Planting Strength, Harvesting Hope
Lessons from Nebraska's 'Cowboy and Indian Alliance' against the Keystone XL Pipeline
This fall, it was with a quiet sense of celebration that we harvested the 2021 crop of sacred Ponca corn planted across the now-rejected Keystone XL pipeline route in Nebraska.
The year began with President Biden announcing, in an Executive Order on his very first day in office, that he would revoke the pipeline’s Presidential permit. He specifically stated this was because of a pledge he made on the campaign trail in response to a call led by Bold Nebraska put out to all candidates during the election campaign. We wanted the next President to promise rural America they would not sacrifice our land and water for a risky tar sands export pipeline.
But even with this promise kept by Pres. Biden, we were worried when we planted the corn in May. We did not know whether TransCanada (which had re-branded itself “TC Energy”) would continue to lobby U.S. politicians to keep Keystone alive, continue to ignore the sovereignty of Tribal Nations, and continue to abuse eminent domain for private gain. Finally, this summer, TransCanada announced it was abandoning the project. I could see everyone’s shoulders drop in relief as we harvested the majestic husks sacred to the Ponca tribe, their ruby-red and deep-blue kernels glowing in the gentle September sunlight.
As the founder of Bold Nebraska, a group that mobilizes urban and rural communities across the state to build political power, I had been approached by members of the ranching and farming community to help them in the battle against the pipeline. That was over twelve years ago. Originally a city-girl, I moved to Nebraska to marry a rancher, and fell in love with people who give everything they have, every single day, to protect the water and the land. This is what defines rural communities. I saw how, at a grassroots level, this was my children’s legacy too – and also how this issue might mobilize Nebraskans across old divides in important new ways. And so the fight against the pipeline became my life.
When you start organizing, you always look for allies. In the beginning, with the Keystone battle, these included national groups like 350.org and NRDC, or our friends in South Dakota and Texas. But in the early days, we were not organizing alongside Tribal Nations. That all changed when Faith Spotted Eagle of the Ihanktonwan (Yankton Sioux) nation invited us to a gathering to share our stories and explain the risks of the pipeline to the Ogallala Aquifer. What many might not see at first is that rural communities in the Plains are made up of diverse people – Native American, Latino, immigrants and White – who all share a deep connection to the land and water, and depend on it for our lives and livelihoods. These unlikely alliances were mobilized in the past when farmers, ranchers, and various tribes joined together to fight uranium mining and other extractive threats. So, at the suggestion of Tribal elders, including Faith, we decided to hold a spirit camp, to come together and pray, tell stories and develop a sense of solidarity — the trust and friendship that is so important to growing a movement.
We discovered that on one of the threatened farms in the Nebraska Sandhills, stewarded for generations by Art and Helen Tanderup’s family, the proposed pipeline intersected with the Trail of Tears: the route the Ponca nation took one hundred and forty years ago when they were forcibly removed by the U.S. government off their ancestral Nebraska lands and relocated to Oklahoma. For this reason we asked Art and Helen if we could hold the spirit camp on their farm.
The Tanderups agreed with open hearts and it was here, at our first camp, that Mekasi Camp Horinek of the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma had his dream about the corn. In this dream, his ancestors told him to bring the seed of the sacred Ponca corn, gifted to them by the Creator, back to Nebraska, and plant it “as medicine for the land”.
At first, some of the farmers and ranchers felt a bit awkward about participating in traditions of the spirit camp and other gatherings we were invited to. As an organizer, I was worried that we would not know the proper protocols or might say something to offend our new friends. These were learning moments for all of us – to see each other as neighbors and people in the same fight. It was beautiful to experience how we established common ground and actively worked to learn from one another.
I will never forget the moment when one of the pipeline fighters – a big guy with a handlebar mustache named Terry Steskal (we call him “Stixs”) – felt moved to acknowledge publicly that his ancestors had taken Indigenous lands. He described the pain that brings, but also how he feels blessed to be among people who are committed to each other. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and Bundle, had spent the whole meeting sitting with his eyes downcast. Now he stood up and opened his arms: “Welcome to the tribe,” he said to Stixs.
What they had in common was the experience of someone coming from outside, taking their land, and threatening their livelihoods. Indigenous people, farmers, and ranchers had all been stewards of this land for hundreds of years – and the Tribal Nations centuries longer than the farmers – but this was a generational fight, not only protecting their way of life and economic livelihood, but the very thing that roots rural people in community: the land, the water.
This is what moved us all to follow the ancestors’ call, in Mekasi’s dream, about bringing home the Ponca corn. When there were moments we felt tired or beaten down by the hugeness of our task, the corn would be there standing for us, the ancestors told Mekasi. Year in and year out we would gather in the Spring and Fall in a circle in a cornfield and observe the prayers offered by Mekasi and other Ponca elders, to protect the land and stop KXL. Then we would walk out to hand-plant or harvest the corn. This annual cycle represents the inevitability of victory if we only listen to the people and the land. Mekasi’s mom, Casey Camp, calls the Ponca sacred corn “seeds of resistance” because it symbolizes each of us in the larger movement for land justice.
We took Mekasi’s dream as a sign that we had a responsibility not only to bring that corn back to the ancestral lands of Nebraska, but to bring together the farmers, ranchers, tribes, and environmental activists that made up this unlikely alliance. I knew that this was the only thing that would give us a shot at beating Big Oil. Had we fought Keystone XL in the traditional “beltway” tactics that climate groups used – in the halls of Congress, led mostly by folks who lived on the coasts using only white papers instead of stories of people impacted – we would have lost. What gave us our power was that we spoke from the frontline: it was our land and water being threatened
The Ponca sacred corn planting and harvest means coming together twice a year. Republican, Democrat, or Independent; white, black, or brown; middle-income or working class: we are all equals out in the field, planting and praying together, and then harvesting the hope that our collective actions were going to be the thing to stop the pipeline.
