Five Insights on Tribal Consultation for Successful Stewardship of Cultural and Natural Resources
No history of the United States is complete without significant conversation around the history of Native American Tribes. In fact, this often-solemn past represents merely a fraction of indigenous peoples’ place on the North American continent.
As the original stewards of the land, Tribes today now play a role in the development of public projects, supporting efforts toward the successful preservation of cultural and natural resources.
In recognition of this historical context, certain circumstances – namely through the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 – designate when and how projects need to involve Tribal consultation. But for this commitment rooted in a government-to-government relationship, truly building and benefiting from these relationships must go beyond what’s simply required by law.
In this piece, we take a closer look at the tribal consultation process, and the steps to successfully fostering those relationships when it comes to project development.
Read on or skip ahead:
- What is the Tribal Consultation Process?
- When is Tribal Consultation Needed?
- Insights to Successful Tribal Relationship Building
- Lasting Benefits to Continuous Tribal Relationships
- A Unique Approach by the City of Boulder
What is the Tribal Consultation Process?
Tribal consultation is a crucial step in the development of public projects, with an overall goal of avoiding mapped culturally sensitive sites, as well as preserving landmarks and natural resources. The process is formalized by Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, including providing at least 30 days advance notice to tribes before the first consultation session, and sufficient detail of the project to be discussed so leaders can have an opportunity to fully engage with each step in the process.
At the heart of the consultation process is allowing Tribes the chance to engage in meaningful discussions between their own representatives and federal decision-makers. Stringent records of all proceedings must be maintained. Additionally, the federal response to tribes and their input, detailing how their insights were incorporated into the final decision of development, is an equally critical part of the discussion.
When is Tribal Consultation Needed?
While tribal consultation is legally required by section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act of 1966 where federal funds are involved, it can also be triggered by state regulations, bond conditions, or simply as a best practice.
The NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) or SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) processes often initiate tribal consultation, and more recently there’s been a greater effort made to involve tribes where counties and municipalities strive to respect the public’s relationship with the land. Sometimes, projects evolve directly from a partnership with a local tribe and local government where the tribe becomes a client rather than a stakeholder.
Insights to Tribal Consultation and Relationship Building
Building truly successful relationships with tribes involves more than simply checking the necessary boxes. The process requires recognizing tribal sovereignty, understanding past generational trauma, and pursuing mutually beneficial outcomes.
It’s important to recognize here that tribes are often inundated with requests and might not have paid staff to process all aspects of a project development plan – meaning the process might take additional time and prioritization of the most important aspects of a project is paramount. With that in mind, there are some key steps that can be taken both in one-off consultations or in maintaining a more regular relationship to streamline the process and meet project priorities for all stakeholders involved.
Identifying Interested Parties
Efforts to identify interested tribes should extend beyond regional boundaries, considering relocated indigenous communities. Tribal consultation often involves groups that are native to a project area but can also include indigenous people who have relocated from elsewhere.
Leveraging State Historic Preservation Officers’ (SHPO) databases provides a starting point with insights into tribes with interests in specific areas. When required by Section 106, this is must and when operating outside the statute it remains a valuable resource. In any case, if a non-government entity is trying to get a tribe involved, mirroring that government-to-government relationship is a formal process that should not be taken lightly.
Engaging Early and Often
Early and regular communication with tribes is essential for meaningful participation. An even better method is to maintain communication, whether work is being done or not, on an ongoing basis so a real relationship can be built between a firm, municipality, and the tribe in question.
Initial outreach, including project details, invitations to consult, and breakdowns of the pros and cons to tribes directly is critical – and follow-up phone calls or emails set the stage for ongoing collaboration. Recognizing that tribes may need 45-60 days to respond underscores the importance of patience in the process and establishing appropriate timelines.
Creating Clear Lines of Communication
Providing concise and visually engaging information is also crucial. Establishing clear lines of communication facilitates effective dialogue and collaboration. Sometimes a tribal liaison will be established to help ensure this takes place.
Regular meetings contribute to building trust and fostering true collaboration, and visuals are often incorporated into the initial outreach portion to easily break down what is being requested of a tribe in a digestible way. Considerations of the tribe’s time and extra care in nurturing a relationship yields better project results for everyone involved, building true trust and collaboration between all stakeholders.
Addressing Feedback and Adding Tangible Benefit
Tribal input should not only be acknowledged but actively incorporated into project designs. Meaningful benefits, such as opening project areas for tribes to collect natural resources they once had access to but no longer do, or incorporating a gathering space for tribal events into project planning demonstrate a commitment to tangible outcomes that align with tribal interests.
Above all else, project design should be finalized with tribe’s comments/concerns in mind, and ultimately with consideration of impacts to the ecological and cultural health of these areas.
On-Site Involvement and Unintended Archeological Discoveries
Central to this consultation process is a connectedness with the land. Involving tribal representatives on-site throughout the project, especially during construction, ensures their expertise on identifying natural and cultural resources is utilized.
For instance, during construction a tribal monitor might come out to a project site to observe where the land is being disturbed. Through site surveying and testing, sacred artifacts in the ground are typically avoided, but sometimes there are unintended archeological discoveries. In these cases, the cultural context provided by tribes is essential to setting appropriate actions. The preference in these instances is almost always to leave artifacts where they were found, but it is especially crucial regardless to have tribes guide the approach in the unfortunate event of these developments.
Lasting Benefits to Continuous Tribal Relationships
Maintaining relationships with tribal governments yields lasting benefits. The connections formed can enhance the project design process and benefit the broader community in the form of education and shared knowledge of peoples they share the land with.
There are a variety of guides related to the preservation of different natural resources also available that draw on this intimate knowledgebase. Harnessing historical and cultural knowledge for initiatives like forest management and river restoration ensures projects align with tribal values.
A Unique Approach for the City of Boulder
The City of Boulder offers a unique example of a municipality actively engaging with tribal communities. Their approach, involving annual formal consultations, specific projects with cultural connections, and virtual working group meetings, sets a precedent for fostering ongoing communication and collaboration.
To the City, navigating the tribal consultation process in project development is more than a legal requirement – it is an opportunity for meaningful collaboration, honoring the land’s history, and fostering relationships with indigenous communities. “We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to listen to and learn from Tribal Representatives and for all the time they have shared with us,” says Phillip Yates who leads the City of Boulder’s Tribal outreach program. “We thank them for the opportunity to build relationships with them and recognize the critical importance of sustaining those relationships in the future.”
By embracing the principles of respect, communication, and common sustainable goals we can create projects that not only meet regulatory standards but contribute positively to the cultural and environmental fabric of the communities they serve. Taking steps to maintain a relationship with regional Tribes is one area that serves that goal.