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

Ethan Shenkman Ethan Shenkman
JoAnn Chase JoAnn Chase

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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Polishing the Silver Covenant Chain: Building Relationships between the U.S. EPA and the Haudenosaunee

The Hiawatha Belt symbolizes the Five Nations from west to east in their respective territories across New York state.

By Grant Jonathan

The U.S. EPA Region 2 staff benefitted from an all-day cultural sensitivity training on May 16 provided by leadership of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian term meaning “People of the Longhouse”) and by representatives of the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force. The training, called Polishing the Silver Covenant Chain; Building Relationships between the USEPA and the Haudenosaunee, provided the basics on Haudenosaunee culture and history, the Great Law, and the foundations of Haudenosaunee relationships, including the Two Row Wampum Treaty (“Guswentah”), and the Treaty of Canandaigua.

Haudenosaunee presenters who participated in the training included Jeanne Shenandoah, Tonya Gonnella Frichner, and Chief Jake Edwards of the Onondaga Nation;  Thomas “Sakokwenionkwas” Porter, Chief Howard Thompson, Dave Arquette, and Noah Point of the Mohawk Nation; and F. Henry Lickers of the Seneca Nation.  The training was facilitated by Neil Patterson, Jr. of the Tuscarora Nation.  The central goal of the Haudenosaunee presenters was to educate EPA staff on the unique culture and traditions of the Haudenosaunee and to increase EPA awareness of Haudenosaunee protocols.  This would help to further strengthen Nation-to-Nation interactions and to improve EPA consultation efforts with the Haudenosaunee Nations.

Some of the highlights from the training included the Mohawk rendition of the Thanksgiving Address as provided by Mohawk Chief Howard Thompson, followed by an English translation of the Address by Thomas “Sakokwenionkwas” Porter.  Tonya Gonnella Frichner and Chief Howard Thompson presented on the historical participation of the Haudenosaunee at the United Nations and on the Haudenosaunee’s current involvement with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  Together, they covered matters pertaining to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, sovereignty, treaty rights, Haudenosaunee passports, and a paper titled: “The Doctrine of Discovery; Its continuing impacts on Indigenous Peoples and Redress for Past Conquests.”  Presenters David Arquette and Henry Lickers presented during the afternoon on how the EPA and the Haudenosaunee can use the treaties made between the Haudenosaunee and the U.S. as foundations to mutually address environmental matters together.

Many in the audience expressed how much they enjoyed the training presentations and that the information shared brought clarity to them for when they will collaborate with the Haudenosaunee on addressing their environmental matters of concern.  Region 2 staff were also delighted to receive the free book at the training titled “The Iroquois Book of Life: White Roots of Peace” by Paul Wallace, and a complimentary copy of the “UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”.

About the author: Grant is the Indigenous Environmental Affairs Specialist for the Indian Program Team in DEPP and works directly with the Indian Nations located in Region 2.  He grew up on the Tuscarora Indian Nation in Western New York, went to undergraduate and law school at the SUNY at Buffalo, and received a Masters of Studies in Environmental Law from Vermont Law School.  He is of the Bear Clan at Tuscarora.  Grant currently resides in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where you will find him outdoors, biking, eating great Polish food, or pursuing his other passion of Tuscarora Raised Beadwork design.

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.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on 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.