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Lakota grandmothers fight man camps amid pandemic
Keystone XL Pipeline construction proceeds, bringing thousands of workers — and threat of Covid-19 — to reservation
By Talli Nauman Posted in Indigenous Peoples, Water, Women's Empowerment on April 14, 2020
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LAKE ANDES, South Dakota – The Covid-19 pandemic has compelled the Brave Heart Society and the Promise to Protect, a national network of native, rural and environmental justice groups, to announce indefinite postponement of their “Standing Strong and Protecting” Tiny House Solar XL Tour of communities along the route of the proposed tar-sands crude-oil pipeline.

And now, with a twin threat from the developers of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the groups have shifted their focus. TC Energy Corp. (formerly TransCanada Corp.) plans to establish a half dozen man-camps across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska to provide temporary housing and facilities for workers outside of small, rural enclaves, the groups have shifted their focus.

The threat “causes eerie memories for us with the infected smallpox blankets that were distributed to tribes intentionally in the 1800s.”

— Faith Spotted Eagle, a member of the Brave Heart Society and Yankton Sioux Tribe

TC Energy Corp.’s recent renewal of its flagging pledge to build the Keystone XL Pipeline fueled alarm over the increased risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus from the man-camps setting up for a transient workforce all along the nearly 1,200-mile construction route through Lakota Territory.

Coming as it does at a time of national emergency over the Covid-19 pandemic, the threat “causes eerie memories for us with the infected smallpox blankets that were distributed to tribes intentionally in the 1800s,” said Faith Spotted Eagle, a member of the Brave Heart Society and Yankton Sioux Tribe. “It is absolutely similar, whereby we lost thousands of people in our tribes along the Missouri River.”

Brave Heart Society aboard the Tiny House Solar XL. The now-canceled Tiny House Tour was intended to raise community awareness about both the cleaner alternatives to tar-sands fuel and the documented dangers of increased sexual violence that worker man-camps pose to rural tribal and other local communities. (Jen Cohen photo)

“The threat of the man camps to our native women stands, and we will remain vigilant. We send this strong message to the investors of the Keystone XL Pipeline, reiterating that you are endangering our families now with a twin threat — to our women, and now our health through an uncontrolled virus. Not to mention, it also jeopardizes the health of your own workers,” the Brave Heart Society stated.

The 16-year-old organization, supervised by a Yankton Unci (Grandmother) Circle, describes itself as “dedicated to restoring endangered and lost cultural practices to heal the wounds endured by the Lakota, Nakota and Dakota peoples.”

In 2016, The National Crime Information Center reported that there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. These disturbing rates of violence are even higher in areas around pipeline construction and resource extraction projects, which bring an influx of thousands of male workers onto or nearby reservations, concentrated into temporary housing facilities known as “man camps.”

If TC Energy Corp. moves forward, it will be “heightening the epidemics we already face,” said Lewis GrassRope, a member of the Wiconi Un Tipi camp and Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. “These epidemics are missing and murdered indigenous women, drugs, human and sex trafficking.”

1 in 5 MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls) cases occurred in regions near where the pipeline is posed to be built. 1 in 4 identified alleged perpetrators were acquitted or never charged. There are nearly 100 victims age 18 and under. (Jen Cohen photo)

“Hospitals and Indian Health Services along the proposed route are already ill-equipped to deal with the corona virus public health threat, and must not be exposed to this additional strain and threats from the influx of hundreds or thousands of out-of-state workers that would accompany the launch of an unnecessary construction project like the Keystone XL Pipeline,” said Promise to Protect.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Fort Belknap Indian Community are waiting for a decision on their  March 3 Montana U.S. District Court motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent TC Energy Corp. from beginning construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline across ancestral and tribally unceded 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty territory, while their case against U.S. President Donald Trump is under review.

The two tribes, represented by the Native American Rights Fund, argue that the President’s permit for building the tar-sands, or diluted bitumen (dilbit), pipeline portends treaty rights violations.

The threat of the man camps to our native women stands, and we will remain vigilant.

—The Brave Heart Society

Conservation organizations have a similar complaint in the same court, alleging the Corps of Engineers broke bedrock U.S. environmental laws by permitting KXL construction through hundreds of rivers, streams and wetlands.

