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Udall Calls for Urgent Action on Dakota Pipeline To Protect Tribal Rights, Safety Of Demonstrators

Nov 30, 2016

Commentary: Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, incoming vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, condemned the violence against Tribal members and others protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and called on President Barack Obama to take urgent action to protect the protesters and address their concerns about how the pipeline could harm the water quality near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. In a letter, Udall urged the Obama administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider every available option to fully protect Tribal rights and land, including re-routing the pipeline.

Credit Senator Tom Udall (D-NM)

Udall’s letter comes nearly three months after he first wrote to the president in opposition to the alarming use of violence against demonstrators, the vast majority of whom are peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights. Today, Udall issued the following statement:

"Over the last seven months, members of Indian nations from across North America have been demonstrating against a segment of the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, which they believe threatens their water supplies and crosses the sacred ancestral land of the Standing Rock Sioux. Over 300 Tribes are represented, including several from New Mexico; it's the largest community of Native American protesters in recent memory. They are standing up within their First Amendment rights to protect their heritage, clean air and water, and to prevent the degradation of sacred lands. And that is why I am extremely disturbed by the increasingly aggressive and violent tactics that have been used against them.

"Three months ago, I condemned the violence against protesters and called on President Obama to intervene and consult in a meaningful way with the Standing Rock Sioux and to address concerns about the safety of the pipeline and the impact it could have on the water supply. I appreciated that President Obama followed up by temporarily halting a portion of the project, while reviewing the permitting process for the river crossing, and pledging to hold consultation sessions with Tribes across the country. But the violence at the protest site has continued, with law enforcement and private security forces using inexcusable means against peaceful demonstrators, including rubber bullets, attack dogs and even water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures. Many of the protesters are from New Mexico Tribes, and one of those seriously injured was a Navajo woman from Arizona who was shot in the face with a rubber bullet. The Army Corps of Engineers and the state are working to move protesters off one camp site, and I fear the situation could escalate out of control. Both sides of this dispute should take responsibility for preventing violence, but this situation is ripe for further injury or worse.

"As the incoming vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I am asking President Obama and his administration to take action now to resolve the situation in a way that respects the sovereign rights of the Standing Rock Sioux and the civil rights of those gathered at the site. Protesters have a right to make their voices heard peacefully, and the Department of Justice should redouble its efforts to prevent civil rights abuses and prevent the situation from becoming tragic. Finally, all New Mexicans, Tribal members or not, know that water is life, and so I am calling on the president to take action before the end of his term to find a positive resolution to this situation by considering all available options to protect Tribal resources, including re-routing the pipeline to better safeguard water quality. This was done when the community of Bismarck, N.D., had concerns about the pipeline crossing a river near its water intakes, and the Standing Rock Sioux and surrounding neighbors deserve the same respect.”

The full text of the letter can be found below and here.

Dear President Obama:

I write to urge your renewed personal attention to the pressing issues surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline.  These include both the review process to better address tribal concerns and the safety and civil rights of the people who have gathered peacefully to exercise their First Amendment rights.  As the incoming Vice Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in the next Congress, and the senator representing a number of tribes attending or supporting the protest, I fear the dispute over this pipeline may negatively impact federal-Tribal relations more broadly going forwards if we cannot find a respectful resolution to Tribal concerns.

Along with many of my New Mexico Tribal constituents, I appreciated the action of your Administration on September 9, 2016 to pause construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Lake Oahe in light of the important issues regarding consultation and the protection of water raised by the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes.  With regards to Dakota Access, I understand the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reconsideration process is still ongoing, and I urge a positive resolution soon that can provide the Tribe with much greater assurances that its water will be protected from the risk of oil spills. 

Importantly, the route of this pipeline was changed at least once in response to water pollution concerns from the Bismarck, ND area.  Tribal members across the country are thus very concerned that the new river crossing location was chosen without equal consideration of Tribal environmental concerns.  As we all know, Tribal rights and interests have taken a back seat for far too long in our nation.  Thankfully, few Presidents have done as much as you to reverse that tragic historical trend.  I trust that you are considering every available option, including altering the pipeline route, to respond to the Standing Rock Sioux’s concerns.

Since your Administration’s September announcement, the demonstrations have grown, and there have been far too many dangerous violent confrontations between protestors and state and local law enforcement, with serious injuries resulting. One of those seriously injured was a Navajo woman, who was shot in the face with a rubber bullet. The vast majority of the demonstrators are peaceful, in line with Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s position. 

As a former Attorney General of the State of New Mexico, I have the highest respect for law enforcement members who work to protect and serve the public, and I recognize this situation has posed unique challenges for them.  However, on several occasions, the law enforcement response has appeared overly militarized and to violate civil rights, including the use of military equipment. Besides rubber bullets, they have employed water cannons in cold temperatures, and engaged in roadblocks and strip searches, and arrested and detained journalists.  The Tribe sought the intervention of the U.S. Department of Justice in October, and I am enclosing their letter.  I strongly urge the Department of Justice (DOJ) to respond to the Tribe’s request to investigate any potential civil rights violations, where appropriate. While I understand that DOJ has sent personnel to the area to be in contact with both law enforcement and tribal leaders to try to defuse tensions and ensure constitutional policing, these efforts need to be redoubled in the future to ensure public safety as key decisions approach.

Another worrying factor is the largest campsite, known as Oceti Sakowin, is now home to a great number of people and the cold North Dakota winter is here.  The Army Corps and the State of North Dakota have instructed people to leave this camp to an alternative area, and the State is also sending mixed signals about blocking food and supplies, raising tensions yet further.  Forcible removal of people from federal land where they have been allowed to camp, along with food blockades, would be serious mistakes.  There are reportedly several thousand people in total at various camp sites.  I believe your Administration needs to engage with state, local and tribal authorities to ensure that appropriate emergency and planning actions are taken in a coordinated fashion to ensure the safety and public health of the peaceful protestors.

I deeply appreciate many positive actions and steps that you and your Administration have taken to benefit Indian Country during your time in office.  If I can be of any assistance to you or your Administration on this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Tom Udall

United States Senator