Obama on Standing Rock: You’re making your voices heard

President Barack Obama acknowledged and affirmed the Stand with Standing Rock movement as he opened the 2016 White House Tribal Nations Conference in late September.

“I know many of you have come together, across tribes and across the country, to support the community at Standing Rock and together you’re making your voices heard,” the president said Sept. 26 at the conference, held at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C.

“And in a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, we’ve made a lot of progress for Indian Country over the past eight years — and this moment highlights why it’s so important that we re-double our efforts to make sure that every federal agency truly consults and listens, and works with you, sovereign-to-sovereign,” the president continued.

Obama created the conference and each year has welcomed leaders from 567 federally recognized tribes.

Additionally, the president created the White House Council of Native American Affairs and established a Cabinet-level focus on Indian Country.

“The most important thing I want to say is thank you,” Obama said, kicking off the conference. “After almost eight years as your president, I have been so privileged to learn from you and spend time with you while visiting more tribal communities than any other president.”

The first tribe Obama mentioned in his welcoming remarks was the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which has sued to block the Dakota Access pipeline project.

The tribe is concerned with the potential for pollution — specifically water contamination — as well as the destruction of culturally sacred sites and the lack of meaningful consultation before construction began.

A judge has denied a tribal petition for a temporary injunction but the departments of Justice, Army and Interior issued a joint statement requesting the pipeline company pause all construction east and west of Lake Oahe in North Dakota.

The company, Energy Transfer of Texas, claims the tribe’s concerns about water contamination are unfounded and disputes the existence of sacred sites along the pipeline route.

However, the Stand with Standing Rock movement has brought out social justice and environmental activists to protest lines in North Dakota and to demonstrations around the country.

At the White House conference, Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II said, “Along with the ongoing review of this pipeline, the administration has taken a major step forward by initiating consultation on nationwide reform on the protection of tribal interests regarding infrastructure projects. We will continue to advocate for the protection of our water, lands and sacred places and the necessary respect as indigenous peoples.”

Federal officials during the meeting signed a memorandum of understanding affirming the federal government’s commitment to protecting tribal treaty rights and rights relating to natural resources.

Another agreement was signed extending a memorandum on safeguarding sacred sites.

The conference also provided an opportunity several other announcements ;

Obama said his administration, working with the tribes, had restored 428,000 acres of tribal homelands to the original owners.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the United States reached a settlement with 17 additional tribal governments that alleged the Interior and Treasury departments mismanaged money assets and natural resources held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the tribes.

The Obama administration, with the resolutions, has settled the majority of outstanding claims — some dating back more than a century — involving more than 100 tribes and more than $3.3 billion.

“These historical grievances were a barrier to our shared progress toward a brighter future,” Lynch stated.

Jewell said the resolutions reflected a new era of trust between the U.S. and tribal governments.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $9 million in new funds to support community development and education, including grant money to tribal organizations in Wisconsin for agricultural and conservation training.

Vilsack also announced the posting of a new final rule in the Federal Register ensuring federally recognized tribes — there are 11 in Wisconsin — have access to forest products for traditional and cultural purposes.