Some of us helped organize a massive display of civil disobedience outside the White House earlier this fall, protesting a proposed pipeline from the tar sands of northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a good two weeks of action—1,252 Americans ended up in jail, the largest and most sustained protest of its kind in decades. But the truth? We were Johnny-come-latelies to this movement. The real work had begun years before, and has been carried out by indigenous communities on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.
I knew just enough about the Alberta tar sands to know that the first person I should call when we started thinking about joining the protest was Tom Goldtooth, head of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and one of the most venerable and venerated environmental leaders in the country. I knew, vaguely, that he’d told me about this work before—even shown me pictures of the vast tribal lands and boreal forest wrecked by the early stages of mining for oil north of the border. But I’d never really followed up—there are lots of horrors in this world, who can pay attention to them all, excuse excuse blah blah excuse.
It was only when NASA scientist James Hansen explained what damage burning this vast pool of oil would do to the climate that it rose to the top of my priority list. (A lot of damage—“essentially game over for the climate” was how he put it.) And I’m glad it did, in part because it brought me more closely in touch with some of the greatest organizers on this continent.
Goldtooth, of course. But also Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a young Cree woman from the part of Alberta wrecked by this mining. I watched her give a PowerPoint presentation at a labor union meeting in a sterile conference room in Washington, D.C.—and I watched the union leaders who knew little about the specifics of the project see it suddenly through her eyes: the friends dying of cancer, the way of life dying as the forest disappeared. She was never sentimental; if anything, the opposite. But her heart shone through.
Or Bill Erasmus, chief of the Dene in northern Canada. Hard to imagine a more dignified man. He’s served in this post for more than 20 years. “You’re a politician?” I asked, teasing him a little. He looked at me. “No,” he said. “A leader.” Indeed. If he and his colleagues were open to it, the fossil fuel industry would be only too happy to buy them off—a small price to pay for shutting them up. Instead, the indigenous leaders have waged a highly successful battle to keep the oil companies from running a pipeline west to British Columbia, over First Nations land. (Canadian tribes may have more legal power than American ones; at any rate, they’ve completely stymied the big money guys.) That’s one reason the oil companies want to build this pipeline south to Texas; if they can’t get it through, in the words of Alberta’s energy minister, they’ll be “landlocked” in oil.
I don’t know if we’re going to win this battle—the money on the other side is truly awesome. It will be instructive to see if President Obama can do the right thing anyway. But if we do triumph, there’s no question who the heroes are: the indigenous communities that have fought this fight hardest and longest.
Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and founder of 350.org, is initiator of Tar Sands Action (www.tarsand  saction.org).