On cloudy days, heavy smoke fills the air of Ponca City, Okla., with grey smog that camouflages itself into the sky. The ConocoPhillips oil refinery that makes its home there uses overcast days as a disguise to release more toxins into the air. These toxins are brimming with benzene — a chemical that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, can cause leukemia, anemia and even decrease the size of women’s ovaries. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2008 the ConocoPhillips refinery released over 2,000 pounds of this chemical into the air in Ponca City.
“Of the maybe 800 of us that live locally, we have averaged over the last five to seven years maybe one funeral a week,” explained Casey Camp-Horinek, a Ponca woman and longtime activist. “Where we used to have dances every week, now most people are in mourning.”
The refinery is located only 1,000 yards behind Standing Bear Park, which is named after the Ponca chief who, in 1877, led his people on their Trail of Tears, from the Ponca homelands in northern Nebraska to present day Oklahoma. But the park is more than a memorial to the distant past. In 1992, the oil giant’s tank farm spilled and contaminated ground water in a nearby predominantly Ponca neighborhood. As a result, ConocoPhillips agreed to purchase the contaminated land and tear down the 200 homes that were on it. In its place, the company built Standing Bear Park — a bitter testament to the Ponca people’s history of forced relocation and genocide.
“We live in a situation that could only be described as environmental genocide,” said Camp-Horinek. Beyond the refineries, she explained, “We also have had the misfortune of living on top of a spider web of pipelines as a result of ConocoPhillips being here.”
Some of these pipelines are transporting Canadian tar sands bitumen, which carries chemicals such as natural gas, hydrogen sulfide, benzene and toluene. This highly toxic diluted substance runs through large pipelines such as Enbridge’s Pegasus line, which recently burst in Mayflower, Ark., and would also flow through TransCanada’s contested Keystone XL pipeline if completed.
“It will not only come through the original territory of the Ponca people [but] it will follow the Trail of Tears of the Ponca people from the 1800s,” said Camp-Horinek. “As a Ponca woman these things are not far removed from us. My own grandfather, my mother’s father, was on this Trail of Tears of the Ponca.”
Protect the sacred
In January, Camp-Horinek traveled the route of the proposed pipeline and her people’s Trail of Tears to Pickstown, S.D., for an international treaty gathering called Protect the Sacred. Indigenous leaders from many nations attended and helped draft a document rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, along with all other tar sands infrastructure.
The signing of this new treaty was done in commemoration of an historic 150-year-old peace treaty between the Pawnee and Ihanktawon Oyate nations and the U.S. government. Neither indigenous nation has ever broken this treaty. But the same cannot be said of the United States.
For this reason, Camp-Horinek explained, “We need to hold the federal government, Obama’s administration and the secretary of state responsible for not allowing further abrogation and destroying of our places and of our cultures and of our sacred sites.”
As the fight against the Keystone XL brings indigenous nations together, it is becoming clear that a new chapter in the long history of indigenous struggle and resistance is underway.
Moccasins on the ground
It has been 40 years since the Wounded Knee occupation on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, when members of the Oglala Lakota Nation and the American Indian Movement united to commemorate the massacre of over 300 Lakota people and defy a corrupt tribal government and broken treaties. Now, the pipeline battle is yet another fight for sovereignty being waged on Pine Ridge.
The proposed route of the Keystone XL will cross hundreds of indigenous sacred spiritual sites and burial grounds, as well as two major sources of drinking water, the Ogallala aquifer and the Mni Wiconi water line for the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.
“Our Red Nations have all opposed the Keystone XL pipeline and called upon all Lakota to defend our water. We can’t become complacent,” said Debra White Plume, an Oglala Lakota woman from the Pine Ridge reservation and director of the Owe Aku International Justice Project for treaty and human rights advocacy.
White Plume is a longtime organizer against plans for uranium mining in the Black Hills, and now her community is preparing for President Obama’s potential approval of the Keystone XL’s northern segment. Recently, the Oglala Lakota Tribal Council passed a resolution, stating its complete opposition to the Keystone XL. In addition, members of the Lakota nation are calling for more direct measures.
“Every door to opposing the Keystone XL is closing one by one,” said White Plume. “Soon the only door left open will be direct action.”
In preparation for that eventuality, White Plume has helped organize the Training for Resistance tour, which is making its way across Greater Sioux nations, territories and reservations to educate and equip people with the necessary tools for resistance. The trainings, which began in March on the Pine Ridge reservation, focus on direct action and teach-ins on tar sands and the Keystone XL, with roots in the Lakota way and tradition.
“This training is a message to Obama and TransCanada that if they try to build KXL, we’ll be here to meet them with our moccasins on the ground,” said White Plume at the opening of the weekend-long training camp and gathering. Hundreds of First Nations, environmental activists, Nebraska ranchers and other grassroots organizations attended. On the last day, they participated in a sacred water ceremony to commit themselves to fighting the pipeline.
As part of the Training for Resistance tour, White Plume also organized a delegation of the Oglala Lakota to travel to Oklahoma a couple weeks later for the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance action camp, located less than 30 miles away from the ConocoPhillips refinery in Ponca City.
On the first day of the event, Camp-Horinek’s brother, Carter Camp — a noted American Indian Movement leader and participant in the Wounded Knee occupation — led the opening ceremony and together they shared the story of Ponca resistance in Oklahoma and their opposition to the pipeline.
As the Training for Resistance tour continues to spread its message of resistance — most recently on the Ihanktawon reservation — many more dots of indigenous struggle are being connected.
A summer of sovereignty
The leaders of the Idle No More movement — which began last December to protest Canadian treaty violations before spreading to indigenous communities across the globe — are seeing yet another extension of their efforts with Keystone XL resistance. In fact, it may lead to something they recently called for: a “sovereignty summer” that would see “coordinated nonviolent direct actions.”
From indigenous communities that border the tar sands mines in Alberta, Canada, to those along the route of the pipeline to the refinery community in Ponca City, the Keystone XL is connecting communities for a massive stand of resistance. And according to Camp-Horinek, they are already winning.
Although the extraction industry is fueled by big money and powerful lobbies, the people — as she pointed out — have bigger and longer-lasting allies: “the sun, the stars, the moon, sand, all other living things, universally, and within the earth herself. It is that core of power that we are all joining, and I see us as winners.”