Native Tribal Nations Push for Changes in Public Lands

May 12, 2021

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An American Indian girl at an annual Indian arts showcase at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site in North Dakota. Photo: National Park Service. Click to enlarge.

Feature: Native Tribal Nations Push for Changes in Public Lands

By Debra Utacia Krol

Indigenous peoples and their governments have had some recent successes wielding their status as sovereign nations to push for changes in public lands management — from a U.S. Supreme Court decision reaffirming reservation boundaries to the temporary stoppage of a controversial pipeline.

But for journalists to more effectively report stories about Native tribal nations exerting their ancestral rights to land stewardship across the West, it’s essential to understand the legal principles and underpinnings of Native governmental sovereignty.

That includes a grasp of tribes’ inherent sovereign status, the political relationship between the U.S. and Native nations (including the treaty era), and the ways Native issues are invariably intermeshed with federal law.

“Native nations have jurisdiction over their land, their people and the activities that occur on their land,” explained Matt Campbell, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, or NARF, and an enrolled member of the Native Village of Gambell on the Saint Lawrence Island in Alaska. “They also have laws, courts, beliefs and other government systems.”

Campbell also noted that in addition to the more than 570 federally recognized tribes, there is a distinction between those tribes and a number of state and nonrecognized tribal governments.

The federal government has the trust and treaty responsibility to protect tribal resources, lands, and hunting and fishing rights within their lands and within public lands, added Campbell. This responsibility and the sovereign status of tribal governments weigh into how tribes have a strong influence over public lands and public decisions.


Start by researching treaties, aboriginal rights

Treaties should be the first place journalists (as well as attorneys or land managers) start their research, said Campbell, since they are the supreme law of the land, and recent court cases take them into consideration.

For example, the Herrera decision in 2019 dealt with hunting and fishing rights in Wyoming for the Crow Tribe; the Supreme Court upheld the tribe’s rights to engage in hunting and fishing.


Pay attention to how aboriginal rights to

engage in activities within public lands

apply to public land management.


After treaties, pay attention to how aboriginal rights to engage in activities within public lands apply to public land management (as long as they’re still intact), Campbell said. Only Congress can extinguish, or eliminate, these rights.

Federal laws that deal with these rights include the Antiquities Act; the National Historic Preservation Act, or NHPA; the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA; the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act; the Clean Water Act; the Clean Air Act; and other such statutes.

Examples of how tribes applied these laws to protect their lands, according to Campbell, include most prominently how tribes used the Antiquities Act to push for the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument. That monument, Campbell said, is still used by tribes throughout the Southwest.

Other laws like NEPA and NHPA require the government to consult with tribes before proceeding with any public lands projects that may impact tribal cultural or resource sites. He notes that tribes feel these procedural laws don’t offer sufficient protection.

The recent decisions have tribes “seeing a vindication of things that we’ve been saying along,” Campbell pointed out, “that these things still exist, we are still a people who live today and our treaties are still something to be recognized and honored.”


Watch for rights restoration, expansion

Chuck Hudson, who recently retired as intergovernmental affairs director from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, added that tribes expanding or recapturing their rights is a “very big issue” for journalists to track.

Tribal public lands and environmental advocates, such as activist Billy Frank, above, paid a toll for their work. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.

For example, he said the wildfires burning through the Northwest were once all tribal lands, particularly in Oregon. Tribes lost rights to those lands through termination policies in the 1940s and ’50s, Hudson explains.

Although some tribes had those rights and lands restored, some ended up relinquishing land rights, added Hudson, a citizen of the Mandan, Hitdatsa and Arikara, known as the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota.

But those tribes are working on restoring those rights. “If I were watching tribal resource management, I would watch the Cowlitz Tribe,” advised Hudson. The Washington tribe is using its newfound resources to stock up on natural resources talent and has a game plan to restore its fishing and hunting rights.

Hudson recounted the toll that tribal public lands and environmental advocates, practitioners and defenders, like Billy Frank (may require subscription) and Clayton Herrera, endured before tribal governments came in to support them.

“They and their families paid a deep price — days, months and years in jail, demonization by state attorneys general and the press in general,” said Hudson. That oppression destroyed the health and wellbeing of those families.

