Water Protectors’ Efforts Not in Vain

Jyl M. Wheaton-Abraham

On August 15 I received the following email, “ATTENTION!!! We need your help! A corporation is trying to build a oil pipeline in North Dakota. We need more people to be here!” The message stated the US Army Corps of Engineers was violating the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA); if there was anything one could do to help now is the time. As both an archaeologist and former tribal council representative, I figured this had to do with the government-to-government consultation process required by both NHPA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Knowing how badly this process can go, I began to pray for Standing Rock, where it appeared the government was once again failing to protect natural and cultural resources, conduct adequate research required by law, and respect the basic human rights and dignity of Native people.

Since that day we have seen Energy Transfer purposefully destroy previously unrecorded graves and sacred sites; dogs sicced on protectors without anyone held accountable for harm; and state officials supporting the taxpayer-funded, militarized police protection of a privately owned company. We have seen our judicial system rule in favor of those who avoid and exploit the federal review process, twice. As I write this construction of the DAPL continues.

This does not mean the efforts of water protectors and their allies have been in vain. They have exposed government agencies and private corporations treating Native communities as impediments to development, rather than sovereign nations possessing treaty rights. They have brought greater awareness to the invisibility, vulnerability, and isolation of Native people in the U.S., and have shown how corporations take advantage of these factors for their own greed. The vigilance of water protectors has inspired many to gather and participate in direct action. I believe their prayers and determination have created an opportunity to transform the relationship between tribal nations and the United States.

The joint letter issued September 9, 2016 by the Departments of Army, Justice, and Interior includes two questions put forth to tribes, “(1) within the existing statutory framework, what should the federal government do to better ensure meaningful tribal input into infrastructure-related reviews and decisions and the protection of tribal lands, resources, and treaty rights; and (2) should new legislation be proposed to Congress to alter that statutory framework and promote those goals.” There are two ways to answer these questions; one is with solutions conforming to Euro-American values and worldview. The other is for tribal nations to band together and begin the decolonization of our relationships with the United States.

Decolonizing centers Native lives, lands, and sovereignty. It is time tribal nations demand Native perspectives and concerns hold the most influence in the federal decision-making process under NHPA and NEPA, as “meaningful tribal input” will never be achieved until changes are made to the fundamental nature of our government-to-government relations. Prioritizing Native concerns over those of private industry retains the hierarchal power organization “within the existing statutory framework” but shifts the center of power to ensure tribal sovereignty will be respected, and the human and cultural right of Native people will be observed.

This is critical, as the current government-to-government consultation process, relies on personal relations between federal, state, and tribal employees, tribal council members, and representatives from private corporations to ensure compliance with preservation and protection laws. The current process reinforces racial and financial power hierarchies built into the colonizer/colonized relationship between Native nations and the United States, and encourages the de facto power of individual employees within a government agency to decide what is considered consultation, which parties are invited to consult, and what happens with tribal concerns after consultation takes place. Under the current process, unless tribal governments are attentive and diligent, irreplaceable cultural and natural resources can be stolen, damaged, and destroyed, with concerns not seriously addressed.

Despite all of this, it is important for tribal nations to understand NHPA and NEPA can be used to preserve and protect the last remaining lands and traces of our ancestors. Participation in consultation is of the upmost importance, as our traditional cultures and our futures are at stake.

Decolonizing the government-to-government relationship by centering Native lives and concerns must begin with the establishment of particular protocols to open and create a space for official dialogue to begin. This would ensure all parties recognize tribal sovereignty and would eliminate confusion as to when and if consultation has taken place, along with the casual correspondence currently qualifying as official consultation. Decolonizing could include ending limited comment periods for tribal involvement, recognizing that archaeology is not an exact science and concerns about cultural resources do not cease when reports are written and permits approved. Decolonizing could mean the creation of more Tribal Historic Preservation Offices; with greater authority granted to them in recognition of the deep antiquity and understanding their perspectives bring to cultural resource management. Policies such as mitigating the destruction of cultural resources and significant sites could be re-examined, and the consequences for destruction of resources on federally managed land could finally be meaningfully enforced. Most importantly, decolonizing could end the practice of dividing up large-scale projects like the DAPL into smaller undertakings in order to avoid public scrutiny and full-scale Environmental Impact Assessments.

These ideas fit within the current NHPA and NEPA framework. If tribal nations wish to see legislation put forth to Congress, which I encourage, I urge tribal leaders to bring forth those in their membership who have been trained in archaeology and cultural resource laws, environmental restoration and policy, and decolonizing theory to help craft new government-to-government policies and relationships. Many Natives like myself cannot and do not work for their tribes but desire the opportunity to help our people. This may be a time for some leaders to take a step back and let those of us with specialized knowledge have the space to use what we have earned and been given.

I have been thinking about these issues for nearly twenty years; I do not think it is a coincidence the message I shared found me. Since I cannot travel to Standing Rock, I offer these words as my response to the call to action I received months ago. I will continue to pray for safety and wisdom at Standing Rock, the permanent halt of the DAPL, and remain in solidarity with water protectors everywhere.

Jyl M. Wheaton-Abraham is a member of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho. He holds a Master’s in Applied Anthropology and worked as an archaeologist with the Forest Service for many years.

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