WASHINGTON—There’s an early rupture in the bond that some American Indians had hoped to forge with newly elected Senator Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, who has come out strongly in favor of immediate development of the Keystone XL Pipeline and is urging President Barack Obama to grant approval for its construction right away.
Throughout her campaign, Heitkamp said she supported the pipeline—which could harm the water, culture and government-to-government status of tribes—but Indian activists hoped she would take the time to reconsider her position if the tribal vote helped put her over the edge in the November election.
Indeed, the tribal vote did help her win her heated race against Republican Rick Berg—a fact that Native Americans have been pointing to nationwide in illustrating the importance of the Indian vote in close elections. But in the week following her victory, Heitkamp was quick to reiterate her support for the pipeline’s development, and tribal consultation doesn’t appear to be playing any role in her thinking.
“I’ve always supported the Keystone pipeline,” Heitkamp told Ed Schultz on MSNBC on November 14 when asked about her position now that she is set to become a political force in Washington. And she went further, saying, “I think the president’s going to approve it.”
Indians expressed immediate concern that she had not taken time to study tribal issues and impacts involving the proposed Canadian pipeline, which if approved by the president would carry crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico coast. Protesters say the plan would produce lethal levels of carbon emissions while endangering communities, including tribal ones, along its path.
Kandi Mossett, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, said Heitkamp’s views are disappointing, especially considering the Native American votes she received in the recent election, and Mossett believes that the senator-elect still has a real opportunity to educate herself on tribal issues by studying the proposed pipeline’s potential negative impact on tribal land, culture and water.
Mossett said she and other activists plan to reach out to Heitkamp but added that “many [Indian] people are scared, complacent and/or being bought off.” A major concern is that some powerful tribal leaders have even expressed quiet support for the pipeline because they see economic opportunity for their reservations, she said.
“Even those concerned about the environment are being convinced that pipelines are the way to go,” Mossett said, alluding to economic reasons. “We have a lot of work to do but are trying to get organized now.”
Bob Gough, a leader with the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, noted that many tribes of the Great Plains have already spoken out against Keystone XL in the Mother Earth Accord document, released last year, and he believes Heitkamp should take the time to study it.
“I stand by that opposition as spelled out in the Mother Earth Accord, and in accordance with that, Senator-Elect Heitkamp should reconsider and withdraw her support for Keystone,” Gough added.
Joe Valandra, a tribal consultant, said he foresees many more protests by tribal citizens in the near future if politicians like Heitkamp don’t take the time to contemplate the high stakes for Indians in this situation.
“Unfortunately, protests and other [forms of activism] are likely necessary,” Valandra said. “I have also found that posts on social media work well to start the process.”
Valandra said Heitkamp also might do well to study how the Indian vote helped her in the election. “I don’t know if she has fully realized the extent to which her victory is attributable to the Indian vote,” he said. “[And] I doubt she has consulted with many tribes at all on any issues.”
Valandra said that tribal leaders need to raise their voices directly to the senator-elect, through the press and via the Keystone opposition structure.
As several Indian forces plan their next social-media and real-world steps in opposition to Keystone, there have been recent news reports from Canada indicating that oil firms there are planning to ship their tar-sands oil to the southern United States via railway—leading to more concerns about whether tribes have been consulted over possible environmental issues in both Canada and the U.S.
Hundreds of protesters chanted and marched against the pipeline outside the White House on November 18, signaling to Obama that they have not forgotten that he postponed a decision on whether to approve it until after the presidential election. Another major protest is planned for President’s Day, February 18, 2013. Many Indians, including Mossett, plan to be there.
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