Insider Briefing: Lawyers for the Seventh Generation
Gussie Lord, Earthjustice’s first-ever director of tribal partnerships, and Stefanie Tsosie, senior associate attorney, tribal partnerships, discuss the complex legal, cultural, and political issues unique to this vital work.
A conversation about tribal partnerships and seeking justice for Native communities.
“Together, our voices are stronger. The partnerships between the local and tribal community are very important, and the partnerships amongst tribes themselves are very important.”
Earthjustice has a long history of partnering with Native groups and Indigenous communities, and as Native peoples lead from the front lines of many of today’s pivotal environmental fights, these partnerships are more critical than ever. From Alaska to Arizona and Hawai’i to Wisconsin, we partner with and represent more than 70 tribes and Indigenous communities in their efforts to protect their water, safeguard public and tribal land, oppose destructive extractive industries, and preserve their culture and way of life.
We’ve named this talk Lawyers for the Seventh Generation, in a nod to the Indigenous concept that in every decision, we consider its impact on the seventh generation. This is particularly relevant to environmental decisions in the face of climate change, as we seek to preserve natural resources for future generations.
So I want to start off by asking about Earthjustice’s history in representing tribal governments and indigenous communities. Gussie and Stefanie, would you spend a few minutes bringing us up to speed on what we’ve done in the past to lay the groundwork for what we’re doing today with our Tribal Partnerships initiative?
While the tribal partnerships initiative is new at Earthjustice and having staff specifically dedicated to tribal partnerships is new, Earthjustice has worked with and represented Indigenous communities for a long time.
As many of you likely know, Earthjustice was formed in 1971, and many of our regional offices have had longstanding relationships with tribes. We’re really trying to build on those existing relationships and grow them.
We both represented and worked in partnership with tribes in Alaska in that arena, in the Tongass in Southeast Alaska, and in several other regions, including Arctic National Refuge where we’ve got work ongoing.
Our Mid-Pacific office works with Native Hawaiians and Native Hawaiian organizations. Some of the things they’ve done there have been to work to restore stream flows that were diverted for large agricultural operations, and in doing so limited access for other people to use those streams as freshwater sources for both cultural purposes and for their own use. So that’s something that’s been a longstanding effort by our attorneys and our partners in Hawaiʻi that has been successful.
And we’ve worked with them for years to protect that region, which is sacred to the tribe, and the tribe believes they’re the guardians of that area, and we’ve fought against oil and gas leases that were issued in the Reagan administration.
And those are some things that just have been ongoing, long-standing partnerships and representations of tribes and Indigenous people.
So we’re trying to build on that work, those relationships that are existing and ongoing, and to expand our work into other geographic regions and other arenas.
And over the last couple years, we’ve been working with the Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma on some fracking issues, and that’s handled out of our Rocky Mountain office in Denver. Essentially, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were approving permits to frack on Pawnee lands without notifying the Tribe, much less consulting the tribal members, who didn’t even have notice that this was happening. That litigation has been successful. Some of those permits have been tossed, but there are some permits that are still active that are that are currently being challenged in various forums. But we’ve built off of some of this historical work that we’ve laid and as you can see, we’ve really grown our advocacy throughout the country.
One day, Pawnee Tribal member Walter Echo-Hawk stumbled upon a worrying scene. The U.S. government had approved 17 oil and gas leases on Pawnee land without consulting or even notifying the Tribal members. This is the story of how that happened, and how the Pawnee Nation fought back.
What work is happening outside of litigation to support tribal partnerships?
We work with the Policy and Legislation team in Washington to do some lobbying on issues. Some of the other things we do besides straight lobbying for or against something are to make sure that proposed legislation is keeping tribal interests in mind.
So for example, one thing we worked on was the 1872 Mining Law reform. As the title indicates, that was passed in 1872 and we think there should be some updates to that mining law. So we worked on some tribal consultation provisions. We put together a work group of interested people throughout Indian country to think about and talk about what language would be appropriate, and protect tribal interests, and make sure that consultation was occurring between the United States government and the tribal government.
