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Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press

Federal agencies have had the legal authority to enter into co-management agreements with tribes since 1994. But agencies have been slow to sign on the dotted line, according to the author of a paper on the topic, Kevin Washburn, Chickasaw, dean of the University of Iowa College of Law.

That’s going to change, said National Park Service Director Chuck Sams III last week. He’s Cayuse and Walla Walla and a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. He’s the first Native American to head the park service.

The park service is going to boost the role of tribes in the management of federal lands and waters, Sams told the House Natural Resources committee on March 8 in a virtual hearing. In his testimony, he noted a joint order the secretaries of the departments of Interior and Agriculture signed on Nov. 15.

The order “recognizes that federal lands were previously owned and managed by Indian Tribes and that these lands and waters contain cultural and natural resources of significance and value to Indian Tribes and their citizens; including sacred religious sites, burial sites, wildlife, and sources of Indigenous foods and medicines.

“In addition, many of those federal lands and waters lie within areas where Indian Tribes have the reserved right to hunt, fish, gather, and pray pursuant to ratified treaties and agreements with the United States,” Sams testified.

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Chuck Sams, director of the National Park Service, is honored at a grand entry in the longhouse during the annual tribal Christmas Celebration on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon on Dec. 24. Sams is flanked, from left to right, by Thomas Morning Owl, general council interpreter, and Alan Crawford and Andrew Wildbill, longhouse whipmen. (Photo by Dallas Dick/Underscore.news)

Sams said the park service will work to integrate Indigenous knowledge into management plans, recognizing that federal lands once belonged to the tribes.

Sams was questioned about how the National Park Service could use existing authority and the executive order to make good on promises to tribes on meaningful consultation and having a seat at the table.

Sams 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.

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

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

The agreements include one with the Grand Portage Band of Minnesota Chippewa, which co-manages the Grand Portage National Monument. Half the land in the monument had been donated by Chippewa tribes.

Tribes also have co-management roles with Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which is within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation in Arizona; Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in southeast Alaska; and Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida.

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.

Seth Moore, tribal director of biology and environment for the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa Indians, attaches radio collar to a cow moose on the Grand Portage Reservation as part of an investigation into unprecedented moose deaths in Minnesota.

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 co-chair 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.”

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Indian Country Today national correspondent Joaqlin Estus contributed to this story.