Congress meets with Native leaders to discuss co-management of federal lands

Staving off attempts by Republican officials to talk about Russia, tribal leaders spent the morning in D.C. highlighting the benefits of co-management plans and tribal sovereignty.


On Tuesday, for the first time in U.S. history, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to consider co-managing federal lands with Indigenous tribes. Such a collaborative arrangement between sovereign governments could promote increased tribal stewardship while easing the federal government’s land-management burden and fulfilling its trust obligations to tribes.

The hearing started off in a promising direction. The committee’s chair, Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, opened by affirming the importance of tribal sovereignty and of reckoning with the injustices of the United States’ violent foundations. “The European colonization of this continent and the founding of this country are built on the dispossession of land from Indigenous peoples by force, coercion, or bad faith legal arraignments,” Grijalva said. He called upon Congress to “formally acknowledge that the lands we now know as the United States are the ancestral homelands of millions of Indigenous people who were killed, removed or relocated.”

National Parks Director Chuck Sams III (Umatilla) gave witness testimony supporting the value of Native co-management.
Stefani Reynolds for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Members of Congress then brought questions to Native leaders, including National Parks Director Chuck Sams III (Umatilla), who gave witness testimony supporting the value of Native co-management. “As director of the National Park Service, I’m committed to increasing co-stewardship with tribes, in the interest of all peoples of the United States,” Sams said.

He cited four parks that currently share co-management authority with tribes (Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Glacier Bay National Park, Grand Portage National Monument and Big Cypress National Preserve), and noted several other cooperative agreements between his agency and tribes. Successful tribal efforts resulting from these agreements have included the preservation of historic structures, ethno-botanical restoration, wildland fire activities, archaeological surveys, research, published reports on traditionally harvested plants and sustainability, education, trail repair, and the continuity of ancestral gathering traditions. “Most NPS working relationships with tribal nations are collaborative or cooperative opportunities,” Sams said. The idea is simply to expand these existing ones, and create more.

“Most NPS working relationships with tribal nations are collaborative or cooperative opportunities.”

But the conversation quickly detoured into political grandstanding. Several congressional representatives hijacked the hearing into a proxy partisan squabble about federal energy policy, gas prices, green energy development and dependence on Russian oil. Louisiana Republican Rep. Garret Graves even launched into a heated rant, chastising Grijalva for not holding a hearing about energy prices instead. “We’re not prioritizing our actions, not prioritizing this committee’s jurisdiction. This is an embarrassment, Mr. Chairman,” he raged.

While Republicans consistently focused their questions on oil and gas extraction from Indigenous lands, implying that domestic natural resource development would be threatened by Native co-management, not everyone saw the hearing as an embarrassment. Some expressed support for tribal sovereignty, as long as it doesn’t infringe on domestic oil development.

“Developing our own (resources) leads to self-determination,” said Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Melvin J. Baker, whose tribe is a member of the controversial Western States and Tribal Nations Gas Initiative, a pro-fracking nonprofit that lobbied Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to approve the now-defunct Jordan Cove pipeline. “Our tribal members are stewards of the land, and they want to protect it — how do we balance that?”

Baker added that if the tribe doesn’t develop its own natural resources, third parties are likely to come in and extract them anyway, depriving the tribe of vital funds for education and other community needs. “It’s a chess game all the time, right or wrong.”

Democrats, meanwhile, parried with partisan snipes at their conservative colleagues about green energy alternatives, overlooking the fact that green energy extraction can exploit affected tribes as easily as oil and gas production does. Again and again, Native leaders patiently steered the discourse back to sovereignty, underscoring the value and effectiveness of traditional ecological knowledge, or, as Doug Kiel (Oneida), assistant professor of history at Northwestern University, preferred to call it, Indigenous science.

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, is one of four parks that Sams cited as currently have co-management authority with tribes.

Representatives also asked Native leaders about land-management issues, including reduction of wildfire fuels (“Tribal youth corps could be the ground force to do that,” Sams replied), and whether federal and tribal co-management could extend beyond lands to include coastal waters, as in the case of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary in Southern California. “What can this committee do to support the tribes’ effort?” asked California Democratic Rep. Alan Lowenthal.

Testimony and responses also came from Pueblo of Zuni Lieutenant Gov. Carleton Bowekaty, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Executive Director Aja DeCoteau (Yakama), the University of Iowa College of Law professor and dean, Kevin Washburn (Chickasaw), and Inter-Tribal Timber Council President Cody Desautel (Colville). 

Despite loaded questions driving tangents into partisan agendas, representatives from both sides of the U.S.’ political spectrum expressed general support for the development of tribal co-management on federal lands, at least where sovereignty doesn’t threaten their energy plans. For all its detours, the three-and-a-half hour hearing was an important first step in breaching a conversation that some Natives never expected to see in Washington, at least not in this lifetime.

Brian Oaster (they/them) is a staff writer at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. We welcome reader letters. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editorSee our letters to the editor policy.

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