American Indians have made great strides in promoting wellness, education, and economic development for our people here in North Carolina. For me, the Unity Conference is a place to celebrate our successes in these areas, and it is also a place to build strategies for future success in other areas. Today, I’d like to speak about one area where I see opportunities for tribes to step forward and lead in ways that benefit not only Indian people, but also all North Carolinians. In particular, I want to discuss the landscapes that make up our tribal territories, sacred lands, and waters. These landscapes are critical parts of our cultures and tribal identities.
Think, for example, about the ways in which we identify our tribes. My tribe, the Lumbee, draws its name from the river. We are sometimes known as “people of the dark water.” The Meherrin call themselves “people of the water,” in reference to the expansive rivers, wetlands, and sounds. The Eastern Band of Cherokee are known as “people of Kituwa,” a sacred, mother town. From the “people of the falling star” (referring to the Waccamaw Siouan creation story of their lake) to the “people of the Coharie River,” (Coharie Tribe), North Carolina tribes identify themselves by the landscapes where they live or once lived. We are our sacred places. To be sure, we are more than these places alone, but we are not the same without them.
Envisioning Sacred Space
Close your eyes for a moment and envision the place that you come from. It may not be the place where you currently reside, and it might be a place that you have not visited for a long, long time. Reach back into your mind and call up that place. Maybe you see forests, rolling hills, and farmland. Perhaps you see dense swamps where river birches form an arching canopy over an intimate stream, or perhaps you see a powerful river with stately cypress trees guarding its banks. Do you see craggy mountain peaks fading into intimate hollows of laurel and rhododendron, or do you see the endless rows of your grandparents’ tobacco field or their vegetable garden? Immerse yourself in the environment as you think of the sights, the sounds, and the smells of these places.
With your eyes still shut, think about the surroundings, close by and far away. No stream exists without its valley, no river without its headwaters. No homestead exists apart from surrounding fields, forests, paths, or driveways. Whatever you envision, all of the elements - land, water, homes, sky - make up a landscape. Those landscapes help define who we are as individuals and who we are, collectively, as members of tribes. Over countless generations, we came to know the lands and waters as we know our family. We named the places, plants, and creatures, and they became our relatives. We became part of them, and we learned from them. Our ancestors’ bones mingled with soil and water, and the places became sacred. Sacred places – sacred landscapes – are what I hope you envisioned in your mind’s eye, and I also hope that you recognized the things that make them sacred. Those of us who live away from home do not joke when we tell others that we are visiting the “Holy Land.” Please open your eyes.
Federal Agencies and Sacred Space
Government agencies like to categorize things, and it turns out they even have categories and labels for sacred places. The US Department of Interior calls these places “cultural landscapes” and defines them as areas made up of natural and cultural features, including wildlife, geological formations, and a host of natural and human elements. The Department also notes that these landscapes have historic, cultural, aesthetic, religious, or ceremonial value. The federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation takes this idea further, stating for indigenous peoples, sacred, cultural landscapes contain the memory of generations of people interacting with the environment. The Advisory Council informs agencies that cultural landscapes include sights and sounds as well, noting that impeded views or loud noises can interrupt the ceremonial nature of a cultural landscape.
I point out the federal government’s attention to cultural landscapes for a couple of reasons. First, I find it encouraging that our government recognizes sacred places as more than a single grave, tree, rock, or structure; a sacred, cultural landscape is an entire area in which these things are embedded. In other words, a sacred space is more than the sum of individual components; a place can be sacred to indigenous peoples because of the larger environment in which it exists, and because of the cultural history that has become ingrained in that environment. Disrupting this environment, even indirectly through the sounds of traffic noise or through disrupting a scenic view, can desecrate a cultural landscape.
