Navajo Nation president rallies against energy bill

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Navajo Nation president rallies against energy bill
TUESDAY, JULY 22, 2003

The head of the nation's largest tribe on Monday criticized the Indian energy bill under consideration in the Senate as a "blatant attack on tribal sovereignty."

Addressing the Navajo Nation council for its annual summer session, President Joe Shirley Jr. said the legislation would waive the federal government's trust responsibilities by allowing energy development without tribal consent. He called on the council to express its opposition to the measure, which is scheduled for a Senate vote July 28.

"We will continue to make it our priority to protect our sovereignty and the dignity of the Navajo Nation," he told council delegates in Window Rock, Arizona, the tribal capital.

Shirley and other tribal leaders have been lobbying for changes to the Indian energy title of S.14, the Energy Policy Act of 2003. Introduced by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, it aims to streamline development of Indian lands.

But Shirley and the National Congress of American Indians question language that limits the Department of Interior's involvement in the development of trust assets Coming off two recent Supreme Court decisions, including one striking down the Navajo Nation's $600 million breach of trust claim, the tribes say enacting the bill would be tantamount to signing away their rights.

Those kinds of sentiments have soured some in the Senate. Republican and Democrats who are traditional allies of Indian Country have been on opposite sides of the debate, with charges and countercharges flying over the effect on the trust relationship.

"The purpose of the bill," Domenici said June 11 on the Senate floor, "will say to the Indian people, 'We want you to be players, participants, owners of energy so that you can be part of America's energy solutions.'"

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the ranking member of the energy panel, and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), vice-chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, tried to remove the language in question but were defeated by a near party-line 52 to 47 vote last month.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), chairman of the Indian committee, is a strong proponent of the bill. He has noted that the program to streamline energy development is entirely voluntary.

But according to news accounts, he has not been willing to accept changes. The Gallup Independent reported July 7 that Campbell's top aide, Paul Moorehead, shut down discussion during a meeting with tribal leaders earlier this month. In a story published online by Indian Country Today yesterday, Moorehead refused to discuss the issue further.

The bill allows a tribe to submit energy resource regulations to the Interior for one-time approval. The department would not be required to review development taken under those regulations and would not be held liable should the tribe allege a breach of trust.

Also, the Interior would not have to review development under the National Environmental Policy Act. Environmentalists have objected to this provision, as have some Native activist groups, including the Indigenous Environmental Network.

"Policies, such as Senate energy bill S.14 . . . are meant to allow industry greater access to our land under the guise of sovereignty," said Tom Goldtooth, director of IEN, in a statement last month. He added: "The U.S. energy policy has been at the expense of our Indian people that has left whole communities devastated and living in terror. It is an oppressive colonial system that feeds off the blood of the earth and blood of our people."

In a letter to Senators yesterday, Domenici said Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has committed to wrapping up the bill before the August recess. He is expecting dozens of amendments, including some affecting the Indian title.

Relevant Documents:
President Joe Shirley Jr. State of the Navajo Nation Address (June 21, 2003)

Energy Legislation Documents:
S.14 [with links to amendments] | Summary of Indian Energy Title III | Indian Energy Title III | Bush Administration Statement

Relevant Links:
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee - http://energy.senate.gov
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org
Navajo Nation - http://www.navajo.org
Council of Energy Resource Tribes - http://www.certredearth.com

Related Stories:
Report: Campbell aide shuts down energy bill debate (07/08)
Senate takes up Indian energy title (6/12)
Navajo Nation opposes energy bill (6/6)
Indian energy title adopted without changes (04/30)
Tribes weigh effects of energy legislation on trust (03/20)
Navajo Nation tussles with new trust 'philosophy' (03/20)
Interior opposes oversight in energy bill (03/20)
High court ruling makes 'passive' trustee of U.S. (3/5)

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