It’s raining buckets outside. The back and forth of the windshield wipers and Siri’s monotone guidance accompanies me through the roads riddled with potholes and semi-trucks. I pass several gated factories to an empty corner of the property, where the Puyallup Tribe and their allies had been protesting the Puget Sound Energy Liquid Natural Gas (PSE LNG) site at the Port of Tacoma in Washington state the day previous. The tribe believes that contaminated soils (the site is within a large, untouched Superfund site) will be exposed by the proposed barge facility on the Hylebos, which would be to the detriment of fishing stocks and negatively impact tribal marinas that are across the waterway from the plant.
Tribal Land Rights
The Puyallup Tribe and their allies are not alone in their fight for environmental justice and their treaty rights. During the Standing Rock protests, headlines of the largest gathering of indigenous nations in modern American history setting up camp drew worldwide attention. Images of Native water protectors and their allies being bitten by police dogs, pepper sprayed during peaceful protest and hit with water cannons in below-freezing weather circulated all over social media and were eventually picked up and globally broadcast by large news networks. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member Nicole Ducheneaux, an attorney with the Indian Law Practice Fredericks Peebles & Morgan, currently represents the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is the sister tribe to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. They are both Lakota people and fought together against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), also known as the Bakken pipeline, on the ground and in court.
Ducheneaux’s experience as an attorney includes tribal economic development, gaming, corporate law, construction law, tribal housing and litigation. She has assisted in defending and prosecuting lawsuits in state, federal and tribal courts, and was selected by Super Lawyers Magazine as a “2017 Great Plains Rising Star.” The DAPL dispute raised a lot of questions about territory and treaty rights. Ducheneaux explains simply, “Pursuant to our treaties, our [The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe] rights extend beyond the borders of our reservation…they didn’t extinguish our hunting and fishing rights in those areas. We explicitly have a right to use Lake Oahe, to use the waters and the lands that sustain our hunting and fishing. When pipelines cross under our reserved rights and have the potential to harm our waters that flow into our reservation, then that has the potential to violate a treaty right.”
Photography by Lucas Zhao
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These treaties were created many generations ago; as a result, the laws are unknown to many Americans, which is where much of the misinformation and confusion came from during the onset of the #NoDAPL movement. “Just because they [treaties] seem like old, stale history, [they are] in fact as vital as any other law that we abide by today,” Ducheneaux reiterates. “When it comes to these rights that we have to sustain ourselves on fresh, clean water, and our rights to hunt and fish, and take animals for food and ceremonial purposes—which are things that Indians do today—the United States has the obligation under these treaties and under federal law to protect those for us.” Unless congress aggregates the treaties, they are as binding by the United States as the day they were enacted.