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Meat Plants, Oil Pipelines, and the Ethical Tensions of Tribal Sovereignty

The pursuit of questionable economic projects by tribal nations offers the chance to think about what the end goals of sovereignty should, or even can, look like.

A piglet, surrounded by other piglets, looks at the camera.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Hogs being raised for meat

The people of Winchester, Oklahoma, are not happy. Last October, the Muscogee Nation began construction on a 25,000-square-foot meat-processing facility on the tribe’s lands in Okmulgee County. Known as Looped Square Meat Co., the facility is one of three meat-processing plants being built by tribal nations in Oklahoma with funds made available by the Cares Act, the other two belonging to the Osage Nation and Cherokee Nation. The pandemic revealed the imbalance of America’s food distribution network, and so the Muscogee, Osage, and Cherokee nations elected to take matters into their own hands.

The new facilities won’t employ many people once construction is completed, but they’re seen by the nations as an important step in establishing food security and sovereignty. The Muscogee plant, the largest and most expensive of the three, at $10 million, is designed for processing and retail cattle, beef, and pork production. According to Tulsa World, it also hosts a dry-aging room and will regularly be smoking briskets and pork shoulders. And then there’s the feature that the Winchester residents are none too pleased about: an anaerobic pond to store all the cow and pig excrement and a spray-field system to spread it out in mist form.*

As was reported by the Muskogee Phoenix, the Muscogee Nation’s communications team has made clear that the decisions that went into planning the facility “were made in coordination with the Nation’s Environmental Services Office to meet all compliance and regulatory conditions.” This has not quelled the concerns of Winchester’s 500-some residents, roughly 80 percent of whom are white. Mayor Debbie Adkison, who won her election the same month that the nation broke ground on the plant, told 2 News in April that she felt the town was David going up against the Goliath of a tribal nation. “We just want it resolved, and we don’t want them here,” Adkison said. Last week, 2 News reported that Adkison and the town are taking steps to see this desire through, with plans to file a lawsuit against the nation in federal court. In an interview with News On 6, attorney David Page, who is representing the town, claimed the facility lacks a necessary permit from the Environmental Protection Agency and that its construction in a residential area constitutes a violation of the Clean Water Act.

This both is and is not a peculiar situation. The idea that a town in Oklahoma—a state founded on the theft of Indian Territory, a concept that itself was the product of the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from the Southeast—is now claiming to be disadvantaged due to a tribal nation exercising basic land use choices is funny in that ironic way. But anaerobic wastewater ponds are undeniably a toxic danger to any surrounding air and groundwater supplies.* Meat-processing facilities, be they owned by a sleazy corporation like Smithfield or a sovereign tribal nation like the Muscogee, are bad news for both global carbon emissions and dietary health.

This doesn’t mean the town of Winchester is in the right and that their request for an injunction should be granted. The Muscogee Nation is a sovereign political entity. It sits above the level of municipal and state governments, maintaining a direct nation-to-nation relationship with the United States federal government, just like the ones held by the other 573 tribal nations federally recognized by the U.S. In this sense, Adkison is correct: Legally and politically speaking, the town is David to the Muscogee Nation’s Goliath, and rightfully so.

This case doesn’t present a clear aggressor or victim; a clear right or wrong. But it does present an opportunity to think through the complicated, and increasingly frequent, situations in which tribal nations seek to adapt their economies, food systems, and energy models to the American standard. In many cases, these endeavors are a direct response to the gaps left by federal inaction and centuries of discriminatory congressional budgets and policies. In seeking to address these needs, tribal nations are not always going to act in a way that pleases everyone, including their own citizens. This is just the way governing works, particularly when you’ve been systematically prevented from accessing necessary resources.

In the case of federally recognized tribes, such as the Muscogee, their right to build a meat-processing facility and the accompanying spray-field technology—like their right to determine their citizenry and operate their own judicial system—is not and cannot be in question. However, the right to act as a sovereign is accompanied by the implicit right to be criticized for actions carried out in the name of said sovereignty. On this, tribal nations should be no different from any other nation enacting its political will. And the Muscogee Nation is hardly the only tribal government currently struggling with that tension.

Understanding tribal sovereignty in a modern context requires an understanding of tribal nations in a modern context. Indian Country is a land of variety—different nations prioritize different needs, and the values that determine what is worthwhile to obtain those needs varies likewise among these nations. Though it might be true that most tribal nations, in comparison to the U.S. and Canada, value their roles as stewards of wildlife and natural relatives, it can also be true that, when pressed to choose, some might place a quality standard of living for their citizens in equal or higher regard.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s case against the Dakota Access Pipeline—centering on a rushed environmental review—has long been a symbol of the trampling of Indigenous land and water rights and lack of appropriate consultation on projects in Indian Country. The tribes, as well as pipeline owner Energy Transfer and the Biden administration, are now waiting to see whether a federal judge will declare the pipeline should be shut down while it retries the environmental review. But as of this spring, another tribal nation elected to stand with Energy Transfers and against the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River nations.

