EPA Tribal Program

Progress in Strengthening Our Government-to-Government Relationship with Tribal Nations

By: JoAnn Chase and Ethan Shenkman

EPA has long honored tribal rights to sovereignty, self-governance and self-determination. These principles are enshrined in EPA’s Indian Policy, signed by Administrator Ruckelshaus in 1984 and reaffirmed by every EPA Administrator since. Thanks to the unique partnership between our offices — EPA’s American Indian Environmental Office (AIEO) and EPA’s Indian law team in the Office of General Counsel — we have made great strides in bringing these principles to life and weaving them into the very fabric of this agency.

One important example is our work to ensure tribal nations have the tools they need to protect waters on Indian lands. Under the Clean Water Act, tribes may apply to EPA for the ability to administer certain regulatory programs on their reservations, just as states do. To date, over 50 tribes have used this special status to issue their own water quality standards under the Act. We worked closely with the Office of Water to streamline and simplify the process for tribes wishing to apply for this status, so that more tribes can take advantage of these opportunities. In addition, we worked together to expand the scope of authorities that tribes can assume by providing a new pathway for tribes to engage in water quality restoration. Tribes who take advantage of these new authorities will be able to issue lists of impaired waters and develop “total maximum daily loads” (TMDLs) for those waters – critical regulatory tools for ensuring the protection of their waters, and the ecosystems and communities who depend on them.

EPA has also made tremendous strides under this Administration in living up to the ideals of true government-to-government consultation with tribal nations. In 2009, President Obama issued a Memorandum directing federal agencies to develop a plan for implementing the tribal consultation obligation in Executive Order 13175. In 2011, we issued the Policy on Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribes, which sets a very high bar for ensuring meaningful, government-to-government consultation on EPA actions that affect tribal interests.

When we consulted with tribal leaders across the country, we listened, and we learned. It became clear that we needed to do more to ensure that we consistently consider tribal treaty rights when making decisions that may affect tribal natural resources. We recognize that treaties between the United States and tribal nations are the Supreme Law of the land, and that we have a solemn obligation to ensure that our decisions do not compromise those commitments. As a result, with terrific input from tribal nations, in February 2016, we issued a groundbreaking Treaty Rights Guidance as a supplement to our tribal consultation policy.

The new guidance ensures that EPA staff will engage in a critical inquiry with tribes about treaty rights (and similar federally-protected reserved rights) when the agency is making decisions focused on specific geographic areas where tribal hunting, fishing and gathering rights may exist. Under the guidance, EPA will “consider all relevant information obtained to help ensure that EPA’s actions do not conflict with treaty rights, and to help ensure that EPA is fully informed when it seeks to implement its programs and to further protect treaty rights and resources when it has discretion to do so.”

EPA’s treaty rights guidance was well received by our tribal partners. The White House Council on Native American Affairs was then asked by tribes to consider embracing the concept more broadly. As a result of conversations that we at EPA had with our federal partners, in September 2016 we signed an interagency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to improve coordination and collaboration in the protection of treaty rights and similar tribal rights. We are delighted that nine agencies have thus far signed on to the MOU, most at the Secretarial level, and EPA and the Department of Agriculture are co-chairing a working group to implement this commitment moving forward.

These are but a few examples of the tremendous progress we have made in strengthening EPA’s government-to-government relationship with tribal nations – progress that is owed to the outstanding dedication and talents of the employees of our respective offices, and to the steadfast support of EPA’s Administrator and senior leadership. Nor could this progress have occurred without the close collaboration and partnership of our tribal counterparts. We are grateful for the opportunity to have served our shared mission of protecting human health and the environment for the benefit of future generations.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

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Recycling as Ritual – Part II

By David Stone

[Continued from yesterday…] Over the past year or so, I was introduced to the tension between the cultures, Native and white, on the basic issue of knowledge. Whose knowledge? To some traditionalist Native intellectuals the standard American education can be seen as an extension of colonization. As a scientific consultant from Tucson, I worked with the administration of the Tohono O’odham Community College to bring green technologies to the Nation, assumed to be a good thing. But my sensitivity was being sharpened as to the exact nature of what I brought and how it would be implemented. Was it a beneficial gift? Would it really help over the long run? Certainly if it involved collaboration then we were at least starting off in a positive way. There are many problems to deal with including the effects of global warming.

