Getting President Barack Obama to halt a planned expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline through Indian country remains a top goal for some Native activists.
At a rally in front of the White House Nov. 6, several dozen American Indians joined approximately 12,000 other protesters in forming a human hand-holding chain—a pipeline of sorts—around the perimeter of the fences that encircle the President’s house. Some carried signs warning Obama not to take their votes for granted, and many warned that their water sources, as well as culture and health could be harmed if the expansion is granted.
Debra White Plume, a Lakota activist who was arrested in front of the White House in September for peacefully protesting the pipeline, told rally attendees who gathered in Lafayette Square Park across from the White House that they must not be afraid to stand up for what is right.
“All of us must rise, rise, rise, for Mother Earth!” White Plume chanted, adding that she believes Obama has an obligation to protect Native lands and culture. “I have come here to be part of this peaceful circle of people to shine a light on President Obama to be visionary and deny a corporate plan whose promise of destruction of our lands is certain. President Obama will be an Earth Warrior, standing in the way of something bad coming toward the people, or he will step aside for Transcanada to foul our water, land, and health for generations to come.”
Organizers of the rally estimated that enough people showed up to the protests to encircle the White House three times over, with about 4,000 people needed to encircle it one time.
The pipeline, already in progress in the northern reaches of Canada—and causing much consternation for First Nations there—is on schedule to be expanded in coming months through the Great Plains and down south to Texas and the Gulf of Mexico if granted final approval by the Obama administration. The goal, developers say, is to generate more North American oil, while creating jobs and jointly bolstering the economies of Canada and the U.S.
In August, the Obama administration granted initial approval to Transcanada, the developer of the project, to move forward in constructing the 1,711 mile, $7 billion pipeline. The decision went against the wishes of many Natives and environmentalists who vowed to step up their protests during a 90-day review period by Hillary Clinton’s State Department of its decision. Protesters cite possible environmental destruction, health and cultural impacts, and a lack of consultation with indigenous peoples who are already feeling the impact of the development as reasons for their concern. U.S. officials, however, say the project is safe and will have limited environmental consequence.
The oil that would flow if the pipeline expansion becomes a reality is contained in large underground formations called tar sands, and the extraction process has been found to be harmful to the land and can pollute water sources. The company that owns the project has had several accidents involving its drilling projects in recent years—giving those in Indian country who would be in the path of development ample reason for concern.
Protests against Keystone XL have gained momentum throughout this year, and for the first time Obama himself waded into the controversy in an interview Nov. 1 with Omaha, Nebraska, station KETV—seeming to take personal responsibility for the ultimate decision. The station serves residents who could be harmed if the Ogallala Aquifer in the state were polluted through drilling for the pipeline.
“The State Department’s in charge of analyzing this, because there’s a pipeline coming in from Canada,” Obama told the television station. “They’ll be giving me a report over the next several months, and, you know, my general attitude is, what is best for the American people? What’s best for our economy both short term and long term? But also, what’s best for the health of the American people? Because we don’t want for examples aquifers, they’re adversely affected, folks in Nebraska obviously would be directly impacted, and so we want to make sure we’re taking the long view on these issues.
“We need to encourage domestic oil and natural gas production,” Obama added. “We need to make sure that we have energy security and aren’t just relying on Middle East sources. But there’s a way of doing that and still making sure that the health and safety of the American people and folks in Nebraska are protected, and that’s how I’ll be measuring these recommendations when they come to me.”
Obama also highlighted the potential public health issues related to the pipeline’s development, saying that job creation shouldn’t come at the cost of polluted drinking water: “…[Y]ou know when somebody gets sick that’s a cost that the society has to bear as well. So these are all things that you have to take a look at when you make these decisions.”
The president’s ownership of the pipeline decision came in stark contrast to months of statements from administration officials who said the State Department would have the last word in approving the expansion.
But even after Obama staked out his position, White House communications officials seemed to temper his words. “Well, ultimately it’s his administration, and the process is run—he is not running the process,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in response to questioning at a daily press briefing held Nov. 2. “The State Department is running the process, and it comes up with a determination. But all of the criteria the President cited in that same interview yesterday about—that have to be considered—and that’s public health, national security, jobs and the economy—all of these criteria he expects to be considered as part of this process, he knows will be considered, and he certainly—you can expect that the decision that is reached will reflect his views.”
To date, a handful of tribal leaders have met with State Department officials, trying to convince them of the harm that could come of the pipeline to their communities. Plus, they have noted the importance of consultation over an issue that would affect Indian lands and culture, as called for in the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the president signed on to support last year.
But the ultimate goal for tribal leaders who oppose the pipeline has been to get Obama himself to pay attention and listen to them, because they feel the pipeline is not consistent with his personal philosophies. They believe that there is no way he would allow it to go forward if personally engaged on the matter.
Shin Inouye, a spokesman for the White House, indicated that tribal officials and citizens need not contact the White House to express their concerns: “We have made clear that the State Department is running the assessment process on behalf of the federal government, and if outside groups or individuals raise this issue with the White House we have consistently encouraged them to reach out to the State Department to better inform that process,” Inouye said.
When asked if the president is working to ensure the special government-to-government relationship with tribes in this instance, Inouye directed Indian Country Today Media Network to the State Department.
Still, American Indians continue their quest to get Obama’s attention. “If President Obama would just listen to what’s in his heart and not to the corporations—Barack, you would know what to do,” said Kandi Mosset, who works with the Indigenous Environmental Network, at a protest rally in September. “Your heart tells you. Look at your little girls… What do you want them to remember from you when they grow up?”