Open Letter to Obama: When Will You Meet with the Tribal Governments Along the Colorado River?

Dear President Obama,

I hope this message finds you and your family well.  Unfortunately, I write to you with heavy heart about an important issue that I seek your assistance on.  As I type this letter, an important part of the spiritual ancestry of some of the Tribal Governments in Southern California is being desecrated with heavy machinery, all in the name of renewable energy.  These same Tribal Governments have sought counsel with your administration.  Unfortunately, these efforts did not produce any meetings or dialogues between your staff in Washington and the elected representatives of these Indian Nations.  I write to see if you would come to the table and meet with these Native officials.

The ironic aspect to this current situation, regarding renewable energy projects, is that renewable energy is based upon some of the same fundamental principles that are essential to many traditional Indigenous spiritual ways—specifically, maintaining a healthy and sustainable relationship with Mother Earth.  The modern exploitation of the earth— specifically ripping up the land for fossil fuels, only to extract its carbon and pollute the atmosphere—is a practice that many of our collective ancestors have warned the world about its perils centuries ago.  Global warming, the product in part of unsustainable energy practices, is now being validated by Western scientists and climate change has become a worldwide concern.

I understand that domestic energy, and in particular the development of renewable energy, is an important part of your re-election campaign.  On the surface, that appears to be a healthy initiative—having the American Nation be more accountable about how it produces energy and how it may help slow or reduce its carbon footprint.  But the many renewable energy projects born out of this initiative have bombarded the undisturbed traditional lands of many Indian Nations.  What was once a tool of improving this shared world of ours for future generations has turned into a machine that is destroying the history of our Peoples, written into the land by our past generations.

What is alarming is the “fast-track” process these projects have forced upon.  These projects are placed in areas that are, culturally and archaeologically, unsuited for utility scale energy production.  The environmental review process has been arbitrarily fast, often lacking the necessary studies and documents.  Requests for more time or more review were rejected outright.  Even your own Secretary of Interior has described this process of promoting these renewable energy projects as being “on steroids”.  In short, these projects have taken priority over the process.

These fast-track projects, such as Genesis Solar and the recently approved Ocotillo Wind, have blitzed through the concerns of Tribal Governments.  The Native Americans told the BLM that Ford Dry Lake held cultural materials—and soon after grading began, bunches and bunches of manos and metates, previously left intact by our ancestors many generations ago, were dug up by belly scrapers.  In fact, post cultural destruction, the BLM and NextEra, the developer, admitted that they all knew there was cultural materials there—and yet, both felt secure in developing over these sites.  Secretary Salazar approved the Ocotillo Wind Project in an area that, arguably, is even archaeologically richer area than Genesis Solar—where an archaeological site is so big and saturated, that it is referred to as the “mega site” by archaeologists—and slowly and surely, more cremation sites there are being “discovered” as this project progresses.  This is besides the fact that in the federal government’s own land planning initiative in 1980, the California Desert Conservation Act, the federal government recognized both these areas as culturally sensitive areas and made maps demonstrating these concerns.  Yet, the Department of Interior turned a blind eye to that existing information they held in their hands.

Yes, there were meetings between the BLM and Tribal Governments.  But what did those meetings produce?  There weren’t any meetings with Tribal Governments and the final decision maker, Secretary Salazar or yourself, despite the repeated requests by Tribal Governments for a simple audience.  Almost all the Tribal Governments flatly said, “These places should not be disturbed.  When will ‘NO’ be enough?!”  Instead, the developers all got green lights to construct.  These meetings were not a “consultation”, in any meaning of the word.  Instead, they were a mere formality, a box to check for the BLM to say, “Yes, we met with the Indians.”  There were meetings, but our voices weren’t heard and our cultural resources received no protections.

When will our heritage, spirituality, ancestry, and culture be protected and respected?

Along those lines, I have written to ask you: Why haven’t you spoken with these Tribal Governments?  Why hasn’t Secretary Salazar met with these elected officials?  Where is the meaningful “government-to-government” consultation?  Can the Tribal Governments along the Colorado River expect you to keep your promises to them?  What happened to the promises  you made to these Tribal Governments?