Hudson recommended going past tribal agencies to get to the rooms where traditional tribal hunters and fishers, gatherers and practitioners live and learn about what they do and why they do it, to get the story.

“That’s where the power we all draw from is,” he said. “These are the people who push for tribal codes and so we can go into national forests and gather huckleberries and don’t get arrested.”


An expanding circle of battlefronts

Longtime journalist Paul DeMain, a citizen of the Wisconsin Oneida Tribe and an Oneida/Ojibwe traditionalist, said Indian Country in the past 30 to 50 years has expanded its resources in Native journalism, Indigenous tribal attorneys, the establishment of tribal courts, education and business in tribal lands.

“You have tribes at every level,” he added. “It’s like a circle [of battlefronts] that’s expanding with environmental and resource issues, retention of language, culture and practices, and preservation of sacred sites.”


Tribes are always looking for

an opportunity to reexercise

those jurisdictional authorities.


DeMain said it’s more like reclaiming jurisdiction and regulatory authority over its members and other people residing within their lands, but also extending the influence of jurisdictional legal decisions. Tribes are always looking for an opportunity to reexercise those jurisdictional authorities.

Tripp Crouse, news director of KNBA in Anchorage, Alaska, said the radio station is looking at how better to report from a holistic perspective when it comes to environmental reporting, adding, “Out of 574 federally recognized tribes, 229 are in Alaska,” which means a variety of environmental practices, subsidence and other practices.

Unlike other tribes, Alaska tribes have no treaties. So most consultation has occurred after the Alaska land grab actions, said Crouse, who has Ojibwe heritage and is a descendent of Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Crouse cited recent environmental struggles that tribes in the area are experiencing, such as fishing rights, the fight to prevent a huge mine in Pebble Bay and the effort to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (may require subscription). They also pointed to intertribal battles over extraction, such as between the Gwich’in and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and the plight of climate refugees.

DeMain has more examples of how tribes work to exert their rights: the battle to deal with a proposed pipeline which would have affected waters, lands, peoples and other life-forms in the Great Lakes watershed. Tribes also banded together to oppose a taconite mine, which would have caused incalculable damage to the Bad River area.


Resources allow reporters to go in-depth

Journalists who want to cover these issues and pursue best practices have resources available through the Native American Journalists Association, which publishes reporting guides from how to source Indigenous experts to proper terminology.

Also, journalists should look to other federal agencies besides the U.S. Department of Interior for information and sources; for example, Hudson mentioned that fishing regulations are developed by the U.S. Department of Commerce.


Remember that tribal cultures can differ greatly

across the continent, and reporters should

take the time to learn about those cultures.


Remember that tribal cultures can differ greatly across the continent, and reporters should take the time to learn about those cultures. Creating and sustaining relationships at the street level are essential to reporting well.

“Ask if you can get out on a ricing or fishing excursion,” said DeMain. “Get in-depth, and do some research before you call,” he adds.

Campbell said that organizations like NARF are good sources for basic information and to help start a research project into a tribe or group of tribes.

And, journalists should keep in mind that many U.S. tribal cultures are located across borders, and to ensure that they’re reaching out to those people as well.

Hudson noted that good journalism is needed throughout Indian Country, and encouraged all journalists to learn about tribes, their issues and develop the beats to do their jobs.

“Tribal citizens need good journalism,” he said. “Sometimes the bottlenecks to delivering policy and services to citizens are at the tribal level, not the federal level. That government should be questioned as strongly as the federal agencies.”

“There are so many really great stories and people working in Indian Country, and if all you see are the drunks, the poverty, the diabetes, the dead, the drums, then you have no business reporting on Indian Country,” concluded Crouse.

[Editor’s note: Material for this story was drawn from a 2020 Society of Environmental Journalists workshop, which also offered a resource guide. Plus, see the recent SEJournal Backgrounder, “Finding Native People at Heart of Environment Beat.”]

Debra Utacia Krol is an award-winning journalist for The Arizona Republic, with an emphasis on Indigenous, environmental and science issues. She is an enrolled member of the Xolon (also known as Jolon) Salinan Tribe from the Central California coastal ranges. In addition to more than a dozen other awards, Krol was named best beat environmental reporter by the Native American Journalists Association.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 19. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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