(WASHINGTON) — President Obama weighed in on the Native American movement to block a disputed oil pipeline Monday as he hosted more than 500 Native American leaders for his eighth and final White House Tribal Nations Conference as president.
“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 to applause.
“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,” Obama continued.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sued to block construction of the four-state Dakota Access pipeline earlier this summer, citing concerns over potential water contamination and destruction to what they deemed to be culturally sacred sites. The tribe also argued that they were never meaningfully consulted on the project before construction began.
While a judge in Washington denied the tribe’s request for a temporary injunction, the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior intervened with an unprecedented joint statement requesting “that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe.”
Kelcy Warren, chairman and CEO of Energy Transfer, denied the tribe’s claims, writing in an internal memo that “concerns about the pipeline’s impact on the local water supply are unfounded” and “multiple archaeological studies conducted with state historic preservation offices found no sacred items along the route.”
Last Friday, the Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, Department of the Army and other federal agencies officially invited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for consultations on “how the Federal Government can better account for, and integrate tribal views, on future infrastructure decisions throughout the country.”
The movement to block the 1,172-mile pipeline, being built by the Texas-based company Energy Transfer, has united tribal groups and environmental activists from across the nation, with hundreds still camped out near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation in North Dakota.
Chairman Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe praised the Obama administration’s relationship with Native American tribes, saying, “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.”
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