A very merry Indigenous affairs year-in-review

Take a look back at the changes in Indian Country over 2022.

 

A challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act, a long-overdue reckoning on boarding schools, undoing dams, water rights get secured (and ignored), place names under the microscope — a lot has been happening in Indian Country this year. Indigenous communities are celebrating some big steps forward, and stomaching some ominous portents too as the calendar turns over. Here’s a look back at our reporting to catch you up on a hectic year and get you prepared for what is sure to be an eventful 2023.

Shari Witmore, a fish biologist at the NOAA, and Kenneth Brink, Karuk Tribal Fisheries field supervisor, inspect the mouth of the Seiad Creek, a tributary to the Klamath River. Dead fish, wooded debris, algae and heavy sediment loads suffocate the waters of the Klamath River.

The Lower Klamath River

We spent most of the year waiting for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to make a decision about the removal of the four lower Klamath River dams. As FERC mulled its options, another fish kill struck our relatives after thunderstorms collided with wildfire on the riverbanks this summer. The disastrous results left the fall run of salmon nosing at the riverbanks trying to escape the toxic waters. It was a stressful time, but better news followed: In mid-November, FERC voted unanimously to order the dam license to be surrendered, giving the final green light for removal to begin next year. We could almost hear the parties on the Klamath’s riverbanks that day from HCN’s newsroom. If all goes as planned, the next two years will be even more transformative for the Klamath and all the life it sustains.

The Colorado River

This year, the Colorado River Compact, which failed to include any of the river basin’s 30 tribes when it divvied up the water, turned 100 golden settler-colonial years old. The compact is janky and problematic even aside from its anti-Indigeneity, because it allocates more water than actually exists in the river, and even provides the framework for exporting that scarce water to Saudi Arabia, in the form of alfalfa. Some tribes, including the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe, have been trying to quantify their water rights — a stacked process that takes more time and resources than many tribes possess — even as the water runs lower and lower in the river, reservoirs and lakes. The Salton Sea in particular is having a very, very bad time, and so are the communities around it; the fish would be, too, if they weren’t already dead, and the pelicans and cormorants if they hadn’t been forced to abandon their nests.

In April, the Lake Powell waterline dropped so low that dam operators almost had to shut down Glen Canyon Dam. This summer, the Department of the Interior wagged its finger at the seven Colorado River Basin states, telling them to make some serious water-usage cuts or else … what? But there was little follow-through at a federal level. All the while, Colorado River tribes have continued negotiating for a more equitable future, and, as we enter another year of drought, they’re asserting their water rights like never before.

Tiana Suazo, director of the Red Willow Center, a community farm outside of Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, helps volunteers from the pueblo weed the vegetable garden.

Sovereignty

Two years after the McGirt decision gave rise to hope that the U.S. Supreme Court might finally accept its obligation to uphold treaties, the new, more conservative and unpredictable incarnation of SCOTUS stunned tribal and federal Indian law experts with its overreach: In July, the court ruled to give states sweeping jurisdiction in Indian Country. But sovereignty is about more than jurisdiction. This year, HCN also spoke to activists who are working on the frontlines of data sovereignty and food sovereignty initiatives, determined to support and empower their communities. People with boots on the ground are still making real progress brick by brick, even as the colonizers fire political volleys from their ivory towers.

Mining infrastructure is seen on the horizon at Chi’chil Biłdagoteel. Known in English as Oak Flat, the land is currently managed by the United States federal government as Tonto National Forest. For the past decade, a proposed copper mine has threatened to permanently alter the landscape.

Green colonialism

Electric vehicles set the marketplace abuzz this year while also threatening sacred sites, including Thacker Pass in Nevada, owing to their appetite for metals like lithium and copper. Mining for these so-called green metals boomed in 2022, with new mines popping up around the West to keep up with growing demand. Apache Stronghold has continued its longstanding fight to protect Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, aka Oak Flat, from the proposed Resolution Copper Mine. In June, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Apache Stronghold’s argument that the mine would violate the group’s religious freedom and First Amendment rights. But that’s just one of many legal strategies for Apache Stronghold, and the fight continues at the Supreme Court. Anti-Indigenous clean energy zealots, emboldened by the Biden administration, have plenty of momentum going into 2023, but land and water protectors are not backing down.

Naelyn and Nizhoni Pike pose for a portrait in front of Chi'ish DIaazhé (Mount Turnbull) in San Carlos, Arizona on Feb. 17, 2022.

