n February 27, Oglala Lakota and American Indian Movement activists joined in a four-directions walk to commemorate Liberation Day, an event to mark the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. As they do each year, four groups gather to the north, south, east and west and then walk eight miles until converging on top of Wounded Knee, where they honor the fallen warriors and the tribe’s rich history of resistance.
“It is an acknowledgement of the resiliency of who we are as a people,” explains Andrew Iron Shell, an organizer and activist of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. “It gives permission and courage for our up-and-coming generations to face the challenges of their time.”
In addition to trying to close down White Clay, the Oglala Lakota Nation is actively fighting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This 1,700-mile pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil each day from western Canada through South Dakota en route to Texas. At two points it would even intersect with a pipeline that serves as a main water source for the Sioux Nation, affecting all of the Pine Ridge reservation as well as the nearby Rosebud reservation.
Advocates for the pipeline argue the pipeline is the safest way to transport crude oil. TransCanada, the company in charge of the pipeline, predicted that the first Keystone pipeline, which runs from Alberta to Illinois, would spill once every seven years. During its first year in operation, it spilled 12 times. The Lakota, along with other First Nations, have vowed to use direct action to stop construction of the pipeline.
For a nation whose land and sovereignty has been threatened for hundreds of years by U.S. politics, the Keystone XL pipeline is part of a long history of threats to the Lakota Nation – and to the earth itself.
“They want to get rid of the Lakota, the protectors of the earth,” said Olowan Martinez, an organizer in the Lakota community. “But what they don’t know is when they get rid of the Lakota, the earth isn’t too far behind. Our people believe the Lakota is the earth.”
President Obama is scheduled to be make a final decision on the pipeline by the middle of 2014. While the Lakota are hoping he will not approve the project, they are also getting ready to stand up and fight. During the Liberation Day celebrations, the Lakota’s dances and stories relayed messages about sacred water and Mother Earth. The tribe has also united with other First Nations to organize a three-day direct action training called Moccasins on the Ground, which was designed to prepare people to act if the pipeline is approved.
“Dead or in prison before we allow the Keystone XL pipeline to pass,” the Lakota warriors, many mounted atop horses, repeated during the Liberation Day celebration. Their words carried the weight of 521 years, and counting, of lived resistance.