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Photos Capture the Keystone XL Pipeline Protest Movement in America’s Heartland

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Framed by the door of a tipi, Leota Eastman-Iron Cloud watches her kite float in the air at the Oyate Wahancanka Woecun camp outside of Ideal, South Dakota. Translated into english, the camp’s name means “Shielding the People” in the Lakota language. The place was installed to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and for prayer. The pipeline is proposed to cross the Rosebud Reservation at this location.

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A row of feed bunks leading along the driveway to Rosemary Kilmurry’s house. The pipeline is proposed to cross several sections of the Kilmurry property including this location. February 2014

Since the Canadian company TransCanada petitioned the United States government in 2005 to approve the expansion the Keystone oil pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands into the heart of Steele City, Nebraska, the potential of the Keystone XL has loomed heavily over our country. For those of us not living directly on the land through which the pipeline would run, it seems like a relatively simple debate, with the liberals opposing its construction on the basis of environmental concerns and conservatives supporting it in hopes of a bolstered economy. When Toronto-based photographer Kate Schneider set foot on Nebraskan and South Dakotan land, however, she discovered something far more complex: a community of apolitical ranchers and Native American peoples banding together in protest against the Keystone XL, commonly referred to as “black snake.”

In the humble households of the vast but delicate Nebraska Sand Hills, the photographer encountered newly emerging activists, compelled from their apolitical lifestyle by a powerful loyalty and devotion to their land. For many of these ranchers, the pipeline would run directly below their homesteads; any leak or spill would not only endanger their cattle and their livelihood but their supply of drinking water. Normally leaning towards right wing policies, these landowners had joined forces with neighboring Native Americans and lifelong environmentalists, rupturing party lines in fervent defense of their land.

For her ongoing project We, the Heartland, Schneider documents these protests, cutting beneath abstract debates to reveal the humanity and courage that pulsates ferociously at the core of this movement. Composed of photographs and handwritten letters to the president, the project speaks to the heart of democracy and to the power of the public to determine our future. It’s no surprise that its title echoes the first line of the United States Constitution. We spoke to Schneider about the project.

What inspired you personally to pursue this project?
“A year prior to my visit, I was on a road trip in the Great Plains with my dad, and two things happened on the trip: I fell in love with the landscape, and I was struck by the anti-Keystone XL sentiment in the self-professed anti-environmentalists Republicans we had met during our travels. At the time I found the anti-KXL movement to be extremely interesting, but I didn’t think it would make a good photo-story. But I kept thinking about it for about a year. Then one night I woke up with the realization that I needed to go back and photograph the landscape along the proposed KXL route. That was two years ago, and I am still visiting the area frequently.”

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Landowners and citizens of York County, Nebraska voice their disapproval of the Keystone XL pipeline during a County Commissioners meeting. The meeting was held to discuss and vote upon a resolution that would prevent the Keystone XL pipeline from going through York County. The resolution, which the board ultimately voted against stated, “The York County Board of Commissioners, on behalf of its citizens, realizes the risks of tar sand and crude oil pipelines to our resources in York County and oppose any pipelines of this nature.” July 2013

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Frost covers the ground along a dirt road 12 miles from Atkinson, Nebraska. The pipeline is proposed to cross the road at this location. February 2014

Could you tell us a bit about the controversies surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline?
“This is essentially a David and Goliath story. Here you have a group of communities who have normally shied away from politics, as it can be misconstrued as ‘not being neighborly,’ but have found themselves in the middle of political forces that threatens their livelihood, their land, their culture, and their history.

“Most of the images from this project took place in two communities: Holt County, Nebraska, and near the Rosebud Sioux (Lakota) Reservation in South Dakota. Early into the pipeline’s history, the majority of the people in both communities took a stance against the proposed project. They saw it as an infringement on the building blocks of their identity and livelihood, and the safety of their land and water.

“So what caused the switch from a fear of ‘not being neighborly’ to becoming a forceful movement? I don’t think it’s based on one factor. For the Lakota peoples in South Dakota, this pipeline not only threatens their primary water source – the Missouri River – but it also speaks to the long history of double truths promoted by the US government. The proposed pipeline sits on Lakota land of the original 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty; however, through bad government decisions and other tricks by major corporations, this land was slowly taken away from the Lakota peoples.

