Leading by Example Through Indigenous Cultures, Values, and Belief Systems

Indigenous Peoples’ Day honors Indigenous heritage, knowledge sharing, and expertise

Celebrated on the second Monday in October, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is an important shift away from the painful reminder of the colonial oppression and violence by European colonizers and a step toward honoring, recognizing, and uplifting Tribal and Indigenous cultures and histories.

Since time immemorial, Indigenous Peoples have cultivated and stewarded the land, wildlife, and resources. Today, Indigenous communities and organizations continue these traditions fighting for sovereignty, environmental justice, wildlife conservation, and the protection of sacred and culturally significant lands.

In celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we want to uplift the work of Indigenous partners and organizations across the country who are leading important work in areas such as access to clean water and water rights, wildlife connectivity across Tribal lands, and putting a stop to exploitative practices related to resource extraction. Hear directly from those in the field about what this day means to them and learn more about their work.

Access to Clean Water and Tribal Water Rights

For Tribes, water is life: It not only sustains all people, supports agriculture and farming, native wildlife and riparian plants, food and sustenance, but also is sacred to Indigenous Peoples. Yet, 48 percent of homes on Native American reservations do not have access to reliable water sources, clean drinking water, or basic sanitation. This inequity, coupled with drought and other impacts of climate change, compels us to reevaluate water management, use, and the role of Tribes as sovereigns. This is especially pertinent in the Southwestern United States, where ongoing litigation and advocacy is centered on the Colorado River and affiliated reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

“We have the ability to create a new paradigm of policy in the Colorado River Basin that would be based on shared values and consensus, and at the heart of those conversations is equity and inclusion,” explains Daryl Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Tribe and co-lead of the Water and Tribes Initiative. “Tribes have ownership rights to twenty-five percent of the Colorado River so it would be unconscionable for Tribal sovereigns not to be a part of the decision-making. We need to protect the most valuable natural resource that gives life to everything, which is water.”

The confluence of the Colorado River and Havasu Creek
The confluence of the Colorado River and Havasu Creek. Credit: NPS/Erin Whittaker

“[The Colorado River] means all of who we are, all of our existence, and why it’s important for us to continue to teach the things we were told,” explains Nora McDowell, member and former Chair of the Fort Mojave Tribe. “To teach our children, grandchildren, and their kids so when their time comes and they step into the shoes of being the next elders moving forward they have a responsibility.”

Fort Mojave Youth, Colorado River
Fort Mojave Youth, Colorado River. Courtesy of Aha Makav Cultural Center

“Native Americans are more likely than any other group to lack clean water access in the United States today,” shares Heather Tanana, Co-Lead of the Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribal Communities Initiative and citizen of the Navajo Nation. “This inequity reflects a long history of broken federal promises to tribes, including the failure to secure sufficient water to support reservations as permanent, viable homelands. With recent Congressional funding, the federal government has the chance to address these wrongs and ensure water security for all Americans.”

Salmon and River Restoration

Water is not only a vital, sacred resource and human right, but our rivers are also a critical habitat for wildlife, like salmon, that have sustained Tribes in the Pacific Northwest for generations.

“Salmon habitat connectivity is vital, something I was reminded of back in April. I was fishing with my parents and I landed one of three spring chinook salmon that came home with us that afternoon. Catching these fish is a joy so many of us in the Pacific Northwest share and revel in, building memories with our kids, families, and friends across the generations,” said Erin Farris-Olsen, Regional Executive Director for the Northern Rockies, Prairies and Pacific Region of the National Wildlife Federation and enrolled member of the Brothertown Indian Nation.

“Yet after several seasons coming home empty handed, I couldn’t help but wonder: Will this be the last year we’ll be bringing home spring chinook? The sights and smells of examining grandpa’s weekly catch, the supply of smoked salmon he sent with me to college, at baby showers, holidays, and weddings for many years flash through my mind. At what point will this be just a memory? I know I’m not alone.”

As the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians clearly stated at the 2021 Mid-Year Convention, they “are united by salmon; by the Northwest rivers that salmon, steelhead, lamprey, and native fish depend upon; and by the interconnectedness of salmon with their ecosystems – from the orca in the ocean and Puget Sound to the nutrients salmon supply to the furthest inland streams…” yet “the modern Northwest with its massive irrigation, hydropower, and storage systems was built on the backs of tribal peoples from the 1930s on, through the use and destruction of the lands, rivers, and fisheries we have lived with for thousands of years…”

“Since the lower Snake River dams in Washington state were completed in 1975, salmon populations in the Columbia River Basin have plummeted by 90 percent, and today they are on the verge of disappearing forever. NWF and our coalition are fighting for a future of abundance in the Pacific Northwest and we need to move toward a future of abundance, where our economies are not pitted against the survival of our culturally significant species. Salmon have been going extinct for my entire life and I am hungry to reverse the trend in my generation.”

