Planting Corn, Not Pipelines

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Planting Corn, Not Pipelines

Anne "Cookie" Cole, on left, planting seeds with her friends and neighbors. (Photo: Courtesy of the author)

During the early stages of resistance against the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska, an unlikely alliance of farmers, ranchers, environmentalists and Native Americans held a spiritual gathering at the farm of Art Tanderup. While gathered in a tepee during a cold night, Mekasi Horinek of the Ponca Nation had a vision: they should plant the newly revitalized Ponca Nation sacred corn along the proposed route of the pipeline.

The planting of this seed not only offered a life-affirming resistance to the pipeline, but it also represented a return of the corn to this land after a 137-year absence. Mekasi's great-grandfather had walked across this very farm at the age of eight when white settlers drove the tribe from Nebraska and forced them to relocate to Oklahoma on a 600-mile trail of tears. Allowed to take with them only what they could carry, the natives to this land had to leave behind their newly planted crop of corn and thus lose a precious link to their heritage.

"These are seeds of resistance. Resistance to corporate greed and the destruction of Mother Earth. We want to save our land for our children and grandchildren. Also, for the animals that walk through here. When you stand up for the land, for the water, you stand up for all living things." —Mekasi Horinek of the Ponca Nation

“The corn seeds are the most sacred thing we have as a tribe,” Mekasi told me. “The Ponca Nation corn goes all the way back to our origin story. This was a sacred gift given to us to use as a people. We wanted to reclaim the seeds. They were missing from our culture and our spirituality.”

Through a call to elders of the Ponca Nation, Mekasi and his cousin, Amos Hinton, the Agricultural Director of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, found seeds in a medicine ball over 100 years old. After successfully planting some crops and building up a seed bank, Mekasi offered the sacred corn to this disparate group in Nebraska that had come together to save their land and water from the threat of toxic pollution.

They planted the corn, and after years of struggle, they helped to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from being built, learning a valuable lesson in the process. It took their unlikely alliance of former adversaries to defeat powers much greater than themselves.

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And now the Cowboy and Indian Alliance of Mr. Tanderup, Mekasi, and Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska has spent the last three days in Virginia and West Virginia planting seeds of resistance on land the oil and gas industry wishes to seize through eminent domain to build pipelines for fracked gas. The proposed Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines threaten countless communities and watersheds across these states. The alliance came here to stand in solidarity with those under duress and to share their story of success.

“The environmentalists can't do it alone, landowners can't do it alone, Native Americans can't do it alone, young people can't do it alone, faith healers can't do it alone,” Ms. Kleeb told a gathering of neighbors and activists on the farm of Anne and Steve Bernard in Boones Mill, Virginia. “It really is all of us coming together shoulder to shoulder to make sure our voices are larger than big oil and big gas.”

The gas industry is using eminent domain and a pliant Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) to grab land for their pipelines, often taking advantage of elderly folk who may not fully understand what the industry proposes to do to their property.

“We have a pipeline now on the land, but it's just nine inches in diameter,” Mrs. Bernard said. “So I thought, no big deal. But the more we learned, it just mushroomed into this giant behemoth of a monster. We haven't slept very well since. I woke up with a clap of thunder recently and thought, pipeline blowing up!”

Mike Carter, a neighbor of the Bernards, shared how corporate representatives got his 87-year-old father to sign papers he could not possibly understand. When outsiders came to destroy a building on the property and mark where the pipeline would run near the house, the father called his son.

“Mike, I've made a terrible mistake.”

That was two years ago. Since then, the younger Mr. Carter has voided the contract and been fighting the pipelines ever since. “Those pipelines endanger water in every county of the state. And most of that gas is going for export. It doesn't serve us in any way.”

Indeed, most of the fracked gas would be transported across the states to an export facility in Cove Point, Maryland and sold abroad. With the pipelines providing easy transport, the gas industry hopes to cash in and multiply fracking sites throughout Virginia and West Virginia, doubling production at a time we must cut greenhouse emissions to comply with agreements reached in Paris at the COP21 climate conference.

Tom Berlin, who owns a pristine plot of land outside of Weston, WV and mostly lives off the grid, pointed down a valley over thick, plush forest. “They constructed a well pad down there a year and a half ago. They already have permits for six fracking sites there just waiting for pipelines. They use horizontal drilling that will come under my property. They just leapfrog north to south and keep adding sites.”

He already has a smaller pipeline running across his property and showed me where gas currently leaks from the ground. I easily detected the acrid smell of methane. “This is just a small leak they won't even bother to come out and fix,” Mr. Berlin said, pouring water in the hole to show bubbling gas. “I have two of them that have been going on for a year. Now multiply that by the thousands and thousands and you get an idea of what is happening with these pipelines.”

Anne “Cookie” Cole, who owns a farm near Union, WV, decried outsiders coming to profit off of their clean land and water. “People come from Japan, twelve of them, and told how eager they are to get into West Virginia's gas. It's outside interests eager to suck the lifeblood out of Mother Earth and leave us with the toxic waste stuff. They won't even allow fracking in these other countries that want to take gas from us. When they're taking over our land and making us worry if that thing is going to explode in the ground, it's nothing but death.”

With her arms interlocked with Mekasi and Ms. Kleeb, Cookie thanked all those gathered for coming out to plant corn.

“Our family has fiercely protected our freedoms and our way of life, so that we could continue to be free and enjoy the land and mountains that we so dearly love. Monroe County is a special place, and we have been fortunate to be its caretakers and defenders. I am grateful that the Bold Alliance and the Monroe Coalition have chosen my farm as a place to plant the sacred Ponca Indian corn.”

Those in attendance stepped forward to plant corn in her field, forming lines and then joining hands in a circle as Mekasi said a prayer for the land.

“These are seeds of resistance,” Mekasi told the group. “Resistance to corporate greed and the destruction of Mother Earth. We want to save our land for our children and grandchildren. Also, for the animals that walk through here. When you stand up for the land, for the water, you stand up for all living things.”

After an absence of over a hundred years, the spirit of the sacred Ponca Nation corn refuses to die. That Mekasi and the Cowboy and Indian Alliance could share these seeds with those who were once his people's oppressors illustrates the power of these seeds to unite disparate groups fighting to preserve their heritage. The seeds have returned to remind us to care for the land and water, to preserve for our children and grandchildren, and to stand united in resistance to the destruction of Mother Earth.

David Schwenk

David Schwenk is a writer and activist currently at work on a book about citizens empowering themselves through direct, non-violent action. He can be contacted at dschwenk76@gmail.com

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