Another thing we do is, if there’s a big issue coming up, we collaborate with our partners and other organizations and tribes, tribal governments, and Indigenous organizations to make sure our efforts are consistent. And again, that’s partnership building, making sure that we’re all working together where we can and where our interests align.
Some of the organizations we work with include the Native American Rights Fund and the National Congress of American Indians, on issues where we agree and where we think the interests of our clients and our membership align. Another thing we do: We present at conferences and we speak on current environmental issues that impact tribes.
We help tribes put together comment letters on federal actions or federal rules. Stefanie’s been hard at work working on National Environmental Policy Act rules. We’ve done some comments for tribes on some of the other rule rollbacks that have been happening under the current administration.
And then we can advise clients on things like cutting-edge initiatives that they want to take. For example, a lot of our tribes are interested in rights of nature, so, writing into law that a specific ecosystem or body of water has legally protected rights. And that’s an area that we’re trying to move toward in Indian country. We support those efforts.
We’re looking at ways we can support tribal clients outside of litigation, like communications help. Sometimes we can just amplify their voices and their stories with our communication channels. Tribes are governments, and they have many, many things that they have to deal with and many responsibilities — transportation, healthcare, infrastructure —and they don’t always have the capacity to focus squarely on the environmental issues.
So we can do things like help with communication, with lobbying, and just sort of helping them set up some of their legal structures. Those are some of the things we’re looking at.
What is the vision for the future of our tribal partnerships initiative?
I would say that that our vision for tribal partnerships work here at Earthjustice is to make the organization a better resource for our clients and for our partners. We really want to elevate the Indigenous voice in the environmental movement. We’ve always done work on behalf of tribes and we want to continue to grow that work. We want to make sure all the regional offices have all the tools they need and the knowledge they need to provide really good representation of tribes given the unique political and legal status of tribes within the United States government system.
And we want to make sure that the tribal communities are at the forefront of our practice. As Stefanie mentioned, all the public lands — really, I mean all the lands in North America — used to be tribal land. We are cognizant of history here, the political landscape, and we have to move forward in the framework in which we find ourselves. But we want to do our best to make sure that that tribal cultures and tribal communities are still thriving, both now and in the future.
We want to increase the amount of work we’re doing behalf of tribes. We want to grow our geographic reach and work with tribes and areas where we haven’t historically had a presence. We want to grow our team. There’s plenty of work to do, and we would like to get some help in that realm.
And something that we’ve seen and are seeing currently is a lot of tribes in the region or in a state coming together to fight against a specific project or specific law or specific issue that’s going to impact everybody’s resources. We’re really encouraged to see those regional tribal coalitions forming, and that’s something that we’d like to continue to encourage.
Together, our voices are stronger. Like I said, the partnerships between the local and tribal community are very important, and the partnerships amongst tribes themselves are very important. So that’s something we really like to see, and we really like to have the opportunity to work with and on behalf of a number of tribes in a region.
When we talk about the history of our relationships with the tribes at Earthjustice, they’re litigation based, and they’re very reactionary. A tribe is presented with a pipeline or a mine or something that’s sitting at their doorstep, and we’re used to dealing with that. But my vision for tribal partnerships is to also be forward-thinking.
A number of our tribes that we are working with or in partnership with or that I want to reach out to are dealing with things like climate change. And so how does a tribe adapt and become resilient? Climate resiliency is something that a number of tribes are thinking about, and how do we move forward? And I really think that this tribal partnerships initiative, especially as we get more capacity and help with that, we can grow and we can be a partner in that.
We can reach out and we can be forward-thinking and working together to elevate the voices of our tribal and Indigenous clients in things like climate resiliency. I think that there’s a lot of great opportunities here, that we don’t just have to be reactionary. A lot of tribes are innovators, and we can be innovators with them and help them elevate their voices, especially in the times we see now.
Thanks to all of you for joining us for this teleconference. We’re very, very grateful for your support and your activism and your passion for the environment.
Earthjustice was founded on the belief that everyone has the right to a healthy environment, that’s why we use the courts to force government action, hold dirty energy industries accountable, and fight to protect lands, oceans and wildlife. As you know, after hearing from Gussie and Stefani, our work is more important now than ever.