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The Human Cost of Keystone XL

In North Dakota’s oil boomtowns, rape, sex trafficking, and domestic violence rates are spiking, with American Indian women suffering the most. Now tribes along the Keystone XL pipeline route worry that the violence could be headed their way—and tribal police may be unable to stop it.
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Keystone XL pipeline protest at the White House. (Photo: tarsandsaction/Flickr)

Keystone XL pipeline protest at the White House. (Photo: tarsandsaction/Flickr)

In a Montana Greyhound station, Annita Lucchesi, a 24-year-old Southern Cheyenne woman, noticed an entire wall filled with photos of missing women. “The majority of them were native women and it broke my heart,” she says.

Lucchesi works for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Council. Because of her job, she knew that human trafficking around North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields was on the rise. But this wall was a visualization of the numbers she and her colleagues dealt with every day. In her office they were statistics; here they were her sisters.

Lucchesi pulled out her phone and began snapping photos of the posters to share on social media. As she worked, a group of oil rig workers stepped off a bus from North Dakota and started talking behind her.

Boomtowns are rarely safe spaces for women. “All of a sudden you get three men for every woman in a community. And all these guys are rich, they’re making 100,000 bucks, they’re 20 years old, they’re happy, they’re drunk.”

“They were saying, ‘Oh yeah, North Dakota is the fucking best; in North Dakota you can take whatever pretty little Indian girl that you like and you can do whatever you want and police don’t give a fuck about it,’” Lucchesi says. “To hear something like that—he was literally talking about kidnapping and raping girls in public at three in the afternoon—that is how bad it is. That is when it really sunk in that this is the nightmare landscape we are living in—when men can talk openly about raping women and there are no consequences. It’s like I’m not safe here; my sisters are not safe here.”

That nightmare landscape may be about to grow. If approved on its current route, the Keystone XL Pipeline will bisect the heart of Indian country. TransCanada boasts that the project will create “9,000 well-paying construction jobs.” And that’s exactly what tribal activists are worried about.

Man camps, which will hold 1,000 transient pipeline workers, are being planned just miles from reservation lands. If what’s happening in the Bakken oil fields is any indication, Keystone XL could be a disaster for the native women along its route.


American Indian women face some of the highest rates of sexual violence in the nation. More than a quarter of all native women have been raped, and almost 50 percent have experienced some other sort of sexual violence, according to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. Compared to other races, American Indian and Alaskan Native women are more than two times more likely to experience rape or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Even more horrifying, according to the Department of Justice, 67 percent of these acts of violence are committed by non-native men—although another study has put this number closer to 86 percent.

(Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr)

(Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr)

And until recently, when non-tribal men perpetrated violence against tribal women, local tribal police were unable to do much, if anything at all, about it. In 1978, the Supreme Court, in a decision now often referred to simply as Oliphant, ruled “Indian tribal courts do not have inherent criminal jurisdiction to try and to punish non-Indians, and hence may not assume such jurisdiction unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress.” Which meant that for 35 years women who suffered at the hands of non-native offenders rarely got justice. Often, all tribal police could do was hold the perpetrator until local or federal authorities arrived to take him. After that, it was out of tribal law enforcement’s hands. But the rate at which U.S. attorneys prosecute crimes in Indian country is abysmal. A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that between 2005 and 2009, 52 percent of violent crimes committed on tribal land were declined for prosecution—and 67 percent of all cases declined were related to sexual assault. “So there’s this endemic problem that federal prosecutors do not care about sexual assault in native communities,” Lucchesi says.

But two years ago, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013—“a major victory for tribal communities,” Lucchesi says. VAWA allows tribal authorities to prosecute non-tribal men in certain instances of domestic violence.

At face value, it would appear as though the passing of VAWA would assuage the fears of tribal leaders. But Greg Grey Cloud, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe who has been active in the fight against Keystone XL, says it’s not that simple.

VAWA was written with some major caveats built into it. Tribal police can only prosecute non-native men in cases of intimate partner violence, for example. If a white man victimizes a stranger, local police are back to square one. And child abuse isn’t covered. “That’s a shame because it still means there’s a disparity between what tribes can do with an Indian versus a non-Indian defendant,” says Virginia Davis, a senior policy director for the National Congress of American Indians. “And part of the reason prosecutors charged those other crimes in a domestic violence case is that they can be easier to prove.”

Additionally, there are strict regulations on how a VAWA trial must be conducted. “There are a lot of things that the police need to be trained on, that we need to get our facilities up to code; it’s going to be at least a few years until many communities are equipped to deal with the rules,” says the 28-year-old Grey Cloud.

Oil pad near the Little Missouri River. (Photo: NPCA Photos/Flickr)

Oil pad near the Little Missouri River. (Photo: NPCA Photos/Flickr)

Davis agrees, adding: “There’s a lot that goes into the decision for a tribe to take this on. Even once you decide to implement, a tribe has to do a lot to implement. So it’s not something you do very quickly.” Additionally, she says that many tribes will have to amend their current tribal codes and even their tribal constitutions, “Which is not always an easy process,” Davis says.

