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Removed from the land before, Ponca nation vows to protect the Earth from Keystone XL


May 24, 2017
By Kevin Hardy
USA Today

While their reasons may differ, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska found local farmers and ranchers on their side when the two groups raised their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf shore. Brian Powers/The Register

NELIGH, Neb. — Under a boundless canopy of clear blue skies painted with wispy white clouds, Mekasi Camp Horinek blows a whistle as he turns and prays to the four sacred directions. 

He looks up to the creator as the high sun delivers welcome relief to battering prairie winds. He kneels, clutches a few strands of ryegrass and prays to Mother Earth.  

Horinek leads this corn planting ceremony at the edge of a crop field that could be mistaken for thousands of others like it across the fertile heartland.

But his feet are planted at the site of two monumental crossings — one widely perceived as a historic injustice when his Ponca tribe was forcibly marched off this land 140 years ago; the other feared as a modern one, marking the proposed route for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. 

The ancient strand of blue corn that members of the Ponca tribe and others will plant here is a modest show of resistance to the pipeline, a project President Donald Trump resurrected in January after the Obama administration had buried it.

Keystone XL has been one of the nation’s most divisive environmental issues over the last two presidential election cycles.

Many Republicans argue that it will create construction jobs, safely move energy and lessen U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Democrats see it as furthering America's reliance on fossil fuels that will worsen climate change.

The fate of the $8 billion project likely lies with Nebraska, the only state that hasn't approved the route.

American Indian tribes such as the Ponca have pledged to take a leading role in the fight, bolstered by the months-long standoff over the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota.

Some contend that the gathering birthed a spiritual awakening among Native Americans, bringing together hundreds of tribes for one of the few times in modern history. 

The heated fight over Keystone XL has proven personal for members of the once-exiled Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. Now largely landless, the tribe has lined up to protect the pastures and crop fields of white farmers and ranchers who worry about the possible environmental threat of TransCanada's Keystone XL. 

"I still belong to this land. This land sustained life for my people for thousands of generations," said Horinek, a 44-year-old member of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. "And though they may have removed us from this land, they could never take it away from us, because it lives in our hearts."

'Keystone is on notice'

TransCanada's 36-inch crude oil pipeline would essentially be an extension of the original Keystone pipeline.

Both come south from Canada. But the KXL would jut diagonally across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska, rather than taking the longer L-shaped route of the original line. 

The pipeline company maintains that its pipeline will be built with state-of-the-art technology and operate under "an unparalleled maintenance regime.

Much of the debate in Nebraska plays out like déjà vu. Activists on both sides acknowledge that the controversy over Energy Transfer's Dakota Access pipeline will shade the next round of Keystone XL arguments. 

At the height of the occupation in North Dakota in December, thousands of veterans marched in blizzard conditions to stand alongside natives. The same week, Obama halted the Dakota Access line for further review — a tangible, but short-lived, win for the protesters. 

Since then, some big banks have pledged to be more cautious about funding future energy development projects. U.S. Bank even announced this year that it would not fund oil and gas pipelines. 

"I think that Keystone is on notice that they’re not going to face an easy road," said Carolyn Raffensperger, the Ames, Ia.,-based executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, who volunteered legal services at the North Dakota anti-pipeline encampment. "The game really shifted with Standing Rock."

In North Dakota, the so-called water protectors chanted "Mni Wiconi," a Lakota translation of "water is life."

The tribe there argued that Dakota Access' path under the Missouri River could threaten its drinking water supply, as well as that of millions of people downstream. 

In Nebraska, water will again play an integral role in the debate: Much of the state sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High Plains aquifer, one of the world's largest freshwater sources. 

The underground reservoir, which spans parts of eight states, has made Nebraska's soil viable for corn and soybeans. And wells help sustain the nearly 2 million head of cattle across Nebraska, the nation's second-leading beef producer. 

Opponents say any leaked or spilled oil would run through the state's sandy soil like water in a sieve, forever contaminating the aquifer for crops or livestock.

They also worry about the chemicals infused in the thick Canadian oil sands to make them viscous enough to send through pipes. 

TransCanada spokesman Matthew John said five independent environmental impact reviews and a 10-month public review from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality dispute such claims. He also pointed to a University of Nebraska researcher who says a leak or spill into the aquifer would remain localized. 

