Panel discusses pipeline concerns

Kalie Swails


Tribal members gathered to share their responses to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline Project at the 20th annual American Indian Histories and Cultures Conference March 28.

The Keystone XL Pipeline, a project of oil transportation company TransCanada, will carry tar sands oil from Alberta Canada to Texas, crossing an estimated 313 miles of South Dakota land in portions of Harding, Butte, Perkins, Meade, Pennington, Haakon, Jones, Lyman and Tripp counties.

“The Keystone XL Project facilitates a long-term increase in [oil] supply, which will have a modest price effect permeating the entire economy,” said the Perryman Group, an economic and financial analysis firm, in a 2010 assessment of the potential impact of the pipeline project. “These benefits, of course, are over and above the sizeable gains from the construction stimulus, particularly in the areas directly affected.”

Aside from the benefits of increased domestic supply and a job stimulus, TransCanada has said the pipeline will provide economic gain and energy security to the United States and will be constructed in a way that is safe and of “minimal environmental impact.”

Many members of the Native American community, however, have spoken out against the proposed pipeline—which will circumvent reservation land so as to avoid issues with tribal and federal law— criticizing the plan as dangerous to natural resources, destructive to sacred sites and disrespectful to the environment.

This year’s American Indian Histories and Cultures Conference discussed the

environmental, cultural and historic implications of the proposed pipeline project, featuring speakers: Charmaine White Face, founder of the environmental group Defenders of the Black Hills; Tim Mentz Sr., tribal consultant from Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; Russell Eagle Bear, historic preservation officer at Rosebud Indian Reservation; and Ben Rhodd, archeologist and member of the Potawatomi Tribe.

Following an introduction by event coordinator Doris Giago, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and Associate Professor in the SDSU Journalism and Mass Communication Department, White Face discussed the potential environmental impacts of the Keystone XL Pipeline, particularly to South Dakota’s water resources.

“If a pipeline breaks, anything that runs off will get into little creeks, which feed into big rivers, and remember: oil and water do not mix,” warned White Face, emphasizing that any spill runs the risk of permanently ruining aquifers across South Dakota.

White Face also discussed several species that would be endangered by the pipeline, such as the eastern gray wolf, black-footed ferret and Eskimo curlew, beseeching the audience to simplify their lives to protect natural resources.

“For me, as an environmentalist, as a Native person, we don’t dig into the Earth,” she said. “We don’t dig into her—she’s a spirit, she’s alive.”

Tim Mentz Sr. and Russell Eagle Bear discussed the historical implications of the pipeline, which, if constructed, could destroy many sites sacred to Native American culture.

Mentz shared photographs of sites threatened by the pipeline and described some of the spiritual connotation of each with the audience, explaining that he was willing to publicly discuss spirituality — which is intensely guarded in Native American culture — if it meant protecting land from the Keystone XL pipeline.

“Take an active stand,” he said. “If you believe in life, you’re going to believe that snake going into the ground is going to destroy us.”

Mentz encouraged land owners to learn more about their land and to write to Congress about their opposition to the pipeline, a sentiment echoed by Eagle Bear.

“We’re going to continue opposing the Keystone XL,” Eagle Bear said, who, like Mentz, asserted no dollar value could be placed on the sacred sites or natural resources the pipeline could threaten.

“The presidential permit hasn’t been signed, yet there’s so much activity already,” Eagle Bear said, referring to land for staging areas already being leased. “[TransCanada] is moving right along as if the permit will happen… and people’s way of thinking is like this pipeline will come through with little spigots on it.”

Rhodd, who spoke about the cultural impact of the pipeline, implored the audience to challenge this way of thinking.

“We have the power to conserve things or to destroy them,” he said, explaining that the decision to construct the Keystone XL should be in line with personal values about health and natural resource conservation rather than monetary motivation.

“The consciousness we are creating…is that we must be responsible for our home. We are responsible for it and to it.”

The conference, which panel moderator Charles Woodard, a professor in the SDSU English Department, called “an especially good opportunity for the SDSU and area community to hear tribal perspectives on an issue which is crucially important to us all,” was free and open to the public.

The SDSU American Indian Studies Program, the South Dakota Humanities Council, the SDSU American Indian Education and Cultural Center and the English Department sponsored the event.