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Trump Advisors Plan to Privatize Native Lands to Tap Into Oil Rich Reservations

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The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is only one battle in a larger war. Following news of the Army Corps' decision to halt the pipeline's construction, Reuters reported that President-elect Donald Trump's advisors are seeking to privatize Native American reservations, which sit on an estimated 20 percent of the nation's oil and gas, along with large amounts of coal reserves. These resources are worth nearly $1.5 trillion.

Fracking flares near agricultural land and a lake near the Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota.Emily Arasim

"We should take tribal land away from public treatment. As long as we can do it without unintended consequences, I think we will have broad support around Indian country," said Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK), a Cherokee tribe member and chair of Trump's 27-member Native American Affairs Coalition.

The formation of the coalition was announced in October with the aim of electing Trump for president.

"As a local elected official, I am outraged that Indian Country is prevented from harnessing our own energy resources by ever-increasing regulations," state Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage (R-NM 4th District), a Navajo tribe member and coalition co-chair, said in October. "The Trump Administration will ease restrictions on American energy reserves worth trillions of dollars. Together we will block the bureaucrats holding Native American businesses back and bring new jobs into our communities."

As it happens, three of the four chair-level coalition members have ties to Big Energy. According to campaign finance disclosures cited by Reuters, Mullin has received about eight percent of his campaign funds from energy companies while Clahchischilliage has received about 15 percent of her campaign funds from energy companies.

Fellow co-chair and Cherokee nation ex-chief Ross Swimmer said it is possible to privatize reservations while limiting land sales to non-Indian buyers.

"It has to be done with an eye toward protecting sovereignty," said Swimmer, who is a partner at an Native American-focused investment fund that has invested in Energy Transfer Partners, the owner of the heavily contested DAPL.

However, prominent Native American leaders have spoken against privatization.

"Our spiritual leaders are opposed to the privatization of our lands, which means the commoditization of the nature, water, air we hold sacred," said Tom Goldtooth, who runs the Indigenous Environmental Network and is a member of both the Navajo and the Dakota tribes.

"Privatization has been the goal since colonization—to strip Native Nations of their sovereignty," Goldtooth added.

Thousands of Dakota Access Pipeline protestors are celebrating after the Army Corps' rejection of the DAPL project but many water protectors also recognize the fight is not yet over. As Goldtooth said, this is "check, not checkmate."

Despite the Army Corps' decision, Energy Transfer Partners said that it is still committed to seeing this "vital" pipeline "brought to completion."

Trump has holdings in Energy Transfer Partners and officially voiced support for the pipeline, even though his team said his support "had nothing to do with his personal investments and everything to do with promoting policies that benefit all Americans." The incoming president has also picked climate change deniers and pro-fossil fuel bigwigs for cabinet positions.

Not only that, many pro-drilling politicians currently sit in a GOP-controlled House of Representatives and Senate. Following the Army Corps' Sunday announcement, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) tweeted: "This is big-government decision-making at its worst. I look forward to putting this anti-energy presidency behind us."

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