"The suggestion that a pipeline leak could threaten the Ogallala Aquifer is not supported by volumes of environmental study conducted on this project," he said. 

Critics rail against the idea of a foreign company using the state's eminent domain authority to forcibly win easements on private land. They push for more sources of renewable energy, like the wind farms that have popped up within sight of the pipeline's proposed path. 

Business and labor groups, conversely, tout the economic windfall of the pipeline. It would boost property tax revenues along the route, strengthen the continent's energy security and provide thousands of jobs during construction. 

"It's not like we don’t care about the environment," said Ron Kaminski, the political director at the Laborers International Union of North America Local 1140 in Omaha, whose members could earn as much as $100,000 per year working on the line.

"This is our backyard. We do these projects like it was running through our own personal backyards."

'For us, it's not for sale'

The cows start ambling toward Ron Crumly's Ford flatbed pickup as soon as it crests the horizon. 

"They know we're coming," he said as cattle moo in anticipation.

During his daily ritual of checking on newborn calves and laying out hay bales, Crumly explains the improvements that he's made on his family's land.

He's worked to protect native grasses on his rolling pastures, and he's shifted to no-till farming to stave off nutrient runoff on his 1,800 acres of corn and soybean fields near Page, Neb.

His mother's family homesteaded on a quarter section here in 1887, and his father's family settled just down a dirt road in the early 1900s.

Now, TransCanada wants to bury its 36-inch pipeline across two quarter-sections of his farm.

He operates 16 center pivot irrigation heads that sustain his crops from underground wells. If oil were to spill in his sandy soil, it would drop right into the aquifer, he said, and get pumped right back onto his corn and beans, forever ruining the water supply. 

"I'm done farming," he said. "It's worthless."

In some places, the aquifer is hundreds of feet below the surface, Crumly said. But on some parts of the farm, he can dig a small hole and hit water. 

At 68, he's preparing to hand off the farm to his son, slowly relinquishing land and equipment the same way his father did with him. His 18-year-old grandson has expressed interest in eventually joining the family business. 

Seven years ago, when TransCanada first called about burying its pipeline here, he leaned over to his wife, Jeanne, and told her: "It's not about the money, it's about the grandkids."

To them, the land is not a commodity. It's an inheritance that must be protected and passed on. 

"God gave us this land to take care of it," Ron Crumly said. "For us, it's not for sale."

Lessons from Standing Rock

The last time Nebraskans debated Keystone, the fight was heated and impassioned, but it was local, said Mike Flood, the former Republican speaker of the unicameral Legislature. 

He worries about predictions that the massive gathering in North Dakota to fight Dakota Access could spill over into the Keystone debate in Nebraska.

He fears that a flood of outside activists could cause violent confrontations with police. 

"Honestly, I wouldn’t have even thought of this if North Dakota hadn’t happened," said Flood, who operates television and radio stations across Nebraska. "Obviously, we’re going to see national attention. I wish Nebraska wasn’t the last step."

But Jane Kleeb, president and founder of Bold Nebraska, which has led the pipeline opposition here, dismisses such concerns. 

"Do you really think that I would let a whole bunch of tree-huggers come on somebody’s farm and ranch land that we’ve just spent the last seven year protecting and tear it up?" she said. "There's no question that we would put up a very strong resistance fight, but it will not look the same as Standing Rock. No place ever will look like Standing Rock."

In North Dakota, the resistance was led mostly by tribes, Kleeb said. With Keystone XL, the opposition will center on landowners and their private property rights, with tribes and environmentalists standing in solidarity. 

Several years ago, Kleeb and environmental activists across the state joined about 100 landowners who refused to sign easement agreements with TransCanada, a coalition that remains largely intact today.

"Honestly for us, the lesson at Standing Rock was to not only make it about one constituency," she said, "because it's easier for the other side to divide and conquer."

'I am a man. God made us both'

Looking over the rusty chalk bluffs at Niobrara State Park near Nebraska's border with South Dakota, a maze of grass and sand-covered tongues weave in and out of the Missouri River.

It's this confluence of the Missouri and the Niobrara rivers that the Ponca people called home for generations.

The tribe, believed to have split off from the nearby Omaha tribe, were forced from these rolling acres in 1877 and marched down to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma.

Along the route, at least 11 deaths were documented. In Oklahoma, more than a third of the tribe died, mostly from malaria.

