The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and over 300 other Indian Nations who have for weeks protested the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, are “making their voices heard,” President Obama said Monday.
The president made the remarks in his address at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, an annual gathering created by the his administration eight years ago to bring together representatives from each of the country’s 567 federally recognized Native American tribes to bring issues that affect tribal communities to the attention of the federal government.
“I know that many of you have come together across tribes and across the country to support the community at Standing Rock,” said President Obama. “And together, you’re making your voices heard.”
It was the president’s first public comments on the proposed pipeline, a $3.7 billion project that would transport 470,000 barrels of oil a day across four states, since he addressed the issue at a town hall in Laos earlier this month in response to an attendee’s question.
The pipeline would come within a half-mile of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, which straddles the North and South Dakota border.
Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe see the pipeline as an environmental and cultural threat to their homeland. They say an oil spill would permanently contaminate the reservation’s water supply and that construction of the pipeline would destroy lands where many of their ancestors are buried.
The project is financed by the Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, which claims it will bring millions of dollars into local economies and create an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 construction jobs.
The pipeline has evidently touched a nerve across America’s Indian Country. For weeks, over 300 tribes have joined thousands of others at Cannon Ball, North Dakota — the site of the Oceti Sakowin Camp — with about 10 tribes joining by the day, according to Dave Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. It has become one of the largest organized Native American protests in decades.
The protests forced a halt in construction last month after the tribe sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the land, arguing that it did not adequately consult with them before granting Energy Transfer Partners fast track approval in July. The Army Corps of Engineers said it did not oppose the suspension.
On Sept. 16, a federal appeals court ruled to officially halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline that traverses Sioux land to give the court more time as it assessed concerns that the pipeline could destroy sacred sites and burial grounds.
Many speakers at the conference thanked President Obama for his administration’s focus on Native American communities over the course of his presidency. The president has visited more tribal communities than any other sitting president, including a June 2014 visit to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
His signature policy achievements include the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, which allowed tribal courts greater autonomy to dictate sentencing, and an executive order which requires the federal government to consult with tribal governments when deliberating over policies and programs that would affect tribal communities.
“We haven’t righted every wrong,” said President Obama. “But together, we’ve made significant progress in almost every area.”
For Archambault, who told NBC News that he met with staff from the Departments of Justice, Army and the Interior on Monday, the president’s remarks “give recognition of our movement.”
“We are a movement that has brought unity to Indian Country,” Archambault told NBC News. “And we have heightened the awareness to all Americans of the ongoing injustices against indigenous peoples.”