The “Moonhouse” in McLoyd Canyon is part of Bears Ears National Monument, near Blanding, Utah. The monument is governed by a pair of federal agencies and a commission of five Southwestern tribes. Advocates for tribal co-management say it’s a landmark agreement that is providing a template for other public lands. Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press.
In a rural area of Michigan’s Thumb region, a small state park preserves a collection of sandstone carvings that date back many hundreds of years. One of the carvings, a figure with a bow and arrow, symbolizes ancestors shooting their knowledge ahead seven generations.
Some might say that arrow landed in 2019.
That year, descendants of those stone carvers, members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, signed an agreement with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to co-manage Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park. The tribe’s knowledge is once again steering stewardship of the landscape where the carvings were discovered.
The partnership has helped state managers better understand the petroglyphs’ meanings (they formerly referred to the archer figure as “the hunter”). The tribe and state have produced interpretive signs with phrases in the Anishinabemowin language, and they’ve used laser measuring techniques to create digital models of the carvings. They’re now collaborating to build a ceremonial teaching lodge.
“We basically make all decisions together now,” said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center, a division of the state agency. “The more we learn about our partners, their culture and their beliefs, the more that gets filtered into how we talk about this.”
For tribal leaders, the agreement is the next chapter in a legacy that dates back millennia — and a step toward restoring the site’s role as an important regional gathering place.
“We are very proud to be stewards of the land for all this time,” said Willie Johnson, director of the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways, a museum and cultural center overseen by the tribe. “People from all over the Great Lakes region come to be part of it; it’s a true sacred site where people gather to learn about the history of the Anishinabe people.”
The collaboration in Michigan is part of a growing movement to restore tribes’ role in managing the lands and waters within their ancestral territories. Proponents note that many of America’s most cherished public lands were established only after the displacement of the Indigenous people who called them home.
“We’re seeing the expansion of these collaborative relationships,” said Monte Mills, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington. “Tribal nations are having engagement, influence and authority in the way these public lands are being managed.”
Such collaborations, known as co-management or co-stewardship, range from pledges to consult with tribes to full-fledged partnerships that give tribal leaders an equal seat on governing commissions. While praising such efforts generally, Native leaders say the agreements have been a mixed bag in terms of granting real authority to tribes.
And some believe that stolen lands like national parks should be returned outright to their original stewards.
Last year, federal land managers signed an agreement with five tribes to co-manage Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Those nations — the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni — form a commission that works with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to oversee the monument.
Advocates say the agreement was a landmark win for tribal management.
“We actually are co-deciding how this land should be managed, and that’s really important,” said Charissa Miijessepe-Wilson, co-director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, a group formed by the tribes to support the monument.
“There are certainly challenges, but we have a really good relationship with our agency partners,” she said.
Tribal leaders are helping to identify sacred sites within the 2,100-square-mile monument, Miijessepe-Wilson said, and informing decisions about which recreational activities are appropriate at different times of the year. They’re also restoring a human dimension to the landscape.
“Public lands are Native lands,” she said. “Anywhere you’re stepping foot was once somebody else’s home. … This is not some pristine wilderness, these are our places that we were once from, and we actively come here to gather medicine.”
At present, the parties are crafting a monument management plan.
“I’ve worked on a lot of planning efforts throughout my years, but working side by side with the tribes, their traditional knowledge and their voices are coming through,” said Nicollee Gaddis-Wyatt, district manager for the Bureau of Land Management’s Canyon Country district. “This one is going to be different and hopefully will help drive a new way of doing planning.”
The Biden administration wants more land managers to follow suit. In 2021, Cabinet leaders issued a secretarial order calling for their agencies to “[m]ake agreements with Indian Tribes to collaborate in the co-stewardship of Federal lands and waters.” Since then, officials have inked numerous agreements with tribal nations.
The partnerships include everything from wildfire prevention work such as forest thinning and prescribed fire to protection of burial sites, restoration of stream habitat, ceremonial activities and traditional food gathering.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Kristi Tapio-Harper, regional tribal relations specialist in the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region. “It’s given the Forest Service something tangible to sit at the table and start learning from the tribes.”
In Tapio-Harper’s region, the federal agency has undertaken nearly $7 million in forest management projects planned with tribal partners. In some cases, tribes have helped replant trees after a wildfire. In others, they’ve shown foresters where a fire helped re-create a historic meadow and persuaded the agency to leave it untouched. Have Oregon or Washington done anything as states?
The infrastructure and climate laws passed by Congress in recent years have increased funding for tribal forestry projects, accelerating the work.
But federal efforts also have attracted criticism, including last month when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association unveiled its plans for the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary off the California coast. The sanctuary was originally proposed by Fred Collins, longtime chair of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, who passed away in 2021.
“They did not make it a true co-management document,” said Violet Sage Walker, Collins’ daughter and the tribal council’s current chair. “They watered it down and made it meaningless. It’s not Bears Ears,” she said, although she noted that the sanctuary is still a win for the Pacific Ocean.
And though the NOAA proposal calls for the involvement of local Indigenous groups, many were excluded from the sanctuary’s council to guide management decisions. For example, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council exists as a nonprofit and is recognized by California’s state government, but isn’t a federally recognized tribe.
Paul Michel, regional policy coordinator with NOAA, said the government-to-government nature of the council meant that it could only include tribal nations recognized by federal law.
He said the proposal remains a “starting point.”
“It’s new territory for us,” he said. “As we build relationships and learn over time, it will adapt and change.”
A ‘paradigm shift’
In California, officials reached an agreement with the Washoe Tribe earlier this year relating to 12 state parks in the state’s Sierra District. The pact will enable tribal members to access the parks for free and waive permit requirements for traditional gathering. Park leaders plan to collaborate with the tribe’s resource specialists and foresters.
“To be working during this big paradigm shift is pretty amazing,” said Scott Green, Sierra District archaeologist and tribal liaison with California State Parks. “The pendulum has swung toward tribal communities really being heard better.”
In California’s Sonoma County, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria are partnering with county officials to oversee Tolay Lake Regional Park, believed to be one of the first such agreements with a local government.
While more governments pursue co-management agreements, some advocates are pushing for full tribal ownership of national parks and other public lands. Mills, the Native law expert, said co-management could be viewed as either complementary or in contention with the larger Land Back movement, which seeks to restore Native sovereignty to stolen lands.
“There have been folks who have said co-management is half a loaf, it’s not good enough,” said Mills.
In at least one case, state leaders have taken note.
Earlier this year, Minnesota lawmakers approved a plan to close Upper Sioux Agency State Park and transfer the land to the Upper Sioux Community. The park sits near the site of the largest mass execution in American history, where 38 Dakota warriors were hanged after they had surrendered following an 1862 battle.
“This land never should have been recreational land because of the history of it and what occurred on that site,” said Ann Pierce, director of parks and trails with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “This is the first time that we know of that state park land has been transferred back to a tribal community.”
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