Although the grant is being lauded, critics say the lands benefiting from the grant are in danger from Big Oil interests.
The federal government doled out $2.2 million in federal grants to 135 different tribal nations in order to preserve almost 200,000 acres of land in the U.S., the federal government announced on Thursday.
Though the federal government’s efforts to protect federal lands may be applauded by many, tribal leaders say that their land is in danger, especially as the oil industry seeks to expand drilling throughout the country.
Under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which Congress amended in 1992 to include annual appropriations, tribes can apply for a grant to fund projects such as nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, preservation education, architectural planning, community preservation plans and bricks-and-mortar repair to buildings.
“These grants allow tribes to focus on what they are most concerned with protecting – native language, oral history, plant and animal species important in traditions, sacred and historic places, and the establishment of tribal historic preservation offices,” National Parks Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in a statement.
As MintPress previously reported, Native American income has been generated through land-based activities on reservations, including agricultural leases, timber harvests, and minerals and petroleum revenues.
However, the money the federal government gives to these tribal communities, which usually ranges between $13,000 to $22,000, comes from federal oil leases on the Outer Continental Shelf.
Although the oil industry has not been shy to express its interest in obtaining land owned by Native Americans, rarely do they ever pay a tribal community a fair amount of money for the land.
For example, three North Dakota-based tribes filed a lawsuit last year saying they were cheated out of more than $1 billion for drilling rights on their land by an oil company. The lawsuit also blames the federal government for the lopsided deal it received, saying the U.S. facilitated the negotiation to ensure the tribes were not swindled.
While it sounds admirable of the federal government to help Native Americans negotiate with big industry, it’s actually a legal requirement. According to the Last Real Indians, the U.S. government technically holds legal title to “trust land,” but the beneficial interest remains with the tribe or individual Indian. So in other words, while the tribe is responsible for the land, “the land cannot be encumbered or conveyed without the approval of the U.S. and can never be sold without the approval of the United States.”
The Department of the Interior has been tasked with overseeing the development of oil and gas on tribal lands, as well as ensuring that any leases or sales of that land are made in “the best interest” of Native Americans.
Since the U.S. government and several big industries have a history of taking advantage of Native American communities, it’s not surprising that with the emergence of new oil rigging processes like fracking, land is once again being unfairly taken away from Native Americans.
According to an Associated Press review of tribal and federal records, there are a large number of lowball, non-competitive deals brokered by numerous companies, and some of the tribal land is being sold by tribal leaders for a large financial sum that the rest of the community never sees.
Part of the reason tribal leaders can get away with agreeing to these arguably unfair deals is that there is “limited transparency into tribal government affairs, no public access to documents, no annual reporting on accounts, and limited communication about what tribal council members discuss in their meetings.”
According to a report last February in Politico, “it’s estimated that three tribes and individual Native American landholders are receiving between $50 to $80 million a year from the drilling leases and royalties, compared with revenues of about $5 million a year before the boom began in about 2006.”
Other groups accused of profiting from these deals include oil speculators, a New York hedge fund, and the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Fighting for justice
But as the oil industry continues its push for access to more land in the U.S. where it can access oil, many Native Americans have begun to protest the actions of the oil industry and have asked for their land to be left alone entirely.
In addition to areas where companies are drilling for oil, the Keystone pipeline is also being constructed on land that is considered to have spiritual meaning as well as areas where some tribes get their water supply.
Charles Lone Chief, vice president of the Pawnee Business Council, said he was against the pipeline because if there is a spill, the oil would “get into our waterways, our water tables, our aquifers, then we have problems,” he told the the Rapid City Journal.
“We find ourselves victims of another form of genocide, and it’s environmental genocide, and it’s caused by the extractive industries,” said Casey Camp-Horinek, a Southern Ponca Tribe elder.
While tribal leaders along with members of the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Ponca, Pawnee and Nez Perce communities have attempted to discuss the issue with the federal government, specifically members of the Obama administration, so far their complaints have largely fallen on the ears of low-level administrative clerks and the State Department.
Talking to the Huffington Post this past April, State Department officials said that it would meet with the tribal nations in order to gather input from the community before the conclusion of the environmental impact statement relating to the pipeline is published.
However, many tribal community members said they were frustrated that they would once again be meeting with State Department officials since the agency wouldn’t likely give them any more than lip service, which is why they said they were prepared to protect their land through alternative means.
“I believe this is going to be one of the biggest battles we are ever going to have,” said Robin LeBeau, council representative for Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.