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Tribal Members Sign Treaty Calling for an End to Alberta Oil Sands Development and Keystone XL

Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman’s approval of that state’s section of the disputed Keystone XL pipeline has united not only indigenous from the U.S. and Canada but also non-Native ranchers, farmers and concerned citizens who oppose the pipeline.

People from about 25 U.S. tribes and Canadian First Nations descended upon Pickstown, South Dakota, on Yankton Sioux (Ihanktonwan) lands for three days last week to craft and sign a mutual-support treaty. Called the Gathering to Protect the Sacred from the Tar Sands and Keystone XL, the meeting was triggered in part by the new proposed pipeline route and related environmental issues.

The signing ceremony for the landmark new International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects served the dual purpose of commemorating the 150-year anniversary of the January 1863 Pawnee Nation and Ihanktonwan Dakota/Nakota Peace Treaty. The contemporary treaty-making was “a profound ritual for our time—this is what our ancestors did,” said one tribal member.

Heineman approved a new route for the 1,700-mile, $7 billion TransCanada pipeline on January 22, a route that avoids the ecologically fragile Sand Hills region but still hits the Ogallala Aquifer. Despite TransCanada’s assurances that it will safeguard heavily against spills and will have a solid response plan in place, tribal members do not trust the corporation. They fear the potential for contamination of the 174,000-square-mile aquifer and its vast water supply.

“They keep telling us it won’t spill, but all pipelines spill,” said Gordon Adams, Pawnee Nation historic preservation officer, adding that the latest route through Nebraska transects the historical homelands of the Pawnee in a particularly important place.

“It’s a real shame,” Adams said. “The Pawnee were in the area for a thousand years before Coronado in 1541. And in the pipeline route, the four bands were together for the first time as protection against the Sioux. That was in the 1850s through the 1870s. They left burials, settlements, other cultural things besides the sacred sites.”

Victory and honoring songs highlighted the meeting, as did statements by Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Bundle and a spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota. Also on hand were First Nation actress Tantoo Cardinal, Cree, and Debra White Plume, Oglala Lakota, of Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way). Both Cardinal and White Plume were arrested in front of the White House in 2011 for protesting against Keystone XL, and White Plume was arrested on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2012 along with other activists who were blocking trucks carrying megaloads bound for the Alberta oil sands.

“We’re here to stand together to protect Mother Earth [for] future generations,” Looking Horse said at the treaty meeting. “To us, treaties are the supreme law. We came together with good hearts, good minds.”

The treaty calls for honoring in particular the provision of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that stipulates “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their [Indigenous Peoples’] lands or territories or other resources.”

Oil sands projects present “unacceptable risks to the soil, the waters, the air, sacred sites, and our ways of life,” the treaty states. It charges that such projects carry the possibility of pipeline and tanker oil spills, pose health and ecological threats, and infringe on sacred and historic places, burial grounds and irreplaceable cultural resources. Calling on the U.S. and Canadian governments to halt and deny approval for pending oil sands projects, the treaty pledges mutual and collective opposition to the XL pipeline, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipelines through British Columbia, and the Kinder Morgan trans-mountain pipeline and tanker projects that are being reviewed by the Canadian government. 

The document also vows to protect signatories’ tribal resources, as well as those of other tribes when requested, although individual tribal governments retain the right to act independently to protect their pipeline-affected interests. Representatives of the Great Sioux Nation, the Ponca, the Pawnee, the Dakota and dozens of other Native communities both above and below the 49th Parallel were in attendance. Other participants included advocacy groups such as the Brave Heart Society, as well as representatives from traditional societies, treaty councils and non-Natives. The latter included people from groups such as Idle No More and Occupy.