The Climate in Emergency

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

Cowboys and Indians, Part 2

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This is the second of a three-part series on the recent Keystone Pipeline protest in Washington DC.
So, who were the people we joined in DC last week, to march once again against Keystone?

Individually, the people I referred to in my last post are as follows:

  • The two MCs were Dallas Goldtooth, of the Lower Sioux, and Jane Kleeb, of Bold Nebraska.
  • The water ceremony was lead by Casey Camp, of the Ponka Nation. I did not see the ceremony itself, but she did speak to the crowd as well. She was a slim, middle-aged woman of great dignity.
  • Greg Grey Cloud, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, lead the 4 Directions song, which was actually the 6 directions song.
  • John Ellwood, of Bold Nebraska and Pray No XL, was the Protestant preacher.
  • Wizipan Little Elk, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Meghan Hammond and Diana Steskal, of Bold Nebraska, and Eriel Deranger, of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, all spoke.
  • Steve Tamayo, of the Sicangu Lakota described the art on the tipi (I’ll explain that shortly)
  • Chief Reuben George, of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation offered a final prayer
  • Gitz Crazyboy, of the Dene and Blackfoot Nations, offered a closing prayer and next steps
  • The final performer, whom I did not stay to see, was Frank Waln, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

The march as a whole was just part of a larger event called Reject and Protect. The leaders of the project call themselves the Cowboy Indian Alliance, and describe themselves as “a group of ranchers, farmers, and tribal communities from along the Keystone XL pipeline route.” That means not only people whose properties are crossed by the route but also, in some cases, people who are downstream of the proposed route or who depend on the aquifer underneath the route. The proposed path for the pipeline has changed over the years; some CIA members initially got involved to protest the pipeline being near them only to have the route moved onto their property as a result of other people’s concerns.

Bold Nebraska,  loosely speaking, the cowboys of the Cowboy Indian Alliance, is an organization of ranchers and farmers concerned with making the political process more diverse and participatory, but Reject and Protect is a major part of theirs. It was not clear to me whether the various Indians of the Alliance were there representing their communities–that is, has the Ponka Nation taken a position against the pipeline in the same way that Bold Nebraska has? The question may or may not even be culturally relevant.

Reject and Protect itself actually lasted from April 22 to April 27. The march was just one activity of this larger encampment of tipis on the National Mall. Other activities included multiple prayer services and ceremonies, presentations of documentaries, meetings with various officials, other demonstrations (there was one at Senator John Kerry’s home on the 25th), songs and stories, and the decoration of a tipi for President Obama.

This last was no snarky protest but a genuine and generous gift. The canvas tipi cover served as a backdrop for the talks and performances on Saturday, galloping with horses and the hand prints of many people, among other symbols. It is a true work of art, designed by Steve Tamayo and carried out by him and by many other people. He explained some of its symbolism, but he never explained exactly why giving this gift is supposed to sway Obama’s mind. Perhaps the idea is simply to say “we are here, we are people, and you cannot ignore us.”

The march I participated in was the delivery of the tipi cover to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, which had agreed to accept on behalf of Barack Obama.

As I said last week, climate change per se was hardly mentioned by any of the organization leaders, though many of the marchers carried signs and shouted slogans that referred to climate, and of course an oil pipeline has everything to do with climate change. One way to look at this intersection of climate and other issues is the way I chose last week; by supporting these people in their fight for clean water,we can also fight for the climate as a whole. But there is another way to see exactly that same connection.

The climate issues that affect all of us means threatened drinking water to some. Polar bears make fine and accurate poster-children for the dangers of climate change, but they are a little remote for most of us to really make a priority of. Athabaskan children watching their parents die of bile duct cancer, which is super-rare except among people who live near tar sands extraction–that brings it home a bit more. And, unlike polar bears, the cowboys and Indians are perfectly capable of calling B.S. on feel-good green-washing that does not actually solve their problem.

One of the chants the organizers brought to the march was a simple call and response; they shouted “climate!” we shouted “justice!”

As long as fossil fuel remains the dominant energy source of the globe, somebody is going to be in the way of extraction, transport, and processing: Appalachian communities devastated by mountain-top removal mining; people able to light their tap water on fire because of fracking; killer smogs caused by coal smoke; or land and water poisoned by oil spills from trains, pipelines, tanker ships, or well-heads. If the stuff does not travel by pipeline through Nebraska, it will travel by rail-car across the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

Unless it does not travel at all.

My favorite of all the signs I spotted on the march was a simple red octagon on a stick reading “STOP the GLOP.” Because that’s really what this comes down to. Every kilowatt hour generated by fossil fuel, every gallon of gas, every piece of plastic, means GLOP in somebody’s life. Climate change itself–extreme weather, sea level rise, acidifying oceans–is also a form of glopping up lives, generally the lives of the poor and disenfranchised. The fossil fuel industry and the various government bodies involved in regulating that industry may be sincere in their willingness to minimize the damage, to route pipelines and other oil infrastructures through the least vulnerable places available, the fewest people’s lives possible, but those few people who are directly affected have a right to object to being treated as collateral damage.

Of course, rare to vanishing is the choice that does not make somebody’s lives harder. Shutting down the fossil fuel industry, for example, would destroy a lot of livelihoods, leave unemployed a lot of people who cannot afford it. Part of the job of government is to make decisions about who gets the short end of the stick because, in almost all cases, somebody has to for the greater good.

The question is, is perpetuating the fossil fuel industry really for the greater good?

Is fossil fuel and all it has wrought really worth continuing to glop up somebody’s life? If not, then rather than trying to reroute the pipeline or try to get the cowboys and Indians to simmer down, or arguing that transporting oil by train is worse (which may be true but is beside the point), perhaps our energy is better spent in stopping the glop and figuring out something better to do instead?

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.

One thought on “Cowboys and Indians, Part 2

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

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