Former Obama Indian Advocate Fights for Hope on Keystone XL

Wizipan Garriott has once again been inspired to action, this time to stop development of the Keystone XL pipeline. He was one of those front and center at the week-long protest against the project, which wrapped up on Saturday April 26.

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Maybe he’s the one to do it. In 2007, he was stirred to support the historic Obama campaign for president and its grand promises of hope and change. Early on, before it was ever clear that the young senator from Illinois would be able to defeat Hillary Clinton’s seemingly unstoppable bid for the Democratic nomination, Garriott joined the team of President Barack Obama as a Native American outreach coordinator. By June 2008 he had been promoted to become the campaign’s Native vote director, responsible for overseeing outreach to tribal citizens nationwide.

After the president’s victory in fall 2008 over Republican nominee Senator John McCain, Garriott was rewarded at the age of 28 with the title of First Americans Public Liaison within the administration’s transition team, and he was later hired as deputy chief of staff to former Interior Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, a job Garriott exited in early 2011.

RELATED: Wizipan Garriott Named Obama’s First Americans Public Liaison

During three years of service, Garriott was part of the governmental apparatus, trying to influence tribal-federal relations from within the federal system. There were sometimes pitfalls and feelings of discouragement, he has lamented, but there were also victories, such as the hiring of many Native Americans to positions in a variety of federal agencies and the passage pro-tribal federal laws, including the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, as well as progress on longstanding water and trust settlement disputes.

Then, just as suddenly as he had arrived on the national political scene, Garriott was called back to his own tribe, first to become director of the Rosebud Sioux Office of Analysis in late 2011 and later to be named CEO of the tribe’s Economic Development Corporation, a position he holds to this day.

Garriott is now firmly rooted on the outside of the federal system. And, as evidenced by introductions of him at public events, he now goes by Wizipan Garriott Little Elk as a nod to both of his parents’ names.

Having worked in major positions on both sides of the tribal-federal fence, the Yale-educated tribal citizen who once assisted former Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) is in a unique position to assess the nation-to-nation relationship.

“It is an inescapable reality that the most pro-tribal federal employee (what I strived to be), and even the greatest tribal advocate or tribal chairman, must work within the framework of federal Indian law and policy,” Garriott wrote on the Last Real Indians website in 2012. “As long as we accept and rely upon federal dollars, we will be beholden to these laws; but who’s to say this framework can’t be changed in fundamental ways.”

Along those lines, Garriott has suggested that Indian country needs to establish an overarching national political platform.

“If we do not begin pushing for fundamental changes, nothing will happen,” he wrote again at Last Real Indians. “It is time for Indian country to begin putting forward some basic, simple, big ideas.”

One idea Garriott is working on is to get his former employer, Obama, to once and for all deny the expansion of the Canadian Keystone XL Pipeline through the United States and through tribally connected water and land that could be polluted and environmentally impacted by the development if it were to go forward.

It’s a big idea, but far from simple, as illustrated by years of foot-dragging on the issue by the Obama administration, which has put off the decision multiple times, most recently on April 18, until after the November mid-term elections. The delays have happened to the chagrin of both supporters of the pipeline who say it will provide an economic boon to the U.S. economy—including to tribes that choose to get involved with it—and to detractors, many of whom cannot get past the destruction that pipeline development in Canada has had on First Nations communities there, as well as the potential negative climate change impacts.

RELATED: Keystone XL Decision Delayed Yet Again as State Department Invokes Nebraska Court Ruling

The president himself seems conflicted, having told Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Vice Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) that a decision would be made by early 2014, which did not happen. The latest indecision prompted The Washington Post editorial board to call the delay “absurd” and “embarrassing” in an article published on April 23.

At an April 21–26 gathering of Native Americans, ranchers and environmentalists on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Garriott took center stage, trying to get the crowd to remember the hope and change he had fought for back in 2007.

“What we have been doing this week represents the best of what America can be,” Garriott said in a speech to the 1,000 or so assembled Cowboy and Indian Alliance protesters gathered by the Smithsonian Castle on April 26. “It represents the best of what tribal nations can be.”

Echoing the famously well received speeches that Obama gave on his first presidential campaign trail, Garriott recalled standing in a reflecting pool with a rancher on the National Mall earlier in the week. “Like our civil rights leaders before us in the 50s and the 60s and the 70s, we are standing up for what’s right,” he said. “We are standing here united. And we are asking the president—we are asking the United States government to be a great nation and to live up to their word not only to the American Indians, but to the people who elected the leaders of the United States and put them into office. We’re asking them to make the right decision.”

Garriott added that elected leaders need to stand up to “big money,” “corporate interests” and “antiquated technologies” such as those driving the pipeline. He received major applause for his sentiments, and there was great hope apparent in the crowd that Obama, despite being out of town on a trip to Japan and despite the latest punt by his administration on this matter, would ultimately deny the project.

As a symbol of this hope, protesters donated a tipi painted by protesters during the week-long event to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the alliance, said the tipi was meant to remind Obama of the support he has received from Native Americans.

“Obama made promises to the indigenous peoples of this land, and some tribes took him in and acknowledged him and gave him a name,” Goldtooth said in an April 26 speech closing the week’s protests. “He was given a Crow name. He was also given a Lakota name…The Man Who Helps the People.

“Your name is He Who Helps the People, so help us!” Goldtooth said. “Remember your promises. Remember what you stand for!”

Federal government policies hampered the intentions of the protesters who wanted to give the tipi directly to the president, but he is not allowed to accept such gifts. Thus the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian offered to receive the tipi, but Smithsonian officials made clear that this did not mean that the federal museum was supporting the anti-Keystone sentiments, nor did the museum have any plans to display the tipi.

Garriott has learned that it’s sometimes hard to be hopeful when it comes to the federal government’s rules. And even in a group of anti-pipeline protesters with common goals, there are difficulties and culture clashes.

As part of the event, organizers brought paint for the protesters to use to add their hand and thumb prints to the donated tipi. Soon, protesters were marking not only the tipi, but also their own faces.

“We respectfully ask you to get some water and to wash that off,” Garriott said into the microphone. “In order to wear that paint, it is something that has to be earned. Not anyone can just do that.”