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In Historical Shift, US Aims to Give Native American Tribes More Say in Managing Public Lands and Water | KQED

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Newland emphasized that the federal government is not looking to dictate to tribal leaders what a partnership should look like.

The federal government, which, for much of U.S. history, forcibly stole or facilitated the theft of vast swaths of Native American territory, controls more than a quarter of the land in the country. Much of that land encompasses the ancestral homelands of federally recognized tribes.

While the idea of co-stewardship dates back decades and has spanned multiple presidential administrations, many tribes have advocated in recent years for a more formal role in helping to manage those federal lands. Tribes and advocacy groups have been pushing for arrangements beyond the consultation requirements mandated by federal law.

Researchers at the University of Washington and legal experts with the Native American Rights Fund have put together a new clearinghouse on the topic. They point out that public lands now central to the country’s national heritage originated from the dispossession and displacement of Indigenous people and that co-management could present an opportunity for the U.S. to reckon with that complicated, dishonorable legacy.

Ada Montague Stepleton, a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said the significant uptick in the number of agreements signed just in the past year shows there’s a willingness in Indian Country to find a path forward that is mutually beneficial to tribes and the federal government — and ultimately taxpayers.

“We’ve been compiling information to try to understand these agreements better,” Montague Stepleton said. But she also noted that “there is a sort of a double-edged sword. We want to make sure that sovereignty isn’t eroded while at the same time creating places where co-management can, in fact, occur.”

Montague Stepleton said one of the challenges is that tribes often have few resources, with much of their attention going toward maintaining their cultures and ensuring their communities, where poverty rates are often disproportionately high, have access to basic necessities like food, water and health care.

In an attempt to address complaints about chronic underfunding in tribal communities across the country, President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order that will make it easier for tribes to find and access grants.

Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told tribal leaders Thursday that her agency began work this year to upgrade its disaster guidance, particularly in response to tribal needs.

The Indigenous people of Hawaii have increasingly been under siege from disasters, most recently a devastating fire that killed dozens of people and leveled an entire town. Just last month, another blaze scorched a stretch of irreplaceable rainforest on Oahu.

Tribes in California and Oregon also were forced to seek disaster declarations earlier this year after severe storms resulted in flooding and mudslides.

Nancy James, first chief of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in Tribal Government in Alaska, said the effects of climate change on tribal communities can’t be ignored.

“Reality check,” she said, after ticking off details about warmer temperatures, bears not hibernating as they should, and the inability of her people to fish due to changing water conditions. “Global warming has affected every one of us.”

Criswell said the new guidance includes a pathway for Native American, Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian communities to request presidential disaster declarations and provides them with more direct access to emergency federal relief funding.

The agency also accepts tribal self-certified damage assessments and cost estimates for restoring ceremonial buildings or traditional homes while not requiring site inspections, maps or other details that might compromise culturally sensitive data.

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