Elizabeth Warren's Latest Plan Tackles U.S. Injustices Against Tribes and Their Lands

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Elizabeth Warren is a woman of many plans, but on Friday the United States senator and Democratic presidential candidate released one of her most detailed ones yet. The plan focuses on what she would do as president to uplift indigenous people and tribes across the U.S.

It includes sweeping new protections for tribal lands, restoring Bears Ears National Monument in full, and calls overturning permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. In addition, she introduced a legislative proposal in the Senate in conjunction with Representative Deb Haaland in the House that “makes progress toward honoring this nation’s promises to Native peoples.”

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Warren, of course, claimed indigenous ancestry and her campaign played it up in October last year. Former Splinter writer Nick Martin laid out a stinging critique of Warren’s claims, and it’s easy to look at her new, extensive plan as a form of atonement. The plan calls for “structural change” in how the U.S. government recognizes its treaty obligations with tribes while calling for new laws to replace previous ones protecting Native lands that have lost their teeth.

“It’s clear to me the people who put together this plan had a good understanding of breadth of issues faced by Indian Country,” Julian Brave Noisecat, the director of Green New Deal policy at Data for Progress, told Earther.

He said the plan brings in elements that will appeal to “deeply pragmatic” tribal leaders focused on treaty rights, keeping services functioning, as well as keeping activists focused on environmental justice.

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On the pragmatic front, Warren’s plan includes tripling investments in Office of Indian Energy, which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). While most Americans are able to turn the lights on and off without concerns, access to electricity is still an issue on reservations across the U.S. On the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation, 16,000 homes still aren’t connected to the grid, according to the DOE. That equates with 14 percent of households on those tribal lands, an order of magnitude more than the national average. Energy costs are also higher on reservations, and improving access and clean energy infrastructure could help bring those costs down and reduce emissions.

Warren’s plan also calls for improving tribal infrastructure to handle climate impacts. While it doesn’t lay out any specific new proposals to do so, her plan says she would “prioritize frontline communities.” In the case of indigenous communities, those impacts include everything from towns falling into the sea to the loss of traditional livelihoods.

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Noisecat noted that revisiting treaty rights could also yield ways to protect tribes from the impacts of climate change as well as environmental degradation. The U.S. government inked more than 300 treaties, which he said “include phrases like ‘as long as the rivers run and the grass grows,’ and climate change is actually fundamentally changing a lot of those things. And so what is your responsibility to, for example, tribes in the Pacific Northwest who have a treaty right to have the salmon fishery in the Salish Sea more commonly known the Puget Sound when salmon fisheries are being threatened by climate change and dams and environmental degradation.”

In addition to the more bread-and-butter governance and funding issues, Warren’s plan also calls for revoking Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and restoring Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Both pipelines were approved by the Trump administration as were the shrinking of the monuments, which have subsequently seen land opened for oil, gas, and mineral speculation despite tribal opposition. And the plan also calls for new legislation to give tribes what Warren said are “additional legal tools to vindicate these [treaty] rights.” That would, in turn, allow tribes to have more control over their lands and the extractive industries that have run roughshod over their rights.

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All this is a complete 180 from the Trump administration and could be the start down the long road to righting centuries of wrongs.

“The historic truth is that this country was founded upon the theft of indigenous land and often the explicit genocide of indigenous peoples,” Noisecat said. “I would tend to want to position this [plan] as a good first step just because I think we can always do better.”

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