Cheyenne River Sioux Stage Anti-Pipeline Hunger Strike

This story appeared in Indian Country Today in April 2012.

Cheyenne River Indian Reservation was recently the site of two-day hunger strike, lasting from the evening of April 1 to the evening of April 3. Several dozen people camped and fasted in solidarity with the children of Heiltsuk First Nation, who were fasting during the same period to express opposition to the construction of the Northern Gateway oil pipeline from the so-called tar sands of Alberta through their British Columbia community to Canada’s west coast.

Karen Ducheneaux, a grassroots activist from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, saw a video the Heiltsuk children posted on the Internet about a month ago: “They had planned their hunger strike and said, ‘please join us.’ I thought we really had to support them. My family agreed, and I reposted the link. Friends saw it, and the event grew from there.”

Discovering others in the fight against tar-sands pipelines crossing the United States and Canada is a psychological boost for the many isolated activists involved in this issue, according to Ducheneaux. “Lots of people are combating the pipelines, but we don’t know each other. Many of us are so poor, we can’t even afford to drive to Rapid City for rallies and meetings. Finding out about each other really helps.”

“Our groups may appear small, but they’re strong,” said pipeline opponent Jackie Dunn, also from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “We have ourselves and our prayers. We’re spiritually strong, and that gives us the will to fight back.”

The tar-sands mining process is heartbreaking, according to Ducheneaux. “Have you seen the pictures?” she asked. “It devastates the boreal forest and its fresh, pure water in Alberta. The Heiltsuk children’s community in British Columbia is facing destruction of their coastal fisheries by the huge supertankers that will receive the oil there. The Heiltsuk First Nation depends on fishing for their livelihood.” In the United States, she said, Native communities and others voice similar concerns about pipelines endangering the land and the giant Ogallala aquifer: “Once the water is gone, it’s gone.”

“There’s just so much Mother Earth can take,” said Dunn.

The Heiltsuk First Nation is one of many Canadian communities—Native and non-Native—objecting to the construction of tar-sands oil pipelines. The Nation had expected to participate in public-comment meetings on April 1, which coincided with the start of the children’s hunger strike. However, the official review panel arriving to hear local concerns was greeted at the airport by singing protesters and by community members from tiny tots to elders lining the roadways with signs expressing opposition, according to a report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The officials promptly cancelled the meeting, citing security concerns.

Heiltsuk First Nation’s chief, Marilynn Slett, said her community was “offended” at the portrayal of the situation as unsafe, while Royal Canadian Mounted Police in attendance at the event said they were “baffled” by the security worries, according to CBC.

Meanwhile, on April 1 in South Dakota, hunger strike participants ranging in age from 11-year-olds to elders traveled from far and near to camp on Ducheneaux family land in Buffalo Creek, on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, in north-central South Dakota. Some came from Cheyenne River, while well-known anti-pipeline activists Deborah and Alex White Plum and members of Native Youth Movement arrived from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in southwestern South Dakota.

Others present were Polly Higgins, a prominent Scottish lawyer crusading for laws giving Mother Earth special rights, and Rocky Kistner, a representative of the National Resources Defense Council, a major environmental nonprofit. “I also hosted two young people from Canada who had heard about the camp and hitchhiked over,” Dunn said.

The first day, the group made a presentation to Cheyenne River’s tribal council, then went to the camp, sweated and began the hunger strike, said Ducheneaux. Two days later, they broke their fast with another sweat and a meal. “Together, we are going to make a difference,” she said.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph by Jackie Dunn.