Wearing jeans, a light blue shirt, a dark sport coat and a colorfully beaded pendant that hung from his neck, Harold Frazier became increasingly agitated as he spoke. The chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux in north central South Dakota was in Albuquerque to address a panel of 10 representatives of a range of federal agencies, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The previous day he had met with President Obama, who urged him to have faith in the consultation process. Frazier appreciated the advice, but acknowledged in Albuquerque that he did not trust the federal government.
Unable to bridle his passion, he challenged the panel to look to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota. “You have the power to protect those people up there,” he declared, referencing the thousands of water protectors who have gathered to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. “Will you do that?”
The October 27 Albuquerque meeting was the third of eight government-to-government consultations to be hosted in cities across the country; three others already have been held, in Phoenix, Seattle, and Billings, Montana. They were organized in response to a federal district court ruling at the beginning of September related to Standing Rock’s opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline. The Bureau of Indian Affairs arranged the meetings specifically to identify the ways in which the federal government could ensure meaningful input from tribes on large infrastructure projects like the pipeline.
On the day of the Albuquerque meeting, meanwhile, violence against the water protectors in North Dakota escalated as militarized police arrested more than 140 protectors. For many tribal leaders, the contrast between these two scenes was sharp: one, in which men in suits addressed each other in measured tones; the other, in which water protectors, bandanas over their faces to shield themselves from chemical spray, faced hundreds of police from seven different states in full riot gear, arriving in armored vehicles, brandishing automatic weapons, shooting rubber bullets and spraying camp occupants with Mace.
That contrast exemplified the crux of U.S.-tribal relationship problems and overshadowed consultation efforts to foster goodwill. And yet, some tribal leaders, even with reticence from a longstanding mistrust of the federal government, welcomed the opportunity to talk more openly. President Obama’s pronouncement last week that the Army Corps is exploring ways to reroute the pipeline notwithstanding, whether these consultations will lead to meaningful change remains to be seen.
A Quick History of 'Consultation'
To comply with several statutes and executive orders, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, the federal government is required to consult with tribes in any instance that cultural artifacts, including human remains, might be disturbed. Bolstering these statutes, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 13175 in November 2000, requiring federal agencies to have “an accountable process to ensure meaningful and timely input by Tribal officials.”
Then in 2009, President Obama strengthened this policy with another executive order by adding a commitment to “regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration with tribal officials on policy decisions that have tribal implications.” Despite this demonstration of support, the Standing Rock Sioux do not believe the spirit of this order was followed when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted the permit to allow the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.
In response to the growing occupation at Standing Rock and declarations of solidarity from tribes across the nation—and around the world—the Obama administration announced on Sep. 9 that it would hold an unprecedented series of consultation meetings immediately following a ruling against the tribe in Standing Rock Sioux v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The administration announced: “This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.” Later that month, the Bureau of Indian Affairs released a schedule of eight meetings; the remaining four will be held in Old Town, Maine; Prior Lake, Minneapolis; and Rapid City, South Dakota, as well as a final teleconference at the end of November.
Tribes Give Mixed Reviews
Many tribal leaders welcomed the opportunity to express their concerns and were hopeful that these meetings will produce lasting results.
For Gaylord Siow, tribal historic preservation officer for the Pueblo of Laguna, who spoke in Albuquerque, the meeting represented “a true commitment by President Obama and his administration to dialogue with tribal nations on our needs and recommendations for improving meaningful consultation.” Siow acknowledged that meetings like this often have mixed results but insisted, “We need to continue to participate in this process.”
At the meeting in Seattle, the Yakama Nation, Lummi Nation, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and Spokane Tribe took a proactive approach. Together, the tribes released a specific set of recommendations in the form of a five-point plan. The key requests: a comprehensive environmental impact statement on every fossil fuel export project in the region and a requirement for tribes to grant informed consent on infrastructure projects. In a statement, David Brown Eagle, vice chairman of the Spokane Tribe Business Council, said, “The federal government must do more to keep the promises this country made to Indian people.”
