The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of permits for the Dakota Access oil pipeline did not comply with legal consultation requirements, House Democrats Raúl Grijalva and Raul Ruiz, MD, concluded after a forum late last week.
Even as the sale of Cannonball Ranch to Dakota Access LLC was being finalized by its private owners on September 22, Lakota and Apache leaders were in Washington D.C. to give statements before Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives about not only the current trials of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, but also the bigger picture.
In a two-hour discussion attended by about two dozen lawmakers, a panel consisting of Standing Rock Sioux Chairman David Archambault II, Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman Harold Frazier, Lakota elder Faith Spotted Eagle, Apache Stronghold founder Wendsler Nosie Sr., and youth representative Gracey Claymore spoke and answered questions about the crisis surrounding the Dakota Access oil pipeline’s construction. They also addressed the larger issues surrounding Indigenous Peoples and their relationship with the United States—what consultation really means, what the implications are for industrial projects, and what needs to happen next with Dakota Access.
The discussion ranged from how the permitting process is conducted, to the impact of sacred sites destruction within the context of historical trauma, to the resurgent hope that has indigenous youth standing up for their cultures, and to the very notion of what constitutes archaeology and who gets to define it.
In terms of Congress, what it came down to was a matter of law.
“I just want to remind everybody that the piece of land we’re talking about is on federal land,” noted Ruiz, the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs, in closing remarks. “So this is land that is under the jurisdiction of the federal government. And that what we’re talking about here is not just a matter of what is right. It’s the law.”
Not only that, he said, but those laws had been violated, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been warned earlier this year when three federal agencies wrote separate letters urging the Corps to do a more in-depth environmental and cultural study of the areas of the pipeline that would run through federal land.
Ruiz called for the permits granted by the Army Corps to be revoked and said a complete environmental and historical assessment should be done—and all of it via meaningful consultation with affected tribes.
Grijalva said the to-do list was clear.
“The agencies involved in this decision-making process in Standing Rock, they made a mistake. A big mistake,” he said. “They were disrespectful, paternalistic and kowtowing to some big money special interests in moving forward with this project. They have to correct that. And they have to correct it in a respectful, meaningful way.”
The hearing opened at 1 p.m. with statements from the panelists. Archbambault spoke first. Highest on his agenda was to clarify the tribe’s position. The Standing Rock Sioux don’t oppose economic development, energy independence or national security, he said.
“What we oppose is it being done off our backs,” he said. “For too long, there are too many cases where tribes have been forced to give and continue to give. Today, we pay for the Missouri River, Lake Oahe Hydropower with Western Area Power Association so that this nation gets affordable electricity.”
The creation of Lake Oahe flooded traditional lands, inundating the childhood homes of tribal members and obliterating historical and cultural sites.
The Apache Stronghold is battling the midnight giveaway of land in Arizona to the mining company Resolution Copper, with a last-minute addendum to a must-pass defense bill in 2014. Then there are the treaty rights promised to Indigenous Peoples in 1851, on papers that were signed, and then virtually ignored by the U.S. government.
“We should have an opportunity in the future no matter what to have a say,” said Archambault, who just the day before had been in Geneva, testifying before the United Nations Human Rights Council. “The way we've been doing that is through prayer and peace. I have to share that with you because we've got a lot of attention, and it seems like attention only comes when there's negativity.”
Spotted Eagle pinpointed the ways in which the colonial, Western European mind-set cannot even fathom Native ways, and how that affects the consultation process.
“I’d like to begin by acknowledging that an entire realm of Native thought is marginalized, declared unknowable and consequently left out of every serious decision,” she said. “The arrival of western Columbian philosophy on our shores brought ideas rooted in the concept of manifest destiny,” the notion “that state and federal agencies and people that they authorize are somehow endowed with the right to take whatever was in front of them from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific Ocean.”
Photo: Courtesy Samantha Eldridge
Faith Spotted Eagle, left, and Samantha Eldridge outside the hearing room in Washington DC.
Operating from that paradigm marginalizes Indigenous Peoples, she said, completely discounting—and even erasing—their knowledge.
“Being indigenous means we are a place-based society,” Spotted Eagle said. “As a result we have been given wisdom about the land that is much older than the American population today.”
From that vantage point, the current rending of the environment and our human habitat resemble nothing more than wanton destruction of the natural world, the very world that sustains us all, she said.
She tied the “biopolitical” issues based on lands and waters to corporate control over food supply, water and thus our very bodies. Human trafficking was just one example of the result, Spotted Eagle said. Another example is the repeatedly ignored warnings about carbon emissions and climate change.
Frazier described so-called consultation meetings. Too often “we come with authorities from our tribal council to negotiate,” he said. “A lot of times there are no decision-makers sitting across the table from us. They always say they’ll take it back to their superiors and get back to us, and they never do.”
But they “check the box” that says they have consulted, he said, and consider the matter closed. He also reminded everyone that under the 1851 treaty, the Sioux retained ownership of the land; the federal government holds it in trust.
“We are all signatories of the 1851 treaty, which belongs to the Great Sioux Nation,” said Frazier, whose Cheyenne River Tribe is on record as an intervenor in the Standing Rock Sioux’s lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its approval of the Dakota Access permits. “And where that pipeline is attempting to cross, belongs to all the Sioux tribes.”
Moreover, the tribes retained ownership of all but the land’s surface in the treaties, he said, “all subsurface and minerals still belonged to the Sioux nation.”
Ideally, Frazier said, the projects that companies want to build across treaty lands would be given to the tribes to manage so that the Department of the Army would not have to act as middlemen.
Another problem with the bureaucracy involved, Spotted Eagle noted, was the segmenting of the project for permitting purposes. The U.S. Army Corps Omaha District, St. Louis District and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service each granted their own set of permits, which diluted the potential for studying the impact of the big picture, she said. Spotted Eagle also spoke of historical trauma, and the continuing attempts even today to “erase” American Indians.
“The reasons 7,000 natives have gathered is because this happens repeatedly, over and over again, where erasure has occurred,” she said.
Gracey Claymore, age 19, was the youth representative before the panel. She got choked up describing how much it meant to Standing Rock youth to embrace their cultural heritage and to stand up for what they knew was right. And she reminded everyone what they were there for.
“We are only coming together to protect our waters,” she said. “It’s not just the Dakota Access issue. It’s so much bigger than that. We have been saying over and over that this is not just a Native American issue, this is a human race issue. We are doing this to protect our human race, because without water we cannot survive. Without this Earth, we will not be here any more.”