Building Native Nations: Environment, Natural Resources, and Governance

A conference review by Kira Gerwing

What could a GIS Analyst from the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, BC have in common with a GIS Analyst from Tulalip Tribes in Washington State? They both reside along the west coast, they are both assessing fish and fish habitat in their territories, and they are both engaged in transferring information from Traditional Use Studies into their respective GIS.

But, how would they find out they had those projects in common? In fact, Bo Reid from Bella Bella encountered the mappers from the Tulalip Tribes at a session called 'GIS and Technology' during a conference in Arizona in early December. Thus, the call for networking solutions and sharing ideas was brought to the foreground as over 300 participants gathered for the conference on Building Native Nations: Environment, Natural Resources, and Governance in Tuscon, Arizona December 11th-13th.

While the political context of Nations and Tribes differs noticeably between the Canada and the US, there are commonalities in the resource management issues each group faces on a daily basis. Native nations are coping with the legacies of colonialism and land loss. Bringing together hundreds of representatives from Native Nations throughout North America provided a forum for exploring issues such as: institution building, government to government negotiations, environmental management, incorporation of traditional knowledge in policy development, and balancing land use and protection. As Dr. Stephen Cornell put it, "indigenous peoples are engaged in a massive effort to regain control of their resources and their futures, to restore their communities, to reestablish their rights to govern themselves, to escape the legacies of poverty and powerlessness, and to build societies that work." (link to complete text).

The theme of the conference, Building Native Nations, is based on research from the Udall Centre for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona and the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. Research directors Stephen Cornell, Joseph Kalt, and Manley Begay, among others, have determined that there are success stories amongst the prevailing pattern of poverty common to indigenous communities throughout North America. Their questions focused on how to explain those break-away cases in order to discover what is working in Indian Country.

Tribal leaders set the stage for building nations by identifying Indigenous Lessons related to self-governance. Sophie Pierre (Chief of St. Mary's First Nation) distinguished between management and leadership to relate the idea that a good leader finds a way to bring the people along and takes on every opportunity that becomes available, cautioning that a nation builds slowly so it can build strongly. Regis Pecos (political and religious leader of the Cochiti Pueblo) passed on lessons related to involving culture and tradition with governance. He suggested that indigenous leaders and their communities return to what they know, govern in their traditional language, and make decisions by consensus.

From that foundation for indigenous leadership and governance, the conference evolved in myriad ways. Charles Wilkinson, speaking on modern tribal sovereignty, closed his speech with a quote from Billy Frank (Nisqually), "Stars have sovereignty…they have a right to be seen." Thus, Native Nations who are asserting sovereignty over their lands and resources also have a right to be acknowledged by various levels of government in developing mechanisms for governing territorial lands and resources.

One of the most compelling presentations was from Joseph Kalt, Co-Director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, entitled 'Institution Building: Organizing for Effective Management.' He began his talk by identifying the primary goals of indigenous nations in North America. They were to achieve political sovereignty, social sovereignty, and physical, psychological, and economic well-being, with attention paid to the strengths of culture and community. Success, in most cases, was marked by de facto sovereignty, referred to as the 'Just Do It' mantra by Kalt. Those nations that have built institutions capable of self-government, that are culturally matched, and have well-developed leadership are the most successful in asserting sovereignty over their own land, resources, and lives. As a result of sovereignty, then, those nations manage to shorten the lines of accountability and become more effective stewards of their lands and their communities.

"Every culture depends on its culture to manage its choices," said Kalt as he explored the notion of what values should be managed for as nations embark on development on their lands. There is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach to development, but looking at indigenous models for sustainable development does pay off for environmental protection, sustainable economies, and experience in self-governance.

He closed his speech with some inspiring last words for the tribal leaders in the audience. He encouraged them to combine their cultural and personal strength with their leadership skills and the direction for their community to effectively move forward with sovereignty in Indian Country.

And what of our GIS Analysts, who for too long now, have worked at resolving issues of environment and natural resources in isolation along the west coast of North America? The Heiltsuk and the Tulalip, along with the Cochiti Pueblo, the St. Mary's Nation, and the many other indigenous communities throughout North America, can enhance their own work by communicating with their neighbours. We learned that nation building begs the sharing of ideas and the networking of solutions amongst tribal decision makers and technicians, between tribal leaders and communities, and, to coin a phrase from the various Land and Resource Management Planning processes underway here in British Columbia, between governments and governments. The values of oral tradition, as taught by indigenous people since time immemorial, become realistic and understandable when we consider that communication is the key to successful nation building.