After Visit To Indian Country, Did The Obama Administration Just Flip-Flop On Tribal Sovereignty?


When President Barack Obama paid his much-ballyhooed visit to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota – a rare presidential visit to Indian country – tribal sovereignty was a big part of the narrative. The President touted policies like the Violence Against Women Act, which gave tribes the authority to prosecute crimes committed on Indian lands by non-tribal members.

“I know that throughout history, the United States often didn’t give the nation-to-nation relationship the respect that it deserved,” the President said during his brief address in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. “So I promised when I ran to be a President who’d change that — a President who honors our sacred trust, and who respects your sovereignty, and upholds treaty obligations, and who works with you in a spirit of true partnership, in mutual respect, to give our children the future that they deserve.”

But this morning, just a week after the President spoke those words, a member of his administration was before the House Natural Resources Committee to argue against a bill that would give tribes greater sovereignty in regulating oil and gas development on Indian land.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, and according to a press release on his website would allow tribes to opt-in to a categorial exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act in order to speed the development of gas-gathering pipelines.

That’s a big problem in North Dakota. Flaring has been a hot-button issue on the state, and nowhere in North Dakota is flaring worse than on the Forth Berthold Indian Reservation where a lengthy and sluggish federal permitting process has slowed infrastructure. On the Fort Berthold reservation, which produces roughly 30 percent of North Dakota’s oil output, flaring is 46 percent. In the rest of state it’s 29 percent.

Cramer hopes to cut through some of the federal red tape, giving the tribe more authority to approve the built out of pipelines to capture gas instead of burning it off. But the Obama administration, after the President just visited Indian Country in North Dakota to tout his commitment to tribal sovereignty, is fighting the Legislation.

“I was just with the President of the United States on a North Dakota reservation a week ago where he talked about honoring sovereignty and here the administration seems to be going against that very concept of sovereignty for the tribe,” Cramer told Michael Nedd, the Assistant Director for Minerals and Realty Management for the Bureau of Land Management, during questioning before the House Natural Resources Committee (video above).

In response, Nedd told Cramer that merely giving the tribes input into the BLM’s decision-making process is enough sovereignty for them.

“Congressman what I can say again that the Secretary’s authority under the Indian Minerals Leasing Act certainly allows the BLM to work with the tribes in managing those trust lands,” Nedd said. “In working through the tribes with consultation, the BLM certainly incorporates their input into that. And so the administration feels again they have enough authority to proceed to conduct the work on the authority Congress has given them. This bill would just inject confusion and the administration position is that we they have enough authority to do that.”

I guess the Obama administration is for tribal sovereignty, except when the tribes might govern in ways not in keeping with the Obama administration’s preferred policy.

Which, of course, really isn’t sovereignty at all.