'Keep out that black snake:' Sioux Nation members reaffirm fight against Keystone XL

Sioux leaders gathered in South Dakota Monday to re-sign the Protect the Sacred Treaty in the wake of the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Members re-sign the Protect the Sacred Treaty at gathering in South Dakota

Faith Spotted Eagle of the Yankton Sioux Nation, signs the international Indigenous treaty to Protect the Sacred. (Natalia Cordona)

On Monday morning, representatives of the Oceti Sakowin or Great Sioux Nation gather with their allies on the Kul Wicasa Oyate's Lower Brule reservation in South Dakota.

As we come together on the banks of the Missouri River, some 500 kilometres south in Lincoln, Neb., the Public Services Commission has convened to decide the fate of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline — and with it, the fate of people, communities and nations like this one in the project's path.

In the Golden Buffalo Convention Center, old friends reconnect over generous cups of coffee; new relationships are forged over handshakes and gifts of tobacco. Two young women prepare the space for ceremony with guidance from their grandmother, the respected elder and leader Faith Spotted Eagle.

After a prayer offered by Phyllis Roberts and Arvol Looking Horse, keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf pipe, word arrives: In a split decision (3-2), Nebraska lawmakers have approved Keystone XL. The Oceti Sakowin find little solace in the fact that the pipeline will be re-routed. Here in South Dakota, the route remains the same.

In this era of America First, Indigenous people pay the price once again.

The resistance

Last year under similar circumstances, Indigenous people and environmentalists united at Standing Rock, an Oceti Sakowin community north of here. With rallying cries of "Mni Wiconi" and "Water is Life" they nearly defeated the Dakota Access Pipeline in a powerful and historic stand for Indigenous and treaty rights.

This meeting hall buzzes with the spirit of that movement — the latest in a long line of struggles over lands and resources here at the heart of the continent, in America's colonial bowels. This land was the site of some of the most brutal Indian Wars in U.S. history, where legendary leaders like Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse charged headlong into waves of American expansion.

Julian Brave NoiseCat, Secwepemc, signs the Protect the Sacred Treaty, following the lead of Oceti Sakowin leaders at a gathering in South Dakota on Monday. (Natalia Cordona)

Long before it became a hashtag, resistance was an existential imperative on these lands. Today, four of the 15 most impoverished counties in the United States encompass Oceti Sakowin reservations in South Dakota. One in three Native American women will be raped or will experience an attempted rape in her lifetime, about twice the rate for non-Indigenous women, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

With the advent of hydraulic fracturing technology, a new wave of resource-driven colonization is battering these windswept plains. Oil began flowing through Dakota Access just a few months ago. On Friday, Keystone 1, a sister project of Keystone XL, spewed 800,000 litres of tar onto lands just west of the Lake Traverse reservation.

In the Golden Buffalo Convention Center, we, the Indigenous, have reached consensus: The struggles of our forebears must be renewed.

"We have been here before," Looking Horse tells the crowd. "Time and time again we have faced this invasion in our camps and our communities. But we always prevail."

Given the legacy of pain on this reservation — one of many founded as a prisoner of war camp during the era of westward expansion — one might expect people to be justly outraged and ready for battle. But in Indian Country, the Indigenous answer this latest existential threat with a chuckle.

"We have our own CIA ready to fight this pipeline," Everett Butch Felix, the event's emcee jokes. "The Cowboys and Indians Alliance."

'Keep out that black snake'

In a church down the street, we share a lunch of ground meat, wild rice and macaroni salad — prepared by our hosts and served on Styrofoam plates with plastic cutlery.

After lunch, we come back together in the Golden Buffalo Convention Center. Oceti Sakowin dignitaries have resolved to re-sign the Protect the Sacred Treaty, promising to defend their ancestral homelands against Tar Sands mega-projects, the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trump agenda. Dave Flute, Chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, shares a chief's song.

After tribal leaders sign the treaty, all in attendance ink their names as well.

"Reaffirm the boundaries of that treaty. Keep out that black snake you have been talking about," Oyate Win Brushbreaker, 97, tells the crowd, referring to the Keystone XL pipeline as the "black snake," a term Indigenous organizers have used for pipelines since Standing Rock.

The path forward for Keystone XL remains unclear. Landowners, tribes and opponents of the pipeline still have time to organize an appeal. In the meantime, more than 5,000 people have already signed up to join Indigenous people in acts of civil disobedience when and if construction begins.

"Nothing has changed at all in our defence of land, air and water of the Oceti Sakowin Lands," Spotted Eagle says.

"If anything, it has become more focused, stronger and more adamant after Standing Rock."

After the treaty is signed, we come together to dance in victory. As the drummers hit the honour beats, we raise defiant hands. Women clutch red scarves symbolizing scalps and emblematic of the victory our people and planet so desperately need right now.

Perhaps, for the first time, this American experiment might recognize that it needs our victory, too.