A few weekends ago, I had the honor of attending a Promise to Protect Training, as part of a mobilization tour led by Indigenous leaders and allies to prepare thousands of people to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and protect water and ancestral lands. 

Just days before the training in Chicago, it was announced that construction of the pipeline would be delayed another year, marking a huge win for our movement. President Trump has signed permits allowing construction, after President Obama officially rejected the pipeline — so this delay is a significant point of resistance, and a deadline to make sure we mobilize in time for the next inevitable fight.

TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline would add 1,100 miles of piping from the Alberta tar sands to Nebraska, where it would connect to existing pipelines to the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline is transporting one of the dirtiest forms of oil, crude tar sands, and has already spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into precious waterways, and violates treaty agreements between Native American tribes and the U.S. government.

Our trainers, including Judith Le Blanc and Robert Chanate of Native Organizers Alliance, Dallas Goldtooth of Indigenous Environmental Network, Guy Anahkwet Reiter of the Menominee Tribe, Brian Gomez of Chicago Youth Alliance for Climate Action, two members of the International Indigenous Youth Council, and leaders from 350.org, brought wisdom and lessons from their experiences in the movement. With the lessons, as well as trauma, still very much alive from the historic struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, the training was intended to teach white people and other non-Native allies to not repeat these mistakes, and “learn a way of walking”. 

This fight has always been about protecting Indigenous sovereignty as much as it is about keeping fossil fuels in the ground in the face of climate chaos.  For over a decade, several tribes, including the Fort Belknap Indian Community of Montana (which includes Gros Ventre (Aaniiih) and the Assiniboine (Nakoda) tribes) and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota (which includes Sicangu Oyate, a branch of the Lakota people) have mobilized a powerful opposition to the pipeline. These tribes have formed a strong coalition between Nebraska ranchers and other allies along the route. This work is hard and long; Judith Le Blanc, director of the Native Organizers Alliance, grounded us in this reality by noting how some organizers have grandchildren now, that they didn’t have in their lives when the fight began. This is a fight we must hold across generations, cultures and watersheds.

The day of training was challenging, humbling, and inspiring. We learned how to be a good relative, listening to stories and histories, discussing, and practicing. We were thrown into organizing scenarios, from putting together a town hall to forming a blockade against construction workers, and how to stay strong during non-violent direct action.

Photo courtesy of 350Chicago.

The training was held in the American Indian Center, in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. The American Indian Center is the oldest urban-based Native American center in the U.S., formed in response to a huge wave of Native Americans relocating to metropolitan Chicago, as tribes were selectively terminated, and no reservation existed in Illinois. Chicago sits on the sacred land of Potawatomie, Ojibwa and Odawa tribes, as well as the Menominee, Miami and Ho-Chunk; more than 65,000 Native Americans live in the Chicago area (the word Chicago is said to come from an Algonquin word describing the stinky smell of leeks along the river).

As a guest on this land, doing this research and re-centering Indigenous history is an important part of being a good relative, and a practice all non-Native allies should engage in when we do any organizing, but especially around environmental and climate work.

So how do you be a good relative? Here are some lessons I am taking with me, knowing that showing up in a good way is a constant process and awareness.

Know your values and motivations — have clarity about why you show up.

Know your role.

Try to understand how those most affected are feeling, and make space for healing.

Know your strengths, and have self-discipline.

Show up in the ways you want to be in community.

Remember that the future of your descendants depends on how you are in community now.

Trust and respect local leadership.


Be self-sufficient.

Remember to only act on invitation.

Do your research.

Don’t be a cultural tourist.

I left bursting with gratitude and a newfound sense of empowerment. In that room, I saw the power of unified action and the immensity of intergenerational knowledge and moral clarity. When I hear the call to act, I know I will be ready to join wherever I am needed, whether that’s the frontlines, or in a solidarity action in my home community.

I encourage you to watch the wrap-up video, and a video of Bill McKibben visiting the first Chicago training day, and to get involved in your community to fight this pipeline!