Future Fears of American Indians
With several Native American tribes dependent on mining and welding to support their families, there are mixed reactions to the Trump presidency and the Dakota Access Pipeline.
By Galen Patterson, California State University, Fullerton
On election night, in early November 2016, Guila Curley was experiencing the slow victory of the candidate she did not support.
The results were affecting not only her, but her children as well. “I just remember not wanting to watch anything,” she says. “My son was honestly scared that Donald Trump might be our president.” When President Trump was formally elected, Curley felt more disappointment than surprise.
Curley lives near the border of the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. The surrounding area is rich in natural resources, such as oil and uranium. According to Curley, the local labor force was struggling because of the environmental protection controls of the Obama administration, resulting in a very Trump-friendly attitude at the county level. “My brother used to be an underground miner there, and he was a big Trump supporter,” says Curley.
Several miles away, in the small community of Sheep Springs, Chapter President Brian Yazzie looks at the situation differently.
“I was always for Mr. Trump. I think a lot of people had a good idea that he was going to win. People just didn’t want to accept it,” says Yazzie.
Being the president of a chapter on the Navajo reservation is similar to the office of mayor. Yazzie has been in his position for roughly three weeks and identifies with the new president in various ways. For example, both men are new to their respective offices, and both have owned businesses. The promise of boosting the national economy is part of what Yazzie found attractive about a Trump presidency. “He’s a business man, so I believe he’s going to do that,” says Yazzie.
Adjacent to San Juan county, New Mexico, where Sheep Springs is located, is San Juan county, Utah, which is the 29th most impoverished county in the country. McKinley county, New Mexico, is the 20th most impoverished. Jobs in Northwestern New Mexico are in short supply and high demand.
Across the country, near Bolton, North Carolina, the Waccama Siouan tribe is experiencing a similar dichotomy as the Navajo nation. Shirley Freeman, a board member of the North Carolina Commission of Indian Affairs, takes a neutral approach to the judgement of the new president by explaining that the time to judge has not yet come. “We (the board) know he’s got some tough decisions to make, and we have all come in agreement that we need to give him time to make those decisions,” she says.
According to Freeman, many Native American men are skilled welders in North Carolina. In contrast to the miners of New Mexico, welding is a trade that men in the area would teach to each other as a result of an education gap between Native American men and the rest of the area’s population.
Often, the welders need to travel to make enough money to support their families. “There is not that many welding jobs here for them to make the living they need to make,” she says. Some of the welders were working on the Dakota Pipeline project, currently enjoying national coverage.
Shortly after taking office, President Trump approved an easement from the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Progress on construction had been halted, pending an environmental impact report by the Obama administration. In combination with the easement, the report has ceased.
“It puts us in a tough place to know that they (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) had a lot of hope that the pipeline would not destroy their land or whatever is going on there. We had that hope too, but we had a hope that our men could work to feed their families by working on these pipelines,” said Freeman. “We’re heartbroken on two different issues,” she says.
Chapter President Yazzie is a former oil worker himself and focuses on the utility of the pipeline. “All the protesters that are up there had to get up there in their vehicles, which use oil. They had to drive on the pavement, which is probably 90 percent oil,” says Yazzie. “We use oil every day. Just like (people) are saying water is life, so is oil. Oil is life.”
On the eastern side of California’s Yosemite National Park is the home of the Bishop Paiute Tribe. Mervin Hess, the Tribal Administrator, thinks things might be moving a little too fast in the Oval Office.
“I think with the short time frame [Trump] has been in office, some of the executive orders that came through, I mean that’s quite concerning for all the nation, not just the tribal nations,” he says. The Bishop Paiute Tribe sent a delegation to Standing Rock early into the protest, and was one of two tribes to set up a large facility to feed the activists. “We had three or four big FEMA tents that we took over and set up in the main kitchen,” says Hess.
Looking forward, the hopes of Native Americans toward the Trump administration are varied. Hess has begun planning for the rest of the new president’s term by researching which grants his tribe receives are federal, and therefore uncertain in the coming years. “There is concern there, but to prepare for the worst I guess you could say,” says Hess.
Curley hopes the Trump administration will not continue to disappoint her. “I hope it doesn’t get worse,” she says. Meanwhile, Yazzie takes inspiration from the president.
“I think I’m kind of like him. I’m not afraid to speak my mind,” he says.
Yazzie repeats something he heard that sticks in his mind: “All the way from George Washington to Donald Trump or to Barack Obama, we Native Americans survived every single president. They’re not going to bring us down.”