The controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, if approved, will be “built through sacred sites, traditional camp grounds and areas full of Native history,” warned a young Native woman whose organization, Idle No More, was one of 30 Colorado groups rallying in Denver February 17 as thousands of activists gathered in the nation’s capital and elsewhere.
Taryn Soncee Waters, 21, Cheyenne/Oglala Lakota/Cherokee, described the danger to Native patrimony to those gathered at a downtown Denver park in balmy weather. Cheyenne Birdshead, 17, Southern Cheyenne/Arapaho, another Idle organizer and speaker, described being arrested “simply for taking part in one of our Native dances.”
Local Idle concerns about damage to Mother Earth and Native culture from the Keystone XL Pipeline meshed with worries about “climate chaos” and other ecological issues raised by various groups at the rally, but the Idle voice was uniquely defiant, learned from generations of those who refused to yield.
To bring the XL Pipeline issues home graphically, black-clad participants in the #Forward on Climate Solidarity March and Rally depicted an “oil spill”—an occurrence inevitable with pipelines, they said—by lying in a large group, a self-styled blob, on a paved area near Denver’s Civic Center Park.
There were speeches, musical numbers, and the opportunity to sign petitions, one of them urging President Barack Obama not to approve the 1,700-mile Keystone XL Pipeline that would move heavy crude oil from vast Alberta tar sands southeastward, eventually reaching U.S. Gulf-area refineries and ports.
At least one speaker voiced the concern that while Obama did not approve the pipeline’s first application, additional environmental compliance and political factors could lead to his approving the second planned route, which may avoid the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills in Nebraska but not the underlying Ogallala Aquifer, a major source of U.S. water.
Rally organizers quoted NASA scientist James Hansen as saying that “burning oil in the Canadian tar sands [source of the Keystone XL Pipeline’s crude oil] could eventually raise the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere to 600 ppm [parts per million], which he said would be ‘game over’ for a safe climate.”
The 350.org, one of the event’s co-sponsors, is named for what many scientists deem the safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—350 ppm, organizers said in a press release.
In addition to 350Colorado, rally co-sponsors included Idle, the American Indian Movement of Colorado, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Environment Colorado, Protect Our Colorado, What the Frack?! Arapahoe, Earth Guardians, PLAN-Boulder County, Be the Change, Clean Energy Action, Eco-Justice Ministries, Colorado Move to Amend, Climate Ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder, AspenSnowmass, Protect Our Winters, and 14 Colorado GoFossilFree.org Campus Divestment Campaigns.
Although tar sands and climate change protests in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere have produced numbers of celebrity and other arrests, Idle events in the Denver area so far have been arrest-free—except for one in January at a mall in Broomfield, a community north of Denver, where Birdshead was taken into police custody after Round Dancing and where others were also cited for trespassing.
“I myself was arrested simply for taking part in one of our Native dances,” she recalled as she addressed the current rally. “It used to be illegal for our people to do our songs, dances and ceremonies. But we still have them because our ancestors did them even though they faced imprisonment.”
This week the arrestees were to have been charged in court for trespass, but the charges were dropped. Birdshead said they had been willing to go to trial, if necessary, because “doing the right thing isn’t always easy but we do it for the future generations, just like our ancestors did it for us.”
There was no obvious police presence at the Denver rally, although uniformed state parks officials were checking to make sure the Sierra Club-obtained park permit was being used according to regulations—and it was, they said.
Birdshead’s grandmother, 70-plus Virginia Allrunner, Cheyenne, is an inspiring and reliable presence at the Idle events, even though in many ways they’re largely youth-focused: A 12-year-old, Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez, leader of the Earth Guardians youth group, emceed the current rally and Native emphasis generally has targeted the legacy that will be left for children and grandchildren.
“We will not retreat. We will not stop. We will go forward to protect Mother Earth. We are Idle No More,” the young women chanted together as they concluded their presentation before the hundreds at the Denver rally.