A "New Era" for Indian Country?

 

"The Indian Nations can do the work--if the federal government will clear the way for us to exercise our liberty and thus make a new era and a more perfect union."

That was Jefferson Keel yesterday, President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), in his State of Indian Nations Address.  His point, very basically, was that tribal sovereignty could be America's economic life vest.  Tribal land contains 10 percent of the nation's energy resources, renewables included, and it's largely untapped.  Clear away the bureaucratic hurdles, invest in the right infrastructure, and the Indian Nations could keep the national grid pumping while generating jobs back home.

Keel praised Energy Secretary Steven Chu for his 10 million dollar investment to support efficiency and renewable energy development through the Tribal Energy Program.  He also lauded a recent move by the Department of Interior to streamline permitting for energy development on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, allowing the tribes access to their vast oil reserves.  He said these were the kinds of "concerted efforts" he hoped the incoming Congress would continue to pursue.

 

Tribal lands may be well stocked with energy, but fourteen percent of households in Indian Country still lack electricity, according to a Center for American Progress report released after Keel's address.  Here's an excerpt:

 

One of the greatest barriers to deploying clean energy on tribal lands is a longstanding backlog of bureaucratic red tape and outdated laws that cause projects to stall and makes financing cost ineffective. Many tribes are eager to partner with private sector developers in order to build large-scale clean energy projects that are both profitable and respectful of tribal values such as environmental stewardship and keeping families together by providing good jobs on reservations.

 

The report sings the same sovereignty tune, but makes no mention of coal, oil or gas--resources that tribes, (and private companies,) also could develop if tribal governments had greater jurisdiction over their reserves.

That's okay by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) who delivered the Congressional response.  She emphasized her "all of the above energy approach," and said that Indian Lands must be a large part of the federal energy plan.

Murkowski and Keel didn't shy away from the statistics: in Indian Country, rates of unemployment, poverty, and violence--particularly toward women--are still far higher than the national average.  But both seem to think that opening reservation gates to energy development, extractive or otherwise, could be the tribes' saving grace.

Federal-aided energy extraction in Indian Country is not a new story. Only four years ago, after the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining its lands, the federal U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission still endorsed three Hydro Resources Inc. uranium mines within Navajo boundaries. And long before that, it was a U.S. attorney who designed the sale of 65,000 acres of Hopi and Navajo mineral rights to Peabody Western Coal, forcing the relocation of 10,000 indigenous people.

If the past repeats itself, then Keel's "new era" may not stray far from the last.

Sierra Crane-Murdoch is an HCN intern.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user, U.S. National Archives

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