Featured photo: Crystal Cavalier-Keck, a community organizer and member of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, is helping lead resistance to the southern extension of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and a movement to grant Rights of Nature to the Haw River. (courtesy photo)

Over the slow beat of a drum, dancers used giant puppets to act out a creation story of the sun and the moon, and sea creatures walking on dry land, and storyteller Jason Crazy Bear Keck explained that his careful steps were no left-footed mistake.

“You might think I’m going the wrong way, counterclockwise,” he told the audience gathered in the amphitheater last Sunday on the banks of the Haw River in Saxapahaw. “But this is turning back the circle of time, back to the wisdom of our ancestors.”

The performance came in a gathering called “Truthsgiving” — one part community supper, two parts Indigenous teach-in — a homegrown answer to a holiday smothered in irony. The centerpiece on the Thanksgiving table, as organizer Crystal Cavalier-Keck noted, is the ahistorical national origin story taught schoolchildren: Pilgrims in tall hats land on Plymouth Rock, a friendly feather-wearing Squanto appears (and by divine providence, speaks English), a great feast is shared by all, and Squanto exits stage right, never to return.

But the gravy part of the ritual is all about the present. From Macy’s Parade floats to the NFL kickoff, Thanksgiving celebrates the land of plenty. This is in an age when both land and plenty are perpetually in doubt, not least for members of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, among the first inhabitants of the place that lies between Greensboro and Durham.

Storyteller Jason Crazy Bear Keck narrates an indigenous story with a performer from Paperhand Puppet Intervention in Saxapahaw as part of Sunday’s Truthsgiving. (photo by Lorraine Ahearn)

Clouding the horizon last Sunday afternoon, looming larger than the dancers’ papier-maché thunderbolts, has been a withering five-year fight by opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and the plan to extend it 75 miles south across the North Carolina-Virginia line. On paper, the fracked natural-gas pipeline originating in the shale fields of West Virginia would run through Rockingham and Alamance counties, across Stoney Creek and along the Haw River.

Proponents of the main pipeline include Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose Hail Mary parliamentary pass last June squeezed a pipeline greenlight provision into a must-pass national debt-ceiling deal. That last-minute maneuver, trading votes for the debt deal, put back in play what had been a long-delayed $7.2 billion boondoggle: the West Virginia and Virginia part of the pipeline. After the Supreme Court last summer cleared a final obstacle — Jefferson National Forest — the main project could be completed in 2024.

Supporters like Manchin claim the pipeline is needed to help companies like Duke Energy transition from coal. Environmentalists, who have managed to delay Mountain Valley for five years, counter that the only demonstrated need for the pipeline is to line project investors’ pockets. In the process, environmental activists argue, the 303-mile dig through the Virginias tramples landowners and cuts a 100-foot-wide swath through sensitive ecological areas and, if extended into North Carolina, would further degrade the forests, the floodplain and all that depend on them to survive.

The chance that the Southgate extension could likewise proceed is an alarming prospect to organizers, including the community-based Haw River Assembly, which has lobbied the legislature to grant the Haw protection based on the emerging “Rights of Nature” movement. That is the theory that a river, for example, is a living entity rather than a mere commodity to be extracted or used up for human development. And in the case of the Haw, originally named for the Saxapahaw and Sissipahaw tribes, it is an entity in distress — an observation brought home for local resident Benita Raynor on a mountain hike near Boone Fork Creek this fall.

“It was a place called Rough Ridge Trail, and the water was so clear and so clean. Not like we have here,” Raynor said, gesturing back toward the river roaring below the old dye house, now Haw River Ballroom.

Those who grew up along the river and were children in the 1970s recall grandparents warning them not to wade in the river, and if they did touch the water, to wash it off immediately. A decade ago, the Haw made the “most endangered rivers” list for what the cleanup group American Rivers called “death by a thousand cuts”­: a toxic soup of abandoned textile factory dams and dye mills, sewage spills, fertilizer runoff­, hog lagoons and chicken slaughterhouses. Feeding into the river, which runs to Jordan Lake Reservoir and supplies 10 percent of the state’s drinking water, were fragile tributaries the EPA categorized as “impaired,” a vast network of forks, creeks and branches that extend across the watershed map like spidery blood vessels, named for creatures that lived here for thousands of years — buffalo, beaver, wildcat, panther.

“This was a flourishing place,” Jason Keck said of the continent First Nations people call Turtle Island, the name for North America. “There were millions of Native American people, and this was thousands of years of it actually working, traditional Indigenous knowledge — only harvesting what you need.”

That counterclockwise turn to Indigenous knowledge is echoed in fields such as forestry, agriculture and land management. That is, the growing recognition that Indigenous practices once dismissed in the scientific community as primitive or — well, unscientific — are in reality grounded in thousands of years of evidentiary data. For instance? The use of fire to manage forests. The avoidance of overfishing salmon. The dependence on buffalo as a keystone species. The preservation of seed corn. The role beavers play in connecting waterways.

Performers from Paperhand Puppet Intervention act out an indigenous creation story at Sunday’s Truthsgiving in Saxapahaw. (photo by Lorraine Ahearn)

The greater the awareness of this interdependence in nature, the deeper the concerns expressed regarding the Southgate extension. Supporters’ bill to fast-track water permitting was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper in October as “a hodgepodge of bad provisions… that would result in dirtier water, discriminatory permitting and threats to North Carolina’s environment.” The NC House overrode the veto; hence, extension supporters live to fight another day.

Opponents, buoyed by effective campaigns to halt petroleum and gas pipelines elsewhere in the US, view the project as a death rattle for the fossil fuel industry, and wonder whether the pipeline will be built only to be abandoned. Crystal Keck periodically visits Virginia’s Pittsylvania County to survey the construction. Beside the lengthening gash the dig has created up and down the green hillsides, Keck said she has witnessed another jarring sight: Sections of steel pipe, scattered like massive pick-up sticks, that lie corroding in the elements during the lengthy construction delays caused by environmental activists and the regulatory process itself.

Direct action tactics by protestors have had enough of an impact — for example, with protestors arrested in October after locking themselves to construction equipment in Jefferson National Forest — that the pipeline company has sued protestors in federal court. Yet here in Alamance County, Crystal Keck said her focus so far with the organization 7 Directions of Service is on the power of networks.

“It’s really trying to build relationships between communities,” Crystal Keck said. “You can agree on the things that sustain life like water and food and shelter.”

Symbiotic ties found in nature ran through the creation stories Jason Keck and Tuscarora storyteller Ramona Moore Big Eagle performed — ancient metaphors that in the late afternoon light of 2023 hit contemporary notes of catastrophe and mutual survival. The Tree of Life blown over by a massive wind. The aftershock rumbling beneath the land mass as the turtle tries to settle itself. The Sky Woman held aloft by birds. The sea creatures crawling through the alluvium left by the flood, shedding their shells to walk on two legs.

Like the schoolchild’s Pilgrim hat and Indian feathers made of construction paper and glue, they are stories, but less flimsy than they appear. Only one will survive the test of time.

Lorraine Ahearn is an assistant professor of journalism at Elon University. She studies the history of media representation of marginalized people.

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