Drake Keahna, 8, wears traditional clothing for a Meskwaki powwow in 2006. The tribe has voiced opposition to the proposed Bakken oil pipeline, which a Meskwaki official says would run through the tribe’s aboriginal rights lands.
(Photo: Register file photo)
William Petroski | The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES — The Meskwaki Indian tribe, which has had an Iowa settlement near Tama since 1857, is objecting to a Texas company’s plans to construct a 343-mile crude oil pipeline across 18 Iowa counties.
The tribe — officially known as the Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa — has expressed its opposition in a letter to the Iowa Utilities Board. The letter, signed by tribal chairwoman Judith Bender, raises concerns that the Bakken oil pipeline would damage the environment and harm Native American graves while crossing through ancestral and ceded treaty lands.
The pipeline has been proposed by Dakota Access LLC, a unit of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners. It would transport up to 570,000 barrels of oil daily from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to a transfer point at Patoka, Ill. The utilities board has not announced when it will make a decision on the project.
The Meskwaki tribe, which has 1,400 members, said the proposed pipeline would cut through lands of religious and cultural significance, and it could destroy wildlife habit and contaminate Iowa’s waters. A coalition of 20 other Iowa groups, ranging from the Sierra Club to Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, has also voiced opposition to the pipeline project.
“As a people that have lived in North America for thousands of years, we have environmental concerns about the land and drinking water,” Bender wrote in a letter filed Feb. 19 with state officials. “As long as our environment was good we could live, regardless of who our neighbors were. Our main concern is Iowa’s aquifers might be significantly damaged. And it will only take one mistake and life in Iowa will change for the next thousands of years. We think that should be protected, because it is the water that gives Iowa the best way of life.”
While the pipeline route would not pass directly through the Meskwaki settlement land near Tama, federal law requires that Indian tribes must be consulted for projects that may affect areas to which tribes attach religious and cultural significance, regardless of their location. Bender said the project would run through the tribe’s aboriginal rights lands.
Respect for American Indian heritage has been a sensitive issue in Iowa. In 1976, former Gov. Robert Ray signed the Iowa Burials Protection Act, the first legislation in the United States that specifically protected American Indian remains. Ray acted in response to complaints from the late Maria Pearson, a Yankton Dakota who lived in Ames. Pearson was appalled after learning the remains of white people were quickly reburied after they were recovered in Glenwood in western Iowa during a road construction project, while the remains of an American Indian mother and child were sent to a lab for study. Pearson first met with Ray after sitting outside his office in traditional Native American clothing.
In January, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, representing 16 American Indian tribes in South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska, sent a letter to President Obama in opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian oil into the United States. Many tribal groups have labeled the pipeline “the black snake.” Meskwaki leader Roberts said in her letter to the Iowa Utilities Board that she is concerned that the Bakken pipeline could be used as a replacement if the Keystone XL pipeline is not built.
Vicki Granado, a spokeswoman for Energy Transfer Partners, said Friday that Dakota Access will comply with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. She also said that in addition to regulatory oversight from the Iowa Utilities Board, the pipeline project is subject to regulations of the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and federal environmental laws that include the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Rivers and Harbor Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Historical Preservation Act.
Granado said Dakota Access has also filed for permits with, provided information to, or engaged in required consultations with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Iowa State Historical Preservation Office and numerous state entities and subdivisions that are holders of sovereign lands.
“We have surveyed and will continue to survey for wetlands, cultural resources, wells, protected areas, threatened and endangered species and other sensitive areas to meet or exceed what is required by state and federal regulations,” Granado said. “When constructed, the pipeline will include numerous safety features, which will be increased (particularly in terms of thickness of the pipe and location and frequency of remotely controllable valves) in sensitive areas such as rivers.”
The Meskwaki people are of Algonquian origin from the Eastern Woodland Culture areas. The Meskwaki spoken language is the same dialect as the Sauk and Kickapoo, according to a tribal history. In the 1850s, the state of Iowa enacted a law allowing the Meskwaki to stay, and the tribe purchased land in Tama County in 1857. In 1896, the state of Iowa ceded to the federal government all jurisdiction over the Meskwakis.
Bender said in her two-page letter to the Iowa Utilities Board that Dakota Access officials were asked in a community meeting if their project would comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. But a company vice president responded that he wasn’t aware of what that meant and offered no commitment to comply, she said.
Other Native American rights are also at stake, the tribal leader said, noting that the pipeline route falls within areas covered by Indian treaties dating to the 1830s and 1840s. In addition, Bender said the state of Iowa does not have enough regulatory authority or oversight regarding oil pipelines. The state requires companies to be bonded for $250,000, which is insufficient to clean up and mitigate spills that often cost several million dollars, she said.