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The Sacred Pipes Will Defeat the Keystone Pipeline

This is the speech I wished I'd given on January 13th at a Keystone XL vigil held here in Portland, Oregon—things I wanted to say to President Obama before his State of the Union Address. I want the President to stand by his promise to our Dakota/Lakota people and to veto any bill supporting the building of the Keystone XL pipeline passed by Congress.

Last year, I saw a banner at a rally that read, “Our Pipeline Will Always Fight Yours,” above an image of a line of Dakota/Lakota people in dark silhouette, identifiable by the feathers attached to their hair, some in braids, some not, and all with the canunpa, the sacred pipe, over their chests with pipestone clearly painted in red. The vigil was one of many held all over the country that night and drew about 200 people to downtown Portland’s Terry Schrunk Plaza.

Amanda Blackhorse. Photo by Jacqueline Keeler.

I speak as the daughter of an Ihanktonwan Dakota (Yankton Sioux) family—a tiyospaye as we say in Dakota, and I address President Obama as a relative, as someone who has been welcomed by the Lakota people of Standing Rock into their hearts. This proposed pipeline that would extend across the state of South Dakota being built by a Canadian corporation, TransCanada, threatens most of the Oceti Sakowin’s (Lakota/Dakota nation) water supplies as it runs over the Ogallala Aquifer and near the Missouri River.

The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the largest aquifers in the United States and provides the equivalent of 14 Colorado Rivers of groundwater for agriculture and drinking water throughout the Great Plains. The danger of the Keystone XL pipeline is a real one. In the first six months of operation, it leaked 14 times and the heavy bitumen tar-based oil is particularly difficult to clean up. Oil spills could endanger the source of water for an area that produces one-fourth of the country’s agricultural output and brings in about $20 billion annually.

Farmers and tribes have been asking the government to consider the value of the Ogallala aquifer versus that of a pipeline owned by a foreign company with limited financial gains for those whose lands it will traverse. TransCanada also has a very poor record of cleanup, and the costs and harm caused will mostly likely financially burden local communities.

In addition, the accompanying “man camps” that will spring up during the construction of the pipeline promise more violence in tribal communities, particularly increased violence against women. Man camps in and near North Dakota reservations have led to horrific incidences of rape, murder, and sexual slavery of women and children. Man camps will create greater social harm in Native communities that already experience triple the rate of violence experienced by other Americans.

As I stood before the crowd, microphone in hand, what I wanted to say to hundreds of people gathered to support the Oceti Sakowin was that “Our pipeline is made of people, all of you, unlike their pipeline built on the idea of disposability of our earth and with no regard for the people, only for a quick profit.” What we are making is a human chain of allies, Odakota, a peace held by being Dakota (allies) to one another. All of these people who attended these vigils across the country and supported them through social media and sharing the hashtag #NoKXL, in that sense, are Dakota. They are our allies and this is very traditional to us. And I suppose it is utterly unsurprising that this would be the response of the Oceti Sakowin when threatened: to make relatives that will stand with them against the destruction of life itself. And now, those relatives, that hoop, as my lala used to call it is, is bigger than ever and includes those that were once our enemies, white farmers, ranchers, and many other Americans.

Our people had two types of relatives: the first was blood relatives, and the others were relatives made by choice and commitment. This ceremony for the “making of relatives” was called Hunkapi (Hunka meant “beloved”) and this was one of the seven sacred ceremonies given to us by the White Buffalo Calf Woman, Pte San Win. It is one of the core ceremonies that make us Dakota.

For the Dakota, the desire to “make relatives” was truly an obsession and it is no accident that our prayers end with Mitakuye Oyasin “we are all related”. That is not just a metaphorical statement. My great-uncle, my lala, Phil Lane, Sr., used to lament he could never marry a Yankton girl because the minute he would like a girl she’d immediately become a relative of some sort either through relatives marrying or through adoption. He’d often laugh and tell me that due to this love of “making relatives,” a band of Dakota/Lakota would soon become so related they would be unable to marry at all. In fact, I remember my great-great uncle Vine Deloria sang a song when I was a small child whose words were in Dakota, “I will never marry a Yankton girl.” It was a song our people sang poking gentle fun at this mania we had for making relatives.

I should also note the modern concept imposed by the U.S. government to be “pure bloods” of a particular band would have been impossible to maintain under the traditional Dakota system of kinship.

"The ultimate aim of Dakota life, stripped of accessories, was quite simple: One must obey kinship rules; one must be a good relative. No Dakota who has participated in that life will dispute that. In the last analysis every other consideration was secondary – property, personal ambition, glory, good times, life itself. Without that aim and the constant struggle to attain it, the people would no longer be Dakotas in truth. They would no longer even be human. To be a good Dakota, then, was to be humanized, civilized. And to be civilized was to keep the rules imposed by kinship for achieving civility, good manners, and a sense of responsibility toward every individual dealt with. Thus only it was possible to live communally with success; that is to say, with a minimum of friction and a maximum of good will.”

