They call it Zuche Sapa: the Black Snake. So the Sioux of South Dakota have christened the Keystone pipeline, which carries heavy crude from Canada’s tar sands to the Gulf Coast of Texas. For a week this spring, an unlikely alliance of Native Americans, farmers and ranchers pitched their tipis and hitched their horses in the nation’s capitol, to tell President Obama that they do not want to see the Black Snake grow.
During a downpour-induced break from the action, Dirt sat with a group of tribal leaders who had come, as one put it, to “warrior up” against Keystone XL, the proposed 1,700-mile addition to the pipeline system.
At 38, Robin LeBeau, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is the youngest of her community’s tribal leaders. She wore beaded earrings, a “Pipeline fighter” headband, and a t-shirt designed by Shepard Fairey, the street artist behind the iconic Obama poster. It read, “The Black Hills are not for sale.”
She described life on the reservation in South Dakota, and a picture emerged of a people who, although suffering from catastrophically high rates of diabetes and third-world poverty, are beginning to recover.
“We are just now rebuilding from the first taking of our land, that destroyed our self-sufficiency,” said LeBeau. “We are in transition right now. We are trying to restructure our eating.”
“We went back to the traditional way of eating. We are moving to create gardens to create traditional foods. We have [buffalo] herds, several range units that require large acreage.”
Native foods making a comeback include a vegetable resembling a turnip or rutabaga, choke cherries, juneberries and plums, and deer or buffalo jerky with corn or raisins.
(Meanwhile, the tribal leaders passed around a plastic clamshell of assorted cookies from ShopRite – it’s hard to eat well on the road.)
Every kid who grows up on the reservation nowadays has some activist in him, said LeBeau. Warding off environmental degradation is a matter of survival. The pipeline is just the latest threat to their homestead; before this, the Cowboy Indian Alliance beat back uranium mining plans in the 1980s.
LeBeau compares her people to an endangered species. For all their progress, they remain vulnerable. If the water gets contaminated, they can’t pick up and move their reservation.
“Mni Wiconi,” she said. “Water is sacred.”
The proposed pipeline extension would cross the Ogallala aquifer, a vast reservoir that irrigates America’s breadbasket. If the pipeline were to spring a leak, it could contaminate one of the world’s most pristine water sources. Already, she said, the contamination has begun. “Trucks are leaking on our lands, right now.”
LeBeau leaned over to confer with a medicine man when I asked about the Sioux word for pipeline. LeBeau didn’t grow up speaking her language, because for 60 years, Native languages were outlawed, she said. The Sioux are working now to recover their dialect, called Lakota. Babies on the reservation spend time in an “immersion nest,” where they hear only Lakota, so that their first words will be in their ancestral tongue. “We’re just now, new adults, re-learning our language from our old people.”
Cyril Scott, tribal council president of the Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota, stood smoking cigarettes, looking angry.
“Life hasn’t been good since we’ve been put on reservations,” he said. “I work for the second poorest county in the nation.”
“If President Obama signs this into being, he has signed the death warrants of many Native Americans. I will stand and fight to prevent this.”
James Shot with Two Arrows, 39, the aforementioned medicine man from the Rosebud Tribe, sat on a plastic folding chair, his hands folded in his lap. He came here, he said, to pray to the Great Spirit “for ourselves, for the planet, all the elementals in this world to come together as one.”
His father was a medicine man, and his grandfather, and his great- and great-great-grandfather, passing remedies through the generations.
Among the ailments his people come to him for are diabetes, cancer, heart problems, arthritis, hepatitis, HIV, suicidal thoughts, and physical and sexual abuse problems. He prays for them and makes herbal remedies.
There are very few medicine men left, said Shot with Two Arrows. He has no children.
“It’s sad,” he said. “My dad had explained to me when I was a little boy that after him and I there will be no more. There will be spiritual leaders, but there will be no more medicine men.”
With that, Shot with Two Arrows, a 300-pound man wearing a massive beaded pendant, began to cry silently.