Second, I want to point out some very real implications that flow from the government’s attention to cultural landscapes. Whenever the federal government is involved in funding or permitting activities on public or private lands, federal laws require government agencies to consider impacts on cultural landscapes – including sacred landscapes of indigenous peoples. I want to point out two federal laws that support this requirement. The first law is the National Historic Preservation Act, which placed the federal government in a position of responsibility and leadership to protect and steward places of historical significance within the United States. The National Register of Historic Places is the best-known list of sites protected by the act. The second law is the National Environmental Policy Act, which gave the federal government responsibility for protecting and enhancing the environment nationwide. This law also laid the groundwork for ensuring that no community bears a disproportionate share of pollution or other environmental burdens. Both of these laws require that federal agencies consider how new highways, dams, pipelines, and other jurisdictional projects impact the surrounding environment, and this includes impacts to sacred, indigenous landscapes.
This raises an important question – How does the federal government identify cultural landscapes? Do they only consider sites on the National Register of Historic Places? Simply put, no. The National Register is one source of information for federal agencies, but not the only one. Agencies also rely on state historic preservation offices to report on historic places, including cultural landscapes. When a jurisdictional project like a highway or a pipeline is proposed, state historic preservation offices can inform the federal government about sites that could be impacted. Reports from this office help federal agencies decide whether or not to permit those activities. Corporations and other permittees can hire their own consultants to conduct surveys and collect data for supplemental reports on cultural resources. These kinds of reports are often the only resources that let federal agencies know if a project places any sacred, cultural landscapes at risk. With that in mind, I have a follow up question– How many people in this room have a good working relationship with the state historic preservation office? Do your tribal officials have relationships with this office? Do you have a tribal historic preservation office? If not, are you comfortable with the state reporting on landscapes and spaces considered sacred by your tribe? Can this state office adequately convey the sacred nature of the landscapes that you envisioned when I asked you to close your eyes earlier? We are our sacred places. Think about that for a moment.
For projects involving federal oversight, agencies have other obligations besides evaluating impacts on cultural landscapes. The federal government is charged with ensuring that all people are protected equally from environmental hazards, including health hazards. Federal agencies are also responsible for ensuring that everyone has equal access to environmental decision-making. Together, equal protection from environmental hazards and equal access to environmental decision-making are known as “environmental justice.” The modern concept of environmental justice was actually born here in North Carolina, under unfortunate circumstances that involve a grave injustice to our Haliwa-Saponi brothers and sisters.
In the 1970s, a Raleigh-based corporation deliberately dumped thousands of gallons of chemicals called PCBs along roadside ditches in eastern North Carolina, including roads surrounding the Haliwa-Saponi community of Hollister. PCBs are highly toxic and can cause cancer, neurological issues, respiratory ailments, and other health problems. After the crime was revealed and the extent of the pollution documented, the state excavated contaminated soil from roadsides and disposed of it in a new landfill located in Warren County. The site of the landfill was a nearby African American community. The original crime and the subsequent decision about siting the landfill revealed deep racism in environmental decision-making, because poor and minority communities bore all of the environmental risk, yet they were excluded from the decision-making process. Today’s environmental justice movement rose in response to the Warren County tragedy and similar events elsewhere.
Environmental justice is now encoded into federal policy. Whenever federal funding or permits are involved in projects that have environmental impacts, agencies are required to consider whether the project places disproportionate risks on vulnerable communities, including poor and minority communities. Federal agencies must also ensure that the voices of these communities are incorporated into the decision-making process. Environmental justice measures take on a range of formats across federal agencies and can include listening sessions, public meetings, and the like.
For indigenous peoples, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee has set a higher bar for environmental justice. The Committee’s guidance to federal agencies reminds government officials that all of the United States once belonged to sovereign indigenous nations; over time, tribal sovereignty and land ownership eroded, but the government still has an obligation to consult with tribes on activities that impact their modern or ancestral lands. The Committee points out that tribal needs and priorities are distinctly different from those of stakeholders or the general public. Federal agencies are required to consult with federally recognized tribes before approving activities that may impact tribal lands, but the committee also recommends consultation with non-federal tribes on these activities. In particular, the Committee’s guidance on consultation and collaboration with non-federal tribes states:
“Although such groups lack recognition as sovereigns, they may have environmental and public health concerns that are different from other groups or from the general public. These differences may exist due to a subsistence lifestyle and/or unique cultural practices. Agencies should seek to identify such groups and to include them in the decision-making processes.” – National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee
The take-home message here is that federal policy acknowledges that tribes, regardless of recognition status, are not typical stakeholders. The environmental concerns of tribes demand special attention, and that attention comes in the form of tribal consultation. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation also recognizes the special concerns of all tribes when it comes to cultural landscapes, and it has issued similar guidance for consulting federal as well as non-federal tribes.
