Women of the Land Speak: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Tar Sands to Renewables

The Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus sent a delegation to D.C. and hosted an event on February 17th titled Women of the Land Speak: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Tar Sands to Renewables.

Women Speaking Truth to Oil

Women of the Land Carry Their Fight Against the Keystone XL Pipeline and for Climate and Energy Sanity to Washington DC

On an icy cold morning in February in Washington DC, Eleanor Fairchild was speaking to a camera crew near the Capitol Mall. “I wasn’t originally against the Tar Sands, I didn’t even know about the Tar Sands!” exclaimed the 78 year old diminutive but feisty Texas rancher. “I just wanted to stop this pipeline from destroying my land.”

“However,” she continued, “once I realized what this was all about, that the pipeline was connected to the Tar Sands and that it was not only threatening my land, but also thousands of people and their lands and lives in Canada, I had to speak out. I had to join the fight! Now I’m in it to stay.”

Ms. Fairchild not only spoke out, but in 2012, she put her body between a bulldozer and her land in Texas, and went to jail for “trespassing on her own land” along with actor Darryl Hannah who was arrested supporting Ms. Fairchild in her direct action.

Eleanor Fairchild was only one member of a delegation to Washington, DC of powerful, articulate and seriously committed women organized by the Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus (WECC) of Mill Valley, California with the support of the Indigenous Environmental Network and 350.org. The delegation, entitled “Women of the Land” centered around five women living in land-centered communities impacted by the devastation of the Canadian Tar Sands development and along the path of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline through the United States.

The women’s delegation came to Washington DC for Presidents’ Day weekend to join 50,000 others at the “Forward on Climate Rally” organized by the Sierra Club, 350.org, the Hip Hop Caucus and 150+ partner organizations including WECC, and to present their case in detail to the public in a Sunday evening event following the rally and at the US EPA the following Tuesday morning.

Crystal Lameman, a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation of Canada – another member of the Women of the Land Delegation – is a leading campaigner in opposition to further development of the Tar Sands. She was one of only a very few featured speakers at the climate rally under the shadow of the Washington Monument. Her commanding voice brought the thousands present on the Capitol Mall to silence as she told a story of acres and acres of destroyed wilderness, continuing impacts on wildlife – devastating to their indigenous subsistence cultures – and increasing cancers, asthma and disease amongst their children and communities.

Speaking to the rally about Trans Canada’s claim that they will clean up the restore the land after the development is done, Lameman said: “Don’t be fooled by their idea of what reclamation is,” she said. “We can’t eat money and we can’t drink oil.”

The core group of five delegates from impacted communities, also included, Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Lubicon Cree from Northern Alberta who has been working as an advocate for Indigenous rights for the past 10 years and has recently joined Greenpeace as a tar sands climate & energy campaigner, Julia Trigg Crawford, who, as Farm Manager of her family’s 650 acre working farm in far northeast Texas, is living directly in the path of the TransCanada’s Gulf Coast Pipeline, She and her family have stood steadfastly united for the protection of their property rights and the preservation of the environment, and Kandi Mossett of North Dakota who represented the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN). Mossett is of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara origins and works as a Native Energy & Climate Campaign Organizer for IEN.

Both Lameman’s tribe (the Beaver Lake Cree) and Crawford’s family are in the courts, in Canada and the US respectively, challenging 19,000 Tar Sands oil development permits on tribal treaty lands (Canada) and TransCanada’s condemnation of private property for pipeline construction (US).

The delegation was primarily coordinated by Osprey Orielle Lake, Founder and President of the Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus. Lake, who was also in Washington, works with grassroots leaders, policy-makers, business people, and scientists to promote resilient communities and foster a post-carbon energy future by addressing systemic change.

Also in Washington and coordinating the delegation’s meeting with the US Environmental Protection agency was Janet MacGillivray Wallace, Esq., an environmental attorney and social change activist. Janet, formerly an attorney with the EPA, is of Creek heritage, and has recently dedicated her work to stopping the tar sands based Keystone XL Pipeline, first with Texas landowners and now as Founder/Director of the Fossil Fuel Resistance affiliated with the WECC.

She is also co-producing a documentary film about the battle to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and was in Washington with a film crew following the members or the Women of the Land Delegation.

After two bone-chilling hours at the rally, all 50,000 in attendance marched around the White House, led by the rally speakers and the indigenous delegation, including Lameman, Maboucan-Massimo and Mossett. Following the March, the indigenous delegation returned to the rally stage and led a round dance for thousands in the field below the Monument in solidarity with the Idle No More indigenous rights movement.

That evening, the entire Women of the Land delegation gathered together at WECC’s post rally event at Busboys and Poets Restaurant and Bookstore in DC. The power of the indigenous presentation at the rally earlier that day (along with Lameman’s invitation to all 50,000 people present!) drew a standing room only crowd of 200 or more.

