Declaring War on KXL: Indigenous Peoples Mobilize

Declaring War on KXL: Indigenous Peoples Mobilize

by Nick Estes

We’re going to declare war on the Keystone XL Pipeline,” Oglala Sioux Tribe President Bryan Brewer told a crowd of several hundred Natives and non-Natives on March 29 at the opening ceremony of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s (RST) Oyate Wahacanka Woecun (“shield the people”) camp. The next day, at the “Stand Sacred Ground” meeting in Lower Brule, South Dakota (SD), RST President Cyril Scott similarly stated, “It’s time for a declaration of war.” A five-year limbo of uncertainty about KXL has prompted outrage from the Oceti Sakowin (“The Great Sioux Nation”). It has even galvanized an unlikely “Cowboy-Indian Alli-ance” with non-Native Nebraskan landowners. Thousands of members of this alliance recently marched and camped on the Washington National Mall in honor of Earth Day on April 22—just days after the State Department announced an “indefinite” delay on making any decision on KXL.

In spite of continued political foot dragging, anti-KXL actions continue to unite communities along the proposed pipeline corridor, across the nation, and even with Canadian First Nations, whose lands and communities are most directly affected by the highly exploitive oil sands extraction. Urgency grips the Oceti Sakowin, who make up a majority of the populations in six of the ten poorest counties in the U.S. Social and economic precarity, however, has not stopped grassroots organizations such as the Owe Aku, Wica Agli, and Protect the Sacred from creating protest camps at Witten, SD on the Rosebud Reservation and Bridger, SD on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Debra White Plume of Owe Aku has for the last several years offered training workshops in non-violent direct action against heavy machinery that would be used to construct the pipeline. Other grassroots organizations have begun planning and setting up protest camps to thwart construction plans.

Regardless of strategy, the Oceti Sakowin, among North America’s most disenfranchised populations, have pledged to halt TransCanada’s pipeline, which spans 875 miles from Montana to Nebraska alone, at all costs. Stakes are high. KXL’s planned path would cross ancestral Lakota territory protected under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which includes 24 million acres comprising all of Western South Dakota and parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana. Treaty rights have reignited claims to defend what many consider tribal national territory protected under international law, even if that land was dispossessed.

TransCanada, however, has neglected these rights. The Final Supplemental Env-ironmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Project requires programmatic agreements with tribal nations regarding culturally and historically sensitive sites and rights of way for ancillary infrastructure that would cross tribal trust land, but many argue that the way TransCanada carried out tribal consultation directly violates UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ provision of “prior and informed consent” and undermines tribal sovereignty. For example, the 2010 and 2013 tribal programmatic agreements set up a three-tiered system of “consent,” determining certain privileges in negotiating tribal rights to cultural resource management and rights of way. Non-participating tribes are completely exempt from negotiations. This presents a double-bind for tribes opposed to KXL: only by consulting with TransCanada can a tribe negotiate cultural resource management and its rights of way.

Tribal Nations’ flags line the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Oyate Wahacanka Woecun (“shield the people”) camp.

Tribal Nations’ flags line the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Oyate Wahacanka Woecun (“shield the people”) camp.

Many are also concerned that leaks or spills would contaminate vital freshwater resources. KXL would slurry toxic and high viscosity oil sands bitumen (830,000 barrels per day) heated to 150°F across tribal freshwater utility services, the Mni Wiconi Rural Water Supply; across approximately 357 rivers and streams, all direct or indirect tributaries to North America’s largest drainage system, the Mississippi River; and across the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest aquifers that provides a major source of freshwater for agriculture and individual consumption in eight states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas). The contamination of these highly fragile, interconnected water systems could be catastrophic for all plants, animals, and humans (an estimated 30 million) dependent on them for life.

While Canadian First Nations have called for a moratorium of oil sands extraction in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin in province of Alberta, U.S.-based Native nations are mounting legal and political resistance against KXL, a pipeline that would connect Alberta oil sands extraction with refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. “Declaring war” on KXL and TransCanada should not be taken lightly. Grassroots organizations and tribal governments are leading the opposition against KXL on the Northern Great Plains, but they need resources and legal support. The Obama’s administration’s ambivalent stance on KXL only raises the stakes for tribal communities, whose lands and lives are most vulnerable. A district court recently ruled Nebraska’s state government’s approval for KXL “unconstitutional,” revealing avenues for legal resistance and challenge.

However, the challenge of building effective opposition is also contingent upon grassroots action. While many of the grassroots organizations are plugged into the large anti-KXL movement, they do not have the financial and legal support necessary to carry out sustained resistance. Many operate on a volunteer basis and also work on community-based projects, such as providing social and economic services, cultural and language revitalization, environmental protection and conservation, defending tribal lands and resources, and working on international Indigenous human rights. Immediate action and financial resources are desperately needed for these small-scale, tribally-based movements for not only anti-KXL work, but also sustained community development programs that provide much needed services and resources in the U.S.’s poorest counties. If these movements are to succeed beyond stopping KXL, they will require financial and legal support to continue their projects.

For more information on the work our organizations do or to get in touch with people on the ground, go to our websites:

Wica Agli:, Owe Aku’s:, and Protect the Sacred’s:

-Nick Estes is an enrolled member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and a PhD student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He is involved with his tribal nation’s anti-KXL and constitutional reform movement.-