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  • Heather Mendoza of Arlington, Virginia, protests outside the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Sept. 6, 2016.

    Heather Mendoza of Arlington, Virginia, protests outside the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., Sept. 6, 2016. | Photo: Reuters

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs is supposed to help Native Americans win good land deals, but a new study shows it mostly answers to corporate power.

The bulldozing of sacred Indigenous burial sites to make way for the embattled Dakota Access Pipeline is likely just one example within the systematic problem of how the U.S. federal Bureau of Indian Affairs often gives “cheap and easy” access to corporations to exploit natural resources on Native American land, according to a new investigation by In These Times.

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The six-month study found that the BIA, which administers the millions of acres of land in trust for Native American owners in the United States, appears to systematically favor in negotiations companies looking to lease land for resources extraction while excluding Indigenous stakeholders and turning a blind eye to their concerns about harassment or intimidation.

According to the website of the BIA, which is under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the bureau has the responsibility to “protect and improve the trust assets” of Native Americans. In negotiations, that bureau is supposed to negotiate the best possible deal for Native American land holders. But the stated mission flies in the face of what researchers have revealed to be the modus operandi of the office — boosting corporate interests at the expense of Indigenous communities.

Through interviews and an analysis of documents, In These Times found that the BIA supports typical corporate “divide and conquer” tactics to steamroll through community consultation processes. The bureau is also guilty of looking the other way when company representatives unfairly pressure Native Americans to agree to bad deals to allow fracking, drilling, and other resource exploitation projects on their land without enough information to fully assess the proposals.

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One example of the BIA’s failure to provide adequate information to Native American landowners stands out in light of the ongoing fight by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe to protect its land from the Dakota Access Pipeline. In These Times reported that Terry Beckwith — a member of the Quinault Indian Nation, realty expert with ICC Indian Enterprises, and advocate for fair leasing deals for Native Americans — witnessed a lease agreement from the Bakken region in North Dakota that was completely devoid of critical information such as terms and conditions and exact locations.

The US$3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline would carry shale from the Bakken oil region in North Dakota to oil refineries in the Gulf Coast. It’s not clear whether the lease agreement highlighted by Beckwith is directly related to the project, but it nevertheless raises red flags and paints a disturbing picture of the role of the BIA in laying the groundwork for exploitive and often unwanted projects on Native American land.

But given the history of the violent theft of Indigenous territory across North America, often referred to as “Turtle Island by Indigenous groups, and the checkered track record of the BIA, the de facto corporate-friendly policy is not surprising. Most notably, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the BIA was behind the state policy of taking Native American children away from their families to send them to assimilation-focused boarding schools where Indigenous languages and other cultural practices were banned in order to “kill the Indian” in the students.

Over the years, Native American groups have protested the BIA and even called for the institution to be dismantled in favor of a new structure of government relations with Indigenous peoples. In a historic action in 1972, some 500 activist with the American Indian Movement occupied BIA offices to demand new treaty negotiations and respect for their rights.

Many Native American landholders and their advocates argue that more authority should be given to tribes to control their own land, or at least what’s left of it after being pillaged by colonialism.

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