We know that you and your administration have had plenty of opportunities to respond to the Tribal Governments’ specific requests.  I know of three Tribal Governments (Colorado River Indian Tribe, Quechan Indian Tribe, and Viejas Band of the Kumeyaay Nation) that have specifically written to you on these matters, but with no response from your office.  Secretary Salazar has been all over the country, touting the jobs and energy the Department of Interior has produced—and yet, he does not have the time to come to the Colorado Desert.  Secretary Salazar visited Gila Bend, but he wasn’t able to go a little further west to meet with the Tribal Governments of Quechan or Cocopah; Secretary Salazar paid a visit to the San Diego zoo, and yet there was no time to meet with the Kumeyaay Tribal Governments 30 minutes away.

The news reports you being able to meet with your family at the Crow Nation.  Maintaining family relationships is important, and I am happy you have been able to keep good relationships with your Crow brothers and sisters.  But, what about your other families in Southern California and along the Colorado River?  You seem, personally, like a nice person, and I’m sure many of the Indian Nations around the Colorado Desert would welcome you into their homes.  But, until you can meet with these Peoples, and their Governments—and possibly talk about the difficult matters that need to be discussed—these relationships cannot be fostered.

What is sad about this predicament is that, for better or worse, I viewed you as a man of your word.  I am neither a Democrat nor Republican—I am not registered with any party; I vote for whom I think will help our peoples and this land.  However, I was completely impressed with your platform on Native Americans.  I read your 2008 campaign website, and I was moved.  I don’t remember any presidential campaign that included a (positive) Native American platform.  You had issued a document, “Barack Obama’s Principles for Stronger Tribal Communities”, which included many positive hallmarks, such as not neglecting the federal responsibility to Tribal Governments and treating these governments as sovereign entities.  For myself and other Native Americans, there was hope in your campaign.

I also remember the many progressive promises you made to Tribal Governments, specifically on the government-to-government relationships you wanted to promote between the federal government and Tribal Governments.  Many Indian elected officials were pleased to hear that you indicated that Tribal Governments have “been ignored by Washington too long”, and that the “President of the United States [needs to be] meeting on a regular basis with the Native American leadership and ensuring relationships of dignity and respect.”  And at a forum for Tribal Governments, in November of 2009, you made promises about meeting with Tribal Governments, that “[t]his conference will serve as part of the ongoing and important consultation process that I value, and further strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship,” and ensure that Native Americans have a “strong voice” in your administration.

Unfortunately, starting in 2011 and now in 2012, several renewable energy projects have begun destroying the spiritual landscape of some Indian Nations.  Where is the dignity and respect in that?  Tribal Governments have pleaded at every level of the federal government, including with your office, for help, assistance, or even for just an ear to listen—all with no meaningful response.  Where is the strong voice in that?  Indian elders have shown the federal government that certain lands are sacred, that they contain strong spiritual materials, that they are not appropriate for any type of renewable energy project—and yet those elders were ignored and the projects keep coming.  Where is the hope in that?

Most Native Americans understand that you are a politician and that you have tough decisions to make.  We recognize that almost all of your decisions will upset some of the people some of the time.  And, certainly, you didn’t campaign on a full Native American platform.  In the end, we know that there are issues that we may not see eye-to-eye on.  We are savvy enough to comprehend that.  Nonetheless, you did make specific promises to Native Americans.  We were hopeful that your promises did not ring hallow, as has been the reputation of promises made by the federal government and by several past presidents.  But, as you hopefully may have learned from your Crow family, communication and trust are very important in the Indian community.  Without having the former, you cannot in good faith expect the latter.

At this point, much hope is lost: tears have been shed, hearts have been hurt, and souls hang low.  You made specific promises to all Tribal Governments.  Many Native Americans felt that your tenure would be different, that things could really change for Indian Peoples in America.  I was one of them.  Now, these specific promises are broken, and these energy projects are being placed on sacred sites—these patterns and practices have destroyed much of that hope.

One of my friends in the Democratic Party told me, “Just wait for next year.  He’ll come around to help the Native Americans.”  For better or worse, my Western-inclined thinking was already aware of that possibility.  Maybe the Native Americans can deal with these renewable energy projects for just this year.  But next year!  That’ll be different!  All the president needs are these projects, as part of his re-election campaign, and once he’s elected, he’ll come help the Indians!

