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To Keep Indigenous Women Safe Joe Biden Must Go Beyond Keystone XL

Population booms caused by resource extraction sites and nearby temporary housing, or man camps, create a "hotbed" for criminal activity that disproportionately harms Indigenous communities.
Anya Zoledziowski
Toronto, CA
February 18, 2021, 4:46pm
angeline cheek and Fort Peck elders
From left to right: Vermae Taylor, Angeline Cheek, Delberta Eagleman, and Cheyenne Foote. Cheek and elders—the backbone of Fort Peck—pose during a prayer ceremony and protest against Keystone XL at the U.S.-Canada border. (Photo courtesy of Kokipasni Youth Group)
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Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

When Indigenous activist Angeline Cheek learned President Joe Biden revoked the permits for the Keystone XL pipeline on his first day in office, relief washed over her, even if only for a moment.

For Cheek, a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in Montana, halting what would have been a 1,897-kilometre pipeline carrying 830,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Alberta’s oil sands into Nebraska, is about keeping Indigenous women safe.

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“I’m relieved the man camps won’t be here,” said Cheek, referring to the temporary housing erected near job sites.

Fort Peck is located on the northeastern edge of Montana, and the Keystone XL would have travelled near the community. If the project were to have gone ahead, thousands of hired workers would have stayed in man camps.

During the last oil boom, “it was really scary to live in our area,” said Cheek, who organizes and educates people about the dangers of resource extraction and man camps. She recalled how a teacher, Sherry Arnold, was abducted by oil workers in North Dakota, just across the state border, while out for a run. Years later, in 2017, Cheek said oil workers chased two teenagers in Fort Peck until the girls managed to duck into an unlocked house. During a walk denouncing man camps and Keystone XL, organized by Cheek, white men approached the group and threatened to scalp her, she said.

“We heard all of these stories about women getting abducted, and we'd hear about sexual assaults happening,” Cheek said. “You hear this stuff and it triggers you.”

Biden’s decision to stop Keystone XL’s expansion limits the number of new transient workers who will flow into the area, ultimately quelling some fears that violence targeting nearby Indigenous communities will spike as a result of the pipeline. But more needs to be done to keep Indigenous peoples safe, especially since these problems are replicated across North America, Cheek said. 

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Several reports have found that population boons at resource extraction sites and man camps all over the U.S. and Canada result in spikes of violent crimes targeting Indigenous peoples. The crimes are often committed by transient, non-Indigenous workers, and are difficult to prosecute in part because tribes don’t have the authority to do so. 

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FILE - In an Aug. 21, 2017 file photo, workers make sure that each section of the Enbridge replacement Line 3 that is joined passes muster in Superior, Wisc. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii /Star Tribune via AP)

In North Dakota, for example, the oil boom, beginning in the early 1980s and hitting a peak in 2010, resulted in skyrocketing violent sexual assaults and other crimes targeting Indigenous women in Fort Berthold Reservation, or Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. Unlawful sexual contact in and around the region increased by nearly 45 percent between 2006 and 2012, whereas areas untouched by the boom experienced a nearly 7 percent decline. Aggravated assault, stranger violence, and domestic abuse also soared.

Part of the problem is that when assaults were reported at man camps, emergency responders didn’t know where to go because the camps are temporary and don’t have fixed addresses. 

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“They create pockets that law enforcement can’t reach,” said Carla Fredericks, an enrolled member of Fort Berthold and the executive director of the Christensen Fund, a nonprofit that promotes biocultural diversity.

On top of that, patchwork criminal jurisdiction means tribes have limited authority over crimes committed by non-tribal members, even when they take place in Indigenous communities. “It’s sometimes unclear who is responsible to respond—tribal, federal, or state police—and who is responsible to prosecute,” said Fredericks, who has researched the boom’s impacts in Fort Berthold. She added the boom resulted in a “flood of people and total overnight shift in the demographics of the community.”

“The combination of factors created a hotbed of criminal activity,” she said. 

