Keystone XL pipeline opponents took to a Neligh rancher’s land Saturday, protesting the proposal they say cuts through the historic Ponca Trail of Tears and poses a steep environmental risk.
Anti-pipeline group Bold Nebraska — along with Ponca tribal families, Oceti Sakowin tribes, Brave Heart Society and others — hosted the Ponca Trail of Tears Spiritual Camp, the first in a series of tribal events aimed at showcasing solidarity among ranchers and Native Americans against TransCanada’s project.
“It’s the continuation of unprecedented unity of the allies that are trying to stop this black snake that is trying to come into our tribal territory,” said Faith Spotted Eagle, a grandmother in the Brave Heart Society and member of the Ihanktonwan, or Yankton Sioux.
The controversial pipeline awaits the Obama administration’s decision, which is expected in 2014.
The groups charge that the pipeline’s 1,179-mile path cuts across sacred tribal land where Chief Standing Bear and his fellow Ponca peoples walked to Oklahoma in a forced migration from their homes in northern Nebraska. Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska and others questioned the Keystone XL proposal’s respect for water rights and sacred sites. But TransCanada counters that it has taken appropriate measures “above and beyond” what’s required by law.
“They’re using historical events to create division when what we’ve been trying to do is to reach out to these different tribes,” TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard said.
Howard objects to Bold Nebraska’s charges, saying the company has forged working relationships with dozens of tribes, including some that don’t support the pipeline. As part of its planning for the pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Neb., TransCanada has made agreements with tribes affected by its proposal, including the Ponca nation.
TransCanada’s right-of-way for the pipeline does not cross Ponca land, he said. But the company has made five offers to the Ponca Tribe since 2008 to pay for a cultural survey of the land along its route.
“We have made repeated offers to the tribe to pay for this work so they could potentially recover part of their history,” he said.
Ponca leaders have rejected all five offers.
State and federal law dictates that TransCanada must go around known burial grounds and archaeological sites. Should crews uncover remains or artifacts during construction, work must stop immediately for reburial or excavation of artifacts.
TransCanada also has tribal monitors who help ensure the plan's integrity, Howard said. “We take this really seriously."
Kleeb criticized TransCanada’s offers as horrible for the tribes and questioned the federal government’s legal and tribal consultation on the project.
Over the weekend, the protesters lit a ceremonial fire, erected an 18-foot-tall tepee, shared stories and held communal lunches. About 30 people participated in Friday's events, and similar attendance is expected through Monday morning.
At sunrise Monday, the camp will close as the fire is extinguished and protesters pray to Mother Earth for the protection of the land from tar sands oil and the Keystone XL pipeline.
More spiritual camps will be held in the coming months, said Kleeb, who hopes a visual of the union of ranchers, Native Americans and other activists will spur the State Department to deny the pipeline’s permits.
Spotted Eagle agreed.
“I think more than thoughts, we’re sending prayers they’ll come to their senses,” Spotted Eagle said.