“For the communities in Nebraska, the switch from apolitical to political is very interesting. These are farming and ranching communities that celebrate supporting and protecting one’s neighbor. If a fence needs mending, neighbors help to put it back up. If there is a fire on a neighboring ranch, everyone helps to quell the fire. Because most of these ranches are in remote locations, supporting your neighbor is about more than social etiquette – its essential for survival. So, when a major corporation was threatening not only their land and water, but the rights of their neighbors, the general community had a primal response to fight back.

“Additionally, a unique relationship developed between the indigenous leaders, landowners, and nonprofit groups in both states. Landowners and the indigenous communities had the passion, while the nonprofit groups have the experience running political campaigns. This alliance resulted in an on-going headache for TransCanada and a political force unlike any other in both states.”

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Concert-goers during Neil Young’s set at Harvest the Hope concert at Art Tanderup’s farm in Neligh, Nebraska. The pipeline is proposed to cross 200 yards from this location. September 2014

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A protest sign that marks the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline sits on LaVonne Beck’s property. May 2014

Could you walk us through some of the dangers posed by the pipeline?
“For Nebraskans, their main concern is the risk to the Ogallala Aquifer that supplies water to individuals and farms across the state. The pipeline also risks the unique ecosystem in the Sandhills region. This place is not only an icon of Nebraskan identity, but the sandy soil in the region is extremely fragile, and acts as a filtration and replenishment system for the Ogallala Aquifer. These communities survive because of the Sandhills and the Aquifer, and one spill would have far-reaching effects on the regions water supply.

“Keystone XL is also targeted by national groups because it is a lynchpin to the expansion of tarsands oil. Given the basic fact that tarsands is the most carbon intensive — and water wasting — source of oil, environmental groups have targeted this source of energy to keep it in the ground.”

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To deal with the summer heat of 100 fahrenheit, a young girl in Atkinson plays with a hose. July 2013

How did you meet these activists? How did you gain their trust and this kind of access?
“The rumor was that I was a spy for TransCanada. From how the company treated the landowners, I don’t blame the landowners for being distrustful. A few months before my first visit to the Sandhills, it was reported that a TransCanada land agent in Nebraska was posing as a Baptist minster, and using his position to convince people into signing their land over to the company. So, here I am, an American living in Canada, making cold calls to landowners asking if I can photograph on their land – that’s an automatic red flag to people who have been harassed by a Canadian company with helicopter fly-overs, illegal land surveys, and constant threats of land seizure by eminent domain.

“During my first visit to the area, I didn’t make a lot of work, and instead I put down my camera and participated in the community. By doing this, I was able to show the community that my intensions are honest. The Kilmurrys, who live along the proposed route outside of Atkinson, Nebraska, were the first landowners who didn’t see me as a threat. Once I started helping with the farm work and photographing on the Kilmurry ranch, the community saw me as an ally as opposed to an arm to TransCanada. Now, I’m still jokingly called the ‘Canadian Spy’ amongst my friends in Nebraska, and I also learned that I really love cattle work.”

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During branding day on the Kilmurry ranch, each member of the family has a specific duty. Mike (centre) brands the calves and runs the squeeze chute, Richard (right) gives the vaccinations and castrates the bulls, and Bonny (not seen) pushes the calves into the chute. Each family has their own style of branding, and while some are more traditional than others, the Kilmurry family’s branding style is more modern. May 2013

Is your aim to objectively document this movement or to make a political statement? Is it possible to achieve both?
“It’s always possible to achieve both. This work can be read as a political document or a story of place, and this narrative can change through editing and sequencing. The current edit of the work skews political, and that was based on a personal choice.

“My initial motivation was to make a traditional photo-essay that simply looked at the cultural landscape and the issues surrounding the proposed project. However, I found that telling of the story lacked teeth. I have a deep love for land, and I have long believed that we have a moral obligation to preserve what was given to us. Why edit that aspect of myself out the story? That very emotion was what that drew me to the Sandhills in the first place, and needed to come through in the story.

“The other issue with creating an objective account is that the Goliath of our story – the KXL – does not exist. I needed a way to show that this place is more than Richard Prince’s Marlboro ads, but a complex place that is grappling with an issue that has both individual and global repercussions.”

