As the U.S. Senate prepares to vote this week on a bill to force approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which the House of Representatives already passed on Friday, American Indian groups who would be directly impacted by the tar sands project are converging on Washington D.C. to voice their opposition.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, whose territory in South Dakota lies along the proposed route of the pipeline, released a statement last week calling Congressional approval of the project an “act of war against our people.”
In a call with reporters on Monday, President Cyril Scott of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe vowed to fight back should the pipeline win government approval.
“Did I declare war on the Keystone XL pipeline? Hell yeah, I did,” said Scott. “I pledge my life to stop these people from harming our children and grandchildren and way of life. They will not cross our treaty lands. We have so much to lose here.”
Scott arrives in D.C. on Tuesday and plans to “rattle the doors” on Capitol Hill ahead of the evening vote. He said he hopes to draw special attention to the fact that the pipeline would cross one of North America’s largest fresh water sources, an aquifer that provides water for a full quarter of the nation’s farmland.
“I’m going to talk to every senator and anybody who will talk to me,” he said. “I will tell them, ‘It’s not a matter of if the pipeline will contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer, but when. And if you contaminate the aquifer, we can’t drink, we can’t grow crops. Where are we going to get our water, from Congress?’”
Besides the environmental threat of the pipeline, which Scott called an “atrocity against all humans,” the Rosebud Sioux say the U.S. government has not met its treaty obligations to ask the tribe for approval of projects that cross their territory. “The U.S. government does not consult us,” he said, noting that concerns brought to the Department of Interior and to the Department of State have been so far ignored. “We have a sovereign nation. We have our own constitution and laws here. But they violated my people’s treaty rights once again.”
Scott emphasized that the “war” he is declaring is a legal one, not a physical one. To bolster his tribe’s efforts, he is calling for a meeting of all the tribes in the Great Sioux Nation in the coming weeks. “When I was elected and took my oath of office, I said I would protect the next seven generations,” Scott told reporters. “I have that obligation not only as president, but as a warrior of the tribe.”
Native American activists across the US and Canada have been organizing for years to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline and other fossil fuel projects that threaten their land, air and water. O.J. Semans, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member with the voting rights group Four Directions, credits concern about the pipeline for boosting voting turnout by 5 percent this year compared to the last midterm election. “By participating in the process and electing individuals that understand our culture and protect our sacred land and water, natives can make a difference,” he told ThinkProgress.
But while tribal members make up 9 percent of South Dakota’s population, Semans acknowledged that they’re a constituency often ignored. “A lot of the voters in tribal country became a little upset because candidates don’t come around here until there’s an election,” he said. “They don’t work with us when they’re in office, just when they’re running for office.”
The Senate is scheduled to vote on the Keystone XL pipeline Tuesday evening. Party leaders note that the bill is just 1 vote away from the 60 votes needed to pass. John Thune (R-SD) is one of the sponsors of this week’s Senate bill to build Keystone XL and the state’s senator-elect Mike Rounds (R-SD) is a vocal supporter of the pipeline.
Semans said tribal members opposed to the pipeline have options both inside and outside the political process, including testifying before the state’s public utilities commission “about how destructive it is to our water,” suing the federal government for violating its treaties with tribe, and directly petitioning President Obama to reject the pipeline.
Should all else fail, the Rosebud Sioux and eight other tribes in South Dakota have set up a “Spirit Camp” directly in the proposed path of the pipeline.
“We are using every alternative to protect Mother Earth,” said Semans. “We have been camped there for 6 or 7 months, and will stay until we get this resolved.”
When ThinkProgress asked about the difficulty of maintaining the camp through an abnormally frigid winter, Semans replied: “We’ll survive.”