Right here in the heartland of America, the divisive Keystone XL pipeline is uniting people in ways few could ever have imagined.

Consider the events that brought Betty Albrecht of Atkinson, and Mekasi Horinek, of the Ponca Reservation in Oklahoma, to a meeting on hallowed ground. Every Memorial Day, when Albrecht was a little girl growing up in Tilden - a small farm town in northeastern Nebraska - her family would drive 15 miles north to Neligh to place flowers at the grave of White Buffalo Girl, an 18-month-old who died there on May 23, 1877.

The townspeople of Neligh had laid White Buffalo Girl to rest at the request of her grief-stricken father, just four days into the forced march that sent the Ponca Nation from its Nebraska homelands south to Oklahoma. For 136 years, the people of Neligh have honored his plea to care for the grave of his daughter as if she had been one of their own. He could not even stay for the burial.

So it was particularly moving for Albrecht, who now lives on a cattle ranch 75 miles farther up the road, to revisit that hilltop cemetery of her girlhood memories last Saturday, surrounded by Oklahoma descendants of the tribe who survived what they call the Ponca Trail of Tears.

That grave was brimming with mums, roses, daffodils, poppies and sun-bleached stuffed toy bears. Standing beside her at the gravesite was Horinek, an eloquent activist and grandfather of nine, who works for the Tribal Agriculture Department on the Ponca reservation. He brought his two youngest sons north that weekend to visit the land from where his great grandfather fled as a boy; to show them this sacred ground.

It was the Keystone XL pipeline, and a deeply felt loathing of it, that brought these two from vastly different backgrounds together.    

Albrecht is a member of NEAT, the Nebraska Easement Action Team, a landowners’ rights group that is battling the TransCanada pipeline and threats of eminent domain to run the pipeline through regardless of property owner opposition.

The proposed Keystone XL corridor is vital for TransCanada’s plan to expand its tar sands mining operations in Alberta. The high-pressure line would ship hot, diluted bitumen from the Alberta sites to Louisiana, where it would be refined for shipment overseas. Keystone XL would punch into Nebraska just 50 miles north of Albrecht’s farm, and slice right through her neighbor’s property.

“For some, this is a tribal issue, for others, it’s about property rights,” said Albrecht. “My personal feeling is that my government is doing to us what they did to the Indians.”

Albrecht and Horinek met earlier on Art and Helen Tanderup’s 160 acre farm, eight miles north of Neligh, at an event billed the Trail of Tears Ponca Spiritual Camp. The Tanderups had welcomed members of the Ponca, Lakota, Omaha and Oceti Sakowin tribes, as well as members of the anti-pipeline activist group Bold Nebraska, to camp on their farm for four days.

They were joined by members of a remarkable coalition of ranchers and Native Americans who call themselves the Cowboy and Indian Alliance. People with different lives, different incomes, of different faiths, and even different politics discovered they shared a deeply spiritual bond: the conviction that the land beneath their feet, and the water that flowed through it, was sacred.

Helen Tanderup’s family built the farmhouse from components in a catalog in the 1920s. An old steel Aermotor windmill rises 75 feet above a well, broken but still spinning, long-since replaced by drilled well and electric pumps to bring water to the house. The Keystone XL pipeline would break through a line of cottonwood trees her father planted; and cut right through their cornfield just west of the house.

To avoid the house itself, the line would bend and run south through another line of cottonwoods, crossing a dirt road and cutting through miles more of fields before skirting Neligh itself. Just across that dirt road from the Tanderup farm, records indicate, is the Trail of Tears, the path Horinek’s great grandfather, and White Buffalo Girl and her parents, walked in 1877.

Art Tanderup is a retired schoolteacher, but he knows his ground. He grows his corn, beans and rye with a no-till method. “This ground here will not blow away when we have heavy winds,” he said. Unlike the North Dakota farmland that was flooded by 843,000 gallons of oil from a pipeline leak in late September, soils like Tanderup’s in the Elkhorn watershed have no clay base to trap a spill.

The old sandhills formation soils are mostly fine Thurman sands and gravel. Leaking oil and chemicals would head directly into the aquifer. “In North Dakota, with all their fancy equipment, they could not detect a quarter-inch leak. If that happened here, they would detect only after it turned up in the wells and irrigation systems,” he said.

The Keystone XL would go through four bends in one and one-half miles to skirt the Tanderup house. “Any time you bend a pipe, you thin out the walls and weaken it,” Tanderup said. “These pipes will have 1,500 pounds per square inch of pressure. They are far more apt to break and spill.”

At White Buffalo Girl’s gravesite, the link between distant history and current controversies was palpable “We all know when we lose a loved one that it hurts; to lose a child is probably the most painful thing you can go through,” said Horinek. He thanked the citizens of Neligh for caring for this grave, and he thanked the activists who were fighting the pipeline. “We are all connected to the land, and we are all connected to each other,” he said.

In a very strange way, all these folks on Tanderup’s land last weekend are connected: by roads, by the World Wide Web, by a pipeline, by a Trail of Tears, by a common bond to the water and land. The policy makers in Washington D.C., and the TransCanada Corporation in Alberta, have no idea what they are up against.

Sabin Russell is a freelance writer, visiting Nebraska. His work has been published in the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times.


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