As tempting a scenario as that is, it is a dream, to be honest, that is tainted in blood.  The sacred sites and funerary remains that are being sacrificed for someone else’s solar panels are not worth any amount of promises.  The damage being done this year, now as I write, is invaluable and irreplaceable.  If you were to ask a non-Indian, “Can I dig up the graves of your grandfathers and grandmothers for a certain sum of cash, or for promises next year?”  Would anyone in their right mind agree to that?

I don’t know how Mr. Romney feels about these developments.  Tribal Government will have to consult with him separately.  At this point, these issues are extra-political—they don’t relate to political parties, re-election/election campaigns, or campaign platforms.  These are spiritual issues.  They are about cremation sites where ancestors have been put to rest thousands of years ago, only to be uprooted in a matter of seconds by a bulldozer.  They are about spiritual landscapes of sacred mountains that have existed since time immemorial, mentioned in Creation Stories, only to be obstructed by wind turbines that will help a couple of generations of people, but will scar the desert land forever.

Mr. Obama, I want to write to you in a good way; I want to keep hope alive; and I want to reach out to you with an open heart.  So, with humility, I would like to ask you again: Will you meet with the Tribal Governments along the Colorado River?  If you say yes, regardless of the destruction that has already happened, these Peoples will welcome you to the table—that is their way.  All you have to say is yes you can.


An Indian along the Colorado River

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  • Barbara Durkin  On June 4, 2012 at 9:14 am

    Tears of betrayal are shed, again and again.

    It was clear to me that the Tribes would not be given the respect they deserve when Secretary Salazar arrived at the formal government to government consultation for the offshore Cape Wind, proposed for a Tribal Cultural Property TCP wearing a black cowboy hat.

    Noting the extraordinary leap of faith on the part of the largest assembly in the history of our nation of Native American’s, President Obama made a promise to have meaningful consultation with Tribes. “Today’s conference is not lip service” stated our President, the adopted son of the Crow:

    In a demonstration of unprecedented solidarity on a preservation matter, the entire historic preservation community announced their support of Federally Recognized Tribes seeking to preserve their rights to their Tribal Cultural Property and Sacred Land, Nantucket Sound.

    The Tribes are the authority on the Nantucket Sound Tribal Cultural Property and Sacred Land subject issues recommended that Salazar deny Cape Wind (more than 25 Federally Recognized Tribes):

    As established by The National Historic Preservation Act, the ACHP is the only entity with the legal responsibility to encourage federal agencies to factor historic preservation into federal project requirements. The ACHP recommends that Secretary Salazar deny Cape Wind–Secretary Salazar ignored the ACHP and issued a favorable Record of Decision for Cape Wind.

    The Massachusetts State Historic Preservation Officer’s SHPO findings favor the Tribes against Cape Wind:

    The National Parks Service and the Keeper uphold the Massachusetts State Historic Preservation Officer SHPO findings that favor the Tribes against Cape Wind:

    The National Trust for Historic Preservation findings support Mass Historic Commission MHC’s opinion, and National Park’s Service’s determination of Nantucket Sound’s eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places. Based on information provided by the authority on these matters, the Tribes, The National Trust for Historic Preservation rejected Cape Wind.

    U.S. Office of Inspector General wrote:

    “…In summary, Senator Kennedy’s letter expressed his concern that: MMS was failing to fulfill its responsibilities with respect to protecting public interest in its actions on the Cape Wind Project, and that MMS may be in violation of several relevant statutes, including NEPA…”

    “…MMS failed to conduct the required nation-to –nation consultations with the Wampanoag Tribes (Aquinnah and Mashpee), which should have been completed before the release of the draft EIS.

    MMS failed to complete a full review of the project under the National Historic Preservation Act…”

    I wish the Tribal Government of Southern Calfornia well. I support you.

    Most Respectfully,

    Barbara Durkin

    • indigenousreflections  On June 4, 2012 at 2:36 pm

      Thank you for sharing these quotes and resources. These are not isolated incidences– it is a current pattern and practice of BLM. Thanks again for sharing.

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