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Know the West

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.