This past Friday and Saturday, I attended an anti-Keystone XL pipeline conference on the Ihanktonwan homeland in Pickstown, SD. It was called “Protect Women & Families from Keystone XL Violence.” What follows is a brief report from that event, which I prepared for Fast for the Earth.
In case you need another reason to oppose Keystone XL and similar projects, here’s a big one: The man-camps that would be built along the pipeline route would bring with them skyrocketing violence, prostitution, sexual assault, human trafficking, drug use and trafficking (particularly heroin and methamphetamine), traffic fatalities, damage to local infrastructure, and more. These increases would have to be borne by small rural communities that don’t have significant law enforcement, medical or social service resources, and whose infrastructure is insufficient to meet the demands of the camps.
Keystone XL man-camps are currently planned in at least the following counties in the Upper Midwest: McCome, Valley and Fallon counties in Montana; Harding and Meade counties in South Dakota; and Holt County in Nebraska. Each camp will be 100-150 acres in size and will house up to 1,000 workers. Additional man-camps in support of other fossil fuel projects are also being planned in other counties.
TransCanada (the company that wants to build the Keystone XL) repeatedly reassures citizens along the pipeline route, “You don’t need to worry.” But we do worry. We worry deeply, and for good reason, and so should TransCanada. Though obviously not all workers living in man-camps are a threat to society, the presence of man-camps practically guarantees harm to adjacent communities, and even to communities a great distance away.
|Man-camp in Williston, North Dakota
(photo: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)
The gravity of the threat posed by man-camps to women and children can easily be illustrated by what’s happening amidst North Dakota’s oil boom. That boom brought its own man-camps, some of them registered and run by corporations, others unregistered and set up in farmers’ yards. According to North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, there was a 7.2% increase in overall crime statewide in 2012, including 23,647 arrests of men for everything from forcible rape to drug abuse, prostitution, and “other” sexual offences. Rapes increased 17%. Aggravated assaults increased 3%. North Dakota doesn’t keep statistics on human trafficking—where women and children are forced into sexual slavery—but maybe the state should start. Stenehjem acknowledges that it is a serious and growing issue, as is organized criminal drug activity.
Brendan Johnson, US Attorney for the District of South Dakota, has no doubt that the Keystone XL man-camps would bring similar challenges to local communities in South Dakota, both along the pipeline route and far from it. And this would happen at a time when federal cutbacks due to budget sequestration are making law enforcement, criminal investigation and prosecution of cases even more difficult.
Here in South Dakota, where Fast for the Earth is based, we are already seeing increases in human trafficking. Johnson says that he has handled 12 major cases of sex trafficking of young girls in the four years he has been in office, and more cases are pending. South Dakota’s busiest human trafficking season, he notes, is during pheasant-hunting season, when there is an influx of out-of-state sportsmen.
But the sexual predation of native women isn’t limited to pheasant-hunting season. As one conference participant put it, “It’s been open season on native women since first contact” with Europeans on Turtle Island (i.e., North America).
Ihanktonwan grandmother and conference organizer Faith Spotted Eagle says that “an urgent conversation needs to be held about the parallels between sexual violence, conquest, colonization, environment racism and the rape of Mother Earth. All are related” (Native News Network, May 25, 2103). This theme—the inseparability of violence against women and the violence against Mother Earth—resounded again and again throughout the two-day conference in Pickstown. The violence suffered by native women, in particular, was front and center.
One in 3 native women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. Nearly 90% of the perpetrators will be non-native, and most will never be prosecuted because of jurisdictional, budgetary and other constraints. Crime against native children is also a gut-wrenching reality. Efforts to investigate and prosecute crimes against native women and children are often derailed by prejudice on the part of non-native public officials. As Lisa Brunner of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center says, “When [one of our kids goes missing] and we try to get local law enforcement to help, we usually get one of two responses. Either `We have better things to do with our time,’ or `Why don’t you native women be better mothers and know where the hell your kids are?’”
Jo Seenie Redsky, who lives in “Grandmother’s land” (better known as Canada), spends most of her waking hours trying to locate missing and murdered First Nations women and children. The dead, she says, are usually found in pieces, having been dismembered by the perpetrators. Jo admits that she has trouble shutting down her “search mode,” in which her senses and intuition are exceptionally heightened, always trying to pick up a trace. While the Canadian government counts “only” between 600 and 700 missing, a native list that is still being tallied now stands at nearly 4,000. “There’s a war against us native women on this continent,” she declares, warning that man-camps will only mean more disappearances.
In the United States, around 500 native women and children are officially missing, but that list, too, may grow. Searchers express deep frustration with local and state barriers that hinder access to national databases vital to their investigations. They too fear additional disappearances (and losses) as a result of the man-camps.
As the conference concluded, Rosalie Little Thunder, longtime indigenous and environmental activist, offered a sober reminder to both native and non-native participants. “All of us are tribal people. Every one of us came from a tribal origin at some point. And we were connected to the Earth. But we have become disconnected.” She urged us to make a serious commitment to resist the Keystone XL—“the artery of greed”—and other such threats.
“Remind yourself every morning, every morning, every morning: `I’m going to do something, I’ve made a commitment.’ Not for yourself, but beyond yourself. You belong to the collective. Don’t go wandering off, or you will perish.”