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Obama’s Legacy On the Line: The Dakota Access Pipeline Could Tarnish His Place in History

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Obama and Native nations have worked hard over eight years to create a special and healthy relationship during his tenure. Not a perfect relationship, but definitely special. This is really the first time in the United States’ history that a Presidential Administration has really tried to live up to its treaty obligations. That’s good. Yet, if he fails to act and kill this Dakota Access Pipeline—a pipeline that directly threatens Native treaty rights and also directly threatens Native children’s health and well-being—all of that work may be for naught. 

From an objective standpoint, President Obama has unquestionably been the “best” president ever in recognizing and respecting the Nation-to-Nation relationship of Native nations to the United States. 

That’s a loaded statement. “The best.” Almost every other President’s relationship with Native communities has been terrible and neglectful. In fact, the relationship between Presidents and Native nations was (almost) always so bad that, really, as long as Obama didn’t talk with his mouth full of food and/or pass gas while meeting with Native leaders, he would be considered “pretty good.” But Obama has exceeded that extremely low standard. He has, as a factual matter, largely respected the nation-to-nation legal foundation of the United States. He did not do us any favors by doing so—he simply did what every President is supposed to do. The Supreme Court said so. “The Constitution, by declaring treaties already made, as well as those to be made, to be the supreme law of the land, has adopted and sanctioned the previous treaties with the Indian nations, and consequently admits their rank among the powers who are capable of making treaties.” However, although every President is supposed to recognize this relationship, Obama is really the first President that honored this relationship. 

Yet, Obama’s legacy hangs in the balance in regards to how he deals with Native nations. No Native nation wants the Dakota Access Pipeline and every nation recognizes that it is a violation of treaty rights and racist as hell. There has never been this much consensus, from Native nation to Native nation on one issue. Its construction is a violation of treaty rights, as the Yankton Sioux Tribe and Cheyenne River Tribe have brilliantly pointed out. But as the Standing Rock Sioux also points out, the pipeline is also a violation of the trust responsibility, the duty to consult, tramples on Native sacred sites in violation of federal law and really, really is just some shady ass racial profiling that explicitly prioritizes Native people’s health below that of white people. 

That is racist, ugly, unacceptable and ultimately illegal. And if President Obama somehow allows that sort of egregious violation of the nation-to-nation relationship between Native nations and the US to happen, then the past eight years of goodwill will be cheapened and some may even call it a farce. Land, clean water and the ability to protect its citizens are the foundational rocks upon which nationhood and sovereignty are built. The Dakota Access Pipeline, like the Keystone XL Pipeline (a pipeline where President Obama maintained his obligation to Native nations and did the right thing) before it, would crush those foundational rocks. 

Tribal leaders understand the importance of his action on Dakota Access. Swinomish Chairman and President of the National Congress of American Indians, Brian Cladoosby, makes very clear that Obama needs to intervene. “We thank President Obama for visiting Indian Country—it was a historic visit to the Standing Rock homelands. We truly are thankful. The youth came away thinking that the President had their back. Now they need him to really have their back more than ever. Their generation, and generations to come, would be devastated if this pipeline went through. We need the easement denied.”

Along with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Dakota Access Pipeline also threatens the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s water sources. Cheyenne River Chairman Harold Frazier spoke strongly on what President Obama needs to do. “A young Native girl testified to the President and he talked to her and promised her that he would protect her. He needs to live up to his words and promises. Many Presidents lied to Native people many times and we do not need Obama to be just like all of those past “great white fathers. He needs to order this easement to be denied.”

President Obama cannot sacrifice eight years of hard work. He and Native nations have worked way too hard rebuild hundreds of years of broken trust to compromise that legacy now. This pipeline cannot be completed without federal approval; if Obama values the relationship he’s built with Native nations, he needs to kill the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Wesley Roach, Skan Photography

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large

Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories

Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

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