Native Americans Angry With Heitkamp Over Support For Keystone Pipeline


The Native American vote was key to giving Senator-elect Heidi Heitkamp her tiny margin of victory over Republican Rick Berg, allowing Democrats to hang on by the skin of their teeth to a Senate seat they’ve held since 1960.

But another key part of Heitkamp’s campaign was promising to stand up to President Obama and other Democrats on the issue of the Keystone pipeline. Both Obama, who Heitkamp said she voted for, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who directed millions in political spending to North Dakota in support of Heitkamp, have been the chief obstacles to building the pipeline at the national level. Heitkamp made campaign promises saying she’d diverge from Obama and Reid on the issue, but that is angering some Native Americans who oppose the pipeline.

Which may be the reason why Heitkamp, while expressing confidence that the pipeline will ultimately be built, so far hasn’t exactly gone out of her way to lend her support to that political battle.

WASHINGTON—There’s an early rupture in the bond that some American Indians had hoped to forge with newly elected Senator Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, who has come out strongly in favor of immediate development of the Keystone XL Pipeline and is urging President Barack Obama to grant approval for its construction right away.

Throughout her campaign, Heitkamp said she supported the pipeline—which could harm the water, culture and government-to-government status of tribes—but Indian activists hoped she would take the time to reconsider her position if the tribal vote helped put her over the edge in the November election.

Indeed, the tribal vote did help her win her heated race against Republican Rick Berg—a fact that Native Americans have been pointing to nationwide in illustrating the importance of the Indian vote in close elections. But in the week following her victory, Heitkamp was quick to reiterate her support for the pipeline’s development, and tribal consultation doesn’t appear to be playing any role in her thinking.

“I’ve always supported the Keystone pipeline,” Heitkamp told Ed Schultz on MSNBC on November 14 when asked about her position now that she is set to become a political force in Washington. And she went further, saying, “I think the president’s going to approve it.”

Some tribal activists are predicting protests if Heitkamp continues her support for the pipeline:

Joe Valandra, a tribal consultant, said he foresees many more protests by tribal citizens in the near future if politicians like Heitkamp don’t take the time to contemplate the high stakes for Indians in this situation.

“Unfortunately, protests and other [forms of activism] are likely necessary,” Valandra said. “I have also found that posts on social media work well to start the process.”

Valandra said Heitkamp also might do well to study how the Indian vote played helped her in the election. “I don’t know if she has fully realized the extent to which her victory is attributable to the Indian vote,” he said. “[And] I doubt she has consulted with many tribes at all on any issues.”

The Native American opposition to the pipeline puzzles me. The environmental arguments don’t make sense as pipelines are much safer than trucks or trains when it comes to transporting oil. You’d think the North Dakota reservations impacted by the oil boom would support the Keystone Pipeline if for no other reason than to get the trucks off their roads. They also argue that the pipeline would be built over areas of land they find sacred, but that’s a tough sell. As a reader emailed to me this morning, “When your history is that of nomadic, animist tribes, every piece of earth can qualify as sacred.”

But I digress.

Heitkamp’s margin of victory over Rick Berg was less than 3,000 votes, meaning that without the Native American vote we’d almost certainly be talking about Senator-elect Rick Berg right now.

The problems Heitkamp now faces from her Native American constituency is a microcosm for what will be the challenge of her first term in office. Heitkamp is a very, very liberal politician who campaigned as a moderately conservative candidate. She enjoyed support from liberal groups nationally, and liberal voter blocs in North Dakota like the Native Americans, on the assumption that she wouldn’t govern nearly so conservatively as she campaigned.

The problem for Heitkamp is that if she moves back to the left to placate her liberal supporters she diminishes the likelihood that she’ll be re-elected in 2018. But if she governs more conservatively, she may alienate that base of support and it may not turn out to give her the edge should her next campaign to the Senate be as close as her first one.

What will work in Heitkamp’s favor is that Senate terms are six years long, which leaves a lot of time for her to vote liberally at the beginning of her term and come back to the right nearer the end of the term. Her Democrat predecessors Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan were masters of that strategy, though the wild card is that in this digital age it’s a lot harder for politicians like Heitkamp to control the narrative, and a lot easier for voters to be reminded of past transgressions.

It will be an interesting puzzle for Heitkamp to solve.

In related news, the Washington Post has named Heitkamp the “Best Candidate” for 2012, though I’m not sure that Heitkamp deserves credit for winning so much as Berg deserves credit for losing. Heitkamp didn’t make any mistakes, but barely holding on to a Senate seat Democrats have held since 1960 isn’t the soaring accomplishment some are making it out to be.

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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  • $8194357

    Maybe…Just maybe..

    they should be mad at her for her LIE about the

    Republican war on women as well, huh?

    Deception…Thy name is liberalism..

  • Roy_Bean

    This could be Heidi Lied #2. She hasn’t figured out that they have internet and smart phones on the reservation too. They will know if she has a different story for them than she does in DC.

