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Russian tribes visit Northwest to learn resource management

For the first time in history, there has been a major cultural exchange between representatives of Indigenous peoples organizations in Russia and tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

Representatives from five Indigenous nations spanning distances of more than 6,000 miles across Siberia and the Russian Far East, met with tribal leaders, managers and elders during the first two weeks of December to learn about this country's Indigenous rights, sovereignty and natural resource issues.

The exchange was organized and funded by Pacific Environment, a non-profit environmental consulting group from Oakland, Calif.

In addition to tribes, the delegation met with legal experts, representatives of government agencies, wildlife biologists, non-governmental organizations and industry leaders to get a handle on the full range of resource perspectives.

"As Siberia and the Russian Far East are increasingly coveted for their oil, timber and other resources by both Moscow-based corporations and Western multinationals, Indigenous rights in Russia are at a critical juncture," Pacific Environment's Sibyl Diver says.

"The conditions in Russia now are very similar to those of the American West about 50 years ago. There's a growing movement within the Russian Indigenous community that is challenging Russian society to recognize its Native peoples."

Diver says the Russian delegates hoped to learn about tribes' histories and to gather lessons from the tribes' "past mistakes and current actions" in their struggle to regain their rights.

The delegates met with representatives of the Makah, Hoh, Quinault, Warm Springs and Jamestown S'Klallam tribes.

Ann Seiter, natural resources director for the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe, took the five delegates on a tour of key resource areas and explained what the tribe is doing in natural resource management. She said much of the focus was on marketing.

"They visited the Jamestown Seafood packing plant so that they could see how, in this tribe's case, the people harvest geoduck and other shellfish and ship it out," Seiter says.

"They asked a lot of questions about how we've been able to work with the local governments because we have had some fairly serious pollution problems threatening the tribe's oyster farms."

Misha Jones, consultant and translator for the group, says delegates were granted a potlatch welcome everywhere they went. And, amidst all the planned talks on a busy agenda, they gleaned new and surprising perspectives.

"Things like treaty rights and how treaty rights are an implied baseline for negotiations (are) different from situations that the Indigenous people have in Russia," Jones says. "There are some rules, some laws, but nothing is the equivalent of, say, the 1855 treaties where very specific conditions were specified that each party was to adhere to."

Jones says it was very important for the Russians to learn about treaties from the tribal viewpoint because they are just beginning to look for a way to get the same kind of guarantees from the new Russian federalist government.

"There is a federal law that exists in Russia now that looks at the guarantees for Indigenous peoples," he says. "But it's very much of a framework law. The procedures that would need to be enacted, the regulatory laws, etcetera, are all in the future."

Jones says one thing the delegates found curious was that even though treaties have been in place for hundreds of years in some places in the United States, tribes still have to fight for the rights implied by the treaties.

Bobby Brunoe, general manager for the natural resources department of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, says delegates were very curious about how the tribe governed itself and how it was able to reserve rights and implement the treaty.

"I think what they noticed from us is how we work in a political system here," Brunoe says. "They noticed from each of the tribes they went to that everybody had legal representation of some type and that that is something they would probably have to do in their country."

Brunoe says one of the things that amazed him was how similar the issues were between Indigenous tribes in the United States and Russia.

Considering the historical parallels between the two nations, the similarities aren't too surprising.

For example, while European settlers were making their way westward across North America in the 19th century, European Russians were forging east toward Siberia and ultimately to Alaska in search of territory, furs and other natural resources. As in North America, this resulted in the slaughter of Native populations, slavery and annexation of Native lands.

The social dislocation and termination of traditional ways of life led to widespread poverty, disenfranchisement and alcoholism throughout Russian Native communities -conditions that haven't changed a whole lot in many areas.

And tribes struggle to have a say in use of lands they have called home for hundreds of years.

"Tribal lands are managed without any input from Indigenous people or long-term non-Native residents," says Lyudmila Ignatenko, a representative from the Ketkino-Pinachevskaya Native Community Organization in Kamchatka. "It has become impossible to accurately evaluate the threat of development to Kamchatka. Therefore, our main goal is to identify truly independent and willing researchers and experts and invite them to join us in our work (fighting irresponsible development on Indigenous lands)."

Many communities are so isolated there are no roads and no infrastructure. Often the natural resources, such as timber and metals, are vast and much of the land is pristine. As opposed to the United States where tribes are struggling for restoration of natural resources, Jones points out that Russian tribes are striving for preservation of virgin territories.

To keep their lands from being exploited while seeking rights, income, health benefits and education, tribes have to walk a fine line.

While Western consumer interests jockey for position in the wings, tribes have to deal with a new government equally unsure of itself in terms of development and the environment. Privatization of property is still a novel and oftentimes unpopular concept. And privatization is one of the few ways the tribes might be able to secure a land base to call their own.

"The bottom line is, you can talk cultural, you can talk economic, you can talk spiritual values and those are all essential to nations," Jones says. "But for the Russians, the key at this point is title, private title to land which they do not hold."

With the first exchange a success, Jones says Pacific Environment hopes delegates will develop appropriate long- and short-term projects with some of the tribes they visited.

A follow-up exchange to bring over another group of representatives from tribes and organizations may soon be on the agenda.