—My great-great Aunt Ella Cara Deloria (Anpetu Sa Win) in Speaking of Indians, 1944.

So this rising up of allies across the country to help us fight this pipeline is something very good and represents what is the very best in our people. In doing so we are doing what comes naturally to us as Dakota. I was fortunate to see the formation of this movement in August 2013 on my dad’s Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota.

My dad’s cousin Faith Spotted Eagle helped put together a meeting with other concerned members of Dakota/Lakota tribes, and farmers and ranchers from Nebraska who formed an organization called Bold Nebraska to fight the pipeline. For 170 years the relationship between our reservations and the white community has been (and still is) fraught with ill will, violence and pain. Yet here were communities coming together and making an alliance called the Cowboy and Indian Alliance. It was there that I first met Jane Kleeb and Tom Genung and heard their stories of fighting county by county in Nebraska. On Earth Day 2014, the Cowboy and Indian Alliance marched and rode on horseback through Washington, DC past the White House and set up tipis on Washington Mall (I wrote about this in The Nation magazine). And what made longtime enemies allies? It was their ties to the land. They were all the people of the land, and the Maka brought them together as relatives on it.

“We are writing a new history by standing on common ground by preventing the black snake of Keystone XL from risking our land and water,” said Spotted Eagle in a article.

What I wanted to say to the 200 people gathered in that plaza to support the Oceti Sakowin is that our pipeline is made of people—all of you. We will always fight their pipeline and our pipeline WILL win. We will stop this pipeline with the force and power of our Dakota traditions of kinship. It is what made us a strong people and in the end, it is what will civilize these people that came to our lands uncivilized and made barbaric by their pursuit of profit. We will civilize them in our way as we have always done. After all, my husband’s people, the Haudenosaunee, gave them democracy and the concept of women’s rights. These are the hallmarks of modern civilization and they did not come from Old Europe; they came from here, from this land, from our social traditions, our ideas of how people should live together.

It reminds me of another quote from my great-great Aunt Ella:

“The work of Hor'e Win was in danger of being interrupted and a time of choice was among the nations a Red and Blue day; if Hor'e Win was allowed to complete her task or the humans could declare for their own decision of abandoning the robe of creation."

The robe of creation that Maka (Mother Earth) works on is one composed of the life-giving attributes of the energy raised by the interaction through kinship relationships not simply their dead material parts.

This is our work and it is the true power of our Dakota traditions to make life not death. The focus of our culture has always been on people not things. And yet I hold out hope that TransCanada and its Keystone Xl pipeline shills in Congress will abandon the fight as the price of oil plunges from $100 to 50 per barrel.

This fight extends beyond Oceti Sakowin lands. There are other pipelines and yet more dirty oil projects in Indian Country still in the works. My mother’s people on the Navajo Nation are fighting fracking and pipelines on their lands. Fracking requires three to eight million gallons of water for each well drilled. In the desert, using hard-to-replace groundwater it is ridiculously shortsighted. But individual Navajo families already have sold their drilling rights to their allotment land for $16,000-$100,000 to the oil companies. The companies can expect to make between $6-10 million dollars per well. And of course, there are the man camps. Greater tribal jurisdiction over crimes has been promised by VAWA but has not been implemented on the Navajo Nation.

I take heart in young Navajo women who are walking across the Dinetah (Navajo Nation) to each of the sacred mountains to draw attention this unfolding tragedy. Nihígaal bee Iiná (Walk for our Existence). I also look to my husband’s people, the Six Nations of the Grand River, as they fight against pipelines being built across their treaty lands without proper consultation. In July, they blockaded roads and stopped work on an Enbridge pipeline.

Last year, I worked as a producer on a documentary about the Bakken and interviewed many members of the Mandan Hidatsa-Arikara Nation at Ft. Berthold. The most chilling thing I heard—and I heard many, from the trafficking of girls to man camps, the poisoning of their water to spills, and dangerous truck traffic that made going to the store deadly—was this: that the tribe may have to buy a new reservation when it was all over. The MHA are an ancient people. Some say they even precede our Dakota/Lakota people on these lands. How do a people give up these places where they dwelled for a millennia? Where will they go and is the money worth it? And having done it will they still be the same people anymore?

So when I talk about “fighting,” I am referring to the battle between the culture that produces pipelines that threaten people off the land and our pipeline that makes relatives and makes a life for us all on this land for the next seven generations. 

Jacqueline Keeler is a Twitter activist (@jfkeeler) and one of the founders of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry.