Tribal Environmental Knowledge (TEK) – Embracing Sacred Responsibilities

Jimmie Mitchell
Director Natural Resources (Ret)
Little River Band of Ottawa Indians
Director, Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

To explain TEK, and its recent reemergence into the field of Natural Resource management within Michigan, first we have to identify the sense of reverence most hold to the Muskegon River and how it is oftentimes expressed as experiencing a spiritual connectedness to this amazing watershed.

For some of us, this phenomenon develops even further into a profound sense of commitment, a calling to action to protect this amazing system, and where necessary, promote restoration efforts to return the system to her full majestic grace.

Another important aspect in understanding TEK’s reemergence, is found in how the process of developing collaborative governance initiatives within the past decade has changed, and significantly more so towards the better end of the two extremes.

Prior to 2010, if a natural resource restoration plan was proposed, soon to follow came the standoff to determine which government resource agency held the most “turf” or which would suffer the highest negative impact to their respective management plan.

About midway through determining who would be the winner in that debate or, if a court battle would likely ensue, Stakeholders would attempt to intervene, citing they were provided no opportunity to comment as to how this proposed scope of work might negatively affect them.

Next comes the vast litany of stays, calling for injunctive relief at the court level; the billable hours of both staff and attorney fees begin skyrocketing, the process inevitably draws away program dollars that had otherwise been initially earmarked to complete the intended scope of work.

What is truly amazing, is how any work in the field of Natural Resource Management was ever accomplished.

Now let’s move towards understanding the reemerge of TEK, specifically from the perspective of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, herein LRBOI. We, as with those of you whom hold the reverence of the river as sacrosanct, are deeply committed in safeguarding and restoring the environment under our control.

The scope of LRBOI’s natural resource management jurisdiction, covers roughly 13.8 million acres of land known as the 1836 Ceded Territory that was secured during the 1836 Treaty, and then reaffirmed under Federal law in 2007. From a geographical perspective, it is a contiguous tract of land and its water ways, extending from the North bank of the Grand River, northward through the entire Lower Peninsula of Michigan, stretching into the Upper Peninsula and westward to Escanaba and north to Lake Superior.

Co-management of the 1836 Ceded Territory was a paramount necessity for LRBOI to exercise its sovereignty on equal footing within a government-to-government framework.

This framework now holds all managers conducting natural resource work within the 1836 Territory accountable to one another. Annual work plan proposals are shared between LRBOI and the State’s natural resource managers. Concerns that arise are discussed formally, and disagreements that can not be resolved, are vetted through a dispute resolution process that is built into the 2007 Consent Decree.

The best result I hoped for during the development of this mandated consultation process, offers the ability to collaborate with State, Federal and other Tribal partners, to ensure unreasonable redundancy of both assessment activities and scopes of work are eliminated.

Another and perhaps greater benefit built into this process, comes in the form of natural resource funds being spent specifically on performing natural resources work, versus the previous litigious\turf entrenched mindset way of doing business.

During the past decade, tension between State, Federal and Tribal managers are lessoning. LRBOI can incorporate its TEK and cultural values into State and Federal management initiatives that focus on a Seventh-Generation obligation to preserve the environment for the benefit of future generations.

On the national level, the long-awaited respect for Tribal Nations is beginning to occur throughout the country. This exciting outcome is due primarily to Executive Order 13175, requiring each of the Directors that manage Federal programs under the President’s budget, to ensure they are meeting their fiduciary obligations to serve Tribal Sovereign Nations as defined under the President’s directive.

What this Executive Order represents for LRBOI, is a strengthening in its ability of building multijurisdictional collaborations that involve partnerships, such as MRWA to provide guidance and assistance throughout the design and implementation process. Establishing these collaborative partnerships is one of the main criteria required for LRBOI to proceed in appropriating additional Federal funds earmarked to resolve large scale environmental challenges we all face within our shared homelands and waterways.