On December 4, after about six months of protests by Indigenous peoples and environmentalists, the Army Corps of Engineers denied Energy Transfer Partner the easement required to finish construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Native communities celebrated the monumental victory, as it represented a rare federal acknowledgment of Native sovereignty and a protection of sacred lands from corporate desecration. Native communities thanked the Obama administration for heeding their call to halt the pipeline.

Less than two months later, on January 24, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to fast-track the construction of DAPL. And so began a new chapter in the tug-of-war between one president’s legacy and another’s plan, part of the ongoing struggle for Native rights despite government-induced marginalization.

As is the case with other minority groups in the United States, the Native American community has endured centuries of mistreatment. Tribes govern themselves and so are under federal rather than state jurisdiction. This seemingly advantageous status, though, has serious downsides. Since state governments have no authority over incidents that occur on reservation lands, neither the state nor the tribe can prosecute non-tribal members that commit crimes in reservation areas. This jurisdictional gap allows for the unaccountable exploitation of Native peoples, including sexual assault and violence against women. In 2011, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice did not prosecute 65 percent of rape cases that occurred on reservations. A recent study conducted by the DOJ found that over 90 percent report experiencing violence from a non-tribal member. According to government statistics, Native American and Alaskan Native women are over 2.5 more times like to be sexually assaulted than other women in the country. While such crimes committed on reservation land go unpunished, corporations freely establish themselves on or near Native lands. Police violence against Natives in these rural areas is equally unaccounted for.  

“There’s a sense that the Federal government doesn’t particularly care about Native people, and that even if one tries there’s usually no help,” said Haylee Kushi TD ‘18 (Kanaka Maoli), a member of Hilo HawaiʻI, the Indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands, and new president of the Association of Native Americans At Yale.

President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 heralded a fundamental shift in federal relations with Native communities. As with so many other marginalized communities, Obama promised a total turnaround.  

“Few [Americans] have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans,” Obama said during a campaign rally in Crow Agency, Massachusetts. “ My Indian policy starts with… ensuring that our treaty obligations are met and ensuring that Native Americans have a voice in the White House.”

For most of his time in office, Obama was true to his word. He instituted an annual summit meeting of Indian leaders called the White House Tribal Nations Conference. His administration returned land to Native tribes and worked closely with tribal governments, settling a 13-year-old lawsuit in 2009 by paying $3.4 billion to compensate for federal mismanagement of thousands of land trusts. Obama also created a White House council that would establish close communications with tribal leaders to remain aware of their concerns. In 2013, he expanded the terms of the Violence Against Women Act to include protection of Native tribal women. Two years ago, in 2014, Obama visited the Standing Rock community, where he promised to defend tribal sovereignty and abide by treaties previously established between the federal government and Indian nations.  In September 2016, after a federal judge ruled against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request for a halt to DAPL’s construction, the Obama administration stepped in and ordered the project to be temporarily stopped.

But despite this, in November Obama stated that he would let the situation unfold for several more weeks while the Army Corps of Engineers determined if the pipeline could be rerouted. The Obama administration’s adoption of a wait-and-see approach left many in the NoDAPL movement frustrated, especially since the President had already demonstrated his capacity for intervention by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline proposal in 2015. Obama’s sudden inaction came as a deep disappointment to Native peoples, who believed he would live up to his promise to fight for their rights. The announcement on December 4, therefore, came as a pleasant surprise to many. Prominent representatives of the Standing Rock tribe showered Obama and his administration with praise.

“The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and all of Indian Country will be forever grateful to the Obama Administration for this historic decision,”  said Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II in a statement.

Others were not so positive. Chase Warren ‘20, a member of the Standing Rock tribe, lamented the administration’s delayed response to the issue, stressing that a speedier decision would have been of much greater benefit.

A lot of suffering came from the Obama administration letting the DAPL situation play out,” Warren said at the time. “I’m a little disappointed with the amount of time it took. With the pipeline mostly completed, I think it makes the Trump administration more inclined to shove it through, unfortunately.”

Warren’s words proved prescient. Trump, a man with a history of anti-Native rhetoric, wasted no time in signing an executive order to expedite the construction of DAPL. His actions are not merely symbolic. On January 31st, Senator John Hoeven released a statement claiming that the Acting Secretary of the Army Robert Speer had ordered the Army Corps to issue an easement allowing ETP to resume and complete the pipeline’s construction. However, as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe noted in its response to Hoeven, “the Army Corps lacks statutory authority to simply stop the [environmental impact study] and issue the easement.” Still, if Trump’s pro-DAPL stance is any indication, the Native community faces a long fight ahead, not just against the pipeline but against further violations of their sovereignty.

Ultimately, Obama’s accomplished record on Native American rights has been complicated by the controversy surrounding DAPL and by the the policies of his successor. Although Obama kept working for Native American rights in the final weeks of his Presidency, even designating a million-acre national monument in Utah which protects sacred land, DAPL’s continued relevance threatens to tarnish his legacy. Some Native Americans, while critical of Trump’s hostility towards the No DAPL movement, lay the blame for the problem at Obama’s feet.

“[DAPL happened] under Obama’s watch,” said Norman Momowetu Clement, an Indigenous activist and member of the Quinnipiac tribe. “We can blame Trump for the actions he’s taking now, but not for the pipeline itself. When I was out there [at Standing Rock], the DAPL [construction workers] had dug twenty-three Indigenous grave sites. The bones of people, dug them up. Obama didn’t put a stop to that.”

Obama’s DAPL legacy may appear to depend on the Trump Administration’s actions. After all, if it succeeds in fast-tracking the pipeline, Obama will likely be remembered as the president who failed to act quickly enough on a crucial issue. If Trump’s initiative fails, then Obama will more likely be afforded some lenience. But what such an assessment neglects to consider is the role that Native communities will play in the upcoming conflict. Trump’s success or failure, and thus the fate of Obama’s legacy on Native American rights, ultimately depends on the Native American community and its allies.

Through their determined resistance and unshakable willpower, Native Americans forced the government of the most powerful country in the world to acknowledge their rights. And through their determined resistance and unshakable willpower, they can do it again.