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Biden Won't Say Whether He'll Undo Trump's Tribal Land Grab

Trump's EPA Undid a Supreme Court Ruling Recognizing Tribal Sovereignty of Native American Land in Oklahoma

Pres.-elect Biden announces his nomination of the first Native American Interior secretary, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), and other climate and energy appointments, on Dec. 19, 2020, in Wilmington, DE.


(Image: Photo by Joshua Roberts / Getty Images.)

The Biden administration is refusing to say whether it will overturn a controversial decision last year by the Trump Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stripping tribal sovereignty from Native Americans in Oklahoma.

As TYT revealed last year, the Oct. 1, 2020, ruling by then-EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler effectively reversed a landmark Supreme Court ruling in favor of the tribes, turning over environmental regulatory control of tribal land to the state’s pro-fossil fuel, pro-big agriculture government. Wheeler’s decision would even allow dumping hazardous waste on tribal land without consultation.

Biden has won broad praise from environmental activists for his early moves, but Oklahoma tribes say they are not surprised by the Biden administration’s refusal to take a stand for them.

TYT asked the White House whether it supports tribal sovereignty over the pro-oil state government in Oklahoma. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and Assistant Press Secretary Vedant Patel responded to TYT’s inquiries, but neither would comment on the record.

The EPA also declined to take a position, stating only that it will now support science and law there in principle.

In an email to TYT, an EPA spokesperson said that the EPA “will follow the science and law in accordance with the Biden-Harris Administration’s executive orders and other directives in reviewing all of the agency’s actions issued under the previous Administration to ensure that they protect public health and the environment.”

When asked what that meant concretely in regards to Oklahoma, the spokesperson responded, “We don’t have anything more to share at this time as we review the agency’s actions issued under the previous Administration.”


For the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, this will not suffice. “The EPA saying that it will follow science and the law isn't enough,” said Casey Camp-Horinek, Environmental Ambassador, Elder & Hereditary Drumkeeper of the Ponca Tribe. “Show us. Restore our government-to-government relations [with Oklahoma] now. Only then will we begin to believe that this administration is any different than the last 45."

Camp-Horinek also told TYT that the Biden administration must restore environmental regulatory control to tribal governments. “This has yet to even be discussed, much less rectified. We cannot allow this to be put on the back burner to fester and grow as we watch [Gov. Kevin Stitt (R-OK)] push what he calls the state of Oklahoma's sovereignty and to further erode the Treaty obligations to the 39 federally recognized tribes that are guaranteed by the Constitution of the U.S.”

On Thursday, in a telephone conversation with TYT, Camp-Horinek emphasized that Oklahoma tribes are still under state regulations, including for polluting fossil fuels (Oklahoma has the fourth biggest oil industry in the country). She noted that tribal sovereignty has not been honored, despite the Supreme Court’s McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling in July 2020 that much of the eastern portion of the state is still tribal territory.

The Indigenous Earth Network, a Native American environmental activist organization, told TYT it was not surprised by the Biden administration’s “non-response.” Oklahoma IEN representative Ashley Nicole Engle said, “It is my hope the Biden Administration will make good on its promises made to tribal nations and Indigenous peoples by moving beyond mere consultation — or even 'meaningful consultation' and codifying Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC).”

Engle, who is Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma/Oglala Lakota Nation, added that the indigenous tribes were key to preventing the industries presently and in the future from polluting all of Oklahoma. “Right now, Oklahoma tribes serve as one of the only actual checks or barriers between the people and the land and completely unfettered and unregulated resource extraction,” Engle said.

One environmental activist organization declined to comment for this story. Another did not respond to a request for a comment. Many environmental organizations have complimented President Biden for his executive actions, some of which reverse or will attempt to counter the Trump administration’s estimated 100 rollbacks of environmental regulations, and for appointing Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) as the first Native American secretary of the Interior Department. Environmental activists also praised Biden for elevating climate change to be part of every level of the federal government, working to reenter the Paris Climate Agreement, and bringing the largest team of climate change advocates and experts to the White House.

TYT Investigative Reporter Ti-Hua Chang is an award-winning journalist who has worked for CBS News and other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @TiHuaChang.

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