Tribes and landowners in the Dakotas face down giant pipeline: State Department hands out tobacco, stirs anxiety

Published in Indian Country Today in April 2008.

Unease is growing in North and South Dakota over imminent construction of the 2,000-mile Keystone Pipeline, which would transport oil from northern Canada across seven U.S. states from North Dakota to Oklahoma. Local news outlets have reported hundreds of area residents expressing concern at public meetings. Citizens’ groups have filed objections with the U.S. Department of State, the lead federal agency for the project.

In North Dakota, landowners and Dakota Resource Council, a public advocacy group, have sued to stop the pipeline. “Keystone is confident that the North Dakota Public Service Commission’s permit order will be upheld on judicial review,” said Shela Shapiro, spokesperson for TransCanada, the Canadian energy company planning to build the underground line.

About a dozen South Dakotans refused to sign easements that would give the company access to their property; TransCanada is taking them to court under the state’s eminent-domain laws. Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) told Indian Country Today he is “opposed to eminent domain seizures,” adding that South Dakota must protect its land and water to “support a robust agricultural economy.”

The pipeline’s planned route in the United States traverses territory traditionally occupied by Lakotas, Dakotas, Arapahoes and other indigenous communities, though not current-day reservations. It also crosses 271 permanent bodies of water, including the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Completed, it would deliver up to 590,000 barrels of oil per day.

The product originates in the so-called oil sands of Alberta, where several barrels of water are required to extract each barrel of oil and damage to the environment and human health have been reported. When the State Department analyzed potential effects in this country, it found possible or certain impacts to surface waters, fisheries, shrublands, forests and endangered species, among others, according to the February 2008 Record of Decision. Such a document sums up a project and kicks off implementation.

“It’s like all they told TransCanada was, ‘Go right ahead, and don’t run over any jackrabbits,’” said a South Dakota landowner.

Some Native nations claim they’re being pushed aside. “All the plans go down, then on that bottom line it says: contact the tribes. That’s where we come in, when it’s all set in concrete,” said George Iron Shield, Hunkpapa Lakota, Repatriation Coordinator of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

 In early April, Paige Hoskinson Olson, Review and Compliance Coordinator of the South Dakota State Historical Society, emailed the State Department, saying her agency preferred not to sign off on the project until consultations with concerned tribes had been completed and more Native religious and culturally significant sites on the route had been identified.

South Dakota and other states had originally agreed to procedures for identifying the sites in spring 2006. TransCanada, working with archaeological consultants, had secured the approval of their historic preservation offices before the State Department took over.

Prior to State Department involvement, TransCanada also hired land agents who negotiated easements with landowners in order to gain access to their property. Several South Dakotans reported feeling threatened. “People were frightened of losing their land and signed without looking,” one farmer said.

Jeff Rauh, Keystone project representative, responded that it was TransCanada’s intention to treat the hundreds of landowners involved respectfully. “When we heard concerns about certain misunderstandings, we got right back to our land agents and ensured they understood what was expected of them,” he said.

 “There was some disconnect between TransCanada, its consultants and the State Department,” said Hoskinson Olson. “This project has proceeded differently from the approximately ten thousand other projects I’ve been involved with in this office.” Both she and Laura Dean, of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, confirmed that the State Department has little experience leading such projects.

At this moment, concerned tribes are demanding a one-hundred-percent on-the-ground survey of the project area, according to Tim Mentz, Upper Yanktonia Dakota/Hunkpapa, Standing Rock’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. “Instead, they’re using a predictive model based on the ‘high, medium or low probability’ that sites might occur, and they plan to cover just twenty-some percent of the land,” said Mentz.

Byron Olson, archaeologist with Standing Rock’s historic preservation office (no relation to Hoskinson Olson), called the probability analysis “phony scientific-sounding jargon,” saying, “It’s based on just 10 sites for South Dakota, and 18 for North Dakota.”

The research, as planned, would also be done piecemeal, or “phased,” with some occurring while construction is underway. “We’re looking at wholesale destruction of sites,” said Mentz.

Though the State Department issued a Record of Decision, it also describes consultations with tribes as ongoing. After reviewing hundreds of pages of project documents, Indian Country Today found the public record of communications unclear. Varied contacts with undisclosed persons at 80-some tribes seem to have been later summed up as the mandated government-to-government consultation.

Limited, lower-level meetings may have been recast as higher-level ones. For example, in the State Department transcript of an October 23, 2007, gathering on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, project manager Elizabeth Orlando called the session a “working group meeting.” The transcript shows attendees from Standing Rock and other tribes reiterating that it wasn’t a government-to-government consultation, as no top officials were present on either side. Yet, the meeting is later listed as such. At press time, Orlando had not responded to requests for a comment.

The Standing Rock session had gotten off to a fractious start. At the outset, several participants told Indian Country Today, Orlando attempted to hand out tobacco, expel non-Native people and bar from the room enrolled members of Three Affiliated Tribes, apparently because they didn’t look indigenous.

Said Senator Johnson, in reference to tribal participation: “It is important that Indian Country has a voice in how this process moves forward and that tribal consultation is both meaningful and respectful.”

c. Stephanie Woodard.