    • $8194357

      White man/woman from DC speak with forked tongue of the serpant…(lucifer)
      To bad they haven’t figured out it isn’t a skin color lieing to them..
      But an ideological form of deception in governance known as marxism..

    • spud

      Dummy only people who are failing in using the internet and modern technology are members of the republican party. You know them the old white people. How was that landslide you guys were bragging about working for you.

      • Roy_Bean

        The Republicans didn’t do too bad in North Dakota. If you look at vote totals it’s clear that Berg lost, Heidi didn’t win. Heidi got fewer votes than any of the Republican candidates for other state-wide offices. The Heidi campaign was able to tie Rick Berg to Goldmark Property Management even though it wasn’t true and exploit the lie to gain a win. Numbers don’t lie, Heidi does.

        Her problem is now going to be that she can’t get away with the methods that served the 3 stooges so well for so long. Every corner of this state, reservations included, has access to the technology to bypass the old media, print and broadcast, and see her for what she is. We’ll see how it works for her.

  • John

    The Indians need to be reminded there is no longer enough buffalo dung available to heat everybody’s homes.

    • Tim Heise

      not nice.

  • DelawareBeachHouse

    Looking at the two counties where borders are coterminous with the reservations:
    Rolette County results:

    Heitkamp: 3,662 – 80 percent
    Berg: 902 – 20 percent

    Sioux County results:

    Heitkamp: 963 – 83.5 percent
    Berg: 185 – 16 percent

    • Rob

      Heitkamp also won Mountrail county, the only western ND county she won, though by a slim margin. Part of Mountrail is the Forth Berthold reservation.

      • Clarence A. Herz

        The reservation lies in Dunn, McKenzie, Mountrail, and McClean counties Rob.

  • spud

    Funny how you blogged about the no chance Heidi had to win and now you claim not to be impressed by it. Loser in denial syndrome. Good thing is you only have at least 6 years to get over it.

    • Rob

      It did surprise me that Heitkamp won. I didn’t think she would. But I also don’t think it was the mandate liberals in the state to seem to think it was. She barely won.

      You shouldn’t put words in my mouth.

  • Yogibare

    Alot of Republicans either neglected to vote for Berg or they had their skivvies in a twist because he made the play for the Senate seat. We are now going to get what we deserve.

  • Mel

    If the Native Americans will be peeved if she supports the pipeline, just wait until she hears how the rest of us feel about it if she decides to pull her support. (Which I fully expect her to do, at least from lack of effort.)

    • Rob

      I’d be very surprised if Heitkamp pulled her support. She’s too smart a politician for that. More likely is that she’ll remain nominally in favor of it, while taking no great strides to be particularly outspoken.

  • DakotaStrong

    I wonder if a lot of Kramer supporters voted for Heidi — as they could have been mad that Rick took out Kevin two years ago in the race for Congress. I am wondering that too, if they did that, and look, we now have Heidi. I would be curious if there is an possibility to this.

    • Rob

      I don’t the Cramer/Berg rivalry from 2010 had much to do with the outcomes in 2012.


    I believe I read that an Indian Reservation wants to build an oil refinery, but if all the oil is piped to the gulf, where will they get the oil? Just a thought.

  • sue

    I do not recall Heidi promising the Reservations she would be ANTI pipeline. Where’s the beef??

  • Clarence A. Herz

    This suprises me. Many on the rez didn’t vote for Romeny cause he “hates Indian oil”. Not my words, but heard often in New Town. Heidi had signs all over new town that she was for Indian Country. Not sure why it didn’t say Native American Country.

  • Camburn

    There are only a few Native Americans that don’t support the pipeline.
    The pipeline will be built with Senator Elect Heitkamp’s support.

  • Harold

    I grew up on the res and for once I agree with Heidi. The Keystone pipeline is a must, it will save lives because there will be less truck traffic because of it, and North Dakota will get more for their oil because transportation costs will go down and we won’t be docked that 10 to 12 dollars per barrel were now docked at and loose all that tax money that could be helping this state if we didn’t loose 12 per barrel because rail and trucks raise cost of moving that crude. Stand your ground Heidi, most people I know from back home support the Keystone Pipeline.

    • $8194357

      Sorry wrong post…
      Yes Harold the reservation as well as the rest of western ND would benifit from the pipeline.

  • Lynn Bergman

    It wasn’t Heitkamp’s skill as much as North Dakota farmers’ greed than caused her win. Can you say “Farm Program”. Give credit where credit is due… “farmers on the dole” put Heitkamp over the hump.

    • $8194357

      Satelite subserviant soviet style voting blocks
      of group and or cause..All on the dole..

      The “Democratic way” don’t ya know..

  • VocalYokel

    Didn’t they read the memo?

    Heidi is Independent…

  • Suzanne D.

    I didn’t vote for Heitkamp, but she did make it clear when she was running for office that she supported the Keystone Pipeline. So now they are going to be upset because she didn’t like to the voters? I may not agree with her on most issues, but our candidates in ND at least have integrity.

  • Suzanne D.

    Sorry, I meant “lie” to the voters.