Boarding schools

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative released its initial findings this spring, marking the first time the federal government has shone a light on the traumatic brutalities suffered by Indigenous communities at the hands of American missionaries and so-called educators. HCN reported on the lost children at rest in an Albuquerque park, published firsthand accounts from the “Greyhound Generation” of boarding-school children, and shared a heroic story that the federal initiative overlooked. All this is difficult reading for those impacted by these traumas, but by sharing these stories with non-Native friends, allies and readers, the pain endured by generations of Indigenous families can finally achieve broad recognition and perhaps open a pathway for genuine healing.

The Indian Child Welfare Act

Indian Country approached 2022 with trepidation, knowing that the Indian Child Welfare Act, known as ICWA, was going before the U.S. Supreme Court — particularly because the Supreme Court of today is much less predictable than the Supreme Court of previous years. And on Nov. 9, the High Court heard arguments on Brackeen v. Haaland, and even had a chance, via conservative Justice Samuel Alito, to sneak in some ignorant remarks about Natives (kudos to Deb Krol at the Arizona Republic for reporting on that). HCN spoke with Allie Maldonado, a citizen of and chief judge for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Maldonado is more than just a legal expert; her personal family history was shaped by ICWA: Her family of origin was damaged by its absence, but once the law was established, it allowed her to start a family of her own under better circumstances. The fate of ICWA is still in the hands of colonizers, and the court’s intentions remain unclear. All this casts an unwelcome cloud of anxiety over the new year as we pray for our children and cultures.

Supporters of the Alliance for Felix Cove launch a tule-reed boat made using local tule reeds and traditional cordage.

Tribal co-management of federal lands

The Biden administration took several important steps concerning tribal co-management of federal lands, starting in March, when Congress held an unprecedented meeting with tribal leaders to discuss the possibility of expanding existing efforts. In June, multiple federal agencies signed an agreement with leaders from five Southwestern tribes to cooperatively manage Bears Ears National Monument. That brings the number of co-managed national parks and monuments to five — closer to 80, if you include other kinds of collaborative agreements. Park Service director Chuck Sams told HCN that this roster will continue to grow and expand. Still, some tribal communities like the Coast Miwok in California continue to fight just to have their histories recognized by the Park Service. And this year, the Biden administration designated one new national monument, Camp Hale, while pledging to create a second, Avi Kwa Ame.

Indigenous arts and literature

HCN doesn’t always cover the arts, but we made some important exceptions this year, visiting the West’s first Indigenous literary festival, for instance, and calling out the egregious whiteness of West-centric shows like Yellowstone. We also had the chance to talk to Lois Welch about her husband, the late Blackfeet author James Welch, and to interview Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe about her new memoir, Red Paint. And we featured a retrospective of the work of Jennie Ross Cobb, the first known female Native photographer.

Festival attendees and authors gather in Lois Welch’s backyard during the the James Welch Native Literary Festival.

Place names

Perhaps we’ll remember 2022 as the year the “sq—" slur finally died. In February, Interior Secretary Haaland’s newly formed Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force began the process of changing the names of over 660 geographic features nationwide that include the slur. Some state officials complained that the task force’s recommended replacement names and rapid timeline pressured them into simply swapping derogatory names for colonial ones, however, instead of allowing time to find more suitable Indigenous place names.

In April, an academic report called “Words Are Monuments” found that place names in national parks “perpetuate settler colonial mythologies, including white supremacy.” HCN spoke to one of the lead researchers, who talked about using academic methods, which are themselves settler-colonial tools, to interrogate settler-colonialism by doing things like finding out how many national parks have places named after racists (every park they surveyed did). We also spoke to Indigenous language experts who offered illuminating insights into the psychological, mythic and poetic power of Indigenous place names.

Condors

One of this year’s most exciting tribal successes — up there with the announcement of the Klamath dam removal — was the Yurok Tribe’s release of condors into Northern California skies where they haven’t flown for over a century. These condors were the first of many the tribe plans to release, the culmination of over a decade of hard work. Now soaring free, the gigantic birds still face threats like DDT and lead in their food, as well as wildfires. But the tribe’s condor program has brought together state and federal agencies, non-Native conservation groups, timber companies, dairy farms and hunters, all of whom are invested in helping the birds succeed.

Yurok Wildlife Department Director Tiana Williams says the tribe is hopeful the recently released condors are far enough from the DDT Superfund site that the chemical won’t cause the reproductive issues it does 700 miles south.

Note: This story has been updated to correct that Avi Kwa Ame has been designated a national monument. Biden has pledged to make it one.

B. ‘Toastie’ Oaster (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer for 
High Country News writing from the Pacific Northwest. They’re a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.  

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