The program, entitled “Women of the Land Speak: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Tar Sands to Renewables” was moderated by Orielle-Lake and included heart-wrenching visual presentations by Lameman, and Massimo-Laboucan about the devastation to their peoples and their traditional lands from the Canada Tar Sands development and their communities’ efforts to bring the project to a halt.

Lake opened the evening on behalf stating that “The Women’s Earth and Climate Caucus is committed to bringing together voices and actions of women dedicated to stopping climate change and providing sustainability solutions.” She added, “We have a special mission to ensure that women working on the frontlines are heard!”

Fairchild and Crawford reported about their valiant struggles in Texas to defend their lands and stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in their communities. They both told of how their fight began locally but now has gone beyond their own backyards to fighting the entire Tar Sands/Keystone related developments. Crawford summed it up: “To hear about the magnitude of devastation to Melina and Crystal’s lands is gut wrenching, and I feel my fight for my family farm pales in comparison to theirs. I haven’t seen the poisoned water……yet. I haven’t seen the sick and dying animals…..yet. And THIS is why I fight, to ensure these atrocities don’t happen to my land and to my family and to stop the desecration of theirs.”

The audience also heard a rounding endorsement of the women’s campaigns from Bill Mc Kibben, founder of 350.org, a co-sponsor of the evening’s event, well-known indigenous rights activist and former Green Party Vice Presidential candidate Winona La Duke, and renewable energy development hero and former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, S. David Freeman, (who led the transformation of the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in California to a solar facility) and who made a compelling case for the immediate transition to conservation, efficiency and 100% renewable energy.

The standing-room only crowd, in rapt attention the entire evening, asked numerous questions and offered their enthusiastic support for stopping the Tar Sands. However, at the night drew on, one woman asked a deeper question to the women: “How do you deal with the grief for your lands and communities?”

It brought silence to the room until Massimo-Laboucan responded“Grief? I don’t have time to grieve. I have to keep moving forward.” Lameman acknowledged it was exactly the same for her – there was no time to stop, the crisis was too urgent and stopping to grieve might derail their progress. And yet, at that very moment, in the face of 200 sympathetic people, in fact, they were overcome with the moment and the tears rolled without hesitation.

Forming a circle of support with all of the women present on the stage, the audience was called to a standing witness in silence and in solidarity with the women and their fight, with the fight we all are facing.

After three or four moments of powerful silence, Casey Camp, (Ponca) an indigenous actress, comedian and activist from Oklahoma, who had also spoken to the rally earlier in the day was invited to speak to the audience. She thanked them for their support for the ongoing struggle. She lightened the mood with gentle humor and closed the evening with a challenge to everyone to do everything they can to support all of the Women of the Land they had heard from that evening. The mood of commitment was tangible as the audience streamed back out into the chilly DC night.

Re-energized and rested, the delegation regrouped for a strategy session on Monday afternoon in the Mitsitam Café at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian where they planned their presentations for a formal sit-down on Tuesday morning the 19th of February with officials at the US Environmental Protection Agency’s office of International and Tribal Affairs organized by Janet Mac Gillivray Wallace together with WECC and the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Early on Tuesday morning, accompanied by Crawford’s and Wallace’s daughters as observers, the group made their way back to the Capitol Mall’s Ronald Reagan building, only steps away from where they had rallied in the cold on Sunday.

At the EPA, the delegation was received by four members of the EPA staff – three from the Office of International and Tribal Affairs and one from the NEPA compliance section who has been reviewing the Keystone XL Pipeline environmental impact statements coming from the State Department. The session was led and facilitated by Women of the Land delegation member Kandi Mossett.

Over the course of two hours, all five key women – two from Texas and two from Canada – one from the US spoke passionately of their first hand experience with the environmental and public health nightmare and community disruption imposed by the Tar Sands and Keystone Pipeline developments. They sought assistance and guidance from the EPA on how to better test for impacts, and asked for means of relief from the proposed developments.

While it was evident that the final decision rested within the US State Department (for the Pipeline) and the Canadian government (for the continuation of the Tar Sands), the meeting was informative and productive with everyone leaving with a better understanding of what avenues could still be pursued (and where they could be pursued) to demand the end to these dirty and destructive developments. The women made it especially clear that all of them, like Eleanore Fairchild, did not see these struggles as merely local battles for their particular corner of the planet, but also as a collective campaign to save all life on earth from runaway carbon emissions from unnecessary fossil fuel developments.

After three long days of giant rallies and marches, smaller events and an even smaller meeting, Crawford summed up her experience: “The big ‘Forward on Climate’ rally was incredible and inspirational, but it was the small, more personal moments like we experienced at Busboys & Poets, the EPA, and one-on-one conversations that made the greatest impression on me.”

As they walked back out on to the Capitol Mall, it was absolutely clear that the Women of the Land – from indigenous, farming and ranching communities – will continue to speak out and to take the lead to stop the “slow industrial genocide” of the largest industrial project on Earth. From Northern Alberta, which is ground zero with over 20 corporations operating in the tar sands sacrifice zone, to Texas where the XL Keystone pipeline is under construction, the Women of the Land are just beginning to fight.…