Saturday, May 11, 2013

That "Tribal Relationships" Conference at Harvard

A week or so ago, there was a posting on Facebook about an upcoming conference on building tribal relationships, to be held at Harvard University and involving TransCanada, the outfit that’s behind the Keystone XL Pipeline.  The posting noted that no tribes had been invited to the conference.
I reposted the item, saying it looked like business as usual.
Today I got an email from Lou Thompson, Manager of Tribal Relations for TransCanada.  He said:
I noticed on Facebook that you had some concerns about the Think Tank at Harvard. Having worked in Indian Country for 2 decades I can fully appreciate your concern and passion for native people. I am aware of some of your work and admire your contributions. As a point of clarification here is an excerpt from the letter that Harvard sent me:
In the case at hand, the upcoming Forum will bring together 25 selectively invited individuals representing the Harvard research team, federal policymakers, senior managers and decision makers from relevant sectors including finance, construction, land and property development, resource extraction, law, and policy. The May Forum will be followed this summer by a separate Forum for tribal leaders and policy makers, with the overall process leading to revision and release of the final White Paper as a useable source of practical approaches for all “sides of the table”.
So as you can see, cultural resources are certainly not the main focus of this forum. As you can also see, there will be a separate forum for tribal leaders. My invitation stems from the fact that they were searching for a company that has current substantial collaboration with tribes. For me this is an opportunity to learn how to better work in harmony with tribes not to present myself as a subject matter expert. I would enjoy meeting you sometime to discuss all of your efforts in working in Indian country. Please feel free to contact me should you ever have concerns about TransCanada’s approach to cultural resource identification and protection.
So, Lou, we’re to understand that Harvard cooked up this conference all on its own, and invited TransCanada?  That TransCanada had nothing to do with setting it up and organizing and funding it?  Just got an invite in the mail and said “Oh, that seems like a nice idea?”  Honestly, give me a break.
And what does it matter whether “cultural resources” are the session’s focus?  Do you think that’s all tribes are concerned about?  If so, your twenty years in Indian Country haven't taught you much.  Do you think it's all I'm concerned about?  That's more understandable, but it's jumping to a large conclusion that I find rather insulting.
That said, I’m not personally offended (though many tribes understandably are) by the idea of holding a conference on tribal relations without tribal participation.  When I’ve taught classes on tribal consultation I’ve often been most comfortable when tribes aren’t represented, because I can get down to brass tacks with the company and agency representatives.  I can acknowledge that what a tribe or tribal elder says may seem crazy to a white guy, that tribal governments aren’t necessarily paragons of virtue, and that even Indians can lie.  Having thus broken the ice – much harder to do with tribal people in the room – I can try to get a discussion going on the practical implications of treating a tribe like its members are nuts, ill-governed, or crooks, or conversely of choking down one’s suspicions and treating the tribe with respect.  I’ve found this to be a fruitful pedagogical strategy, and maybe that’s what Harvard and TransCanada are up to in this case.
Maybe.  But even giving them this benefit of the doubt, how naïve does the University or company have to be to think it makes sense to put on a confab like this at the very time the president is (ostensibly) pondering whether to let the pipeline go forward, when the EIS on the project is being held up as a classic example of crooked science and Obama administration hypocrisy, and when Idle No More and other groups are demonstrating at every opportunity?  And what kind of naïf are you to suggest that it’s OK because it’s not about “cultural resources” and because unspecified “tribal leaders and policy makers” will be invited in at some later date?  If I were considering an investment in TransCanada or sending a grandchild to Harvard (I’m considering neither), I would not be encouraged by this example of either entity’s political acumen.
You want to meet sometime, Lou?  Well, maybe our paths will cross, but I don’t plan to go out of my way to make them do so.


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