David Brown Eagle, vice chairman of the Spokane Tribe Business Council, speaks on the importance of informed consent.
David Brown Eagle, vice chairman of the Spokane Tribe Business Council, speaks on the importance of informed consent in an era of rapid domestic fossil fuel development. SB

Seven Pacific Northwest tribal leaders, standing with the Standing Rock Sioux against the Dakota Access Pipeline, are calling on the Obama administration to overhaul its process for consulting tribes on infrastructure projects permitted by the federal government.

The tribes—including the Yakama Nation, Tulalip Tribes, Lummi Nation, Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and Spokane Tribe—say that for too long, and too many times, the federal process for consulting with tribes has resulted in the destruction of sacred sites. Whether it be for railroads, coal terminals, pipelines, or dams on tribal land, these leaders say that the federal government has routinely ignored one element in their permitting processes: informed consent.

"It's probably safe to say that every single Indian nation has a story of federally approved destruction projects in their backyard," Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and president of the National Congress of American Indians, said at an early morning press conference held at the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center. "We are here today because the system is broken and needs to be fixed."

Lack of informed consent in these consultations has always been a problem, tribal leaders say, but the growth of domestic oil production and new infrastructure to accommodate that boom has exacerbated old wounds. A new kind of activism, however, has arisen from these conflicts: In North Dakota, thousands of people have joined the Standing Rock Sioux in an unprecedentedly large and peaceful demonstration against a 1,172-mile pipeline that tribal leaders say has already destroyed sacred sites and would go under the Missouri River.

Pacific Northwest tribes are all too familiar with these types of issues. Last year, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community sued BNSF over sending potentially explosive crude oil trains across tribal land, allegedly without abiding by the railroad's earlier easement agreement with the tribe. This year, the Lummi Nation succeeded in blocking what would have been the largest coal export terminal in North America near Bellingham after they demonstrated to the Army Corps of Engineers that such a project would infringe on their treaty rights. The Yakama Nation, Tulalip Tribes, the Spokane Tribe, and the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe have also fought similar battles over dams and other pieces of infrastructure that have interrupted historically and culturally critical salmon runs.

"When you think about the years that we were ignored, that we did not have a seat at the table, the amount of fishing, the salmon that tells us who we are, declined dramatically," Mel Sheldon, chairman of the Tulalip Tribes, said. "Our way of life is gone. Hopefully through the consultation, all the tribes standing up together, our voice being loud and strong, we will have a voice and we will have salmon again for our people."

Together, the tribes are asking for the following five things from the Obama administration and Congress:

• A regional environmental impact statement for fossil fuel export projects.

• A strengthened executive order on protecting Indian sacred sites that includes language about informed consent.

• Repealing part of the US Army Corps of Engineers' process that sidesteps other National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requirements.

• A legislative update to the NHPA and National Environmental Policy Act that requires the tribes' informed consent on federally approved infrastructure projects.

• Including "proper and meaningful tribal consultation" in President Obama's 2011 plan to fast-track infrastructure development.

JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation, linked the absence of informed consent in these processes to cultural genocide.

"The natural resources that we are related to, that we've had since time immemorial, that we've had teachings and ceremonies gifted to us from our creator—such things we have to sustain and practice, and if we don't, we cease to exist as Native people," he said.

But Goudy also highlighted the importance of sacred sites—and sacred natural resources—to non-Native people, too.

"The United States must ask itself," he said, "what are the natural laws that go hand in hand with the natural resources that provide not just for the Native nations, but for people from all walks, the ability to drink clean water, the ability to breathe clean air, the ability to walk upon untainted ground?"