From these desert-tempered, mountain-wise people we can learn how to begin facing our daunting array of challenges. From them we learn where to go to find our way again. Go to the land. That is the O’odham way. So we begin with a simple and humble act of paying respect to the land. We begin by cleaning the desert. We stop and stoop and pick up an old liquor bottle half-buried in the sand. Then we repeat this act thousands of times. Others join us. The communities participate. Soon we are processing tons of glass, crushing the discarded bottles with hand tools into aggregate for building. We combine the glass aggregate with waste steel dust and dirty water and an exhaust gas, CO2. We build a bench of this reactive mix and we “sit down on carbon.” We lay a sidewalk and we “step down on global warming.”

In these small symbolic acts, we take a step toward a new, more ecological culture beyond the industrial Iron Age. Through the ritual of picking up bottles, of cleaning the desert, we build a space for a new and strong spirit. That is our simple vision. But it will come in its own way and time. We know only that by healing the land we heal ourselves. This is a good path and will bind us and the land together.

It is the time for the ritual.
To dance, to sing…
so that the earth may be fixed one more time.

Ofelia Zepeda,
Tohono O’odham linguist and poet

About the author: David Stone is an instructor and EPA’s Tribal ecoAmbassador at Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Arizona. He has a PhD in Environmental Science.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone. EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog, nor does EPA endorse the opinions or positions expressed. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content. If you do make changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Recycling as Ritual – Part I

By David Stone

We rode the rough back roads through the Sonoran Desert in silence with the truck’s bed full of empty, brown glass bottles. They had been easy to collect, thousands lay scattered under the creosote bushes and saguaros, more numerous than rocks at that “party site,” as he called it.

Richard guided the truck through a maze of washed out roads and sometimes along the flat natural washes. He suddenly gave a short laugh and shot me a sideways glance.

“What did you feel out there?”

I was new to the reservation at the time and still unfamiliar with the O’odham ways of thinking and speaking. The question did not make sense to me. We were simply collecting bottles as a source of glass for my recycling project. The bottles would be crushed into aggregate for building products. Before setting out collection bins in the towns we gathered them on our own from the desert. There were plenty out there and Richard knew where to find them.

Almost all are the same, quart-sized beer bottles known as “Qs”, the standard alcoholic drink on the reservation. Alcoholism is prevalent and that is the generator for our caches of glass. I pretended not to notice but pretense is obvious to him and attracts his attention.

“What kind of spirit did you feel there?” he said and looked at me again to see how it registered.

I told him that I did not know what he meant and asked him to tell me what he felt.

“It was a dark spirit. I felt it and it was dark. When I picked up a bottle I wondered about the person who had drunk from it. I wondered about their life, about the bad life path they were on, like I was once. I could feel the pain still in the bottle and I prayed for them.”

After that had sunk in, I asked if what we were doing was good. Should we be going out there? He said without hesitation that we should go, it was good, we were taking something dark and turning it into something strong.

“You see broken glass, David. I see broken dreams. You want to recycle the glass. I want to recycle the broken dreams.”

Bringing in money for jobs, so desperately needed on the rez, is hard for anyone to reject. Toward that goal I wrote grant applications and we were awarded one from the EPA’s Tribal program. Though a white outsider, I became the Tohono O’odham Community College’s official “ecoAmbassador.” My proposal was to recycle glass and mix it with steel dust and carbon dioxide to produce locally-made building products and structures, but this was not a simple task. [To be continued tomorrow…]

About the author: David Stone is an instructor and EPA’s Tribal ecoAmbassador at Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Arizona. He has a PhD in Environmental Science.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone. EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog, nor does EPA endorse the opinions or positions expressed. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content. If you do make changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Reaching Out and Getting Back….

By Wendy Dew

A week ago EPA Region 8 employees staffed an informational booth at the Denver March Pow Wow. This is the 4th year we have gone and every year it becomes more special to us.

I worked on the first day of the Pow Wow. I was able to see the Grand Entry when all the dancers come out onto the arena. It never fails to get my heart beating going to hear the drums and see the dancers.

My favorite part of working at the Pow Wow, though, is reaching out to citizens. We spent the last month gathering EPA tribal publications and coloring books for kids. I had so much fun talking to folks and handing out information on environmental issues important for their health and communities. The kids loved the coloring books about the environment. Many of the kids walked around wearing Energy Star “Change a Light” stickers, prompting more kids to come over and ask for coloring books.

The Denver March Pow Wow and similar cultural events allow EPA a very special and unique opportunity to talk to folks about environmental issues specific to them and their community. I cannot wait for next year’s Pow Wow.

For more information about EPA’s Tribal Programs visit

About the author: Wendy Dew is the Environmental Education and Outreach Coordinator for Region 8 in Denver, Colorado.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone. EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog, nor does EPA endorse the opinions or positions expressed. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content. If you do make changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.