Tribal Chiefs Walk Out of Keystone Talks, Demand Presidential Meeting

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If you're the leader of a sovereign nation meeting with another sovereign nation to discuss a pipeline that will tote thick, sticky tar sands oil through your land if the project is approved, you might be just a little put out when the head of the other nation doesn't make time to sit down and talk this whole thing out. You might even walk out of the meeting.

Historically the Native Americans have never fared too well when they go up against the United States. Mainly because they get horrible new-to-them diseases like smallpox, fight and die, fight and are forcibly "relocated" or simply assimilated into the culture. It's a painful history of broken promises, slaughter and the steady ebbing of an entire culture.

But the thing is, the ones who were relocated to South Dakota and other areas now find themselves in an interesting position -- namely, their land is where a company, TransCanada, needs to go through putting in and expanding pipe to make the Keystone XL Pipeline. The project has been an issue of contention, with landowners and environmentalists concerned about the impact that a pipeline transporting viscous bitumen, a thick, heavy type of crude oil, more than 1,700 miles from the Alberta Tar Sands to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Proponents say the pipeline will tap into more of North America's oil reserves, further weening us off our dependence on foreign oil. Those against it worry it will screw up the environment by all the usual methods - contaminating the water, leaking and covering everything with oil - and maybe in new ways that no one has even thought of yet.

There have been plenty of protests and anti-Keystone movements down in these parts, but the pipeline has also been something the Native Americans are decidedly not keen on. So un-keen are they, that a group of them walked out of a meeting with the U.S. State Department last week.

A draft environmental impact statement issued in March claimed that there would be little impact to climate change or the environment from the project, a statement that the National Congress of American Indians, shall we say, took issue with.

The NCAI pointed out the report doesn't take into account the possible impact on their sacred sites, water supply and other aspects of the tribal way of life, calling on the State Department to redo the report to reflect their concerns, particularly about spills. (That one's a pretty big and valid concern for everyone. Cleaning up the light sweet crude oil typically produced down in these parts is a mess. Imagine trying to clean up tar sands oil, stuff that's got the consistency of molten taffy and is just about as hard to clean up once it's gotten all over stuff.)

The NCAI called on the federal government to reject the project if their concerns weren't dealt with, based on the federal responsibility to the tribes themselves (That argument has never been particularly successful, and yes we're thinking of all the terrible things Andrew Jackson pulled, but maybe things have changed.)

There were more than 1 million comments filed on the draft report by the April 22 cut-off date, so it's fair to say there were a lot of people with some issues on this, including the folks over at the EPA. The federal regulatory agency also noted that the report seriously didn't take into account the environmental impact, the number of jobs that would come with the project or how they were going to clean up a spill if and when it occurred (Because you know that every time you don't plan for something, that's when it is definitely-totally-absolutely going to happen. Guaranteed.)

Then tribal leaders and elders from the Great Plains Tribal Chairmans Association met with the State Department last Friday in River City, South Dakota. And then, calling the meeting "invalid" because President Obama wasn't in attendance, they all walked out.

The chiefs issued a statement after the walkout, saying that 10 sovereign indigenous nations are against Keystone because it's both against their interest and it would also screw things up "for all future generations on the planet earth."

They demanded to be consulted with on a "nation to nation" level by Obama himself, or they won't come back to the table.

If Keystone is built without their approval, it will be a violation of the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868 reserving their sacred treaty lands, according to the issued statement. That would be yet another violation to the 1868 treaty. The first one, where the government let a gold rush displace the Lakota and then took the Black Hills from them. United States vs. the Sioux Nation is one of the longest running, unresolved cases ever. The government keeps trying to swap money for the actual Black Hills and the Sioux keep turning them down.

"It will be stopped with unified resistance," the statement reads. Which seems like another way of saying, "Do you know who you're messing with? Do we need to remind you about Custer?"

The day after the meeting-that-wasn't, members of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmans Association brought out the sacred pipe bundle of the Oceti Sakowin, to pray that they'll be able to stop the Keystone pipeline, with other tribal nation prayer circles gathered to do the same thing.

In the meantime, it's said that Obama will make a decision on Keystone sometime this year, possibly by this summer, unless a move from the U.S. House to skip the part where the president has to okay the permit makes it through Congress. But otherwise, the president still has to sign it. Or not. And the tribes are pretty upset.

Down here there are a lot of people angry about the pipeline, but there's something to be said about entire angry sovereign tribal nations weighing in.

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