LAKE ANDES — Faith Spotted Eagle is used to people asking what is next.

The list of causes to support is never-ending, and even if she reached the bottom, another would surely arise. But each time Spotted Eagle can cross an item off the list, it is more time available to be spent with her grandchildren.

For the last 13 years, the 72-year-old Yankton Sioux Tribal member has battled in courtrooms, stood along pipelines and protested in front of Trump Tower in hopes of halting the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Such advocacy earned her the electoral college vote of Washington state faithless elector Robert Satiacum, Jr. during the 2016 presidential election. Spotted Eagle became the first woman (along with Hillary Clinton) and first American Indian to receive an electoral vote.

When President Joe Biden signed an executive order to halt construction of the pipeline hours after inauguration, Spotted Eagle simply felt thankful.

“I had an overwhelming rush of thankfulness,” Spotted Eagle said. “I felt so thankful that thousands of prayers done with our allies, elders and organizers were answered. I was in shock for a little bit because of 13 years and false intervals like when (President Barack) Obama canceled it. ... It took my breath away because we prayed for it for so long.”

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The Keystone Pipeline System was first proposed in 2005 by TransCanada Energy and commissioned in 2010 to deliver crude oil from Alberta to the United States. The first three phases of the project were completed, running from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City, Nebraska, to Oklahoma and eventually Houston, Texas. The pipeline spans nearly 3,000 miles, with more than 2,000 in the United States.

Phase 4 was the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, once again starting Alberta, but this time it would enter the United States in Montana and travel through South Dakota before joining the pipelines in Steele City.

The proposed pipeline — carrying 500,000 barrels of oil per day for 20 years — would run through the Black Hills, diagonally across Jones County, through the southwest corner of Lyman County and diagonally across Tripp County.

A trio of excavators move earth along the Dakota Access pipeline route east of Williston in late July 2016. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
A trio of excavators move earth along the Dakota Access pipeline route east of Williston in late July 2016. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Obama canceled the project in 2015, citing climate change concerns. But then-President Donald Trump revived the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines days after taking office in 2017.

Several Indigenous tribes cited opposition based on potential damage to sacred lands, pollution and water contamination, while increasing man camps along the pipeline, like the one opened in Philip in August, creates a higher risk of sexual violence for women.

The pipeline also created several opposition alliances, including the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, as many ranchers voiced displeasure with the proposal as well. Some tribes have claimed they were not consulted about running the pipeline through their land, including the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, which filed a lawsuit in 2017.

South Dakota U.S. Sens. John Thune and Michael Rounds, along with Rep. Dusty Johnson wrote against killing the pipeline.

“For years the applicant played by the rules and met its burden of proof to earn dozens of local, state and federal permits,” Johnson wrote on social media. “Rule of law needs to mean something in this country. This is a bad decision.”

Fighting for life

Spotted Eagle draws the inspiration of her advocacy to when she was an infant, when her village of White Swan was flooded to build Lake Francis Case and the Fort Randall Dam.

She first heard about KXL at a treaty meeting in Rapid City and immediately began to research the project and potential ramifications. She also helped the Yankton Sioux Tribe organize the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects in 2013, which was also part of reviving the Cowboy and Indian Alliance.

Spotted Eagle was also instrumental in setting up prayer offerings on the Ponca Trail of Tears, where they linked up with Nebraska farmer Art Tanderup, who gained attention by cutting designs in his fields opposing KXL. She was also a grandmother on the Brave Heart Society, a grassroots organization aiming to restore endangered and lost cultural practices.

A depot used to store pipes for TC Energy Corp's planned Keystone XL oil pipeline is seen in Gascoyne, North Dakota, January 25, 2017.  REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo
A depot used to store pipes for TC Energy Corp's planned Keystone XL oil pipeline is seen in Gascoyne, North Dakota, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester/File Photo

Spotted Eagle spoke at training seminars on fighting the pipelines in major cities across the country such as Denver and Seattle in 2018. One such fight was against man camps, which brought an 30% increase in aggravated assaults, homicides, rape and sexual assault in the Bakken oil region of Montana and North Dakota, according to a 2019 study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“We made a statement to the Biden campaign in November that we would protect however we could against the intrusion of the man camps,” said Spotted Eagle, who is a therapist by trade. “The research shows that our women have been impacted by these developments of fossil fuels in Canada and other parts of our country. They are an absolute danger to the lives of our daughters and granddaughters. If the pipeline had not been stopped, we would be doing action on the lines right now.”

As people donated years of time and tribes allocated financial resources to litigation costs, Spotted Eagle believes the biggest resource used was time away from family. She noted her 13-year-old grandson came to meetings and hearings as a baby, growing up as an advocate much like she did.

It is unknown what steps TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) will take next, but the Biden executive order was a major blow and Spotted Eagle hopes this is the end of the KXL pipeline.

“I would hope that the investors would realize that money they’re wasting during the pandemic, when there are so many needy families — those investments could go elsewhere,” Spotted Eagle said. “I think renewable energy is the way to go. It’s Earth-friendly. The Earth has had a chance to pause during this pandemic and smog has gone down in major cities. I think even though many people have been sacrificed in this pandemic, it has given the earth a pause to rest. … Animals and plants have so much intelligence that we don’t honor.”

On Tuesday, Spotted Eagle applauded more positive news as a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the Standing Sioux Tribe, revoking a key permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has been another long-standing battle.

For now, Spotted Eagle will return to her list of 100 things to do, which started when her father told her she needed to protect the water of the Missouri River as he stared longingly where White Swan used to sit. She was 12 years old at the time and the lone direction she received was, “You’ll figure it out.” Following an increase in young activists and voters across the country, Spotted Eagle is encouraged that the next generation, including her grandchildren, will continue her work.

“At 2 years old, I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t ask questions, but I remember people carrying furniture out of a log house on the Missouri River,” Spotted Eagle said. “There was a feeling of fright, anger, sadness. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it and this old log cabin was being consumed by water. I was born into it and the people before me were. I just go back to my list of 100 and I hope to do that until I’m 100.”