How the Government Reached Out to Native Americans in the Wake of the Dakota Pipeline Fight

Intent on preventing another PR disaster, the government held a meeting with tribes in Phoenix.

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Nov 12 2016, 2:20pm

A protest encampment near the proposed site of the Dakota Access Pipeline in September. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the past few months, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe's protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) have gained momentum and attracted national attention, even celebrity support. Thousands have joined the protests, in an attempt to block the nearly 1,200-mile, $3.7-million dollar pipeline that is intended to run from North Dakota to Illinois.

Then, on September 23, shortly after the federal government temporarily blocked construction of a section of the controversial pipeline, a letter went out to over 500 tribal leaders in the country. It was an invitation to work more closely with the government clearly motivated by a desire to avoid other high-profile crises that turn into PR disasters.

"Recent events have highlighted the need for a broader review," the letter read, before going on to invite tribal leaders to a series of meetings on how the government can "better account for, and integrate tribal views, on future infrastructure decisions throughout the country."

Much of the land in question was taken back from the Sioux by the US government in the 1950s without the tribe's consent, according to the tribe's federal lawsuit against the US Army Corps of Engineers.

"Under the current system, a shopping mall requires more environmental review and public process than a new crude oil pipeline," said Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice, an nonprofit legal group representing the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in the lawsuit.

"One of the reasons we have a crisis out at Standing Rock is that the federal government rubber stamps these massive projects—virtually no environmental analysis, tribal consultation, or public process. That has to change. And the government recognized that it has to change," Hasselman told VICE.

The government said it's hoping that these meetings will be a first step toward better communication. The Department of the Interior declined VICE's request for comment, but wrote in a press release that the meetings will focus on ways to "better ensure meaningful tribal input," and "will also explore with tribes whether new legislation should be proposed to Congress to alter the current statutory framework."

While protests continued along the site of the DAPL, tribal leaders from all over the country traveled to Phoenix in October for the first of several joint meetings. It was not entirely amicable.

"It's amazing that we've had this relationship with the Federal Government for— some of us, 500 years—and they're still trying to figure out how to deal with us," Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians said at the meeting.

Representatives from the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Department of the Interior, and the Army all were present, set up on a stage in a ballroom in the Phoenix Convention Center.

"If you took an aerial photograph of your part of the United States," Sam Hirsch of the Environmental Resources Division of the DOJ said to the group, according to transcripts, "there would be all sorts of infrastructure that wasn't there seven generations ago. Some of that's great, some of that's not so great. What we know is definitely not great is that very little of it was put there after any kind of meaningful input from the tribes."

Jason Schlender a member of the tribal council of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe in Wisconsin, attended the conference in Phoenix and said he's optimistic. On the whole, he said, the US government has gotten better with its consultation process.

"There's still obviously room for improvement," he told VICE.

But Schlender also noted a larger disconnect: Tribes have an inherently competing agenda with corporations and the federal government.

"Sometimes major corporations tend to have no respect for something they may think is not a real thing," he said, referring to the guiding principles of many indigenous people. "Human beings are placed in a certain part of the world to take care of the Earth. In exchange, they are fed by the Earth, taken care of by the Earth," he said. "Major oil companies, timber companies, steel companies—those big businesses may not have that same worldview. Maybe they don't hunt for food, [or] fish to eat. They live a different lifestyle."

And maybe, he said, the federal government is so fed by those businesses "that they have to do whatever they have to do in order to keep this way of life going."

"Cultural exchange is necessary," Schlender added. "There needs to be some kind of infusion of spirituality because a lot of tribal people are ceremonial people." He noted that in many of the early days of Indian treaties with the US, the negotiations often took place in a teepee, or whatever dwelling the tribe used. "They all sat down together," he said. "A lot of ceremonial things took place—singing, praying, having a feast."

Folding those elements into current negotiations, Schlender thinks, would be a significant sign of respect from the government.

"Tribes need to assert themselves ceremoniously and the federal agencies should allow that to happen because they would do that anywhere else," Schlender said. "If they were meeting with Russia, [or] people from China to Japan to Mexico, the United States would never say, 'This is the way we're going to meet today.' It's rude."

There are three more meetings set for the year so far.

Taylor Keen, professor at Creighton University and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, who is not directly involved in the meetings, is doubtful that these new government conversations with the tribes will yield any real change.

"It sounds like a false promise to me," Keen said.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election likely signals trouble for the DAPL protests.

Energy Transfer Partners LP, the Texas company building the pipeline, was already moving forward as recently as Tuesday, despite the Army Corps of Engineers' request to slow down construction. Last week Obama said he was asking the Army Corp to look into alternate routes for the pipeline, to steer clear of land sacred to the tribe. On Friday, Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren was confident, telling CBS, "We will get this easement and we will complete our project."

President-elect Trump has not yet publically discussed the pipeline, but on his campaign website, he criticizes Obama's rejection of the Keystone XL Pipeline and Trump also encouraged lifting of regulations in North Dakota specifically. Maybe more importantly, Trump owns a stake in the company, and Warren donated to the Trump campaign.

What would it take to prevent another DAPL situation?

"Sadly, I don't know if there is anything," Keen answered. "The company that owns the pipeline is finally saying maybe they're going to move it because they're getting such bad press. But there's nothing structural that's going to stop it from happening again unless the government actually makes some serious policy changes."

That's obviously unlikely now.

"What do we need to do to coexist with each other?" Schlender asked. For him, the answer involves folding rituals into the process. "However the ceremony unfolds—sharing tobacco or food with one another—If we can show a little respect for each other, let's take the time to do that and have a meaningful conversation."

"We're not extinct," Schlender said. "We're contributing to society."

Cole Kazdin is a writer in Los Angeles.