The lawsuits prompted TC Energy Corp. to express doubts that it would proceed, but with a recent $7-billion government bailout from the pipeline’s tar-sands source of Alberta Province in Canada, the company decided to proceed apace.

“We thank U.S. President Donald Trump and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney as well as many government officials across North America for their support and advocacy without which, individually and collectively, this project could not have advanced,” TC Energy Corp. President and CEO Russ Girling said in announcing the decision.

Pre-construction activities are underway, and the company says it expects the pipeline to enter service in 2023.

In Meade County, commissioners gave permission Feb. 25 for setting up a construction man-camp near the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. It wasn’t until March 19 that a man-camp operator gave notice of a presumptive positive case of the pandemic Covid-19 at its Alberta oilfield housing project near the Ft. McMurray First Nation.

Brave Heart Society on the road with Tiny House Solar XL (Jen Cohen photo)

“During construction, we will continue to take guidance from all levels of government and health authorities to determine the most proactive and responsible actions in order to ensure the safety of our crews and community members during the current Covid-19 situation,” Girling promised.

However, organizations across the country, noting the national emergency in effect, responded with an internet sign-on #CancelKXL letter to the company, AFL-CIO, Laborers’ International Union of North America, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, mayors and county boards, stating:

“For the health and safety of workers and residents of ill-equipped rural and tribal communities along the route …, all pre-construction activity should be immediately halted in the face of the public health threat from the novel coronavirus.” By press time, more than 20,000 signatures were collected.

The hullabaloo overshadowed a major tribal victory in a separate federal case about another crude oil conduit — the Dakota Access Pipeline, the focus of the Lakota-led Standing Rock water protectors movement that mobilized the world in 2016.

On March 25, another U.S. District Court granted the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request to strike down federal permits for the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL. The court ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to honor the tribe’s demand for a full environmental impact statement on the pipeline.

“After years of commitment to defending our water and earth, we welcome this news of a significant legal win,” said Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chair Mike Faith. “It’s humbling to see how actions we took four years ago to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices ultimately affect this planet.”

Standing Rock Water Protectors Encampment, Dec. 4, 2016 (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

District of Columbia Judge James E. Boasberg also ordered litigants to submit briefs on whether to vacate the pipeline easement across the Missouri River granted by the Corps for DAPL, pending outcome of the impact statement process.

Jason Cooke, vice chair of the litigant Yankton Sioux Tribe, looked forward to more than what he considered the current “partial victory,” stating, “Hopefully the Corps’ easement is vacated, so we can stop the flow of oil.”

Chair Harold Frazier of the plaintiff Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe expressed relief that the court order restores the prospects for statutorily mandated tribal government consultation, which had been circumvented with the permitting.

“It is important to recognize the water protectors for their sacrifices that set the stage for this decision,” he added. Addressing the grassroots pipeline resisters who employed direct action to attract world attention to the Oceti Sakowin fight in 2016 and 2017, he recognized:

“It is your actions individually and collectively that gave the Great Sioux Nation the opportunity to stay in this fight. You can hold your head up high with this victory, as it belongs to you as much as it belongs to the Great Sioux Nation and Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth).”

The Oglala Sioux Tribe is also a plaintiff in the case, noting that its members, like those of the other litigant tribes and most of the Oceti Sakowin, rely on Missouri River drinking water that would be poisoned by an oil pipeline leak.

The most recent of hundreds of oil pipeline leaks nationwide was a March 27 spill polluting 1.5 miles of the Little Missouri River tributary named Red Wing Creek. Located 17 miles southwest of Watford City in McKenzie County and attributed to True Oil LLC, it is being cleaned up and investigated, according to the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality.

Talli Nauman is a longtime Americas Program collaborator and columnist, a founder and co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, and Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun News Today. Contact her at talli.nauman(at)

Brave Heart Society Overview, with Faith Spotted Eagle and others. Wingspan Media.

Brave Heart Society Coronavirus COVID-19 Dakota Access Pipeline Faith Spotted Eagle Keystone XL Pipeline Lakota man camps Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women MMIWG Sioux Standing Rock Water Protectors

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