This month ELS is celebrating Native American Heritage Month, also sometimes called American Indian Heritage Month and Alaska Native Heritage Month. During the month of November, we focus on uplifting the history, resilience, languages, and cultures of people indigenous to the Americas. This year’s theme for National Native American Heritage Month is Celebrating Tribal Sovereignty and Identity. At our annual Environmental Law Conference at Yosemite last month, attendees heard from leaders of four of the seven traditionally associate tribes of Yosemite about the importance of their sovereignty and identity, and about the challenges that Native Americans have faced throughout history, up to and including the present, and the ways those challenges have shaped the experience of many tribal citizens today.
Tribal sovereignty ensures that any decisions that impact a Tribe’s citizens, lands, and culture are made with their meaningful participation and consent. The principle of tribal sovereignty is supported in US law by the “federal trust responsibility,” which is a legal obligation that charges the United States with “moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust” toward Tribes (Seminole Nation v. U.S., 316 U.S. 286 (1942).). This trust relationship exists between the United States and the 574 federally recognized Tribes located within the 48 contiguous states and Alaska. However, tribal existence and identity do not depend on federal recognition and acknowledgment of the Tribe, and hundreds of Tribes – including more than 80 in California – are working to seek federal recognition and access to the programs and services the United States government provides to federally recognized Tribes. Two of the California Tribes currently seeking federal recognition – the Mono Lake Kootzaduka’a Tribe and the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation – shared their experiences as part of a panel discussion during last month’s conference at Yosemite, and called on the entire environmental law community in California to gain a better understanding of how we can support Tribes in the exercise of their sovereignty and preservation of their culture and identity.