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Tribes and activists celebrate rejection of Keystone XL Pipeline

Wica Agli: Greg Grey Cloud Thank You to President Obama. In November 2014, Greg Grey Cloud, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, was arrested for singing an honor song after the Senate voted against a bill that would have authorized the Keystone XL Pipeline. All charges against him were subsequently dropped.

Tribal leaders and activists in South Dakota are basking in a long-fought victory over the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline.

With legal actions, prayer camps and sheer numbers of moccasins on the ground, South Dakota was one of the major battlegrounds in the seven-year fight against the project. The effort paid off as President Barack Obama on Friday rejected the permit for the 1,179-mile pipeline that was dubbed the "black snake" across Indian Country.

"After several years of vigorous debate by many parties, the president resolved the issue by focusing on the big picture" Chairman David Archambault Jr., of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who hosted Obama on the reservation in June 2014, said in a press release. "President Obama’s decision is consistent with tribal values that respect the environment and honor our roles as guardians of our children’s’ futures.”

Activist and grandmother Faith Spotted Eagle was just as joyous. As spokesperson for the Ihanktonwan Treaty Council, which represents the treaty interests of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, she has been one of the leading challengers of the route through South Dakota.

"Winona LaDuke & Faith Spotted Eagle Make a Stand" by John Isaiah Pepion, 2014. Activists Winona LaDuke of Honor The Earth and Faith Spotted Eagle of the Ihanktonwan Treaty Council were among the leading voices against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Photo from John Isaiah Pepion /

"This is what unity, hard work and breaking down barriers looks like ... all for protecting sacred water and land for the generations, Spotted Eagle said. "Today we stand in thankfulness for Obama, adopted son of the Crow Nation."

The decision came a day after Obama hosted the seventh annual White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C., where he proudly referred to himself as "President Barack Black Eagle." During his 2008 campaign, he was adopted by the late Hartford Black Eagle and his wife, Mary, from the Crow Nation of Montana.

"Today, we’re continuing to lead by example," Obama said at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry at his side. "Because ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky."

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: President Barack Obama Rejects Keystone XL Pipeline November 6, 2015

Like the president, tribes feared environmental impacts but on a more practical level. In May 2011, the existing Keystone 1 Pipeline spilled about 21,000 gallons of crude oil near the Lake Traverse Reservation, home to the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. The XL route ran through a major water source in South Dakota, raising the potential of catastrophic damage from future leaks.

Obama visited Watertown, a city on the South Dakota side of the reservation in May and was greeted by XL protests. During the trip, he was presented with a star blanket that was made by by tribal member DeVon Bursheim. She wove an anti-pipeline message "NO KXL" into the gift.

"What a powerful and subtle way to be a part of this movement," Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network said at the time.

The environment wasn't the only issue either. TransCanada, the Canadian firm behind the project, and supporters -- primary Republicans and the energy industry -- promoted the number of jobs that would be created by the pipeline but tribal advocates worried about an increase in crime, drugs and violence against women and children.

The NO KXL message on the star quilt presented to President Barack Obama. Photos from Dallas Goldtooth

The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in neighboring North Dakota has seen girls as young as 13 years old forced into the sex trade as a result of the booming energy economy there. TransCanada said it would have taken steps to prevent that from happening along the XL route.

"The project not only would have put the environment in harms way but it would have also put the women and children along the pipeline route at a higher risk of domestic and sexual violence," said Aldo Seoane, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and a co-founder of Wica Agli, one of the many Indian activist groups opposed to the project.

Although the XL route in South Dakota did not cross any reservations it did come near the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, whose leaders authorized the Oyate Wahacanka Woecun / Shielding the People protest camp, and the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation. It also crossed lands protected by the 1851 and 1868 that were signed at Fort Laramie.

According to the Department of State, 67 tribes along the route were consulted during the environmental review of the project. The impact on cultural resources was one of the primary reasons why Secretary Kerry signed a record of decision against the permit sought by TransCanada.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe Spirit Camp was set up to oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline. Photo courtesy Gary Dorr

"The proposed project raises a range of concerns about the impact on local communities, water supplies, and cultural heritage sites," Kerry said in a statement.

As part of the review process, the Interior Department submitted 178 pages of tribal resolutions, documents, letters and other materials that conveyed Indian Country's opposition. The Bureau of Reclamation also sought assurances to prevent an "unintended interruption of water supplies" to the Oglala Sioux Tribe because the XL route would have crossed the Oglala Sioux Rural Water Supply System, which was authorized by Congress as part of the Mni Wiconi Project.

In response to the rejection, TransCanada said it was reviewing its options. Earlier last week, the company asked Obama to suspend review of the pipeline permit in order to finalize the route in Nebraska, another contentious portion.

"By dismissing the 9,000 jobs for Americans building Keystone XL as 'only temporary,' the administration has ignored the value of infrastructure jobs and has taken away work from those who seek it," President and Chief Executive Officer Russ Girling said in a statement. "In total, some 42,000 related jobs would not be created in the U.S. value chain as a result of this decision."

The company could always resubmit the application after Obama leaves office in January 2017. All of the Republican presidential candidates have said they support the project. The two leading Democratic candidates -- Hillary Clinton, who preceded Kerry at the Department of State, and Bernie Sanders -- oppose it.

TransCanada's application for the cross-border permit was first submitted in September 2008.

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Gyasi Ross: Obama's checkered record on Native environmental issues (09/03)
Native Sun News: Tribes cite treaties in bid to halt Keystone XL (08/13)
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Lakota Country Times: Activists gear up for Keystone XL hearings (07/08)
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