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Keystone XL: Horse Riders From the Four Directions Join in Protest in Pierre, SD

Indigenous Environmental Network will hold a horseback ride and rally to protest the Keystone XL pipeline before hearings in South Dakota.

Indigenous voices may have been largely quelched in the hearing room, but they will be vociferous outside it when evidentiary proceedings begin on July 27 in South Dakota over TransCanada’s application to route the Keystone XL pipeline through the state.

Though the pipeline would not directly cross reservation land, its proposed route runs through territory covered by treaty, say Native opponents of the $7 billion, 1,700-mile-long project. It would carry up to 800,000 barrels of oil daily from the Alberta oil sands—and now, as it turns out, the Bakken oil fields—to refineries farther south in the U.S., as far away as the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.

On Sunday more than 60 Native and non-Native opponents of the pipeline will ride into Fort Pierre, South Dakota, on horseback from the four directions, “north, south, east and west, to show their collective resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline certification in South Dakota,” the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) announced on Friday July 24.

The group is hoping that the riders will be greeted by hundreds of people when they arrive at the intersection of highways 83 and 14, the starting point for a march across the Missouri River Bridge. The march will end at Steamboat Park in Pierre, with a water blessing and rally led by leaders of the pipeline opposition.

“Organized to show the solidarity in opposition to the South Dakota Public Utility Commission’s (SD PUC) certification of the Keystone XL pipeline permit, these actions are a culmination of years of collective resistance in South Dakota,” the IEN said.

The protests coincide with the July 27 start to the PUC’s weeklong evidentiary hearing on TransCanada’s permits for constructing the pipeline. On July 22 the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) finalized the rules on who could testify in the hearings that are designed to determine whether TransCanada’s original permit can be recertified or whether the company must resubmit it from scratch. South Dakota law mandates review of a project application if construction does not begin within four years of its approval, and TransCanada received approval in 2010. Numerous tribal and environmental witnesses who wanted to testify were turned down on the grounds that their testimony and objections did not directly pertain to the conditions in the permit. Opponents of the project argue that the plans have changed significantly enough to require a complete reapplication, rather than merely recertification of the original.

RELATED: Climate Scientist James Hansen Shut Out of Keystone XL Hearings in South Dakota

Even though many of the witnesses who would have voiced concerns over such things as climate change (which was ruled out as an issue, since it was not addressed in the original permit) and the source of the oil (TransCanada has added extra-flammable Bakken oil fields crude to the list of what would be transported) were closed out, they said it is important to continue publicizing the issues.

“The whole process is pretty atrocious at how the PUC has decided to bend to the will of TransCanada through this whole process,” said Dallas Goldtooth, who heads the IEN’s anti–Keystone XL campaign. “At the same time it’s not surprising. There have been numerous times we’ve seen public officials play to the wanton whims of the energy industry. We know that there’s a lot of pressure, we know that it’s an uphill battle.”

However, he said, the stakes are high, and not just for Indigenous Peoples.

“This isn’t good for the future of south Dakota, for our land, our water, our people,” Goldtooth told Indian Country Today Media Network. “And we’re just doing the best we can to encourage the commissioners to be wiser to what’s best for the future of South Dakota and for our community.”

“This project poses too much risk to the people, lands and water for it to be approved,” said Paul Draper, Dakota Rural Action board member, in the IEN statement. “I hope the commissioners listen with open hearts and minds to the concerns we will be putting forth.”

In addition, such fights are integral to the bigger picture, Goldtooth said.

“From an indigenous rights perspective it’s bigger than this one rights issue,” he said. “It’s part of our greater struggle to assert our rights as indigenous people.”