Obama defends work on tribal issues

Obama defends work on tribal issues
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President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHead of North Carolina's health department steps down Appeals court appears wary of Trump's suit to block documents from Jan. 6 committee Patent trolls kill startups, but the Biden administration has the power to help  MORE on Monday defended his administration's work on Native American issues amid a battle over the future of a contentious pipeline project opposed by local tribes. 

At his last annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, an event established at the onset of his presidency, Obama highlighted his work on tribal healthcare and justice matters, as well as his trips to several reservations during his presidency. 

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“I pledged to all of you, when I ran for president, that I would be a partner with all of you in the spirit of a true nation-to-nation relationship,” Obama said.

“I’ve been proud of what we’ve been able to do together. We haven’t solved every issue, we haven’t righted every wrong, but together we’ve made significant progress in almost every area.” 

Obama highlighted the creation of the White House Council on Native American Affairs and the administration's work on preserving sacred sites and consolidating tribal land around the country. He noted that an update to the Violence Against Women Act, which he signed in 2013, expands protections for women on tribal land.  

Obama didn’t directly discuss the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota and an issue that looms large over the relationship between tribes and the federal government.

“I know that many of you have come together to support the community at Standing Rock, and together, you’re making your voices heard,” Obama said. 

Obama’s speech comes as tribes insist the administration do more to consult them before approving energy projects near their land. 

The touchstone in that fight is the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was a major issue for many of the 567 tribes invited to the White House’s event. Standing Rock Sioux officials briefed attendees on the matter this weekend before the conference kicked off. 

The government has blocked construction of the $3.8 billion, 1,170-mile pipeline, which the Standing Rock Sioux says threatens sacred sites and drinking water in the region. 

Tribes cheered that decision, thought the energy industry and its allies have opposed it: The National Association of Manufactures, which tends to supports pipeline projects, has launched a seven-figure ad buy urging Obama not to cancel Dakota Access.

Three administration offices — led by the Interior Department and the Army Corps of Engineers — have launched a broader review of permitting policies near American Indian land, an effort tribes have greeted and encouraged. 

Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault called that review a “historic moment” in a Friday statement marking upcoming meetings on the matter. 

Even so, he said, his focus is on stopping Dakota Access. 

“This invitation is a good start, but the government has a lot more to do to permanently protect the millions of people who rely on the Missouri River for water and who are put at serious risk because of this pipeline,” he said.

Tribal groups hope the review will give them a bigger say in energy projects, up to and including veto authority over federal permits for them. The energy industry, which has otherwise said a review of the permitting process is appropriate, worries about that outcome. 

“Should the federal or state governments update their regulations moving forward, they should be transparent, consistent, and reasonable so the regulatory process can ameliorate the concerns of our nation’s various constituencies while not stifling America’s economy,” Craig Stevens, a spokesperson for the Midwest Alliance for Infrastructure Now Coalition, said in a Friday statement.   

Like Dakota Access, Obama didn’t directly address the infrastructure review in his Monday speech. But he said he’s optimistic about the future relationship between tribes and the federal government.

“I want everybody in this auditorium and all the folks back home in your respective communities to know that this whole time, I heard you, I have seen you and I hope I’ve done right by you and hope I set a direction that others will follow,” he said.