President Barack Obama made his first presidential visit to Indian Country on Friday – and some residents of the Sioux reservation used the opportunity to voice their opposition to a proposed pipeline that would carry tar sands oil through their land.
The president and first lady arrived by helicopter at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles the border between North Dakota and South Dakota. Native Americans, some dressed in full feathered headdresses and multicolored, beaded outfits, greeted the couple.
“We can follow the lead of Standing Rock’s most famous resident, Chief Sitting Bull. He said, ‘Let’s put our minds together to see what we can build for our children,” Obama said. Sitting Bull was a Sioux chief who defeated Gen. George Custer at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The Obamas also spoke privately with tribal youth about their challenges growing up on the 2.3 million-acre reservation, home to nearly 1,000 residents who struggle with a lack of housing, health care, education and economic opportunity.
Some Sioux leaders used the visit to tell Obama that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — which would run through their land — would be a treaty violation.
Bryan Brewer, president of the Ogalala Sioux Tribe, said in a statement that the Keystone pipeline was “a death warrant for our people,” and that it would violate treaty rights. Critics of the pipeline warn of possible oil spills, environmental impact from the line’s construction, and Keystone’s overall effect on raising carbon emissions that spur climate change.
In April, Obama pushed his decision on whether or not to approve the pipeline further back, citing uncertainty over the planned route after a legal dispute in Nebraska over how its route there was approved. TransCanada Corp.’s controversial 1,661-mile Keystone XL pipeline would carry tar sands oil from Alberta province in Canada down to refineries along the Gulf Coast.
“We don’t want that pipeline running through our lands, we want protection of the water, of our health, we want protection of our homeland,” Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council Representative Avis Little Eagle said.
Obama’s visit to the reservation – his first as president, and the first presidential visit since Bill Clinton visited a reservation in 1999 – was met with mixed feelings from Native Americans.
Some said they were disappointed that more serious discussions about treaty issues and government appropriations were likely not on the table. Others welcomed the visit, using it as an opportunity to show that life on the reservation was not as bad as it is often portrayed.
Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault said the town of Cannon Ball, which Obama was set to visit, is a “good community to visit if you want to see what represents Indian country, and how you can visibly see some hardship.”
Around Cannon Ball, a handful of houses sit with boarded-up windows, stray dogs roam and a group of young men hang out on a back porch in the early afternoon. A report released in January by the Bureau of Indian Affairs showed that about 63 percent of able workers on Standing Rock were unemployed.
With Native American poverty and unemployment more than double the U.S. average, Obama plans to promote initiatives to spur tribal development and create new markets for Native American products and services.
On Friday, Obama noted advances for Native Americans made under his administration, including resolving litigation, protecting women from domestic violence, improved access to federal disaster assistance and tax breaks for tribal benefits.
The White House also announced new initiatives Friday including reforms for the Bureau of Indian Education, efforts to bring high-speed Internet to tribal schools and training for teachers. It further proposed ways to ease regulatory hurdles for infrastructure and energy development, and initiatives to boost small businesses owned by Native Americans.
Obama is only the third sitting president to come into Indian Country in almost 80 years. He courted the American Indian vote as a first-time White House candidate in 2008. Obama became an honorary member of a tribe in Montana, the Crow Nation, and took on a native name: Black Eagle, which means “one who helps all people of this land.”
Al Jazeera and wire services