A Shared Landscape – Native American Land Conservation Coming of Age

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Native Americans have and have had the highest unemployment, poverty, and disease rates of any ethnic group in this country. As many have underlying conditions and poor health care now, they are generally not doing well during the covid crisis. Yet, after so many decades of one of the darkest histories known anywhere, a brighter renaissance in tribal culture, respect, and importance appears to be in the making. Native American tribes are finally showing powerful signs of a resurgence from their dark night into a new relationship with mainstream American culture in which their self-determination as a sovereign peoples is recognized and supported and where they are valued and respected members of a now-shared landscape. At least some tribal nations are growing stronger now than they have ever been in the history of their relationship with the United States. This is certainly the case with respect to land and water conservation and management issues.

Tribes have been steadily gaining in strength and know-how over the past few decades. Since 1975, almost the same time as the first gambling operations and casinos, more and more of them have been contracting with the federal government to perform federal trust functions and to manage federal programs through a wide array of agencies, including not only the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service and HUD. But also, because of their significant land ownership and their demonstrable technical abilities and knowledge, the tribes are contracting with the USEPA and the land-owning and -managing agencies from Interior and Agriculture, the BLM, the FWS, NPS and the Forest Service and NRCS. Today’s modern tribes have their own constitutions with 3 branches of government and administrative offices sometimes with dozens of departments and thousands of personnel. Most have conservation and wildlife departments staffed by trained professionals from the tribe.

There are 562 federally-recognized tribes currently, and hundreds of tribal reservations in the US West including 12 reservations that are each larger than the state of Rhode Island. Add in the many more that collectively contain tens of millions of acres – over 56 million acres in all, about the size of Idaho – and you have vast stretches of desert, mountain, forest and water habitats that support numerous rare, flagship, and keystone focal species and habitats that are key to large-scale landscape and watershed management and restoration, the kind that we need to together build a sustainable future.

Of course these lands and waters are more than just “conservation resources” to the tribes. “The Indian way of life is all based on the land. That’s who we are,” according to one tribal leader. Land is the very basis of Native American culture, including the view of the land as a sacred landscape where the people are born, live, love, work and die, generation after generation, and which supplies the food and water, air and sunshine, the animals and plants the peoples depend on for their health and wholeness. Tribal land management philosophy differs from the standard western utilitarian, economic and scientific approach, involving neither an approach that sets man apart and put his sole wants and needs alone at the top of the pyramid and everything else far below, nor the approach to preserve land untouched. Natives often put an emphasis on active engagement with the land – for food, medicine, arts, utilitarian and spiritual uses, as well as for wildlife and wilderness for its own sake.

These traditional approaches to land and species touch on broader issues of co-existence in mutual respect and harmony, not just what we call ‘management.’ In what has become called ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ or TEK, we are not only connected to all of nature, we are related to all of nature. And in many cases, we humans are considered the junior members of the natural community, younger in age and potentially more adolescent in behavior.

But that aside, this is not only an ecological point of view, but a deeply and culturally internalized evolutionary point of view. It relates to the clan systems and totems that are found in many indigenous cultures, and rituals where non-humans are incorporated into the ritual drama of the one community of all life. Thus, for the Native American to restore the health of the salmon runs or eagle populations means something dramatically different than what it means to the average camper or city-dweller, even though all approve and find great beauty in the salmon runs and eagle flights.

A small sampling of Native American land conservation projects follows: a Salmon restoration planning and management, Columbia River, involving the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakima tribes Wetland restoration at the confluence of Gia and Salt Rivers, Gila River Indian Community.

The Karuk tribe in far northern California was hired to prepare for and undertake a prescribed burn along the Klamath River. In Montana, there have been a series of meetings for the Native American tribes there to teach Forest Service personnel about the traditional practices.

The Yurok Tribe, California is assessing the reintroduction potential and planning for management of California Condors in the ‘Greater Yurok Ancestral Region.’

The non-profit National Wildlife Federation signed a memorandum of understanding with the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, the first-ever conservation agreement between an environmental organization and an inter-tribal group, to advocate for the return of wild bison to tribal lands. Through this partnership the Eastern Shoshone and Arapaho tribes on the Wind River Reservation, Wyoming, have restored bison to their lands for the first time since 1885.

The NWF also partnered with Cocopah Indian Tribe to accomplish the cultural and environmental preservation of the 23-mile Lower Colorado River riparian zone, including 12 miles within the tribal reservation. This stretch of land sustains the largest proportion of native cottonwood, willow and mesquite species on the entire river.

Since 2000, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has been releasing captive-bred black-footed ferrets in the reservation’s prairie dog colonies. The 201 released ferrets have since produced nearly 600 young, and the population is now considered self-sustaining—successfully reintroducing one of North America’s most endangered mammals to the wild.

Many of these projects are at least partially funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s competitive Tribal Wildlife Grant Program. Since 2003 this program has awarded more than $94 million to Native American Tribes, providing support for more than 456 conservation projects. There are about 100 submissions and 25 awards per year. Conservation practices by tribes are implemented in a culturally sensitive manner using culturally relevant methods. Agencies offer technical assistance to help increase the capacity of Tribes to use the best of both agency methods and indigenous stewardship, and not lose the foundation of indigenous ways for the health and well-being of earth and humankind. These partnerships give the tribes a voice to express their points of view, and represent a bright hopeful new level of collaboration and respect between tribes and the government.

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