While some tribal leaders who are in the process of consulting with the federal government on other proposed infrastructure projects in their own regions welcomed the chance to provide feedback and improve the consultation process, others were skeptical.
In Albuquerque, Timothy Menchego, a historic preservation officer from the Pueblo of Santa Ana, suggested that consultations can never be 100 percent meaningful because “non-Natives can never fully understand the culture.” That was even evident, Menchego added, in the letter from the Bureau of Indian Affairs inviting each of the 567 federally recognized tribes to the meetings. Rather than addressing a specific person from each tribe, the letter uniformly began, “Dear Tribal Leader.” He pointed out: Couldn’t the government have bothered to find out the names of those leaders?
The representative from the Pueblo of Acoma, another New Mexico pueblo, took similar umbrage with the meeting’s organization. When it was his turn to speak, he pointedly turned the podium 90 degrees away from the room of fellow tribal leaders so that it faced the long table of agency representatives. “We should be sitting in a circle,” he demanded. “Or at the very least, we should be sitting at the table with you.”
Others found the relatively low-key meeting in Albuquerque tone-deaf juxtaposed with the escalating violence at Standing Rock.
Dark Cloud of Standing Rock
Prior to the meeting, the Red Nation, an Albuquerque-based organization that pushed the City of Albuquerque to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, organized a protest. It called the meeting “little more than a public relations tactic to make the U.S. government appear friendly to tribes when in fact they are actively engaged in ongoing repression and warfare against people on the ground in Standing Rock.”
Hope Alvarado attended the meeting as a member of the Red Nation. “As an indigenous people we are connected with other indigenous people in a way that’s indescribable,” she says. “So what is going on with our relatives in Standing Rock is holistically affecting us, and I don’t think it would be logical for the government to engage in a dialogue until the pipeline is gone.”
At different points throughout the meeting, a delegation of roughly a dozen members from the Red Nation stood in the back of the room, silently protesting by holding signs that said “We Stand with Standing Rock” and “Water is Sacred.” For Alvarado and her colleagues, the restrained conversations of that meeting was inappropriate given the events taking place at Standing Rock that same day.
And Cheyenne River Sioux’s leader Harold Frazier is also leery as to whether these meetings can take place in good faith while law enforcement continues its militarized tactics against the water protectors in North Dakota. In the week following the Albuquerque meeting, Frazier called for the resignation of Jim Henderson, the region’s commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, after a troubling phone conversation regarding the use of pepper spray, mace, and rubber bullets against the water protectors.
Yet he does hold out some hope. When asked whether he thought the tribal leaders’ concerns were heard, he responded simply: “Time will tell.”
The Entire Sioux Nation
Throughout the 19th century, as the federal government negotiated treaty after treaty with different groups of tribes, federal officials often made the mistake of believing the leader of a single tribe or band spoke for a much larger group of people than it actually did.
In 1868, when Red Cloud, an Oglala Lakota leader forced the government to negotiate a treaty following the three-year war he led against the Army along the Bozeman Trail, other Sioux leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse refused. They did not trust the government.
Despite the treaty’s lack of unanimous support, federal officials bound all of the Great Sioux Nation to the treaty’s stipulations, which would lead to the Battle of the Little Bighorn and later to the seizure of the Black Hills in 1877. Frazier worries that these same mistakes are being made again. “You’re dealing with the Sioux Nation, not just one tribe,” he notes.
The same week Frazier called for Henderson’s resignation, President Obama announced that the Army Corps is considering ways to reroute the pipeline so that it does not conflict with tribal interests. The president’s announcement was met with mixed reactions from Indian Country, many angry at his willingness to allow violence against the protectors to continue.
How will the next administration listen to tribal leaders and address development solutions? Time will tell.
Michael J. Dax wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Michael is the author of Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West (University of Nebraska Press, 2015). He lives in Santa Fe, where he writes about the environment and the American West. Reprinted with permission under a Creative Commons license.