Alfred Urbina, the attorney general for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, says that one of the biggest barriers for his tribe was cost. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe was one of three VAWA pilot programs that began prosecuting non-native offenders in early 2014. “There are certain requirements regarding court reporters, reporting equipment, the public defender’s office, of course,” Urbina says. “And they’re not getting additional funding from the government for this.” Originally, $5 million a year over the next five years was written into the law as a way of helping pilot tribes implement the necessary upgrades, Urbina says, but the funds were never appropriated.

"He was literally talking about kidnapping and raping girls in public at three in the afternoon—that is how bad it is. That is when it really sunk in that this is the nightmare landscape we are living in."

In Urbina’s estimation, it could take up to $1 million for some tribal court systems to be equipped to handle VAWA cases. Still, he hopes all tribes will at least consider prosecuting them. In the first year of the Pascua Yaqui’s pilot program, 20 non-native offenders were arrested for domestic violence charges. All but one offender had a previous record; there were 18 children involved.

“I used to be a police officer in a former life,” Urbina says. “Not having that jurisdiction, going to a home or a place on a reservation and not being able to do your job, it was a situation that really added to a mistrust of our system and our law enforcement.... Now you can kind of sense a certain amount of pride in what they’re doing. They’re walking a little taller ... It’s really invigorated our system as a whole—from the judges to the clerks.”

If what’s happened in the Bakken oil fields is any indication, the court systems of tribes near the proposed Keystone XL man camps will certainly need that invigoration. The statistics on exactly how bad things have gotten around Bakken are surprisingly scarce. Rick Ruddell, a professor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, says that’s a particularly aggravating part of his research.

(Photo: Daniela Kantorova/Flickr)

(Photo: Daniela Kantorova/Flickr)

Ruddell studies the relationship between crime and boomtowns, and when he and several researchers from the University of North Dakota began combing through crime rates around the oil fields, they found big patches of data missing. Ruddell says that this is partially due to the fact that there’s a mishmash of agencies keeping the data. It’s also partially because the rise in crime happened so suddenly that local agencies went from having almost nothing to report to being unable to keep up with reporting. Furthermore, in general, recording accurate domestic violence rates is difficult, since so many incidences go unreported.

Using the data they could gather, however, Ruddell and his team found an 18.4 percent increase in violent crime during the post-boom years in oil producing counties. Those counties also reported 24.6 percent more property crimes. And a separate 2014 paper by Old Dominion University researcher Timothy Komarek, found that rates of rape and violent assault jumped 30 percent in Pennsylvania fracking boomtowns. Technically, the numbers in Ruddell’s study were not statistically significant. “But if you ask a police officer if an almost 20 percent increase in crime is significant, they’re going to say, of course it’s significant,” he says. “This is meaningful for the people who are living it.”


Boomtowns are rarely safe spaces for women. “All of a sudden you get three men for every woman in a community. And all these guys are rich, they’re making 100,000 bucks, they’re 20 years old, they’re happy, they’re drunk,” Ruddell says. He does, however, add that sometimes man camps are actually a better option than having the men just move into the local towns, since the living facilities generally have strict rules about drinking and drugs.

“All of TransCanada's camps will have a strictly enforced code of conduct with zero tolerance to drugs, firearms and public alcohol consumption. There will also be 24/7 security onsite at all camps,” Mark Cooper, a spokesman for TransCanada, writes in an email. “TransCanada [is] doing what [it] can to help Midwest residents and Tribal communities that will neighbor the temporary work camps see how safe and respectful these camps are.”

But Grey Cloud and Lucchesi—and so many other tribal leaders—aren’t convinced. And they’re fighting hard to keep Keystone XL out of their backyards. Grey Cloud remembers the moment when he first heard about the pipeline, when he first realized 1,000 non-native male neighbors could soon be on their way. As a child, both his mother and his sisters were victims of sexual violence—often at the hands of non-native perpetrators.

"Marie Randall a grandmother of the Oglala Sioux Tribe put a call out to the community saying, ‘Where are all our warriors at?,’” Grey Cloud says. “All you warriors should not allow this pipeline to violate our constitution and our treaties. It is time you stand up and protect us. Protect me and we will honor you.’”

In 2014 Grey Cloud was arrested in the Senate Gallery as he sang a traditional honor song to thank the members of the U.S. Senate for voting against Keystone XL. He’s shown up at rallies and camped out to protest the man camps. He—and the hundreds of others who have protested alongside him—have surely earned their honor.

Honor and victory, unfortunately, are not synonyms. President Obama is expected to make a decision on the pipeline in the next few weeks. Both Grey Cloud and Lucchesi say they’re unsure what the next step will be if TransCanada gets the green light. But Lucchesi says the fight won’t be over—far from it.

“I am a firm believer in the strength of our nations and our people. We Cheyenne have a saying that the nation is not defeated until the hearts of our women are on the ground,” she says. “And our hearts are not nearly close enough to the ground for this to be over yet.”