Governor Jay Inslee met with tribal leaders, including Swinomish Indian Tribal Community chairman Brian Cladoosby (pictured here), two months ago at Washingtons annual Centennial Accord.
Governor Jay Inslee meeting with tribal leaders, including Swinomish Indian Tribal Community chairman Brian Cladoosby (pictured here). Jay Inslee/Flickr

America's "greenest" governor dropped by Western Washington University last week for a standard get-out-the-vote appeal to campus environmentalists, but student activists were determined to make the stop anything but routine. A separate rally of Native students and their non-Native allies flooded Inslee's campaign stop and demanded that the governor take a position on the Dakota Access pipeline.

Michaela Vendiola, a 21-year-old WWU student and a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, told Inslee at the Nov. 2 event that it wasn't just the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who are being affected by major fossil fuel infrastructure projects. "This is a huge issue for us," she said. Vendiola and fellow student organizers then asked the governor to call on the Obama administration to revoke pipeline permits and demand that North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple stop the militarized police crackdown on Standing Rock activists.

Mayors of several American cities, including Seattle, have written to the Obama administration and asked that the Feds halt remaining permits for the Dakota Access pipeline, which the pipeline builders report as 87 percent complete. But Inslee refused to sign a promise drafted by the WWU students that asked him to support their demands.

Inslee gave an impromptu address to the Bellingham protesters, saying to Vendiola, "I am touched by everything you said." But when a student shouted something from the audience, Inslee bristled. "This fellow just said 'coward' over here," the governor said. (One student said he thought that the shouter said "louder," but it's unclear from the recording.)

"I'm going to talk with you more about this," Inslee said, turning down the students' request to sign the written demands.

Inslee continued:

I'm going to urge the people who do have control over this to respect treaty rights. To the extent that this violates treaty rights, it should stop. And if it creates hazards to the Missouri River or any other river, it should stop. Any federal government that has control over those issues, they should stop. And if that's what's happening, then it should stop. But I cannot and will not right now, today, sign some document changing some law enforcement procedure in a state that is not mine.

Earlier at the event, Inslee talked about the need to reduce fossil fuel consumption and touted his own carbon cap rule, which will reduce carbon pollution from the state's biggest emitters by 1.7 percent a year starting in 2017. "Sir, you're talking to the wrong crowd," one activist told Inslee over a loudspeaker. "We already know that."

In an interview days after the confrontation, Vendiola said she thought Inslee could have responded in a way that resonated more with the crowd he was addressing.

"I don't think you can be an environmental activist without looking at how the treaty rights are impacted or tribal communities are being impacted," Vendiola, who grew up on the Lummi Reservation, said. "Tribal folks, I feel like we have the most experience in environmental impacts, because companies and people that benefit from making money do not see it as an issue to impact these communities."

We reached out to Inslee's office yesterday to see if the governor has decided to ask the Obama administration to halt pipeline permits, or whether he will call on North Dakota governor Jack Dalrymple to demilitarize the response against the activists in his state. We have yet to hear back, but will update when we do.