How Native Americans have shaped the year's biggest environmental debates

And how lawmakers can improve their record next year.

 

This September, hundreds of thousands of Native Americans began receiving checks in the mail. The money was the final installment of the Cobell settlement, which altogether paid out $3.4 billion in overdue royalties to compensate for more than a century of poorly managed mining on reservations. Two months later, Montana’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes moved a step closer to closing a deal that will make them the first in the nation to own a hydroelectric dam.

Such stories stand out, because though Native Americans have deep stakes in some of the West’s most pointed environmental debates, their voices continue to be more often marginalized or outright ignored by state and federal lawmakers. The past year has been no exception. Last week, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, incensed Native activists when he undermined decades of progress toward sovereignty and told an Apache leader that Native Americans are “still wards of the federal government.”

As we head into 2015, here’s a look back at how Western tribes shaped — or tried to shape — some of the year’s biggest natural resource stories.

—APACHE: Terry Rambler, the chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, has petitioned Congress to strike just one provision from the $585-billion spending bill that President Obama is expected to sign into law this week, to no avail. The provision gives 2,400 acres of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona to mining giant Rio Tinto for the Resolution Copper mine, which Rambler says will encroach on ancestral Apache lands and undermine traditional dances and harvests still carried out there. 

Apaches oppose a land swap that will give mining giant Rio Tinto access to ancestral Apache land. Pictured is a Rio Tinto copper mine in Utah.
Flickr user Arbyreed

—HOPI/NAVAJO: Speaking of encroachment from commercial mining, Navajo and Hopi living near Black Mesa, in northern Arizona, are suing the federal government to protect ancient burial sites from Peabody Coal, which is seeking a lifetime permit. Hopi leaders say the coal company, which has been mining Black Mesa since the 1960s, has already desecrated, dug up and shipped off archeological artifacts without tribal consent. They not only want the mining permit denied, but also for Bureau of Indian Affairs to help get the artifacts returned. 

—COLUMBIA RIVER TRIBES: A report issued earlier this year found that many Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama who were physically and culturally displaced by Columbia River dams in the mid-20th century received little or no relocation support or housing assistance, and live in substandard, squalid conditions along the river. So far, reports the Seattle Times, the report “has been greeted with silence.” 

—ROSEBUD SIOUX: The Rosebud and other Sioux tribes have had resolutions in place since February that oppose TransCanada using eminent domain to construct the Keystone XL pipeline across their land. But that didn’t stop the House of Representatives from approving the project in November — a move the Rosebud called an “act of war.” As pro-pipeline Republicans prepare to take over Congress, though, some energy analysts suggest that swiftly falling oil prices may render the battle irrelevant.  

—COLORADO RIVER INDIAN TRIBES: Earlier this month, the Mojave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo filed a lawsuit against the federal government to stop the Blythe Solar Power Project, a commercial-scale photovoltaic plant in the Mojave Desert approved in August by the Bureau of Land Management. The tribes say the project lacks tribal involvement and strong environmental and cultural review. 

—ALASKA NATIVES: Last year, a sweeping investigation commissioned by the Obama administration found that Alaska Native villages harbor the nation’s highest rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and suicide, in part because remote villages lack the right to prosecute their own crimes. The report renewed calls for the creation of “Indian Country” in Alaska, which would increase tribal sovereignty. For a while, the suggestions met with resistance — but new governor Bill Walker has made giving Alaska Natives more control over land management and subsistence fishing and hunting one of his top priorities

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....