Native American Alliance Wants More Say In Managing National Parks

By Kurt Repanshek – January 18th, 2023

A Native American group wants to see Indigenous groups given more say in how national parks are managed and wants “sacred places within the parks” returned to the relevant Native American communities.

A petition drive led by the Native Organizers Alliance asks National Park Service Director Chuck Sams, an enrolled member, Cayuse and Walla Walla, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, to “re-indigenize national parks!”

“Many national parks were created by violently removing Native people from our homelands, where our ancestors lived for thousands of years. But this history has long been erased from the national narrative. Instead, parks are portrayed as pristine and untouched,” reads the introduction to the petition. “To make amends for past and present injustices, we must re-indigenize national parks. And right now we have great momentum. Chuck Sams, the first Native to serve as National Park Service director, is pushing for co-stewardship of parks with Tribal Nations, and to use traditional ecological knowledge in park management.”

An email this week seeking Sams’ reaction to the petition was not immediately answered, and an email to the alliance Tuesday was not immediately answered.

Under Sams, the Park Service has moved to strengthen “the role of American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes, Alaska Natives entities, and the Native Hawaiian Community in federal land management.” The director has said such a move “will help ensure tribal governments have an equal voice in the planning and management” of the park system.

In announcing that move last September, the Park Service said it was inviting tribes and the Native Hawaiian Community to be more involved in stewarding natural resources in the National Park System.

“All national parks are located on Indigenous ancestral lands and this policy will help ensure tribal governments have an equal voice in the planning and management of them,” Sams, who was not made available to discuss the new policy at the time, said in the release.

The release noted that “[C]o-stewardship is a broad term that includes formal co-management (through legal authorities), collaborative and cooperative management (often accomplished through agreements), and self-governance agreements (including annual funding agreements). “

A section of the nine-page policy statement said:

To increase opportunities for Indian and Alaska Native Tribes and Native Hawaiians to fully participate in Federal decision making and to safeguard their interests, the NPS will strive to engage in co-stewardship where:

1. Federal lands or waters, including wildlife and its habitat, are located within or adjacent to an Indian or Alaska Native Tribe’s lands; or

2. an Indian or Alaska Native Tribe has subsistence or other rights, including treaty-reserved rights, or interests in Federal lands or waters even when that Indian or Alaska Native Tribe’s lands are not adjacent to those Federal lands or waters; or

3. the Native Hawaiian Community has rights or interests in those Federal lands or waters.

Another section states that, “[T]he NPS will give due consideration to tribal recommendations and Indigenous knowledge in the planning and management of Federal lands and waters. To the maximum extent practicable, the NPS will incorporate tribal, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian forest land, agriculture, traditional food gathering and propagation, access to inholdings, and range land management plans in its planning efforts.”

What remains to be seen is how the policy statement is implemented on the ground in the parks. The Tribal Self Governance Act passed by Congress in 1994, which authorized the Interior secretary to enter into funding agreements with tribes that cover programs, services, functions and activities of the Interior Department other than those of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, prohibits agreements that would have tribes perform responsibilities that are “inherently Federal.”

Section 403(k) of the act also prohibits agreements “if the statute establishing the existing program does not authorize the type of participation sought by the Tribe.”

Robert Keiter, the Wallace Stegner Professor of Law, University Distinguished Professor, and founding Director of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment at the University of Utah, told the Traveler back in September that Sams’ policy closely follows a Secretarial Order that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, signed in 2021 and which addressed the government’s responsibility to “protect the treaty, religious, subsistence, and cultural interests of federally recognized Indian Tribes, including the Native Hawaiian Community.”

“Both of those orders are couched in language that certainly seems to preserve the federal land management agencies’, or in this instance, the Park Service’s, final decision-making authority when resource management issues that are of interest to the tribes come up, that the tribes are in a position to, and the Park Service’s directed to, have some consultation with them in making a final decision as to which way to go,” said Keiter. “The agency retains that final decision making authority. Even language in the code stewardship section [of the policy document] recognizes that there are limitations on how far the Park Service can go in the role that it grants to tribes, or for that matter, any other governmental or other entity.”

The petition drive, which as of Tuesday had collected more than 20,300 signatures towards a goal of 25,600, calls on Sams to take the following actions:

  • Co-governing with Indigenous people, including joint decision-making and incorporating traditional Indigenous knowledge in park management and conservation.
  • Partnering and collaborating with Indigenous peoples to plan what information to share with visitors about each park’s true history and about tribes’ current connections to the parks. This should incorporate Indigenous stories and worldviews, and coordination should include how to present this information, which should be featured prominently and permanently in visitor centers, signage around parks, and more. This may include presenting information in Native languages, or renaming parts of parks.
  • Honoring treaty promises by ensuring that Indigenous peoples with cultural and historical connections to the parks can access parks and use park resources.
  • Compensating Indigenous people for their wisdom, time, and energy in collaborating on park plans and management. Relationships with tribes connected to parks should be mutually beneficial, with compensation for Indigenous knowledge-holders. Another possibility could include sending portions of park revenue to tribal governments with ties to the parks.
  • Returning sacred places within the parks to relevant Native communities.
  • Launching a larger national conversation about recognizing national parks as ancestral Indigenous lands — beyond visibility at individual parks, and beyond NPS staff. This could involve more media appearances, writing op-eds, celebrity partnerships, and more, with the aim of shifting culture.

At the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, Chair Mike Murray said that while co-stewardship “of parks is an important topic worthy of further discussion,” he added that “[T]here is a wide range of perspectives and concerns about how co-stewardship might actually work in practice; and the petition offers but one such perspective. Ultimately, there will need to be an honest reckoning by the NPS, the Congress, and the Tribes of applicable legal authorities and commitments to determine the appropriate outcome of what co-stewardship looks like in any specific situation.”

From the Coalition’s point of view, Murray said his organization believes:

  • Strong coordination and collaboration with Indigenous peoples is critical to successfully managing our country’s national parks.
  • The National Park Service should continue to manage national parks in accordance with the directives laid out in the 1916 Organic Act. However, we also believe the NPS can and should work for better and more effective coordination and collaboration with Indigenous peoples.
  • We encourage the NPS to seek tangible ways to improve intergovernmental relationships, not only at the national level but at the local level, and to ensure that Tribal governments have a meaningful role in the decision process on park management issues of mutual concern.