South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem introduced a pair of bills on Monday that, if passed, would take a step toward openly criminalizing anti-pipeline protests—all while completely ignoring the voices of the people who would be most affected by the Keystone XL pipeline.
The pipeline, which was briefly halted by a federal judge in November pending a thorough environmental review, is meant to carry over 800,000 barrels of crude oil from Canada to Nebraska. The elected officials in the pocket of the oil and construction companies like Noem are very much interested in avoiding a repeat of the 2016 protests over North Dakota’s pipeline at Standing Rock. So, after a mid-February meeting with TransCanada, the company contracted for Keystone XL’s construction, Noem introduced these two pieces of legislation with just a week left in South Dakota’s legislative session.
Senate Bill 189 would introduce the term “riot boosting” into state law—essentially, the legislation would allow the South Dakota government to sue out-of-state groups and individuals who fund pipeline protests. The bill also lays out that a “third party” would be allowed to join the state’s lawsuit, meaning oil or construction companies could combine their financial resources with the government to battle activists in court. Meanwhile, Senate Bill 190 would then create a fund to pay the costs incurred by the state or local governments responding to protests.
The bills are a clear attack on fundamental First Amendment rights, with the desired result of intimidating anyone from outside of South Dakota from joining any future protests a la Standing Rock. But First Amendment issues aside, the bills have a much more nefarious motive at their base: They are an attempt by a state government to deny external assistance to the tribal nations that are standing against both the legislation and the pipelines. The heads of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe all published statements on Tuesday opposing the bills.
Cheyenne Chairman Harold Frazier said the governor failed to consult his nation despite the fact that the pipeline would lead to the diversion of the Cheyenne River, which provides water and food to the Cheyenne reservation and was already previously polluted by the Homestake gold mine. Rosebud President Rodeny Bordeaux echoed the fact that they were also not contacted and condemned the governor’s decision to unveil the bills with one week left in the session after consulting in private sessions with TransCanada. Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner also pointed to Noem’s meetings with TransCanada and said that rather than attacking those that would stand with the tribes, the governor should be focused on promoting “healthy ecosystems and clean water.”
According to Dakota/Lakota attorney and writer Ruth H. Hopkins, both bills passed committee on Wednesday, even though tribal citizens young and old were prepared to testify against the bills. Per Hopkins, Cheyenne elder A Gay Kingman asked the legislature, “Am I invisible? Do you see me? Rioting is already a criminal act. Why can’t you consult us instead of fast tracking legislation to target us?”
Given how the bills were handled during their inception, to expect any sort of change of hearts, or the simple act of listening to the thoughts of the affected Indigenous peoples, from any of the politicians that matter—Republicans hold a supermajority in both houses and claim the governorship—is to expect the impossible. All those who oppose the bill can do is hope the federal courts continue to stymie the pipeline and, if that fails, pray that there are enough people out there who won’t be intimidated by a government trying once again to squash Native resistance.