The FCC Is Allowing 5G Towers on Indigenous Land Without Tribal Consent

Tribal preservation offices can't keep up with a deluge of requests, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing them to close or work at reduced capacity.
December 9, 2020, 11:00am
Tribal preservation offices are saying that the FCC is exploiting a loophole to allow for 5G towers to be built on Indigenous land without their consent. File photo of a 5G tower in Utah​​
Tribal preservation offices are saying that the FCC is exploiting a loophole to allow for 5G towers to be built on Indigenous land without their consent. File photo of a 5G tower in Utah by George Frey/AFP via Getty Images GEORGE FREY/AFP via Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is approving the construction of 5G towers on what could be sacred Indigenous lands without tribal consent, VICE News has found. 

Muscogee (Creek) Nation works on projects in 12 states across the midwest and southern U.S., and is expected to inspect proposals for every 5G tower that goes up in those states. On average, it receives 150 small cell tower projects per month. But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, it has received 1,700 requests. 

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“We just have no capacity to respond,” RaeLynn Butler, manager of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Historic and Cultural Preservation Department in Oklahoma, told VICE News.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many tribal offices are closed or are working at reduced capacity. Many officers are working remotely, and some areas lack the connectivity for people to work effectively. 

“It’s ironic that we have people reviewing cell phone towers who don’t even have internet access at home,” Butler said.

According to Section 106 of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, every federal agency must consider the impacts of “its actions” on historic sites for new construction projects. On Indigenous land, this includes consulting with the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. If the tribe does not respond to a consultation request within 30 days, the company can continue with the project.

A spokesperson from CTIA, a trade association that represents the U.S. wireless communications industry, said its member companies “are committed to working with all stakeholders to ensure timely review of new infrastructure.

“The FCC has adopted rules that balance the goals of providing for tribal review while enabling expeditious buildout of next-generation wireless services,” Jilane Rodgers Petrie, director of public affairs, wrote in an email.

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The FCC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Matt Peterson, vice president of communications at American Tower, wrote: “We are not aware at this time of any situation regarding one of our towers where we moved forward without hearing from the THPO office.” 

In the three years that Joshua Mann has worked at Eastern Shoshone Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Wyoming, he has been asked to consult on 17,000 projects on Indigenous lands. 

“We get a lot of conflict. It’s overwhelming with the towers. The race to 5G right now, it’s crazy,” Mann said.

The FCC claims that excavations for 5G infrastructure don’t affect historic sites, but the preservation offices say these determinations are made without the presence of experts or archeologists from local Indigenous communities. 

In West Virginia, the FCC first proposed a “broadband expressway project” in 2018 to build 150 new 5G towers across one of the ancestral homelands of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma. Even though the band refused to sign the proposal, the project was reupped this year and is going ahead anyway. 

“They pretty much told us that they were going to put these towers in. They didn’t care if we had historical properties there,” said Whitney Warrior, the current preservation office director for the United Keetoowah Band

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“It’s very clear that they have no intention of being educated in tribal sensitivity at all.” 

During the pandemic, consultation requests have increased in some areas. 

In July, the FCC tried to pass two new amendments to reduce tribal consultations. One of the amendments would exempt Section 106 consultations for companies expanding on an existing tower of less than 30 feet. 

“Especially now with the pandemic (the FCC) is doing so much work knowing that tribes are vulnerable and hardly in the office,” said Sheila Bird, the former preservation officer for the United Keetowah Band.

“Our first and foremost concern is to not disturb unmarked graves,” said Bird, who’s now a consultant at Kituwah Nighthawk Consulting. 

Protecting ancestral homelands is essential in preserving history, culture, and traditions for future generations.

“Once all of that’s gone it’s gone forever,” Warrior said. “If we don’t protect our tribal legacy, then the loss will be a total genocide of an entire race of Indian people.”

Many Indigenous communities also say they have not been compensated for consultations they have conducted.

“They haven’t paid in probably two years,” said Karen Pritchett, Tower Construction Notification System coordinator for the United Keetoowah Band.

Without proper funding, tribes cannot review projects in a timely manner. “When you have an unfunded mandate, it puts tribes in a harder position to reach the expectations of industry,” Butler said. 

With the announcement that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai will step down in January, there is hope that there will be more collaboration with local Indigenous tribes.

“The reality is that we need these towers to have better communications and to survive the pandemic. But we need to work together better,” Butler said. “We’re constantly seen as a barrier. It’s frustrating to know that with everything that we have done, the thousands of towers and projects we have reviewed, that it’s still not enough.”

Follow Sophie Stuber on Twitter.