TransCanada’s Keystone Pipeline: Culture on the Great Plains, Then and Now

Federal politicians have lately adhered to the Loyal Opposition maxim when it comes to yelling-matches surrounding the Keystone Pipeline — the phrase “talking past one another” comes to mind. If a person thinks they are going to do some research and get the real and honest truth, they are put up against listening to the republicans, then going and listening to the democrats, and then returning and listening to the republicans, and then listening to ecologists, and then democrats, and then oil tycoons, and then entrepreneurs, and then republicans, and then capitalists who don’t know they are Max Weberists instead of Adam Smithists, and then more of republicans who sound like Marxists rather than — oh, hell, nevermind…

You’ll notice that an understandable concern in proposing this new pipeline is environmental, and the legislation responsible for elevating these environmental concerns are a byproduct of the EPA agency started by Richard Nixon. Lacking from much of the discussion, though, are cultural sites that may be disturbed and may currently be in the pipeline way. And cultural sites means anything current or past that had to do with Homo sapiens, or also what in the business we call “us.”

An Autumn 2009 photo of a section of the Keystone pipeline in eastern South Dakota.

Between 2005 and 2009, I gladly (value-judgment alert!) worked on various survey and reporting components of the TransCanada Pipeline in the eastern Dakotas. The pipeline portion I worked on concerned the segment stretching from north of Walhalla (North Dakota) down to Yankton (South Dakota). While surveying the proposed pipeline route, our on-the-ground crew was often happy to report to the above-ground planners (the engineers in an office somewhere in non-Dakota) that they needed to re-route the pipeline in several areas. In some cases the proposed pipeline ran right through individual homes; in other cases the proposed pipeline ran right through sacred Native and non-Native American sites. The whole idea behind our historical, anthropological, archaeological, and architectural historical work was simply to get on the ground data by physically walking the landscape and the proposed route. Through this we could locate and identify culturally rich and sensitive sites and areas that the proposed pipeline touched. In the sense of the long historical duration, we did this because Theodore Roosevelt originally recognized the importance of it all at the beginning of the 20th century  (see the American Antiquities Act of 1906): in short if we, as Americans, want more than a throw-away culture, then we need to understand and recognize the richness of our cultural past.

Some highlights of recognizing that past during the eastern Dakotas segment of the pipeline were:

1) With local tribal liaisons, we were able to identify sacred areas and ensure the pipeline was either re-routed; or ensure that these areas received proper documentation and mitigation. By sacred areas, I mean that we ensured the pipeline was not run through a Native American site that was no more or less religiously important as a proposed pipeline route that went, for example, underneath the Vatican, or your local church, synagogue, mosque or sanctuary.

2) Through oral histories, we ensured the pipeline avoided Euro-American burials. Two specific cases that come to mind: 2a) an old-timer walked out and told us where his still-born brother was buried approximately 80+ years ago, and through this the pipeline was rerouted; and 2b) another interview with a woman who identified a rural, countryside grave. This grave was not in a formal cemetery, but rather on a section line. Had we not chatted with this lady, the rock pile that marked the grave would almost have certainly been mistaken for a standard rock pile that farmers often create to keep the stones out of the fields and away from wrecking their implements.

3) We monitored the pipeline during actual construction, too. If there were cultural remains present, then we would figure out where they came from.

Below are some short clips taken during the September 2009 construction component of the pipeline that now runs north-south through the eastern Dakotas.

One angle of a 450D LC working its way across a creek.

The pipeline needs to be set below ground surface, and in some cases Sioux quartzite needs to be busted through…

The crane lowered a weighted vibrator down on to the metal walls, working it into place to create a trench for the pipeline. In other cases a large jack-hammer was brought in to break up the pink Proterozoic quartzite (aka, the Sioux quartzite, or the stuff numerous National Register of Historic Places buildings are constructed with in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, among others).

There is no doubt that a Keystone Pipeline creates jobs (then again, pistol-whipping someone also creates jobs, but nevermind), and that a future Keystone Pipeline will create more jobs. I am interested in getting a pipeline approved, but doing so is a fairly complex process. When this process invariably gets politicized, there is really nothing anyone can do until the Federal, State and local politicians all calm down, and until the major news sources also calm down as well. Remember: journalists move news when individuals say insane things, and a cynic might say there is reason for news sources to take politicians out of context in order to move and sell said news. It’s a good thing I am not a cynic. I am realistic enough to know the pipeline will eventually get approved, but probably not until the next presidential election is over.


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