Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

U.S. looks to boost cooperation with tribes on land management

Mount Rainier is covered is snow. In the foreground is a snow-covered hill with people on skis and snowshoes walking around.
Rachel La Corte
The Associated Press file
Visitors hike through the snow at the trails that start from Mount Rainier's Paradise Visitor Center in 2014.

National Park Service Director Chuck Sams said Tuesday he and other officials are committed to boosting the role Native American tribes can play in managing public lands around the U.S.

He told members of a congressional committee during a virtual hearing that part of the effort includes integrating Indigenous knowledge into management plans and recognizing that federal lands once belonged to the tribes.

Sams was questioned about how the National Park Service could use existing authority and recent executive directives issued by top federal officials to make good on the latest round of promises to tribes regarding meaningful consultation and having a seat at the table.

Sams, who is Cayuse and Walla Walla and a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, is the first Native American to lead the Park Service. He said education will be a key part of seeing changes on the ground.

“Much of this has been missing from our history books, that understanding that tribes are sovereign,” he said, adding that the federal government has an obligation to ensure that tribal voices are heard.

There currently are four national parks where tribes share co-management responsibilities: Canyon de Chelly National Monument within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in southeast Alaska, Grand Portage National Monument within the Grand Portage Indian Reservation in Minnesota, and Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida.

Tribal officials from New Mexico, Colorado and the Pacific Northwest also testified about the importance of including Native American voices when weighing decisions that could impact cultural sites, water supplies or even forest health.

Sams said his agency has about 80 cooperative agreements in place with tribes now and he expects that number to grow.

At Acadia National Park, the Wabanaki Nations of Maine have been involved in a multiyear project focused on traditional gathering of sweetgrass that have resulted from centuries of learned ecological knowledge.

The Nisqually Tribe is working with officials at Mount Rainier National Park to publish a report on plant gathering there. Consultation with the tribe also has resulted in a guide for developing interpretive programs.

Carleton Bowekaty, the lieutenant governor of Zuni Pueblo and a member of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, told lawmakers that tribes in the Southwestern U.S. banded together to protect their mutual interests as part of the fight over the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

While some tribal communities are located hundreds of miles away from the monument, Bowekaty said the area still plays an integral role in traditional practices and ceremonies and that tribes are being asked for their traditional knowledge as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service work on a management plan for the monument.

"What could be a better avenue of restorative justice than giving tribes the opportunity to participate in the management of lands that their ancestors were removed from?” he asked, adding that collaborative problem-solving and a candid exchange of perspectives will be crucial for co-management to work.

Doug Kiel, a citizen of the Oneida Nation and an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University, told the congressional panel about a philosophy of long-term planning that is central to many Native American tribes. He said it centers on what will be in the best interest of people seven generations from now.

Land managers today can learn from thousands of years of history, he said, as the pressures of climate change and global instability mount.

“One important way to think about what it means to incorporate Indigenous thought into these dialogues is to think about depth of time, a different perspective,” he said. “That's a lot of what we're talking about with traditional ecological knowledge.”

Susan Montoya Bryan is a New Mexico-based reporter for The Associated Press. She covers energy, environment, outdoors, Native American issues, arts & entertainment.