Indigenous women are more than twice as likely than white women to be sexually assaulted, and more than 56 percent of Indigenous women have already experience sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the Department of Justice.  

According to Cheek, a lot of offenders, including mostly white transient workers, target Indigenous women with impunity. “The laws are built to protect people like them,” Cheek said. 

That’s where Biden can push for change, experts say. Biden has specifically committed to working alongside tribal leaders and advocates to safeguard Indigenous communities, and to fight the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) epidemic. He has also promised to enhance mental health support for Indigenous nations, which Cheek said is critical, and to give tribes more authority over criminal matters.

“Tribes generally don't have jurisdiction over non-Indians that commit crimes in Indian Country,” said Mark Carter, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a staff attorney at ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.

Biden has promised to expand tribal authority over offenders who commit crimes in Indian Country through a number of avenues, including by prioritizing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which has special provisions for tribes and Indigenous women. The latest version—drafted in 2019, but blocked by the then Republican-led senate—expands jurisdiction to give tribes special authority over sexual assault, stalking, and trafficking committed by people who aren’t enrolled tribal members, such as transient oil and gas workers.

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Carter said tribes won’t necessarily get to exercise their expanded powers once approved by Congress and signed by Biden into law—many tribes simply don’t have the resources. 

“Getting VAWA passed is hugely important,” Carter said. “But as the Biden administration continues to consult with tribes on public safety priorities...agencies like the Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice can proactively reach out to tribes and think about ways they can assist, both in terms of dollars and cents and technical assistance.”

Biden’s office did not respond to VICE World News requests for comment. 

According to Fredericks, VAWA is important, but doesn’t go far enough to protect Indigenous women from non-Indigenous offenders. She said Congress needs to fully override the Supreme Court's decision Oliphant v. Suquamish, which concluded in 1978 that tribes have zero criminal jurisdiction over non-Indigenous offenders. 

Biden’s decision to appoint Indigenous leaders into various levels of government, including most notably Rep. Deb Haaland as the Secretary of Interior, signals a promising opportunity, Fredericks said.

If appointed, Haaland, an enrolled member of Pueblo of Laguna, will oversee policies that implicate more than 500 federally recognized tribal nations as well as the management of public lands and natural resources.

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With Haaland in the driver’s seat, the Interior Department could become more “proactive” when it comes to assessing the potential impact developments have on Indigenous safety, Fredericks said. 

Biden’s early efforts with Indigenous leaders represent a “huge shift” from former president Trump’s “hostile” approach to Indigenous nations, Carter said. Along with his swarm of executive orders, signed during his first days as president, Biden directed a memo at federal agencies that required them to come up with tribal consultation policies. “It goes to show the renewed efforts that the Biden’s administration is making to make sure tribal voices are heard, and putting a new emphasis on respecting tribal sovereignty,” Carter said.

Many leaders, particularly in Canada, are still fighting to get Keystone XL through, a fact that concerns Cheek.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged the social consequences of big infrastructure projects. “There are gender impacts when you bring construction workers into a rural area. There are social impacts because they’re mostly male construction workers. How are you adjusting and adapting to those?” he said in 2018 at a G20 summit

And while the country held nationwide hearings into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls epidemic, with resulting recommendations calling out boomtowns and man camps for the danger they cause, many projects, including a Coastal GasLink pipeline crossing through Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia, are still continuing in and around Indigenous lands. Keystone XL has widespread support in Alberta.

Cheek said pipelines and their construction amount to “genocide,” and hopes Biden stops the Line 3 and the Dakota Access pipelines. So far, Biden hasn’t said whether he will axe them, but a White House spokesperson told VICE World News the new administration will “evaluate infrastructure proposals” based on the U.S.’ energy needs, and a project’s ability to create union jobs and achieve economy-wide net zero emissions by 2050.

“It  would be hypocritical if Biden left them because they're going to cause the same damage KXL would have,” Cheek said. “If you look at pipelines, they're on the borders of reservations, making people unsafe. When pipelines break, they destroy communities, contaminate water.”

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