Dipnet fishing at the Cul-De-Sac of Celilo Falls (Columbia River) around 1957, Oregon. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Wildlife Connectivity Across Tribal Lands

Wildlife must move both daily and seasonally to survive. However, the habitats animals rely on continue to be fragmented by both man-made infrastructure and the consequences of climate change, exacerbated by lack of adequate and equitable funding for wildlife conservation on Tribal lands. As a result, animals are struggling more than ever to reach food, water, shelter, and breeding sites. Many Tribal communities rely on migratory wildlife for sustenance and cultural connections, and Tribal efforts to track and monitor wildlife movement is critical to these needs. Wildlife do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries, so we must take an ecosystem approach and support wildlife connectivity across Tribal, state, federal and private lands—together.

“Mule deer and elk in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado face many challenges as they seek to complete their annual cycles as they have for millennia. In some cases, human development and ‘progress’ stands in their way,” explains Aran Johnson, Wildlife Division Head for the Southern Ute Tribe. 

“Fortunately, we can mitigate some of these things; installing targeted highway crossing structures is a great way to reduce direct mortality of animals on roadways. Other challenges are more difficult to address, like climate change that can alter entire ecosystems and change where and when animals can move through them. Connected landscapes are vitally important for maintaining healthy herds and maintaining cultural connections to these animals.”

mule deer buck
Mule deer buck. Credit: Judi Kohler

“For the Pueblo of Santa Ana, wildlife and culture are inextricably intertwined,” says Glenn Harper, Range and Wildlife Division Manager for the Santa Ana Pueblo. “So, identifying and protecting wildlife corridors on their lands are essential steps towards preserving the culture for current and future generations.”

Pronghorn at Santa Ana Pueblo
Pronghorn at Santa Ana Pueblo. Credit: Glenn Harper

Resource Extraction

Lands owned, managed, or valued by Tribes – both on and off reservations – contain valuable resources such as oil, gas, minerals, and timber. However, resource extraction can wreak havoc on the environment and public health. From water and ground pollution to the desecration of sacred lands and places culturally significant for Tribes, this has been an ongoing battle for generations as Indigenous Peoples fight for the protection of their health, cultures, clean and abundant water, and ancestral lands rights.

 “We view Line 5 as an existential threat to our treaty-protected rights, resources, and fundamental way of life as Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes,” reads a letter from the 12 federally recognized Tribes of Michigan to President Joe Biden and his administration last fall. The letter urged him to lend strong support to the state’s effort to shut down the 78-year-old Line 5 oil pipeline owned by Canadian company, Enbridge. “The National Wildlife Federation stands with Michigan’s Tribal communities and citizens as well as Governor Whitmer and the majority of the public who want to see Line 5 shutdown,” said Mike Shriberg, Regional Executive Director for the Great Lakes Region of the National Wildlife Federation. “Enbridge is now operating illegally, adding to their long legacy of corporate irresponsibility.”

A tribal member knocking rice into a canoe
A tribal member knocking rice into a canoe in the Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs of Lake Superior, the first Great Lakes wetland designated by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands as a wetland of international importance. Photo credit: Tim Tynan/NOAA/USFWS

“For hundreds of years, Chi’chil Bildagoteel, also known as Oak Flat, has been a place of cultural and religious significance for my people and other tribes.  Oak Flat is a place filled with power – a place where Apaches conduct ceremonies, gather medicines and ceremonial items, and seek peace and personal cleansing,” explains Chairman Terry Rambler of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. “But, a last-minute rider to the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act mandated the transfer of this sacred land to Resolution Copper, which seeks to build a massive copper mine that will result in the destruction of Oak Flat leaving a crater 1.8 miles wide and 1,000 feet deep; the depletion of the region’s surface and groundwater; and the creation of a massive toxic mine waste dump.  It is critical that the Administration undertake a new environmental study that thoroughly examines the devastating impacts of the mine and includes meaningful tribal consultation, and that Congress pass the Save Oak Flat Act to rescind the misguided law mandating the transfer of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper.”

Oak Flat Perennial Springs
Oak Flat Perennial Springs. Courtesy of Mapetsi Policy Group


On Indigenous Peoples’ Day and every day, the National Wildlife Federation recognizes that all of the work and success highlighted above does not belong to us. As we celebrate the ongoing progress towards Tribal and Indigenous equity, our organization also continues to embark on the journey focused on true partnership and relationship building. NWF will continue to center the leadership of dedicated, curious, gritty and tenacious individuals that lead efforts to adjust to a changing world as well as a society that needs to better acknowledge and uphold the cultural and ecological values of its Indigenous peoples.

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Published: October 10, 2022