A week after tens of thousands turned out in support of science and just before thousands more took to the streets for the People’s Climate March, a quieter walk was held at what might be considered ground zero of the country’s energy debate. On April 29, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska headed south on a 273-mile remembrance walk beginning in Niobrara, Nebraska, and scheduled to culminate 12 days later in the small village of Barneston. The event will commemorate the Ponca’s forced removal from their traditional lands in the 1870s—lands that today are again under dispute to make way for the Keystone XL pipeline.
“Knowing how painful it was to have that land taken away from us, we can empathize with those farmers that own that land today. We know what it’s like to be told somebody’s going to take your property away,” said Larry Wright, Ponca Tribal Chairman of Nebraska.
In March, President Donald Trump issued an executive order reversing a previous decision that had seemed to put an end to a decade-long battle over construction of the Keystone XL. The 36-inch-diameter pipeline would begin in Alberta, Canada, run through Montana and South Dakota, and terminate at Steele City, Nebraska, where it would connect with existing infrastructure extending to refineries in Texas and Louisiana. The route crosses the Ogallala Aquifer, which is one of the country’s largest sources of freshwater. A pipeline break threatens the drinking water of millions of Americans as well as farm and ranch land.
The project has run up against farmers and ranchers in seizing land and securing easements. Now, the federal red tape has largely been resolved and only the route through Nebraska needs to be finalized. For rural Nebraskans, this is familiar territory.
“The landowners and the farmers and the ranchers never stopped fighting,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and founder of Bold Nebraska, which has been resisting the Keystone XL pipeline since the early 2000s. “Now we feel this tremendous amount of responsibility on our shoulders because we’re the last stand.”
Over the years, resistance to the pipeline has spurred unique partnerships, including an alliance between landowners and tribes. Because the proposed route passes through their historic lands, the Ponca have a specific interest.
“Even though today, we may not physically own that property that’s in the pipeline route, it’s still part of our culture, still part of our traditions, of who we are and where we come from and where our ancestors died,” Wright said.
Though certainly not all Nebraskans who work the land, for some the impacts of climate change, including droughts and changing weather patterns, are a top concern. “Farmers and ranchers are not stupid,” Kleeb said. “They know that climate change is here and that it is directly impacting them.”
For the past three years, members of these various groups have been gathering in Neligh, Nebraska, to plant Ponca sacred corn where the pipeline’s route crosses the trail the tribe was forced to take away from their homeland. They sow the corn by hand, following principles of prayer rooted in a deep respect for the land.
Bold Nebraska, a citizen group working with an alliance of farmers, ranchers, and Tribal Nations, first planted corn at this site four years ago. It was also the first time that sacred Ponca corn had touched these ancestral lands in over 130 years.
“It’s a beautiful action,” Kleeb said. “I think sometimes people don’t connect that tribes are part of our rural communities. They are farmers and ranchers.”
The relationship between the Ponca and Nebraskan farmers and ranchers is emblematic of the alliances forming to resist both Keystone XL and pipelines around the world. Now that the seed bank is replenished, Nebraska activists send Ponca seeds to other pipeline fights in places as far away as Ecuador. They call them “seeds of resistance.”
“We didn’t do anything magical in Nebraska,” Kleeb said. “It was a bunch of just regular people coming together and being defiant, essentially saying, ‘We are not going to get rolled over by this oil company, and we’re going to do everything we can and put everything that we have into this fight to stop this pipeline.’ ”
At the end of April, officials in Washington, D.C., were preparing for crowds as large as 100,000, and hundreds of other marches were planned across the country. The Ponca will finish their walk of remembrance by signing a deed of ownership to 19.5 miles of the Chief Standing Bear Trail, which traces the path their ancestors were forced to take by foot to territory designated for them by the U.S. government.
“We’re stronger together than we are separate,” Wright said. “We’re ready for the fight. We’ll do everything we possibly can.”
Devi Lockwood wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Devi is a poet, touring cyclist and storyteller traveling the world (mostly by bicycle) to collect 1,001 stories from people she meets about water and climate change.