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A Sea of Change for Tribal-State Relations

A column by Hawk Rosales on the nature of the relationships between American Indian tribal governments and U.S. state governments.
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“I hope that if one thing comes out of this process, it's the beginning of long term trust between sovereign [tribal] governments and the state of California.”California Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird at June 30, 2011 Fish and Game Commission hearing in Stockton, California

California history is marred not only by past injustice and violence toward tribal peoples, but also by overexploitation of the natural resources the tribes have depended upon and responsibly stewarded since time immemorial. However, recent events offer hope that, at last, a new era is beginning.

California Indian Tribes welcomed Governor Jerry Brown’s September 2011 executive order creating a new gubernatorial tribal advisor position and making it official state policy to consult with California tribes as sovereign governments on the full range of issues affecting them. The Brown administration also has made remarkable progress in a few short months working with North Coast tribes on management and protection of resources.

The InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council is a consortium of 10 federally recognized tribes with ancient and enduring ancestral and cultural ties to coastal and inland areas of Mendocino, Lake and southern Humboldt Counties. Our member tribes depend on the ocean for food, for the continuation of their culture, and for their very survival. In 2009, we were alarmed to learn that California, through the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), was starting to design marine protected areas in ancestral territories that might disallow the traditional take of seaweed, shellfish and other marine resources by North Coast tribes.

That planning process could easily have produced another intolerable outcome in the state’s bleak tribal relations history. Instead, it marked the start of a remarkable journey resulting in state officials committing to better honoring tribal contributions, past and present.

What went right? North Coast tribes, from Tolowa and Yurok in the far north to Pomo in the far south of the region, resolved to protect their peoples’ traditional gathering rights through concerted action and came to the table with practical solutions. For the tribes, protection of the ocean and traditional cultural use of marine resources are inseparable ideas. Without careful stewardship, the ocean’s gifts will steadily decline and may someday vanish. North Coast residents, including fishermen, harbor districts and conservation groups, stood in solidarity with the tribes.

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State officials, including Resources Secretary John Laird, Assemblymember Wesley Chesbro, Senator Noreen Evans, and representatives of the MLPA Initiative, Department of Fish and Game, and Fish and Game Commission, carefully considered tribal concerns and ultimately committed to meeting the challenges of managing ocean resources while respecting the traditions and knowledge of local tribes.After many months of work, tribes and other stakeholders agreed to support a plan that avoids key tribal gathering places and allows for continued tribal fishing, gathering, harvesting and stewardship in most of the new protected areas. The plan also creates several fully protected marine life refuges in high-priority conservation areas. The process has been far from perfect or easy, yet the tribes’ persistence—and the state’s willingness to listen and work toward a solution—has paid off. For the first time in the state’s history, it appears California will formally recognize and protect the tribes’ traditional cultural use of marine resources.

InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council has been protecting and restoring our redwood and coastal heritage for decades. We are pleased to have been involved in every step of the North Coast MLPA process, and to have helped craft a solution to ensure lasting protections for our precious ocean and the tribes’ cultural ways—a solution supported by the people and the government of our state.

And we look forward to contributing to ongoing educational efforts to increase public awareness of the tribes’ traditional ecological knowledge that has kept our natural world in balance for millennia.Much work remains to build long-term trust between California and the many tribes of the state. But an important page has been turned.

Secretary Laird’s new tribal consultation policy signals a broader intent to respect tribal knowledge and interests regarding management of the state’s natural resources. The policy will create opportunities for meaningful tribal participation in stewardship and co-management of state resources, and will open a new chapter in tribal-state relations. Much of the impetus for the policy has grown out of the discussions with tribes and lessons learned during the MLPA process.

We celebrate this significant progress and will stay focused on building a brighter future—for tribes and for California. The road ahead in our work to achieve environmental and social justice will be long and challenging, but through unwavering commitment from the tribes, the state and many allies, we can together reach the goal of a better world.

Hawk Rosales is the executive director of InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council.