In March, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, or MHA Nation, represented by Chairman Mark Fox, penned a letter opposing any efforts to shut down the pipeline. The MHA Nation’s Fort Berthold Reservation sits atop a massive reserve of oil and minerals; the extraction of these resources has bolstered the tribal nation’s economy since the gas and oil boom of 2008. Speaking with Nexus Media News, Fox said that oil extraction provides 90 percent of the tribe’s tax revenue. Prior to this year, the MHA Nation, while not a party to the lawsuit, had not intervened in the movement to shut down Dakota Access. Then the pandemic struck and the bottom fell out of the gas and oil industry. The tribal nation lost 70 percent of its expected revenue, per Fox, forcing it to pull from its reserves to make it through the year—the relief funds provided by the federal government only covered a third of what the MHA Nation lost in oil revenue.

According to the Bismarck Tribune, the oil pumped from the Fort Berthold Reservation makes up a quarter of all oil produced in the state of North Dakota. And according to Fox’s letter, if Dakota Access were to shut down, “much of our Reservation production will be difficult to move to market and future production will be sharply curtailed.” In reality, a sudden, sustained drop-off in the MHA Nation’s ability to take its oil to market will mean that the tribal nation’s ability to provide basic social services to its citizens will be greatly hampered, forcing it, like many other tribal nations, to depend on the Senate Appropriations Committee or the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which have both consistently given Native communities scraps in terms of their budget allocations.

That the MHA Nation has turned to the extractive industry to provide for its community is not a product of Indigenous greed but of land displacement, home destruction, confinement, and American imperialism and capitalism. The Three Affiliated Tribes, as the nation is also known, had their lands whittled down by Congress during the nineteenth century. Then, in the 1940s, the same legislative body approved the flooding of the MHA Nation’s low-lying lands, an effort that was overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers, which was building dams along the Missouri River to provide water to white settler communities. The ensuing seven decades brought little sustainable economic development for the communities on Fort Berthold Reservation. It wasn’t until fracking technology arrived and allowed the tribal nation to access its gas and oil reserves that the nation reached some semblance of financial stability.

In both this case and that of the Muscogee meat-processing plant, the tribal nations are pursuing projects that most everyone involved recognizes as being damaging to the human and wildlife populations in the surrounding areas. But because of the political and economic systems surrounding tribal nations—it was just last year, at the height of the pandemic, that the federal Indian Health Service moved to shutter the hospital servicing the Acoma Pueblo—their options have been to adapt or suffer.

But just as the construction of more meat-processing plants stands firmly against the advice of public health and climate experts, the MHA Nation’s pursuit of self-sufficiency through oil clashes sharply with the reality of what pipelines and the extractive industry bring to Native nations. Whether through man camps that spread sexual violence, the destruction of sacred and culturally important sites, or the poisoning of groundwater supplies, the true costs of fracking, pipeline construction, and mining on Indigenous lands have been tragically high. And so, recognizing that the ultimate blame lies with American and corporate forces that back tribal nations into the corner of economic insecurity and environmental destruction, the MHA Nation still deserves criticism for using its sovereign powers to stand on the side of Energy Transfer and for reaching for this short-term financial buoy rather than looking for the sustainable vessel that will carry its people into the future. Such criticism might not always sway the mind of those elected to lead tribal governments. In fact, it might be outright rejected and belittled. But the more those with power are held accountable in public forums by those who lack it, the better Indian Country will be for it.

In April, two weeks after Fox’s letter was made public, an Indigenous youth collective composed of MHA, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock citizens walked to the MHA tribal government building. There, they intended to confront the MHA council for fighting in favor of Dakota Access. After a few minutes, Fox exited the building and spoke with and listened to the group. He commended them for fighting to protect their waters and reminded them that “it wasn’t us who built [Dakota Access],” saying the pipeline should not have been built along tribal lands. Once he finished, one of the youth spokespeople, a Lakota Arikara (MHA) citizen, asked to respond.

“We need to start talking with each other about what goes on with our tribal council, so that we can have a bigger voice and to help our younger ones start understanding the real problems,” they said. “What I would like to say to our tribal council is: Remember what our ancestors did for us. Remember what they went through. They thought about the future generations.”

“Mhm,” Fox interjected quietly. “Reserved our mineral rights, too.”

“So we should remember to be good ancestors,” they continued, unfazed.

