Historic meeting ends on a pessimistic note: State Department refuses to complete cultural survey for TransCanada pipeline

Published in Indian Country Today in 2008. This is second in a series of articles on a meeting of Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, hosted by Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....
Hankinson, N.D. — The second day of the two-day meeting of Oceti Sakowin dawned as sunny and warm as the previous one had. However, the mood of the historic gathering had turned from convivial to somber. The extended family of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations was about to meet with Harvey Lee, acting director of the U.S. Department of State Office of Environmental Policy (shown at center, below).

Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) Diane Desrosiers, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, had arranged for Lee’s visit to North Dakota after a series of inconclusive discussions with the State Department about the 2,000-mile TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, which would carry heavy crude oil from oil sands of northern Alberta to Oklahoma. 

            The line crosses the traditional homelands, though not the reservations or reserves, of scores of Native communities. During earlier communications and meetings, critical tribal issues were left unresolved, including protection of traditional cultural resources and the State Department’s failure to complete mandated government-to-government federal-tribal consultations before signing off on a permit for the project. Construction on the line was slated to begin during the week of May 19.

            On the second day of the Sisseton-Wahpeton gathering, language altered along with mood. Prayers, songs, greetings and introductions were still in Lakota, Dakota or Nakota. However, as might be expected, English predominated in other communications.

Focus on THPOs
As Desrosiers had predicted the day before, the focus was on the Traditional Historic Preservation Officers. Standing in the center of the large double ring of conference tables, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe THPO Tim Mentz, Upper Yanktonia Dakota/Hunkpapa Lakota, and Rosebud Sioux Tribe THPO Russell Eagle Bear, Sicangu Lakota, took turns presiding.

Seated behind the two men were elected leaders, including chairman John Yellow Bird Steele, Oglala Sioux Tribe; vice chairman Jake Thompson, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate; vice president William Kindle, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Business and Claims Committee member Gary Drapeau, Yankton Sioux Tribe; chairman Roger Trudell, Santee Sioux Tribe; and councilor Francis Elk, Sioux Valley Dakota Nation.

Across the circle from the tribal leaders sat Lee, flanked by two consultants from the archaeological consultancy Entrix, Inc. Hired by TransCanada, the Canadian energy company building the pipeline, Entrix did cultural and environmental studies for the project. During the meeting, TransCanada’s consultants answered questions and advised Lee on his responses, providing the dispiriting spectacle of the United States government parroting private industry — and a foreign company at that.

The State Department persisted in refusing to do a 100-percent pedestrian survey for traditional cultural properties, including ancestral burials, along the pipeline route. Instead, a 23-percent survey is being done, with the rest of the route covered by a predictive study based on a tiny sample: 18 sites in North Dakota and 10 in South Dakota.

Generally, the research will be “phased,” said the consultants, which appeared to mean that burials and other sacred sites would be discovered as they were chopped up by construction equipment, an approach that tribal representatives have long decried.

The collapsed learning curve
Determining the pipeline’s effects on cultural places appeared to have been a cursory and simplistic process. Longtime efforts by preservation professionals to protect the more ineffable indigenous sites — vision quest places, pilgrimage trails, natural resources critical to a craft, habitats of culturally important animals and even places with no material manifestations at all — were disregarded.

These sites are certainly more complicated to identify than, say, a Victorian house and thus difficult to fit into the bricks-and-mortar model of much American preservation. However, as early as 1993 the U.S. Department of the Interior summed up years of seeking resolutions for this problem in a monograph called “What You Do and How We Think.”

Entrix and the State Department appear to have ignored basic lessons described in the publication, such as the importance of contacting Native experts within their home communities and in their own languages. It’s well understood that mailing elders a map and asking them to jot down sacred sites is inappropriate; they must reveal the places — or not — on their own terms.

According to a State Department transcript of a December 2007 meeting in Washington, D.C., several THPOs explained this to Lee. Yet during the Sisseton-Wahpeton gathering, Lee noted that his agency had sent elders satellite maps and had apparently been surprised that the documents weren’t marked up and returned.

Cultural preservation was not the only casualty of the fast-tracked process, according to Steele, who read aloud portions of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act on protecting sites in aboriginal homelands. “You have to follow your own laws,” he chided.

Lee’s response: “We cannot accept that we have violated the law.”

Dangling incentives
At one point, an Entrix consultant offered to give Native people $400 per day to walk alongside the machinery during construction; however, the job came without authority to stop work if a site was struck. “That’s a carrot. Do we look like rabbits?” retorted Desrosiers, who reminded Lee that the tribes first requested a 100-percent survey in May 2007.

Mentz then blasted a $10,000 fee offered each community to do its own on-the-ground survey this past January. The sum was insufficient for territory to be covered and an insult, he said. “A survey in the middle of winter with several feet of snow and no ground visibility? What kind of survey is that?”

Eagle Bear excoriated the studies that were done, which included driving by areas with potential sites. “Heck, yeah, you won’t find anything if you drive by,” he said. “It’s clear you don’t know what a traditional cultural property survey is,” said Faith Spotted Eagle, Ihanktowan Dakota and a member of her community’s Cultural Resources Committee.

During a break, Lee told this reporter that he wondered “if I’ll get out of here alive.” The day ended with Lee announcing to the group, “Our attorneys have looked at this, and I suspect your tribal attorneys have, too.”

Text and photos c. Stephanie Woodard.

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