How long have the protests in Nebraska and South Dakota being under way? What strides have been made?
“The efforts to thwart the pipeline have been going on since 2010. The protests began as a few solitary voices educating their neighbors and the global community about the dangers of the pipeline on the Ogallala Aquifer. Now, the protest is a multi-pronged effort, primarily led by the organization Bold Nebraska. Bold, and other grassroots organizations, are attacking the proposed pipeline politically, legally, and through educating the general public on the dangers of the KXL and tarsands. Outside of Obama’s recent veto of Congress’s KXL bill, there were two recent court decisions in Nebraska that temporarily halts the eminent domain process.

“I’ve also noticed a shift in people’s perceptions about the project and tarsands development. I’ve especially noticed this shift towards disapproving the project in people I would typically consider to be more economically conservative. I don’t know if this shift is based on the project per se, or a general discontent with corporate greed, or with a social awaking on climate change. I’m optimistic that this emerging awareness is more than a trend.”

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Pipeline protestors react to the statement from Americans for Prosperity, a pro-pipeline organization during a meeting of the York County Commissioners to discuss if the pipeline should cross York County Nebraska. The protesters are using to legal means to fight the proposed pipeline. The resolution, which the board ultimately voted against stated, “The York County Board of Commissioners, on behalf of its citizens, realizes the risks of tar sand and crude oil pipelines to our resources in York County and oppose any pipelines of this nature.” July 2013

Could you tell us a bit about your choice to include landscapes and individual letters to the President?
“My primary love of the place came from the landscape, and this is what drew me to make landscapes along the proposed route. The interesting thing is that the landscapes discuss two distinct narratives. The first reading is objectively speaks to ‘what is present’ in the land. The second reading is a critique that speaks to ‘what could be lost’ if the pipeline is approved.

“Early into the production, I included quote from the landowners into the captions of the images, but this system took out too much of their personality. I knew that many people had written to Obama in the past, and I asked about 20 people if I could have a handwritten copy of their letters to the President. I thought the handwriting was key because it is our link to the writer’s personality. Some people have crisp handwriting, and some people write with sense of urgency. It’s great because I am not editing their voice, and instead the letter-writers are bringing their voice directly to the viewer.”

How do you think the pipeline protests have changed the face of environmentalism?
“I think the environmentalism movement has always had a level of diversity, but was seen as the movement of white college-educated tree huggers. Keystone XL did bring together an unlikely alliance between ranchers, indigenous people, and tree huggers, and that is why this story is so compelling. In a more global sense, there is larger media awareness of people who are directly affected by climate change. These voices of the front-line activists speak to the new face of environmentalism, but also speak to impacts of climate change in all realms of our lives.”

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An “I Stand With Randy” sign is moved during the Harvest the Hope concert at Art Tanderup’s Farm in Neligh, Nebraska. The pipeline is slated to cross the Tanderup farm. September 2014

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The view to the outside from Rosemary Kilmurry’s living room. At 93 years-old, Rosemary still insists on living in the home her husband built on the ranch. The pipeline is proposed to cross within 200 yards of this location. May 2013

What can people do to get involved in this movement?
“There are lots of ways! The first and easiest way is to start by discussing climate change, the Keystone XL project, tarsands developments, and other proposed pipeline projects with your family and friends. Discussing (and not preaching) is the easiest and best educational tool! We are more receptive to learning from our peers as opposed to someone we’ve never met, so get some talking points and start a conversation! The Grist has a handy guide on how to talk with a climate skeptic.

“In both Canada and the US, there are several pipeline projects that are just as harmful and have equally vocal oppositions groups. Get to know who they are and what they do. Email them to see if you can volunteer. In terms of the KXL protest movements, I would look such groups at Bold Nebraska, Oyate Wahacanka Woecun (Shield the People) in South Dakota, and Tarsands Blockade in Texas. In terms of climate change and tarsands development, I would look at Idle No More and 350.org.”

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A completed puzzle in the Senior Centre in Atkinson, Nebraska. May 2013

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A sign celebrating the 4th of July in the window of an insurance agency in O’Neill, Nebraska. July 2013

All images © Kate Schneider

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