It was not only Mekasi that inspired us, but the collective legal wisdom of our unlikely alliance partners too. As in all our actions, we sought to find that sweet spot between something of symbolic significance that would spread the word and build the movement, and something of legal significance that would throw a wrench in the pipeline’s works.
Throughout the fight to stop the pipeline, Faith Spotted Eagle educated us about Indigenous cultural resources, and how lands that held these resources were classified as sacred, and had special protection. With this in mind, we did our research, and confirmed that the Ponca Trail of Tears ran through the Tanderup family’s farm. Then we filed, successfully, with the US Department of Agriculture, to have the Ponca corn grown on the farm formally certified as a sacred cultural resource.
In 2018, the Tanderups embarked on a legal process to deed back to the Ponca Nation several acres of their farmland, on which we would continue to grow the corn. We now had the pleasure of informing TransCanada that the pipeline was formally crossing Tribal land of the Ponca Nation. This meant the corporation would have to go into formal consultation with the Tribe – rather than simply asserting eminent domain as it had done with other ranchers and farmers.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned in this campaign is that you don’t create the plan and bring it to the community; it has to be the other way around. From the very words ranchers and Tribes used when they described what was at stake, to their deep commitment to the campaign, this lesson was critical in developing and constantly changing the plan to stop the pipeline.
Another lesson is the critical importance of how you communicate: not just the words, but the visuals of the movement. Not everyone can be with us, planting corn or building a clean energy barn in the pathway of the pipeline, or joining a horseback-led #NoKXL march down the National Mall in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. But we wanted them to be involved, and to fight alongside us. For this, storytelling is critical, and you need strong imagery to grab peoples’ attention from the graphics, like the Stand with Randy campaign that defined the fight, or photos and videos of the real people facing this threat. It might be frustrating but it is true, that even in 2021, when you say the words “climate change” it still sounds scientific and almost sterile. But when you talk about people’s land and water it’s real. It’s what moves others to act and stay involved and engaged, to see a fight to the end.
Alongside this is the importance of linking the local and the national. We could never have fought Big Oil without the support of national groups and funding needed to win a big fight. What was critical about this funding was that it went in two directions. It enabled us to hold the line at the front, and also supported those big national organizations with the capacity to do the kind of scientific research to back up what our guts were telling us.
Perhaps the ultimate lesson is that you have to believe, always, that you are going to win. No matter what. There was never a moment that the farmers and ranchers sensed that I or other leaders believed we were going to lose. We believed in them. We believed in the Tribal Nations. We believed we were on the right side of history.
I take inspiration from Winona LaDuke and the other water protectors fighting Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. Even though we lost this particular battle – at least for the moment because the pipeline still does not have all the legal permits needed – we have won the bigger war: Line 3 will be the last tar-sands pipeline ever to cross the United States because of the way they mobilized against it. Other frontline communities are also rising up now — in West Virginia and North Carolina with the Mountain Valley Pipeline, or in Memphis against the Byhalia Pipeline, or in Michigan with Line 5, or in the Gulf against all of the risky oil, gas, and petrochemical projects. We are no longer isolated campaigns. We have become a national movement of pipeline fighters and water protectors. Our momentum, our faces, and our actions have changed the debate.
Two things happened in September, just after we harvested the 2021 crop of sacred Ponca corn. The first was great news: one hundred Nebraska ranchers and farmers who had resisted TransCanada’s land agents finally received notification that the corporation was abandoning its eminent domain lawsuits against them. We are forever grateful to the landowners and Brian Jorde, the lawyer that stuck with them all these years, for holding the line together.
But in the same few weeks, some of these very folks – along with many new ones – received notice of new eminent domain threats against them, from corporations seeking to lay risky carbon pipelines across some of the very land that Keystone XL would have affected.
Of course, it is hugely frustrating that after twelve years of such a national fight, we still have to educate elected officials that any fossil fuel pipelines are not good for the land and water, and certainly not good for the climate. Even some well-intentioned Democrats truly believe that we can build ourselves out of climate change – that we’ll build enough clean energy to counteract the dirty energy, and that we will miraculously save the planet that way.
But that is never going to be the fossil fuel companies’ plan. They will constantly dream up new schemes to keep extracting and burning fossil fuels, and these carbon pipelines are just the latest: a way for a handful of corporations to build wealth off the drive for clean energy, while keeping the fossil fuel industry alive – and threatening the land and water and livelihood of farmers, ranchers, and Tribal Nations along these proposed new pipelines just as the old ones were going to do.
It is remarkable to me that in 2021 politicians don’t recognize this basic fact, but here we are. This is the fight that’s in front of us. And so, when we go to the Tanderup farm and Ponca Nation land to plant the sacred corn this spring, we will plant the seeds of resistance for this difficult battle ahead.
When we gather again, in the fall, to harvest the 2022 crop, I would love to be able to harvest the belief that politicians and decision-makers have finally acknowledged the truth: any new fossil fuel infrastructure hurts the land and water and accelerates climate change. I want to harvest the hope that our new clean energy infrastructure includes the people on whose land it is building, in both the decision-making and wealth-creation process.
This is what the Ponca corn represents to me, and to those who plant and harvest it alongside each other. We are now walking a path towards environmental, economic, and land justice.
Jane Fleming Kleeb is the Founder of the Bold Alliance. She is also the Chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party. Jane was called the “Keystone Killer” by Rolling Stone because of her fierce organizing skills.