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TransCanada Keystone Pipeline

What's missing?

Cultural preservation director demands tribal participation

POPLAR, Mont. - Pipe has already been delivered to a North Dakota depot, and the U.S. Department of State has signed off on a permit to begin construction on the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline. Meanwhile, the State Department has not completed government-to-government consultations with affected tribes about the underground line, which will cross seven states from North Dakota to Oklahoma, bringing heavy crude oil from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, to U.S. refineries.

Along the way, the line will traverse ancestral homelands - though not reservations - of many Native communities, potentially disrupting sacred sites, rivers, aquifers and more.

As tribal historic preservation officers prepared for a May 14 meeting with a State Department representative at Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, in South Dakota, Indian Country Today spoke with Curley Youpee, Minicoujou and Hunkpapa Lakota/Pabaksa Dakota. Youpee, who is director of the Fort Peck Tribes' Cultural Preservation Office, in Poplar, has been vocal in demanding that tribes be included in the planning.

Indian Country Today: Can you explain the tribes' sense of urgency about the pipeline?

Curley Youpee: The line comes down rivers, including the Red River Valley, and crosses other areas that have a lot of cultural information for us. When cultural sites are destroyed, we lose history; we lose the pages of our existence. This vital legacy must be maintained and enriched for future generations.

ICT: What about the Programmatic Agreement [a final document that sets out procedures for dealing with burials and other cultural resources discovered during construction of a project]?

Youpee: We want to be signatories to the agreement. The State Department has treaty and trust obligations to ensure we're fully involved, and so far we haven't been. When tribal preservation officers went to Washington in December 2007 to look at a draft, we left without them showing it to us.

ICT: When did the tribes become a part of this process?

Youpee: We were contacted one year after it was under way. We had no time to pave a way for interacting with the State Department; we also did not have complete information on certain stages of the process. Huge binders of documents would arrive right before meetings. Many tribes were contacted in ways they couldn't access technologically - using computer programs they don't have or via cell phone coverage that's unreliable in their areas, for example. Here's one example of what we're missing: construction is supposed to be under way soon, and the project doesn't even have a confidentiality agreement for sacred sites that are identified.

ICT: Have decision makers been involved on all sides - the State Department and the 31 tribes who are consulting parties to the project?

Youpee: No. It's been an arrogant, fast-tracked process, with a lot of negative rhetoric from the State Department. The legal mandate that requires federal agencies to consult with Indian tribes on a government-to-government basis has existed for more than 200 years via the Commerce Clause of the Constitution and numerous statutes, executive orders and ongoing policies.

ICT: Is State familiar with the analysis for such a large project, particularly when dealing with tribes and traditional cultural properties?

Youpee: No. This is one of the few times they've ever done this. Further, the outside consultant doing the archaeological surveys appears to have no expertise as far as traditional cultural properties are concerned and did the surveys before contacting the tribes, which do have expertise. That includes elders, who must be contacted in their home communities. We can't take 80- and 90-year-olds to Washington.

ICT: What's your response to the project's economic analysis?

Youpee: All the tribes have terrible unemployment problems and can't get information that would allow us to start training programs in particular skills that the project needs. Tribes need time to develop strategies that address real problems in Indian country.

ICT: Has this project proceeded differently from others you've been involved with?

Youpee: In the past, we've developed a relationship with the federal agency responsible for a particular project. In this case, it feels like the outside consultant has done the work on behalf of the energy company that wants to build the pipeline, and the State Department is signing off on those findings without including what's mandated or ethically correct for the affected tribes.

ICT: Bottom line?

Youpee: Paying homage to our cultural sites is beneficial for Native people. So we're looking for a process that honors the sacred places and ensures the pipeline includes some benefit for us.