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Circumventing Native American Sovereignty

Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman from Arizona, recently got into trouble for calling Native American tribes “wards of the federal government.” He made the remarks during a town hall meeting concerning a provision of the 2015 Defense Authorization Act that would allow a foreign mining company to acquire large portions of Apache territory. A member of the White Mountain Apache tribe, whose ancestral land is threatened under the act, argued that the legislation would enable the government to violate tribal sovereignty. Gosar reportedly responded to this by commenting “you’re still wards of the federal government.” To many Native Americans, this statement sounded like the US government finally admitting their true attitude toward tribal nations. This feeling comes after a year in which, despite promises of unity and support, the federal government still largely disregards the sovereignty of Native American lands in favor of large energy companies.

On December 20, President Obama signed the Defense Authorization Act, which contained a provision giving 2,400 acres of Apache ancestral land in Arizona to the multinational mining company Rio Tinto, which would construct a copper mine in the area. The provision was attached to the bill through the efforts of Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who argue that the mine will create 3,700 jobs. Rio Tinto is set to take control of the area in December 2015, one year after the bill was signed.

The disappointing decisions of the federal government in the face of lucrative energy prospects are nothing new for Native Americans. In October, Navajo residents of Black Mesa, Arizona were shocked to see federal SWAT teams, wearing military-style uniforms and holding assault rifles, detaining elderly Navajo sheep ranchers. Apparently, the offense was that the ranchers owned too many sheep.

This dispute dates back to the 1974 Navajo and Hopi Settlement Act, which gave the Hopi Tribe exclusive control of over one million acres of formerly shared territory. The plan relocated over 14,000 Navajo and 100 Hopi. The act, while publicized as the resolution of an ongoing dispute between the two tribes, was actually the result of efforts to gain control of the area’s vast mineral reserves. The discovery of coal in the area years before had created political division, exacerbated by the influx of corporate interests in backing the tribal governments.

The relocation allowed for the creation of two massive coal strip mines: the 103 square-mile Black Mesa mine, which shut down in 2005, and the Kayenta mine, which continues to produce nearly eight million tons of coal annually. Both are owned by the Peabody Western Coal Company, a subsidiary of the world’s largest private coal company, Peabody Energy. After many Navajo resisted the forced relocation, the government began a livestock reduction program that limited the number of sheep a rancher could own to 28, a number lower than what is necessary to support a family, according to Navajo ranchers displaced by the policy. To many residents, the current intimidation by federal SWAT teams is eerily similar to government actions in the ‘70s, which displaced Navajo ranchers and paved the way for mining to begin in Black Mesa.

Peabody Coal now seeks a lifetime permit to mine in the region, against the wishes of both the Navajo and Hopi tribes. The tribes are suing the US government, arguing that archeological relics found at the mines have been mistreated for decades. The relics, including the remains of over 200 people, have been improperly curated, and even sent to universities to be studied without the tribes’ permission. 

These incidents are not isolated, but point to a widespread federal attitude that supports Native American sovereignty only when politically convenient, and continually disregards it when unprofitable. This trend was repeated for countless tribes across the United States in 2014.

The Colorado Indian Tribes recently filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management, which authorized the construction of a 4,000-acre solar plant by the Florida company NextEra Energy Resources. The tribes argue that the agreement violated their sovereignty. The Colorado Indian Tribes land is home to over 4,000 members of four tribes: the Mohave, Navajo, Hopi and Chemehuevi. Construction on the plant is expected to begin next year. This is part of a larger plan in which the BLM has approved, or is actively considering, 10 power plants on the CRIT land, covering over 350,000 acres. In 2012, the CRIT asked the Obama administration to delay the federal government’s pursuit of huge solar energy projects in the area, after numerous artifacts — including human remains — were discovered at the construction site of another solar energy plant nearby, reportedly dug up with a backhoe. The Obama administration did not respond to the request.

Even one of the most high-profile energy controversies in recent years could affect Native Americans, yet these potential effects are ignored by the federal government. After the House of Representatives voted in November to approve TransCanada’s application to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota vowed to take legal action against the pipeline, which cuts through their land. Cyril Scott, president of the Rosebud Sioux, called the vote an “act of war” that disrespected the tribe’s sovereignty. President Obama has indicated he will veto Keystone XL if it passes through the Senate, putting Sioux tribal sovereignty entirely in his hands.

In June 2014, President Obama became only the fourth sitting president to visit a Native American reservation. The president hoped the visit would mark the beginning of a renewed commitment to “upholding our strong and crucial nation-to-nation relationship.” In a speech given to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, he focused on education, health care, and job creation as ways to uplift and strengthen the Native American community. But until the federal government’s commitment to Native American tribes becomes stronger than its commitment to energy companies, tribal sovereignty will remain precarious.

About the Author

Mitchell Johnson '18 is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review.