Perhaps no recent case of the ethical complications of sovereignty, however, has been as striking as that of the Tohono O’odham Nation negotiating the U.S. immigration system. Last spring, Ned Norris Jr., the Tohono O’odham chairman, spoke before the House Subcommittee of Indigenous Affairs with tears in his eyes. His voice cracked as he described the irreparable damage that the Trump administration’s border wall was wreaking on his nation’s lands. The lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation—which, like all the tribal nations mentioned here, predates Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. by thousands of years—were bisected by the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, through which the U.S. “bought” lands from Mexico that it would turn into Arizona and New Mexico. Congress did not take the Tohono O’odham borders into account, and so while the majority of the nation’s citizens found themselves on the U.S. side, others found themselves on the Mexico side, their land rights ignored and their borders redrawn by colonizers.

When the Trump administration began constructing its border wall and insisted on blowing up portions of the Organ Pipe Cactus Monument, video of Norris’s testimony before Congress and of then-Representative Deb Haaland fighting on the Tohono O’odham’s behalf, spread throughout Indian Country—an example of the cruelty of the administration’s immigration and Indian Country policies.

What wasn’t shared as widely was coverage by The Intercept and In These Times showing how the tribal council has been working with Border Patrol to actively monitor and stem immigration and drug trafficking along the 62-mile stretch of Tohono O’odham lands that abut the U.S.-Mexico border. Starting in 2007, Border Patrol began monitoring and policing the Tohono O’odham’s America-facing border, seeking to stem the flow of immigrants into Tucson and Phoenix. On all sides, Tohono O’odham citizens are being closely watched and tracked in the name of American nationalism.

Among the measures employed by Border Patrol, per The Intercept, are constant drone surveillance, motion sensors along the border, vehicle barriers, and active Border Patrol units in the Tohono O’odham’s saguaro forests. Additionally, in March 2019, the Tohono O’odham council unanimously approved the construction of what are known as integrated fixed towers, or IFTs, on their border lands, to be built by Border Control and an Israeli company, Elbit Systems, which perfected its technology in the West Bank, using it to monitor and constantly track the movements of Palestinian citizens. (Elbit Systems also sought to partner with the multistate police forces at the Standing Rock protest and assists European nations in tracking immigration from northern Africa, per The Intercept.)

Amy Juan, a Tohono O’odham citizen and Indigenous rights organizer, recounted the experience of living with this daily surveillance and border militarization for In These Times. “We have no choice but to go through the armed agents, dogs, and cameras,” Juan said. “We are put through the traumatic experience every day just to go to work, movies, grocery shopping, to take your children to school.”

Tohono O’odham district councils, which provide regional representation while serving underneath the nation’s council, have rejected the IFT construction proposals, with those like the Gu-Vo council going as far as passing an anti-IFT resolution in 2017. Tribal citizens wrote letter after letter to the U.S. Custom and Border Protection office stating their opposition to the construction plans. Speaking with the Los Angeles Times two months after the tribal council approved the IFTs in 2019, Vice Chairman Verlon Jose—who famously declared that Trump would build a border wall “over my dead body”—explained the council’s decision by positing that allowing Border Patrol to further use the tribal nation’s lands for anti-immigration efforts would eliminate the need for a border wall. As Norris’s testimony a year later proved, that was far from the case.

Here, a tribal nation’s own governing structures embroiled it in a conflict that, like the rest, traces its roots to the initial theft of Indigenous land. This is sovereignty in action: messy and jagged and oftentimes pointed in different directions. Local governments opposing their federal body’s actions are a sign of representational governance at work, just as the MHA Nation’s ability to push back against the shutdown efforts of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River nations are an example of multiple sovereigns being able to draw their own conclusions about what would be best for their communities concerning a pipeline.

All of these cases—the Muscogee meat plant, the MHA Nation support of Dakota Access, the Tohono O’odham approval of further border militarism—underscore how the definition of sovereignty held by some is not the same as the definition held by others.

Sovereignty is not a gift bestowed upon tribal nations by the U.S. It is not a privilege. It is the right that tribal governments have stewarded and upheld for time immemorial, with their own governance structures being lifted as inspiration by the founders of America. Sovereignty is, however, power. It is the legal authority to rule and the power to enforce said rule; to lead, for better or for worse. The only constants among any of these disparate fights are the common scars of colonization—land dispossession, forced removal, federal policies guaranteeing poverty. Pushing back against the ongoing attempts by America to shape Indian Country in its image will be a generations-spanning effort. But as that push happens, we cannot ever forget that power, in any form, must always be held to account. What good is sovereignty if you seek only to use it to become like your oppressor?

* This article has been corrected. The planned wastewater ponds for Looped Square Meat Co. will be anaerobic, not aerobic.