to organize a battle against a billion tiny tailpipes leaking poison all at once, especially when we also have rent to pay and kids to feed and other, more concrete, demands on our attention. The ubiquity of the problem saps our commitment and confuses our stratagems. Yet there are fulcrum points, places and people and events that hurry fossil fuel into the sky. The pipeline route is one of those critical places. And these people whose drinking water is threatened are the ones who will put themselves in front of the pipeline to stop it, even if all else fails.

If the rest of us show up when these people need it, they’ll be able to stop the pipeline for us. And maybe then the next group of people who find their homes and lives threatened will be willing to stand up and fight back, too, knowing that thirty thousand people will show up in DC to support them. And the next, and the next.

And we could win this.



Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

5 thoughts on “Cowboys and Indians, Part 1

  1. Your account is very moving and I agree – we should show up when they need it.

  2. Pingback: Cowboys and Indians, Part 2 | The Climate Emergency

  3. Pingback: Cowboys and Indians, Part 3 | The Climate Emergency

  4. Pingback: Retrospective | The Climate Emergency

  5. Pingback: This is what Democracy Looks Like | The Climate Emergency

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