Relations between tribal nations and the federal government are on the brink of a new era. Americans are realizing tribal perspectives are crucial for a future that embraces climate resiliency and strengthened biodiversity. Upon entering office, President Biden recognized as much by instructing federal agencies to embrace traditional ecological knowledge. New federal guidance reflects a commitment to strengthening a nation-to-nation relationship built on respect and cooperation.
This new era of tribal-federal relations is most evident with the five tribes of the Bears Ears Commission (BEC) and their role as collaborative managers, along with the Bureau of Land Management and the USDA Forest Service, for the Bears Ears National Monument ( BENM).
After years of advocacy by grassroots organizers and five sovereign tribal nations, the BENM was established by President Obama in 2016. This represented a new chapter of government-to-government relations between tribes and federal agencies by creating the BEC. The first iteration of both the national monument and the BEC were short-lived due to President Trump’s modification of the monument boundaries in 2017, the effects of which are still being litigated in courts today.
Last October, President Biden reestablished Bears Ears and re-recognized the BEC. The Commission is not a stakeholder or interested party, but a true partner in collaborative management. The Bears Ears region, in addition to being a national treasure and place of wonder, is part of the ancestral homelands of the five tribes of the BEC. The Zuni, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian tribes and the Navajo Nation each have deep ties to these lands, which their ancestors have stewarded since time immemorial.
In this new role as a collaborative management partner, the Commission has spoken publicly about the tribes’ goals for the monument in the form of a tribal Land Management Plan (LMP). The LMP is a first-of-its-kind, extraordinary document that bridges the gap between theory and practice and illustrates how traditional knowledge can help conserve one of the most vulnerable landscapes in so-called North America.
Recently, the Department of the Interior and USDA issued the joint secretarial order on Fulfilling the Trust Responsibility to Indian Tribes in the Stewardship of Federal Lands and Waters. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland stated, “By acknowledging and empowering tribes as partners in co-stewardship of our country’s lands and waters, every American will benefit from strengthened management of our federal land and resources.”
The vast swaths of federally managed land in the West are adjacent to and intertwined with the ancestral homelands of tribal nations. On these public lands are treated-protected resources guaranteed to tribes, a tacit acknowledgment that native nations were here first and still have legal ties to the resources on the lands their ancestors were removed from.
What Bears Ears represents is the ability of tribes to have a say in the management of their off-reservation ancestral homelands, as an exercise of sovereignty. Creating institutions that provide tribes a meaningful say in public land management is an act of restorative justice, and the moment has arrived in which tribes have this opportunity.
We may be facing a new chapter of tribal-federal relations, and we need the public’s support now more than ever.