A drive from Portland’s emerald green landscape took me into the Columbia River Gorge and the reds, golds and browns of autumn in eastern Oregon and Washington, through the panhandle of Idaho then southeast to a long and eagerly anticipated destination: the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 20th Annual Conference Oct. 12-18, in Missoula, Montana.
This year’s conference was SEJ’s largest focus ever on Native American issues and gave attendees a substantive look at complex environmental concerns in Indian Country.
I couldn’t think of any better way to kick off the conference than what unfolded at Wednesday evening’s opening reception. After delicious dinner fare both local and sustainable, and welcoming speeches by Montana dignitaries, a drum was carried onstage.
Not just any drum.
It seats 16, and belongs to the Chief Cliff Singers, an outstanding Native American ceremonial drum group composed of members from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes – the Bitterroot Salish, the Pend d’Oreille and the Kootenai tribes, who today call the 1.317 million acre Flathead Reservation in northwest Montana home.
Fairly certain there were but a few Native Americans in the audience, as soon as I recognized drum leader Mike Kenmille’s invitation to round dance I led a bewildered but willing friend through formally set tables to the front of the room, whispering to her that we were DANCING. I nodded to two other friends ‘come join us!’ With that we kicked off the Native American round dance, a social dance used to welcome visitors.
Our circle of dancers grew quickly as enthusiastic SEJers joined hands, moving in a circle clockwise to the beat of the sacred drum. A shout out to Ray Ring, senior editor at High Country News for bringing this fine drum group and an awareness of Native American culture to SEJ.
A lot of what matters to Indian Country was discussed at this year’s conference.
Ray Cross, professor at the University of Montana’s School of Law opened Wednesday with a plenary session, ‘Environmental Law in the West: How It Came To Be and Why Anyone From the East Should Care’ offering a guided tour of public resource law and contemporary challenges of enforcing those laws.
Professor Cross works extensively with Indian tribes, Indian organizations, and federal agencies on issues of Indian education, tribal self-determination, and cultural and natural resource preservation. His exceptional legal career is chronicled in a new book called Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes and the Trial That Forged A Nation. Cross is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
A Thursday tour, ‘Managing Indian Country: Stories of Cooperation and Conflict,’ looked at traditional culture and natural resource management on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as they assert their sovereignty over their natural resources. Travelers visited the National Bison Range and listened to disagreements over how much authority the tribes should have in managing bison.
Making last minute arrangements for my own panel kept me from the tour, but I was privy to conversations that followed, one of which described a lively debate between Garrit Voggesser, senior manager of the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Lands Program, and a spokesperson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the issue.
I was introduced to Rebecca Miles, executive director of the Nez Perce Tribe at Friday’s opening plenary. Also on the plenary panel, moderated by SEJer Jon Christensen, was law professor and tribal law expert Charles Wilkinson who, along with other panelists discussed climate changes in the West, and trends on the vast federal lands there. And here too, they looked at how and why tribes must assert their sovereignty over their natural resources.
The tar sands that are so impacting indigenous peoples not only in Canada but potentially and in a big way tribal peoples in the U.S. were the topic of a panel on Friday, ‘Tar Sands from Alberta to Missoula and Beyond.’ Though the panel did not include an indigenous perspective, the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Marty Cobenais was in the audience, willing to answer questions from inquiring environmental reporters.
Saturday’s agenda had back-to-back panels focusing on issues important to Indian Country. A panel I organized, ‘Energy Issues on Tribal Lands,’ focused on renewable and non-renewable energy projects on tribal lands. Not on the agenda but an important part of that story were the tales of destruction to tribal lands in America’s quest for energy, while overlooking delivering that energy to tribal peoples.
Longtime Native American journalist Jodi Rave moderated the panel, which included Alexis Bonogofsky, senior coordinator with NWF’s Tribal Lands Conservation Program; Patrick Spears, a board member of NativeEnergy and president of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy; Rob McDonald, communications director for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; and Gail Small, Esq., Northern Cheyenne and director of Native Action, an environmental justice organization.
SEJ’s Dawn Stover moderated ‘Tribes and Salmon: Making News in the Northwest.’ Panelists were Chuck Brushwood, policy analyst for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation’s Fish and Wildlife Department; Joe Hovenkotter, staff attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; and Rebecca Miles, executive director of the Nez Perce Tribe.
The post-conference tour to Glacier National Park featured as a speaker Elouise Cobell, representing the Native American Community Development Program.
It wasn’t just Montana’s location that brought this level of focus on Native American issues to SEJ this year — Washington State is one of many with far more Indian tribes. It was the dedication of SEJers like Ray Ring, Jim Bruggers, Jay Letto, Dawn Stover, Jon Christensen and certainly others; and friend of SEJ, Charles Hudson, manager and director of governmental affairs for the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, who volunteered untold hours and shared his vast knowledge of tribal affairs.
Because of SEJ’s commitment, our stories are rippling through the country like rings from a pebble tossed into a huge body of journalistic waters.