An Open Letter to President Obama from Natives In America

Dear President Barack Obama,

For the first time in 239 years of United States history, a President and First Lady visited a tribal reservation together. This was on June 13, 2014, where alongside First Lady Michelle Obama, you spoke to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. It was on this day that the center of the American political world listened to the problems plaguing Indian Country with open ears and an open mind. For some in Indian Country, this auspicious occasion signified a day we never thought would come. You described your private meeting with a group of young people on your visit and said:

“…They talked [to me] about the challenges of living in two worlds in being both Native and American and some bright young people like the ones we met today might look around and sometimes wonder if the United States really is thinking about them and caring about them and has a place for them too.”

It is now September 2016, twenty-seven months after your historic visit. We write today to address the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The DAPL is a 1,172-mile pipeline that will carry approximately 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota to your home state of Illinois, crossing through the Standing Rock reservation – the same tribal lands where you spoke in June 2014. We acknowledge your administration’s recent joint statement in response to the court case. We acknowledge your administration’s response to the ruling in regards to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s National Historic Preservation Act argument, recognizing that the factual interpretations indicated a lack of response from the tribe’s historic preservation officer and tribal attendance in some of the Section 106 consultation efforts pursued by the Corps thereby forcing the ruling. We do however disagree with the spirit of the statement as it takes no real action against the construction of the pipeline. It inadequately addresses concerns voiced by hundreds of different tribes, and the youth of these tribes. Furthermore, while the joint statement represents your administration, the youth of Indian Country wonder if the United States is thinking about us and questioning whether or not this country truly cares about us. Especially when the President cannot voice his own support with our efforts.

The proposed DAPL endangers the Missouri River and its hundreds of tributaries by directly sending crude oil below the river, as well as Lake Oahe, which straddles both North and South Dakota. Since April, support for clean water and opposition to the pipeline has reached historic levels. Thousands of water protectors, both Native and non-Native alike, have occupied the Sacred Stone Camp at the front line of the pipeline construction. More than 280 Tribes, First Nations, and Indigenous communities have expressed their solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux and their opposition to the pipeline through written statements and political delegations’ attendance at Sacred Stone Camp. A petition on has received 288,000 signatures; the corresponding petition at has received 198,000 signatures, as of this writing. Only a couple of weeks ago, Native youth from the Great Sioux Nation ran over 2,000 miles from North Dakota to Washington, D.C. to hand deliver a petition stating their opposition. The extent of support for Standing Rock shows this is a universal movement for Native Americans and the most significant event for Native Americans in decades. Yet in the months since these events have unfolded, Indian Country has yet to hear anything directly from you, President Obama.

As a result of your silence and lack of action on this pressing issue, we would like to express our feelings of concern and disappointment. It is no doubt that you have been one the Native American peoples’ most influential allies, making communication with tribal and community leaders a priority throughout your time in office, as seen through the establishment of Indian policies including the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, and the creation of the Generation Indigenous initiative – dedicated to empowering Native youth. For these reasons, your silence on this issue is all the more disappointing. Your administration has dedicated itself to recognizing that for many Native Americans, “the deck has been stacked against them” and because of this, acknowledged that “if we’re working together, we can make things better… that we can break old cycles, we can give our children a better future.” This letter is intended to shed light on your previous promises, while also entreating you to make good on them, and protect our most vulnerable Native youth.

We, as young Native people, have believed in the hope you created all across Indian Country. Indigenous people have showed up to the polls in record numbers to vote for you. Tribal leaders have expressed their support of your leadership, and more so, a feeling of trust between tribal and federal governments has been established. You can understand why this is particularly important to us after having been a marginalized community for so long.

When recently asked about your opinion on DAPL at a town hall meeting at the Souphanouvong University in Laos, you said, “I can’t give you details on this particular case. I’d have to go back to my staff and find out how are we doing on this one…” Well, President Obama, you can only imagine how taken aback we were to hear this especially in light of such forward progress made through your administration. We are tired of being an afterthought. In particular, we’ve experienced this through the extreme lack of media coverage for this protest. It was nearly two weeks after the Sacred Stone camp was created that we heard from any major media organization.

We are aware of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v United States Army Corps of Engineers case where an injunction has been denied to halt construction. The Dakota Access pipeline has brazenly continued to desecrate sacred sites and burial sites. Dakota Access, LLC has used vile methods to move protesters out of the way reminiscent of the Birmingham Campaign in the sixties. On September 3rd, private security forces used attack dogs and pepper spray in an attempt to intimidate and scare off peaceful protesters. In total 30 peaceful protesters were maced with pepper spray and six people were injured by the company’s dogs, including women and children; a pregnant woman was also attacked. The attempts to move protesters through violence and intimidation tactics by Dakota Access LLC is an attempt to suppress protests. Dakota Access LLC has already destroyed sites that have been cited by the Sioux in a restraining order as sacred and/or burial grounds. Dakota Access LLC has also filed charges against protesters most notably Cody Hall, presidential candidate Jill Stein, and reporter Amy Goodman. The local police have set up roadblocks on both sides of the Standing Rock camp and all protestors who go through are stopped and profiled by the police along with having their photograph taken.

