The ecological/climate crisis angle is part of the story, but so is the specific agency of Native peoples. The Native groups were protesting because the local tribe feared for the consequences to its water supply of an oil pipeline leak, and also opposed the pipeline's transit across a sacred site. There's more background in this NPR report.
The action was announced jointly by the Justice Department, Interior and the U.S. Army who owned the land. They said in their statement: "This case has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes' views on these types of infrastructure projects."
They said they would initiate government to government talks with the tribe.
In addition to the issue at hand, this statement may well set a precedent. It essentially states the federal government's position as suggesting equal standing with Indian tribal governments. It is a victory for Native American sovereignty and dignity.
For despite recent lip service, American Indian voices are still not heard, institutionally or individually as equals, with different but legitimate and ultimately valuable perspectives and points of view. More specifically, Indian communities are not heard politically concerning issues that affect them. In this particular case, when non-Native communities objected to their water supplies being endangered, the pipeline route was changed--to endanger Native communities.
|Demo included participants from North Coast tribes. Photo from Lost Coast Outpost.|
I had to laugh when recently (non-Native) researchers concluded that the earliest Americans could not have arrived by the land bridge from Asia, as (non-Native) science has insisted for decades was how it happened. Native scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. was only the most outspoken critic of this assumption. Although non-Native scholars like Levi-Strauss also thought it was wrong, Deloria felt it was political--a way of dating Indian ancestors to shortly before European invasion--and he showed how this had been used against tribal claims.
Many Indian tribes have stories of much longer residence, and stories that suggest other ways--by sea for instance--of their ancestors arriving. But such information is not often taken seriously by the predominantly non-Native scientists who tend to hold fast to theories about the ancestors of today's Indians even in the face of contrary evidence.
Guilt is probably part of the defensiveness on a wide range of other issues as well, for what Europeans did during the history they repress and suppress. They cling to cherished pioneer myths that substitute for owning historical horrors, such as California's enslavement and genocide of Native peoples.
President Obama has met several times with leaders and residents of Native communities. Now his administration has taken a potentially major step in hearing them.