Naomi Schaefer Riley recently wrote a piece concerning the standoff involving Native American protesters and their allies opposed to the North Dakota Access Pipeline being constructed by Energy Transfer Partners titled “Bury Their Future at Standing Rock, The Truth about the Shutdown of the Dakota Pipeline.”
This interview with P&GJ is based on that article. By the time this article is published, the Trump administration may have already reversed the federal bureaucrat’s controversial 11th hour delay of the project.
Riley is a weekly columnist for the New York Post and a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer whose work focuses on higher education, religion, philanthropy and culture. She is the author of six books, including, The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians (Encounter, 2016). Her book, ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America (Oxford, 2013), was named an editor’s pick by the New York Times Book Review. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She appears regularly on FoxNews and FoxBusiness and CNBC. She has also appeared on Q&A with Brian Lamb as well as the Today Show.
P&GJ: Where did the intense opposition to the pipeline emanate from?
Riley: The opposition to the pipeline was a gradual process. From the court documents, it appears that the leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux were at first amenable to the pipeline. They had several meetings with Energy Transfer Partners in fall 2014. The company made sure that the route would avoid sites that were even being considered for the National Register of Historic Places. It hired professional archaeologists, coordinated with State Historic Preservation Officers and rerouted the pipeline 140 times in North Dakota alone to avoid proximity to cultural resources like burial grounds or ceremonial sites.
Even when the negotiations were turned over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which had the final say over the part of the pipeline that was to cross federal lands, the tribe continued to engage in talks. While the tribe was not responsive to many of the communications from the Corps, in spring 2016, a series of meetings was held between the Corps and the tribe to point out sacred sites that the tribe was concerned about. The Corps offered a number of concessions and promised that there would be double-walled piping in order to address any concerns about leaks.
But by this point, opposition had built from environmentalist groups, other American Indians and thousands of protesters. The Standing Rock leadership clearly saw that popular opinion was on its side, and it began to change course.
P&GJ: In other parts of the country, Native Americans appear to have welcomed pipeline development. What makes this situation so different?
Riley: Standing Rock is one of the poorest Indian communities in America. And given that American Indians are the poorest racial group in the country, that is saying something. In one of the counties where the Standing Rock Sioux live, the high school graduation rate is only 14%. So some of this is clearly just the story of a people with no resources or ideas on how to bring resources to their communities. They assume that political pressure to get more money from Washington is their only option.
In my book, I talk about how the reservation system itself has hamstrung American Indians, taking away property rights and economic freedom. Some of the tribes have been more successful at working around these restrictions. But the Plains Indians have become mired in extreme poverty and their leadership has unfortunately persuaded them that blocking development will be a political and economic winner.
P&GJ: It seems as though the opposition was late in forming, and then showed unwillingness to compromise, preferring to exploit public attention. Is this a correct assessment?
Riley: I think that’s correct. In a number of recent cases, we have seen how wealthy environmentalists are forming alliances with the leadership of Indian tribes in order to achieve their ends. President Obama just designated the Bears Ears area of Southern Utah as a national monument. The designation – which has been widely supported by environmentalists eager to turn the land into a playground for the wealthy – will restrict farming, mining, and oil and gas drilling that currently benefits tribe members. But the members of the tribe who live further away from the area and don’t see those economic benefits believed that they had more to gain from an alliance with environmentalist groups.
P&GJ: As far as you know, did Energy Transfer and the authorities it dealt with in order to secure permits handle the process properly? Was there anything they could or should have done differently to avoid the controversy?
Riley: From a legal perspective, Energy Transfer was as careful as it could have been. I encourage anyone who doubts that to read the court documents, which show how the company and the Corps worked exhaustively to consult with and give deference to the tribe whenever possible. Frankly, though, based on my reporting, I think that if the company had offered the tribe a sufficient lump sum payment, the project would have been successful. Now, obviously an observer would say: Why would you give the Standing Rock Sioux money to construct a pipeline on land that is not theirs? But the reality is that these people are desperate.
P&GJ: What did you think of the media coverage, which certainly seemed slanted toward the protesters?
Riley: Well, part of it is a well-rehearsed narrative. American Indians lived here for centuries in harmony with nature until evil white people came to take it all away. And now evil energy companies come to destroy what’s left of the pristine land of American Indians. In my book, I talk about how this notion of Indians living in some kind of environmentalist socialist utopia is largely a construction of the imagination of white academics. Indians are people and throughout their history they have responded to economic incentives. When resources were scarce, for instance, they used all the parts of the buffalo (as every elementary school child is taught). When they were not, though, they would run a herd of buffalo off a cliff, take what they wanted, and then move on.
What made the Dakota Pipeline story so rich for the media was that Americans are not used to seeing that kind of poverty and deprivation in our borders. The idea that people are living in tents in sub-freezing temperatures shocks our consciences. It is much easier to say that corporate America is to blame for this than to explain that over-regulation is the problem.
P&GJ: How would the tribe be able to benefit from the pipeline development?
Riley: I think part of the problem is that they wouldn’t. Because the pipeline didn’t go through their land, they weren’t going to be paid for it. Their members don’t have the kind of education or training needed for skilled labor. As Terry Anderson and Shawn Regan argued (National Review’s “No Wonder the Standing Rock Sioux Opposed the Pipeline”), the Sioux would have been better off if the pipeline actually went through their land. Though they probably wouldn’t have allowed that, either.
P&GJ: You mention in your piece that “American Indians will be bearing the devastating economic consequences of this decision for years to come.” Can you elaborate? Do you foresee a backlash that could affect future projects involving Indian lands?
Riley: I suspect other companies will learn from the example of Energy Transfer and stay as far away from Indian reservations as possible. They don’t want the bureaucratic hassle, the political obstacles or the bad press. There are $1.5 trillion in energy resources on Indian land now, but 86% of this potential remains undeveloped because of federal control of reservations.
P&GJ: What is your view of the validity of these treaties that were signed in the 18th and 19th centuries? What effect has this actually had on Native Americans in terms of improving their standard of living?
Riley: Native leaders regularly invoke treaties that were signed in the 18th and 19th centuries as evidence of their land rights, as though these lands are not part of the United States. The Standing Rock leaders argue that, even though the land being used for the pipeline is not reservation land, it is land that was promised to the tribe in an 1851 treaty. But in Cherokee Nation v. Hitchcock (1902) and Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903), the Supreme Court ruled that treaties signed with Indians could be modified or terminated without Indians’ consent, and no decision has altered that precedent since.
The problem is not that the treaties haven’t been honored. It’s that they have. The problem is that for a century and a half Indians have been living on reservations that by their very nature keep Indians impoverished.
Almost no one on the reservation can afford to build a home because no one can get a mortgage. And no one can get a mortgage because the property on the reservation is held in trust by the federal government; most of it also is “owned” communally by the tribe. No bank could ever foreclose on a property because the bank can’t own reservation land. American Indians have no access to capital to start a business. And because the land is held in trust, the federal government can continue to micro-manage all decisions about the development of resources.