For these reasons, we formally ask that the Obama administration:

  1. Formally express your solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in opposition of the Dakota Access Pipeline;
  2. Advocate for the immediate removal of pipeline equipment and crew from Standing Rock;
  3. Work with Tribes and Indigenous communities to propose a solution to end the destruction of sacred sites and use its executive power to bring an end to land infractions on tribal communities; and
  4. Reaffirm its commitment to upholding the trust responsibilities between tribal and federal governments.

Suppression of Native American rights for the exploitation of land is nothing new. The United States government has repeatedly violated the rights and sovereignty of the Oceti Sakowin through examples such as the Wounded Knee Massacre, the Whitestone Massacre, the violations of the Fort Laramie treaties, and the displacement caused by the Oahe Dam. The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is today’s manifestation of this centuries old struggle for our rights to be heard and our children to be safe. We are not just fighting for the land because of sustainability values and economic benefit– the land has much more meaning to us than dollar signs. We are protesting because our ancestors spent centuries fighting against authorities and their selfishness. For us to back down and remain silent would wipe away all the blood and sacrifice we, as Indian Country, made; to back down would be a step back in our Indigenous narrative. It is our modern day fight against colonization.

There are places in this world where the land – the environment – is the most precious resource. Indigenous people hold onto it most fiercely because our lives are so connected to it, we rely on it, breathe because of it — we exist because this land exists. This oil pipeline threatens to pollute the air and land from North Dakota to Iowa. But most importantly, it threatens the sole source of clean water for the Standing Rock Reservation. If ever there was a rupture in the pipeline, which it is believed to most likely happen in the future, the oil would spill into the river, flowing its black, silky sheen into the current of blue, cutting off this reservation’s access to clean water. Thus, this oil pipeline threatens the lives of countless youth and people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. What would people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe do without it?

We find it appalling that you, who played an integral part in Indian self-determination and advocated for clean drinking water for all Americans with your Clean Water Initiative, would neglect to address the irreparable damage this pipeline will cause. Native youth are all too familiar with political leaders and representatives going back on their promises. Please help us define a new narrative by sharing our views on a national scale. Our voices deserve to be heard as the original caretakers of this land and as sovereign nations.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and any future tribes that may be impacted by oil exploitation or transportation, must be regarded as sovereign nations with legitimate rights. Tribes must be regarded as experts on issues that impact their own community, not ignored and belittled.

Moving forward, your administration has the opportunity to help us define a new narrative by sharing our views on a national scale. Our voices deserve to be heard as the original caretakers of this land and as sovereign nations. We join other Native American youth to call upon you to proclaim your denouncement of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

On Monday, September 26, you will host your eighth and final White House Tribal Leader’s Conference. According to the White House press release, “This year’s conference will continue to build upon the President’s commitment to strengthen the government-to-government relationship with Indian Country and to improve the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives.” Mr. President, we are asking that you make good on this pledge. We, as Native youth, have put our faith in your leadership. Please do not continue this country’s history of neglecting Native Nations.

We stand together today, as Native youth who are committed to ensuring that our communities remain strong through seven generations. We ask for a tomorrow where we can undoubtedly say: the United States cares for Indian Country. If the President of the United States addresses the Dakota Access pipeline, it will emphatically demonstrate that this Country really does have a place for us.


Native in America, contributors

Abaki Beck Blackfeet and Red River Metis

Aliyah Chavez Santo Domingo Pueblo

Alli Moran Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe

Bridgette Jameson Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

Cara Forbes Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Chasity Salvador Acoma Pueblo

Collin Church Potawattomi

Dahlton Brown Wilton Miwok Rancheria

Doris Brown Shinnecock Nation

Joey Montoya Lipan Apache Band of Texas

Leo John Bird Amskapii Piikanii & Haida-Tingit

Nasualaq (Ruth) Dan Yup’ik

Teddy McCullough Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians

Tennessee Loy Cherokee Nation

Celeste Kimilia Terry

Dana Pinto Navajo Nation

Kentaro Herder Navajo Nation

Kirsten Shaw, Oglala Lakota Sioux

Julia Hayden Wakeford Mvskoke (Creek) Nation

Contributing Editors:

Megan Red Shirt-Shaw Oglala Lakota Sioux

Adrienne Keene Cherokee Nation

Taylor Duarte