On the surface, what happened on Saturday at the nation’s capital was not extraordinary — just another rally for another cause to call the president to add another item to his to-do list. It may have been noteworthy to watch thousands of people from across the country march for climate action and then hold hands in a circle, or to see farmers and tribal leaders lead the crowd on horses, or to hear singer-songwriter Neil Young speak. Still, to a spectator, the Reject & Protect march could have been dismissed as another gathering for hippies and treehuggers or another picture for Instagram.
To overlook the significance of the march, however, would do injustice not only to the events of last week but also to the history surrounding them.
On Tuesday, April 22 (Earth Day), 24 farmers, ranchers, and leaders of indigenous communities rode to Washington, D.C. on horseback to launch the Reject & Protect campaign: a call to President Obama to reject the construction of the Keystone Pipeline (KXL) in order to protect the lands, waters, and communities located along the proposed pipeline.
The arrival of the Cowboy Indian Alliance inaugurated a week of ceremonies, film screenings, meetings, and other events promoting the anti-pipeline movement and climate action. United in their value of their land and legacy, this unlikely group of allies worked with environmentally conscious activists to convert the National Mall into a camp, setting up tipis and offering music and prayers from the Native American traditions. Other faith leaders, including Sojourners’ Rose Berger, added their prayers for justice and for the rejection of the pipeline.
“Many people see the pipeline as a political or an economic issue, but I see it as a moral issue,” said Brian Webb, member of evangelical group #PrayNoKXL. “The extraction and processing of the tar sands oil carried by the pipeline releases three times as much greenhouse gas emissions as more conventional petroleum sources. … Climate change is already having devastating impacts on millions of people around the world — and particularly on the poor. The Keystone pipeline will exacerbate these impacts by facilitating speedy delivery to the market of the world’s dirtiest, most destructive fossil fuel sources.”
Saturday’s festivities began with a water ceremony, as on the other days of the week, and the setup of a ceremonial tipi in the main tent for KXL protestors to add their thumbprint or handprint. Shortly after the rally began, Greg Grey Cloud from the Dakota Lakota Nations from Rosebud, S.D., led the crowd in prayer as water from the Ogallala Aquifer was presented. An essential water source spanning eight states, the Ogallala Aquifer runs along the proposed pipeline route and is at risk of heavy contamination from pipeline spills.
The rally included a variety of voices. Representatives from both indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada and farming and ranching families in Nebraska reiterated the purpose of the movement: to reject the pipeline, to protect the land, the water, and the climate, and to ensure the health of the earth for the sake of future generations, even “the seventh generation.”
John Elwood of #PrayNoKXL emphasized the centrality of prayer to the anti-pipeline campaign. Speakers from various tribal nations called for their treaty rights to be honored, making it clear that the protest is against the pipeline as much as it is about mending the chain of promises continually broken by the U.S. government. The diversity of perspectives reflects the breadth of the potential impact of KXL.
“Even now in the 21st century, Indian treaties are being broken as land legally belonging to the Rosebud Sioux Nation is planning to be used for the Keystone pipeline despite Sioux Nation opposition,” Webb said. “Similarly, a foreign corporation is threatening to use eminent domain to obtain land belonging to Nebraska farmers for the pipeline — and with the governor’s support!”
The procession commenced at noon, starting at the Smithsonian Castle and winding down Independence Avenue to the National Museum of the American Indian, where a tipi was presented in honor of President Obama, before passing the Capitol and the Canadian Embassy to return to the mall. Bold Nebraska and 350.org joined the Cowboy Indian Alliance in organizing Saturday’s march.
Among the thousands of protestors was a group of people holding a sign that read: Evangelicals Pray-NO-KXL, “The earth is the Lord’s…” Psalm 24:1.
No doubt there were other Christians at the march, but having a visible evangelical presence, which included Sojourners staff members, made for a pleasant surprise for protestors who assumed evangelicals and climate action were mutually exclusive.
Sojourners has been working alongside other faith-based organizations to promote climate action. Having supported the creation of #PrayNoKXL, Sojourners invited some of its members to the office on Friday to share about their experiences in protesting the pipeline and to receive prayer for their work. Elwood visited the office, along with Brian Webb and Rev. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Upon an invitation from Brian, the Cowboy Indian Alliance also sent representatives to join the conversation: Greg Grey Cloud, Kyle Horse Looking from the Lakota Nation from Rosebud, S.D., and Mike Blocher, a rancher from Antelope County, Neb. Sojourners followers joined the informal gathering via a conference call.
In her closing prayer Rose Berger proclaimed, “The pipeline will not stand. … The pipeline will not go through us.”
No matter how skewed one’s education in American history is, the significance of the Cowboy Indian Alliance cannot be overstated.
“This protest brought together the Cowboy Indian Alliance in one of the most compelling images of reconciliation our country has seen in many years: Native American tribes standing arm-in-arm with Western ranchers, the descendants of the very people who took their land,” Webb said.
The demonstration has ended, but the work continues. Join Reject & Protect, Sojourners and thousands of activists to stop KXL.