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How To Stop The Dakota Access Pipeline With Sacred Corn

Photograph by Peter Aaslestad

In classic western movies, cowboys and Indians were deadly enemies, but they’re real-life allies when it comes to fighting pipelines like the Keystone XL, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), and other similar projects around the country. Joining together in the Cowboy and Indian Alliance—a 40-year-old coalition of Native American tribal members, ranchers, and landowners—individuals around the country are doing something symbolic, simple, and profound: gathering together to plant heirloom corn on land that lies in the path of proposed pipelines.

The 137-year-old corn, rediscovered in an old medicine bag that once belonged to the Ponca Native American Tribe in northern Oklahoma, is planted in spring and harvested and dried in the late fall. The many thousands of new corn seeds—in hues of radiant blues and reds—are now part of a “Sacred Seeds of Resistance” tour that began in 2014 in Nebraska, to protest the Keystone XL pipeline project. That pipeline project, which has since been suspended, would have transported diluted bitumen (a distillation of petroleum) from the tar sands of Alberta to oil refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas. Ponca corn plantings have since spread, like seeds blowing on the wind, to Nebraska to protest the DAPL, as well as Wisconsin, Virginia, West Virginia, and even Ecuador.

The first Ponca seeds of resistance were planted on 3.5 acres of my 160-acre farm in Neligh, Nebraska,” says retired schoolteacher and farmer Art Tanderup. His land would have been cut through by the Keystone pipeline and was already on the Ponca Trail of Tears. That trail was where the Ponca tribe once walked—and nine members died—after being forcibly removed from their ancestral Nebraska land by the United States Army in 1877 and relocated to an Oklahoma reservation. They were moved before they could harvest their corn crop.

Pipeline fighters plant sacred Ponca corn on land directly in the paths of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley fracked gas pipelines during the “Seeds of Resistance” tour in 2016. Photograph by Peter Aaslestad.

To this day, many Native Americans consider corn seeds as sacred gifts directly from the Creator. In Ponca lore, the Creator gave them corn, a dog, and a bow. “To many of us, these seeds are not just symbolic,” says Tanderup. “There is a spirit and power to them. And when we plant the corn in the path of the pipeline, that ground is now sacred Indian ground.”

Ponca Nation member Mekasi Horinek’s great-grandfather walked the trail of tears. In joining with white landowners to plant seeds of resistance, says Horinek, he discovered that “they have the same love and respect for the land that we do. Their mothers, fathers, grandmas and grandpas are buried in the soil the same way that ours are.” Horinek worked with Ponca member Amos Hinton and Nebraska corn geneticist Tom Hoegemeyer, as well as the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, and the Intertribal Agricultural Council to plant heirloom Ponca corn varietals, establish a seed bank, and gift seeds to be planted in protest of other pipelines.

In the spring of 2016, the seeds found their way to Virginia and West Virginia, where they were planted to protest two proposed pipelines, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline. “All these communities across America are joining hands now,” says Nancy Sorrells, co-chair of the Augusta County Alliance, a group of citizens opposed to the 564-mile Atlantic Coast pipeline. They have new data to suggest that the pipeline is not necessary to meet energy needs in the state. “We don’t feel isolated in our own little community anymore,” she says. “We’re standing with the people who stopped the Keystone and the people who are fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline and the people down in Ecuador. We may be different politically, economically, and socially, but we all share this unity of respecting our water and our land.”

Their motto: Plant corn, not pipelines. Sorrells says tending the corn was exciting, and that unlike modern hybrids, the stalks varied in height and color. “Some were purple-hued, some greener. We got at least five bushels of corn from our planting,” she says. “Eventually we want to have corn growing along all 600 miles of this proposed pipeline.”

Ponca corn. Photograph by Nancy Sorrells.

The seeds of resistance make delicious cornbread and muffins, says Art Tanderup: “In early September, we went to Omaha for a demonstration, and one of the ladies had made muffins with the blue Ponca corn. They had flecks of blue and were almost too pretty to eat. My wife and I volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and this summer we gave seeds to a Nicaraguan family to plant so they will have food.”

In October, as citizens harvested their Virginia Ponca corn, Mekasi Horinek spoke to the gathering. If the pipelines are approved, noted Horinek, they will take land legally due to eminent domain. Eminent domain is the right of a government or its agent to take private property for public use, with payment of compensation. “As a Native American,” says Horinek, “I know all about eminent domain, about having your land taken away. Growing up, we were taught to think ahead seven generations. We were taught that we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

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