By Valerie Volcovici and Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday avoided direct mention of a pipeline that has provoked high-profile protests from Native Americans but urged tribal leaders to use the spotlight to continue pushing for recognition even after he leaves office.
Obama spoke at his eighth and final Tribal Nations Conference, which he created during his first year in office. Leaders of more than 560 Native American tribes gathered for the Washington event as one of the largest Native American protests in decades continues in North Dakota.
In his remarks, Obama acknowledged that Native American tribes have unified around the demonstrations led by the Standing Rock Sioux, a tribe that he visited in 2014.
“I know that many of you have come together across tribes and across the country to support the community at Standing Rock and together you are making your voices heard,” he said. “This moment highlights why it’s so important that we redouble our efforts to make sure that every federal agency truly consults and listens and works with you, sovereign to sovereign.”
In recent weeks, protests against the Dakota Access pipeline have drawn international attention, prompting the U.S. government to temporarily block its construction on federal land. Tribal leaders say the pipeline will desecrate sacred land and pollute water.
When fully connected to existing lines, the 1,100-mile (1,770 km) pipeline would be the first to carry crude oil from the Bakken shale directly to the U.S. Gulf. The $3.7 billion project is being built by the Dakota Access subsidiary of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP.
Obama discussed the progress made by his administration over the last eight years to improve relations with tribal nations, and urged leaders to keep fighting for more visibility and input regardless of who succeeds him in the White House next year.
“Our progress depends in part on who sits the in Oval Office, and whether they’re setting the right priorities, but lasting progress depends on all of us, not just who the president is.”
Various Obama administration officials unveiled initiatives aimed at upholding Native American sovereignty at the conference.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced a forthcoming memorandum from Obama that would require federal agencies to consider Native American treaty rights in decision-making on natural resource projects, hoping to avoid future conflicts with tribes such as the current Dakota Access dispute.
The Justice and Interior Departments also announced settlements with 17 tribes that had sued the U.S. government, accusing them of mismanaging monetary assets and natural resources that the government held in trust for the tribes.
The “vast majority” of all such disputes have been settled, according to the government, which has paid $1.9 billion to resolve the cases since April 2012.
Those settlements characterize the Obama administration’s effort to mend ties “where we have failed in the past in our trust responsibilities,” said Lawrence Roberts, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department, on the sidelines of Monday’s conference.
Regan Dunn, 15, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, delivered opening remarks at the conference.
Dunn said afterward she had never imagined a company might try to build a pipeline through her homeland, but that the wide opposition among various tribes – including some she had not previously heard of – has been “heartwarming.”
Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians, which represents more than 500 tribes, praised Obama’s legacy on Native American issues and warned the assembly that “there is no guarantee going forward there will be the same commitment from the next administration.”
When the Justice Department, Interior Department and the U.S. Army temporarily blocked the pipeline’s construction on Sept. 9, the administration called for “a serious discussion” about how tribes are consulted by the government on decisions over major infrastructure projects.
The Army, Interior and Justice departments will hold hearings on the shortcomings of the present process on Oct. 11, and formal discussions with tribes in six U.S. regions from Oct. 25 through Nov. 21.
The deadline for written comments will be Nov. 30, the agencies announced.
On Thursday, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Dave Archambault, told a House of Representatives panel there was no “meaningful consultation” before permits were issued to bring the pipeline through his tribe’s territory.
Archambault is scheduled to speak on Monday evening at a rally of pipeline opponents.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Matthew Lewis)
IMAGE: President Obama holds a baby as he poses with children at the Cannon Ball Flag Day Celebration at the Cannon Ball Powwow Grounds on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. REUTERS/Larry Downing