Sisseton Wahpeton Tribal Members Respond to the Keystone Oil Spill
by Sarah Sunshine Manning
November 18, 2017
Just days before Nebraska decides whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, the Keystone 1 pipeline leaked 210,000 gallons. I talked with other tribal members about their experience visiting the site of the spill.
To say that land matters to Indigenous Peoples would be an understatement. To so many of us,
land is not ever viewed as merely a resource, but as a relative we are in constant relationship
with. The Dakota people call the land, “Unci Maka,” or Grandmother Earth,” as she provides all
things, and their entire existence is dependent upon her.
When the recent Keystone 1 pipeline oil spill of 210,000 gallons happened near the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation in northeast South Dakota, home of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, tribal members were immediately alarmed. Many were outraged.
After hearing of the news of the spill, a group of tribal members drove directly to the location
searching for answers. The tribal radio station, KXSW, reported from on the ground in a
Facebook live stream while hundreds of tribal members watched nervously. “I feel sick,” one
tribal member wrote in the comments of the video livestream.
One year earlier, many of the same tribal members were on the ground in the #NoDAPL
resistance camps near the borderlands of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, standing in
protection of land and water, and resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
A common phrase among the water protectors and land defenders in the resistance camps, heard over and over again, was, “It’s not a matter of if a pipeline breaks, but when.”
And for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, this recent spill, the largest spill to date in South Dakota, not only validated that, but affirmed the urgent need to protect Unci Maka.
Mike Peters, a Sisseton Wahpeton Tribal Member, lives in the Enemy Swim district near the
western border of the reservation, approximately 20 miles from the site of the oil spill. Like
many tribal members, Peters was incensed to hear of an oil spill so near his home.
“My greatest concern is the safety of my family, my kids, and grandkids, and really all the people in this area no matter what race or color, because we all need clean water to live,” Peters said. “The water and the land is important to us because everything has a spirit, and
when anyone’s spirit is covered in oil it saddens all of us.
As with other tribal nations, the Sissitonwan and Wahpetonwan Dakota have endured centuries
of loss and ongoing erosion of land, culture, and their communal wellbeing. Everything that
they have left, matters to them immensely, and their survival is tied directly to the land.
In 2008, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate were plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Trans Canada, along
with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska, and the Yankton Sioux Tribe.
Their goal: to protect their homelands and their communities from the devastation of oil spills
like the one that just happened. In 2009, the lawsuit was dismissed for “lack of jurisdiction.”
But this didn’t mean the fight was over. During the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the
Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate extended their support, politically, financially, and with bodies on the
ground in Standing Rock.
The Sissitonwan and Wahpetonwan Dakota are survivors. They are descendants of the Dakota
Conflict of 1862 which resulted in the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota-
the largest mass execution in American history — and then the subsequent hanging of two more
Dakota leaders who were captured in Canada. As prisoners of war, the remaining Sissitonwan
and Wahpetonwan Dakota were exiled from Minnesota and then confined to various
reservations throughout South Dakota, the Lake Traverse Reservation being one of them.
On the reservation, they were deprived of the spiritual traditions that sustained them for
generations. Life took a downturn back then, and one that the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate is still
The original reservation was later reduced greatly after homestead acts allowed white settlers
to come in and make claim to lands reserved for the Sissitonwan and Wahpetonwan Dakota.
This resulted in even greater erosion of their tribal land base. Today, the Lake Traverse Indian
Reservation is a patchwork of Native and non-Native-owned lands. And while the reduced
resources that remain in their jurisdiction matter incredibly, lands outside of the reservation
are still within their traditional territory. The land is still Unci Maka.
On the reservation or off, this oil spill has polluted the land, and the Dakota take this very
seriously. While the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate awaits more answers, the questions and fears
linger. How long is clean up going to take? Is this going to affect the ground water and the
reservation’s aquifer? Is TransCanada being honest about the severity of the damage? How is
wildlife going to be affected?
In the meantime, tribal members are on alert, praying for the land, praying for their
community, and for many, they are ramping up their efforts to stand against further
desecration of Unci Maka. They do this not only out of self-preservation, but out of
responsibility to their families, their community, to the land, and all life.