This fall, as the months slid by and President Barack Obama failed to address the increasing violence between police and pipeline protesters near North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, many activists felt abandoned. In one YouTube video, 23-year-old Kendrick Eagle hunches against the wind, addressing the president. He recalls that Obama once mentioned him by name in a speech. “That’s a life-changing thing for me, because it was like you cared about me, cared about my story.” Eagle pulls his hood up and looks directly at the camera. “Help us stop this pipeline. Stick true to your words, because you said you had our back. I believed in you.”
For much of American history, a president who ignored Native American protests wouldn’t have been newsworthy. But many tribal leaders believed Obama was different. “On the campaign trail, he made it clear that he was going to take tribes and tribal sovereignty very seriously,” says Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Senate and president of the bipartisan National Congress of American Indians. “His actions have spoken even louder than his words.”
Obama began working to repair broken relationships with tribal governments almost immediately. In 2009, he invited leaders from 564 federally recognized tribes to the White House Tribal Nations Conference, an event that became an annual tradition. Each fall, Native Americans came to Washington to be heard by high-ranking officials, and officials — like Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees 55 million acres of Indian Country — came face-to-face with people affected by their decisions. “We got one meeting with Clinton and zero with George W. Bush,” says Cladoosby. “Eight meetings in eight years is unprecedented.”
Cladoosby also points to the 2010 Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which addresses health-care disparities in Indian Country, and the 2013 Violence Against Women Act, which allows tribes to prosecute non-Natives who commit certain crimes on reservations, including domestic violence. Obama also restored more than 542,000 acres of land to tribal control, compared to 233,000 acres under Bush, and granted Alaska Natives the right to put land into a trust, which can give tribes greater control over their fish, wildlife and law enforcement. Additionally, the administration settled hundreds of outstanding lawsuits.
“The deck is cleared,” says Kevin Washburn, who served as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs from 2012 to 2015. “The government-to-government relationship is no longer characterized by serial litigation. That alone will make cooperation much easier.”
Yet not everyone has noticed the supposed progress. Disparities in income, health and education continue to plague many reservations, and Republican state Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage of New Mexico says Obama’s policies have hurt — not helped — the Navajo Nation. Poverty has worsened over the last eight years, she says: “We’ve lost 6,000 jobs in my county. The majority are oil and gas jobs.”
Another Navajo Republican (and former Democrat), Arizona state Sen. Carlyle Begay, has come to see Democratic policies toward tribes as paternalistic, based on federal handouts rather than economic development. Yet even he thinks Obama’s commitment to Native American issues is unparalleled.
As Obama’s presidency neared its end, though, it appeared that his reputation in Indian Country would be shadowed by the events at Standing Rock. Then, on Dec. 4, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline to be built beneath Lake Oahe — the section that most concerned the Standing Rock Sioux because of its possible impact on their drinking water. It’s unclear how much Obama influenced the decision, but many activists applauded the president.
Yet Monte Mills, an Indian law professor at the University of Montana, says the decision may be less monumental than a quiet announcement made in September. In response to the Standing Rock protests, the Department of Justice, the Army and the Department of the Interior announced they’d meet with tribes in an effort to change federal policy so that Native Americans would have greater involvement in future infrastructure development. If the agencies indeed adopt new rules mandating tribal consultations, it could affect much more than a single pipeline: Tribes would have more say over every future pipeline, transmission line, port, rail and transit proposal that’s considered “tribally significant.” They would have a stronger voice.
Again and again, the Native Americans I spoke to reiterated this single point: Obama gave them a seat at the table. He listened when previous presidents had not. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Obama years coincided with some of the biggest Native American uprisings in recent memory — not just the dozens of tribes who united at Standing Rock, but others who fought for their voting rights, sought greater control over fisheries, opposed coal terminals, even burst into mainstream music. Perhaps it’s also no coincidence that an unprecedented number of Native Americans ran for state and federal office in 2016 — eight for Congress, up from two in 2014, and over 90 for state legislatures.
Under Donald Trump, policies can be reversed, decisions undone. But the platform Native Americans gained will have lasting effects. As Standing Rock Sioux chairman Dave Archambault II said on Democracy Now!, “It feels like, finally, for the first time in history, over centuries, somebody is listening to us.”
Krista Langlois is a correspondent with High Country News. Follow @cestmoilanglois