Dec. 5, 2016 A person watches the sun climb over the Oceti Sakowin camp, where civilization have gathered come protest the Dakota access oil pipeline, in Cannon Ball, N.D. David Goldman/AP

Three months earlier a young Malaysian woman asked chairman Obama about the protests occurring over the Dakota access pipeline: She wanted to recognize what the president was doing “to ensure the protection of the ancestral land, the supply of clean water, and likewise environmental justice.”

Obama to be at a city hall v young leaders in Luang Prabang, Laos, countless miles native the sit-in top top the great Plains, and he go not have an answer: “I’d have to go earlier to my staff and also find out exactly how are us doing ~ above this one,” the said.

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The standoff, which developed into a substantial gathering of lack representatives, environmentalists, veterans and also other activists from throughout the nation, took the president and also his aides by surprise. But it quickly captured their attention.

Former assistant secretary because that Indian affairs Kevin K. Washburn, who left the management in January, claimed in one interview that Obama adjusted the federal culture around lack affairs during his eight year in office.

“There’s absolutely a feeling within the administration if she on the wrong side of tribes, you much better be may be to define yourself,” claimed Washburn, now a professor in ~ the college of brand-new Mexico institution of Law, “because the federal government’s been on the wrong side of people for 200 years, and it hasn’t been successful.”

Obama an initial connected with numerous tribes — consisting of the crow Nation, which that visited throughout his 2008 White house bid — since it to be a voting bloc that was not immediately allied v his then-Democratic main rival, Hillary Clinton.

But Raina Thiele, that volunteered for Obama in 2008 and also worked for his reelection bid, said indigenous American concerns resonated v Obama. Thiele later operated in the White House’s Office that Intergovernmental Affairs and also Public Engagement and also as a liaison to aboriginal American communities.

“For him, the made a lot of sense, based upon both that he is and what he cares about, the he have the right to lift up this population that has actually not been treated very well,” Thiele said.

Obama made a series of pledges during that very first campaign, including that he would host an yearly White home conference through tribal nations, create a White home liaison and require higher consultation in between agencies and also sovereign nations. He preserved them all, and has settled an ext than 100 lawsuits through tribes due to the fact that taking office.

A relationship that emerged in component out of politics necessity and also nurtured through Obama’s sense of the tribes’ historic grievances had borne fruit.

The chairman and first lady saw Standing rock in June 2014, whereby they spent an hour talking to young members of the tribe about the high rates of suicide, alcoholism and also unemployment that overcome life on their reservation. The visit left a mark.

“They were influenced to your cores,” stated Thiele, who assisted arrange the meeting.

A week later the president referred to as several members of his employee to the Roosevelt Room, Thiele added. Tearing up, she recalled, that told the group, “We needed to execute something and also he wanted to see real progress, specifically for lack youth, prior to he left office.”

But few of those young Sioux have actually questioned even if it is Obama has actually really delivered, provided the pipeline controversy.

Kendrick Eagle, who met with Obama on the reservation and also again in ~ the White House, released a video last week from the Oceti Sakowin camp in which the declares, “I’m here, standing through my people, talk to you and also asking friend if you have the right to come and help us prevent this pipeline. Since I just want you to stick to her word, the you claimed would have actually our backs as long as you were in office.”

Still, these factors, along with the truth that dozens of tribes have joined with the Standing rock Sioux, give tribal neighborhoods a degree of leverage in Washington they have not had in decades.

Last week 17 previous Native American management officials, including Thiele and also former White House an elderly policy adviser Kim Teehee, sent a letter come Obama questioning him to block the $3.8 billion pipeline project. Return she was not a signatory, Jodi Archambault Gillette, Obama’s previous special assistant for indigenous American affairs, is an energetic Standing Rock people member whose brothers serves as chairman the the tribe.

Although Obama go not clearly instruct the military Corps of designers to not approve the easement necessary to permit the pipeline to cross under north Dakota’s Lake Oahe, he sent out a clean signal to the army Corps and other agencies last month when he said throughout an interview on the digital start-up now This News that there to be a way to “reroute” it.

“My see is that there is a means for us to accommodate sacred lands of indigenous Americans,” the said.

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For energy Transfer Partners, which claims the 1,170-mile pipeline is 92 percent complete, the move smacked that politics. In a statement Sunday night, the agency said the “further delay is simply the recent in a collection of overt and transparent political actions by an management which has actually abandoned the dominion of legislation in donate of currying favor through a narrow and also extreme political constituency.”

Jason Miller, a spokesman because that President-elect Donald Trump, said reporters that the pipeline is “something that us support building of and also we’ll testimonial the full situation when we’re in the White home to make ideal determination at that time.”

The next administration can undo the Army’s move, return it would be much more cumbersome and also politically painful. Currently that the firm has announced it will certainly conduct a complete environmental impact assessment of the project, that must carry out a notice in the federal Register that will be topic to a 30-day comment period, so the review might be just beginning by the time Trump bring away office.

Natural sources Defense Council president Rhea Suh said in one interview the her group and also others are all set to advanced legal challenges if the new administration short-circuits the ecological review. Suh, who offered as the internal Department’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget under Obama, claimed there is an extraordinary level the unity amongst tribal nations in regard to to these large projects.

“There is a groundswell of areas that space on the front lines, so come speak, standing up and saying, ‘This is not what we want.’ and I nothing think you’re going to see that diminish at all.”