The bones of an 18-month-old girl who died on the journey rest in the Laurel Hill Cemetery near Neligh, Neb. Her father asked that the locals care for the grave of White Buffalo Girl as they would their own.

Today, teddy bears, plastic flowers and child's toys surround the small headstone, the only one allowed to be decorated year-round. 

Once in Indian Territory, Chief Standing Bear led a small group back north. He fled the miserable conditions in Oklahoma to honor a deathbed promise to his son, who asked that his bones be buried in the sacred hills near the two rivers. 

With no food or water, they survived on the kindness of strangers, though the natives were ultimately captured by the U.S. military. The chief is best known for the landmark trial after his arrest and detainment near Omaha.

After filing suit for a writ of habeas corpus, he gave an impassioned plea to the court. He faced the audience and held up his right hand. Though his hand was of a different shade from theirs, he said, his and theirs would equally feel pain if pierced. 

"The blood that will flow from mine will be of the same color as yours," Standing Bear said. "I am a man. God made us both."

The judge ruled that American Indians were people and entitled to protection under the law — a landmark decision at the time. 

'We know what it's like to have land taken away'

Though Standing Bear won his freedom, the tribe never fully recovered from the removal, said Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska. 

While the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma has a reservation, the Nebraska tribe has never won back their land. Wright's people are spread across the state, along with a few tribal offices that provide social, medical and cultural services. 

Without a base, the Ponca language, culture and traditional spirituality have waned, Wright said. The tribe now holds about 600 acres in northeast Nebraska, where it tends a buffalo herd, an educational trail system and powwow grounds. 

"We know what it's like to have land taken away from us by a foreign entity," he said. "Our people were willing to die to come back to Nebraska. That's how much this land means to us."

While the tribe maintains that the pipeline would desecrate sacred sites and burial grounds, TransCanada's spokesman said the company has a strong track record of preserving important historical and cultural locations, sacred landmarks and ancient indigenous artifacts. He also cited a seven-year review of the project that examined historic sites in each state, as required under the National Historic Preservation Act.

Still, the Ponca people will prove a "powerful political unit" in the upcoming August hearings on Keystone XL, said Joe Starita, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska who authored a book on Standing Bear and the Ponca removal.

In recent years, the chief's story and the Ponca Trail of Tears have received heightened attention from historians and the local media, Starita said. And the Ponca are more organized this time. 

Like all native peoples, the most sacred thing to the Ponca, he said, is the land where their ancestors lie.

"It’s not an economic value, it's a sacred value. When the Lakota saw the Black Hills, they saw god. When white Europeans saw the Black Hills, they saw gold," Starita said. "That’s one letter of the alphabet different, but it’s the difference of the Grand Canyon."

'I was taught you can't own the land'

To members of the Ponca tribes, maize is more than food or animal feed. It's revered as one of four gifts given to the clan from the creator, along with the sacred pipe, a bowl and a dog.

But the corn, like other traditions, was largely stripped from the Ponca over time.

 This line of blue corn was revived a few years ago after kernels were found in medicine bags of Native Americans that had gone unopened for over 100 years, Mekasi Camp Horinek says. 

 

He recently led about 90 native people, environmentalists and landowners along the Keystone route. They buried an acre's worth of the blue kernels for the fourth year in a row. Last spring's planting was an act of celebration. This time, it was an act of civil disobedience. 

The 15 rows of maize confront the proposed path of Keystone XL through Art and Helen Tanderup's 160-acre farm, which has been in the family for a century. Years before, natives marched across this land during their forced removal from Nebraska. 

 

Horinek, of the Ponca tribe in Oklahoma, said his great grandfather was among those to walk the 600-mile Ponca Trail of Tears. Though the removal split the Ponca into two separate tribes, he says every trip to Nebraska is a homecoming.

"I was taught you can't own the land," he said, "you only belong to it."

He brushes off questions about the unlikely alliance forged between the Native Americans whose ancestors grew corn, hunted buffalo and were buried here and the farmers and ranchers who now forge a living from the land. 

"They buried their grandmothers and grandfathers in this land. And they have that same connection," Horinek said. "They care for this land. It's sustained their life for generations now."

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https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2017/05/25/removed-land-before-ponca-nation-vows-protect-earth-keystone-xl/315018001/