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Rising to meet this moment in history: Forest Service & tribal land stewardship

Portrait: Reed Robinson
Reed Robinson, director, Office of Tribal Relations

Two thousand years ago, the region around Chillicothe, Ohio, was an important cultural center for hundreds of years. Indigenous peoples constructed dozens of giant geometric earthwork complexes on high terraces along the Paint Creek and Scioto River valleys. These sites are now collectively referred to as Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. The original peoples of the area are called “Hopewellians” because “Hopewell” was the name of the farmer who, in 1891, owned the farmland where these mounds were “discovered.” 

The largest of these engineering feats is known as Seip Earthworks. The two-mile-long embankment wall, up to 10 feet tall in some places, encloses over 120 acres in the shape of two immense circles and a 27-acre square, all with precise astronomical alignments. 

We now know the Hopewell Culture earthworks were used for ceremonial burial purposes. The mound builders brought unique burial items from across the North American continent, including large ceremonial-sized obsidian spear points from present-day Yellowstone; ornate, smelted, decorative copper plates from the Great Lakes region; fossilized great white shark teeth from the Southeast Atlantic coast; and decorative abalone discs from the Gulf of Mexico. These items were transported through a complex ancient trade network 2,000 years prior to the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Unfortunately, this great network came to suffer the same fate as all the Hopewell earthworks: built on what became deemed “prime agricultural land,” the Hopewell geometric earthworks have been plowed over for the last two centuries, leaving only a few remnants of these magnificent ancient cultural monuments of North America.

Likewise, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, located across the Mississippi River from modern-day St. Louis, Missouri, was a metropolitan complex containing approximately 120 mounds that varied in shape, size and function, spanning an area of six square miles. 

Archaeologists determined that Cahokia was built by thousands of workers over a period of decades and was inhabited by multiple indigenous ethnic groups. Studies of the area have provided evidence of an urban layout with a grand plaza, a knowledge of astronomy, religious practice, a copper workshop, a mortuary, burial sites and multiple ceremonial areas. At its peak during the early 12th century, it was one of the four largest and culturally most important urban centers of the world, containing a population that is currently believed to have exceeded that of the European city of London at the time. 

The impact of the mound-building “Mississippian Culture” was reflected at the time in the development of advanced societies, more than 1,000 years before European contact, that encompassed the greater Midwest and Southeastern areas of the now United States. Even after its designation as a state historic site, Cahokia Mounds was compromised by the federal highway building program—an interstate now bisects the site—and required additional protections. It has only been because of national designations added in the mid-1960s that we are now able to understand both the national and international importance of the site. 

To this day, we are still finding sites like these on federal lands, along with increasingly older evidence of the original North American inhabitants and their engineering, agricultural and scientific knowledge. Recently, 23,000-year-old fossilized footprints of Native American teenagers were found in New Mexico. 

Native American ancestors have been on the North American continent for at least 30,000 years—since time immemorial—meaning that Native Americans have been part of the North American ecosystem since the late Pleistocene and through several Ice Age events. 

Native Americans have been on the North & South American continents for so long that a unique variant of a genetic DNA marker developed—known as the 9-repeat allele. The Native peoples of the Americas flourished as an isolated population because their indigenous understanding of how to live in the environment led to healthy ecosystems and bountiful landscapes. After their arrival in the North American landscape, European explorers noted that Native Americans were the tallest people they had ever seen. 

Prior to European colonization, the land we now call the United States was indigenized, meaning that it was influenced and actively managed by its original inhabitants. Native Americans were both the first farmers and the first land stewards. Upon arrival, Europeans quickly destabilized the developed Native world, causing the collapse of previously thriving bison, fish, plant, earthen and other economies and, likewise, the supporting ecosystems. Surviving Native Americans were summarily corralled and forced onto managed reservations with land boundaries. In the process, the indigenized systems in place, developed over tens of thousands of years, were discarded. Consequently, federal land management agencies and environmental organizations claimed the void.

Wherever we stand on this continent, we stand on Native land—previously indigenized land that has since been covered with layer upon layer of broken treaties and federal, state, private and political boundary lines. For the USDA Forest Service to maintain authenticity in its commitment to land management and its service to people, we must acknowledge our history through continued recognition of Native American peoples as the original land managers of this country. We must study and support the ancient and well-documented history of scientific, engineering and mathematical knowledge, as well as ecological balance. With environmental change leaving many inhabitants of this country in crisis, the time to reincorporate indigenous values and knowledge into our land management systems is now.

Yesterday, at the White House Tribal Nations Summit, Secretary Vilsack issued a Joint Secretarial Order with the Department of the Interior, “Joint Secretarial Order Fulfilling the Trust Responsibility to Indian Tribes in the Stewardship of Federal Lands and Waters.” In the order, USDA and the Forest Service are being challenged to aggressively incorporate indigenous values and knowledge into our federal stewardship practices, to fully incorporate shared stewardship (co-management) practices wherever authorized, and to restore lands to tribal stewardship where appropriate. USDA also announced "New Initiatives Serving Indian Country."

Additionally, the White House announced its commitment to "Building a New Era of Nation-to-Nation Engagement," as well as interagency MOUs that Secretary Vilsack signed—the “Interagency Coordination and Collaboration for the Protection of Indigenous Sacred Sites” and “Interagency Coordination and Collaboration for the Protection of Tribal Treaty and Reserved Rights.” The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Council on Environmental Quality also issued a memorandum yesterday to all agencies on “Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Establishment of Interagency Working Group on Traditional Ecological Knowledge.”

This is our moment. No agency is naturally better aligned with indigenous values and traditional ecological knowledge than the Forest Service. The time has come where incorporation of indigenous values and traditional ecological knowledge is not simply the right thing to do, it may be the only path forward. To fundamentally stop and reverse climate change and the compounding environmental disasters federal, state and private lands are now facing, we as a nation must embrace indigenous ecological understandings.

We must each to rise to meet this moment in history—a moment of re-institutionalization of indigenous ecological values. Tribes stand by eager to share their knowledge, expertise and values. 

This is our moment to integrate our tribal consultation policies fully and to aggressively follow our trust and treaty responsibilities, and to pursue co-stewardship (co-management) and tribal stewardship to the full extent of our authorizations. I join with you eagerly in this historic moment.

Banner: Celebrating Native American Heritage Month, November 2021. USDA.