By Brett Fessell
Brett is River Restoration Ecologist for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and a member of FLOW’s Board of Directors.
Challenges Tribes Face In Fire and Nearly Everywhere Else
Overall, the use of fire by Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region was a highly effective method of managing and promoting a variety of plant
and wildlife species that were essential for community survival and well-being. By creating a mosaic of habitats, Indigenous peoples were able to maintain a diverse and productive ecosystem that provided them with the resources they needed to thrive.
Today, unfortunately, there are several political barriers associated with implementing such traditional tribal forest management practices in the Great Lakes region that need to be overcome in order to improve overall forest health. These are not new and often represent much larger issues that Indigenous peoples have been wrangling with for decades if not centuries including:
Lack of recognition of tribal sovereignty
Tribal forest management practices are often rooted in traditional knowledge and cultural values and may differ from conventional Western-style forest management practices. All too often these disparities stem from differing world views of environmental kinship and connection that manifest in political barriers insidiously working to dissolve tribal sovereignty and authority over natural resources by softening state and federal recognition of rights defined in many treaties made with those very centers of power.
Limited access to resources and funding
Implementing traditional tribal forest management practices may require access to resources and funding that are not always available to tribes in a consistent or sustainable manner such as for base program support rather than from competitive and often fleeting grant sources.
Limited participation in forest management decision-making
Many tribes in the Great Lakes region have limited participation in forest management decision-making processes, which can lead to decisions that do not reflect their cultural and ecological values. This can result in policies and practices that are not aligned with tribal interests or priorities.
Resistance to change from existing forest management practices
Conventional forest management practices in the Great Lakes region have been in place for many decades, which can at times foster resistance to change from these practices, particularly among industry and government stakeholders.
Overcoming these political barriers will take time and great work to promote the importance of creating relationships and trust and to recognize and respect tribal sovereignty and authority over natural resources. By providing tribes with the resources and support needed to collaboratively integrate traditional forest management practices into their systems this great work can begin.
Another key to successful integration lies within meaningful actions taken by management agencies to ensure that tribes have a seat at the table in forest management decision-making processes and that their perspectives and values are incorporated into policies and practices. And finally, education and outreach efforts can help to build support for traditional forest management practices and raise awareness of their benefits for both the environment and the cultural heritage of the Great Lakes region.
The likelihood of overcoming the political barriers associated with implementing traditional tribal forest management practices in the Great Lakes region within the next decade is difficult to predict. While there have been some positive developments in recent years, such as increased recognition of tribal sovereignty and greater efforts to incorporate traditional knowledge into forest management policies and practices, significant challenges remain.
One key factor that may influence the likelihood of overcoming these barriers is the level of political will and support for tribal forest management practices at the federal, state, and local levels. While there has been progress in this regard, such as the adoption of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy in 2014, which recognizes the importance of integrating traditional ecological knowledge into forest management practices, there is still a need for greater commitment and action from policymakers and stakeholders.
Another factor that may impact the likelihood of overcoming these barriers is the level of collaboration and partnership between tribes, government agencies, industry stakeholders, and other actors. Successful implementation of tribal forest management practices will require a collaborative and inclusive approach that involves all relevant stakeholders in decision-making processes.
Overall, while there are significant challenges to overcome, there are also opportunities for progress in the coming years. With greater recognition of the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and cultural values in forest management, and with increased support for tribal sovereignty and self-determination, there is potential for significant advances in improving the health and resilience of forest communities in the Great Lakes region.
Overcoming Tribal Challenges Takes Time and Help From Everyone, especially YOU!
To make a significant difference in overcoming the political barriers associated with implementing traditional tribal forest management practices in the Great Lakes region, policymakers and stakeholders would need to demonstrate a strong commitment to supporting tribal sovereignty, traditional ecological knowledge, and a shift in the cultural norms of contemporary forest management. This is where you can help. There are several ways to help move the needles of federal and state governments to meaningfully recognize and respect tribal sovereignty and co-management authority over natural resources:
Learn about the history and ongoing struggles of tribal nations in the Great Lakes region and beyond. Educate yourself on the traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous peoples and their approaches to sustainable natural resource management.
Support Indigenous-led initiatives
Supporting tribal-led initiatives that promote traditional ecological knowledge, sustainable natural resource management, and the protection of cultural heritage can help build momentum and support for meaningful recognition of tribal sovereignty and co-management authority. This can involve attending cultural events, volunteering with local organizations, or donating to Indigenous-led initiatives.
Advocate for policy changes
Contact your elected officials and advocate for policies that prioritize tribal sovereignty and co-management authority in natural resource management. This can include advocating for increased funding for tribal natural resource management programs, promoting the use of traditional ecological knowledge in decision-making processes, and supporting the recognition of Indigenous land rights.
Build relationships with Indigenous communities
Building relationships with Indigenous communities and leaders can help promote mutual understanding and support for Indigenous-led initiatives. Lean in and listen with an openness to the possibility that your perspective may change.
Amplify Indigenous voices
Share the perspectives and experiences of Indigenous peoples on social media, in conversations with friends and family – especially family – and through other channels. Amplifying Indigenous voices can help raise awareness of the ongoing struggles faced by tribal nations and promote meaningful recognition of their sovereignty and co-management authority.
By taking these actions, any citizen can play an important role in promoting meaningful recognition of tribal sovereignty and co-management authority over natural resources in the Great Lakes region and beyond. Now more than ever, it is important to consider the value of slowing down, paying attention, listening and reflecting to evaluate what actions we’ve taken to arrive in this place and time, where it is that we want to go, and what needs to change in order to get there. Just as the healthiest forests consist of a diversity of beings and processes that support one another, resulting in a place that is much greater than the sum of its parts, no one person or community can achieve sustainability alone.
If we learn to listen together we might actually hear what the trees are saying… Miigwetch!