This raises one last set of questions: What is consultation? Who consults with whom? Is it an email from the federal agency? Is it a form letter from the company pursuing the project? Formally, consultation is a process that takes place between the federal government and a tribal government. A key activity of consultation is relationship building between these governments. (The radio show Native America Calling recently hosted an excellent discussion of consultation, and it is well worth the listen.) The goal of the tribe is to protect its interests, and the goal of the federal government is to understand and respect tribal interests. These can be sacred or religious interests, environmental or economic interests. Remember that federally recognized tribes are already acknowledged as sovereign governments in this process, but state-recognized tribal governments may also receive consulting status for projects that have implications for their cultural and environmental resources. (The Commonwealth of Virginia has put together an FAQ that discusses consultation with their state recognized tribes.)
Unfortunately, there is a long history of failed consultation between the federal government and tribes. The events at Standing Rock surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline stem largely from failed consultations. The recent court battle hinges partly on what the tribe views as the Corps of Engineer’s failure to hold high level, government-to-government discussions at an early stage in the planning process. In 2011, several years before the events at Standing Rock, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation recommended that agencies consult with Indian tribes in a timely fashion to identify sacred sites and landscapes and avoid project delays. The Council advised that doing so would minimize the chances of desecrating cultural landscapes, and it would also avoid unnecessary delays to the permitted project. It seems that the federal government may not have taken its own advice in this case, and we have seen indigenous people suffer as a result.
Without consultation, the federal government cannot know the needs and interests of tribes. Your tribe may oppose or support a particular project, but consultation is an act of sovereignty that tribes should take seriously. Tribes can use their consultation status to ensure environmental justice for their communities – in other words, to ensure that our people do not receive a disproportionate share of pollution or other environmental burdens. Consultation status also places tribes at the table should the project disturb cultural artifacts or the graves of our ancestors. Tribal citizens can and should provide input as individuals, but consultation status is reserved for the interests of a tribe as a whole. History has taught us that if we don’t speak up for consultation status, and if we don’t guard it vigilantly, we cannot expect to be heard, and we cannot expect a seat at the table when it comes to environmental decision-making.
I want to wrap up by taking a moment to talk about a representative of the United Nations who spent the past several months visiting tribal communities in the United States. During her visit, Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz documented breakdowns in consultation between tribes and the federal government on a range of projects with environmental impacts. In her initial statement, she noted that:
“The goal of tribal consultation is not simply to check a box, or to merely give tribes a chance to be heard. Rather, the core objective is to provide federal decision makers with context, information, and perspectives needed to support informed decisions that actually protect tribal interests.” – United Nations Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz
I leave you today with this message – tribal leaders, protect the interests of your people by seeking consultation status on projects that impact your sacred landscapes. Collect and weigh the scientific and cultural evidence of potential impacts, and take a position on issues of importance to your tribe. Tribal members, submit your own comments as public citizens, but also encourage and support your leaders in efforts to engage in consultation. Commission of Indian Affairs, consider your ability to shape state policy on consultation for projects with implications for the indigenous people of North Carolina.
Today, the issue for some tribes is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, especially given its proposed path through eastern North Carolina. There is still time for tribes to receive consultation status on this project and for tribal members to submit comments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on the draft Environmental Impact Statement. Other projects will emerge, and they will inevitably have impacts on our sacred places, and they will have implications for our citizens. We have the ability to speak on behalf of our sacred landscapes, ensuring environmental justice for our tribal communities, and becoming good ancestors for those who come after us.
US Department of Interior Definition of Cultural Landscapes
Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Information on Cultural Landscapes
EPA Office of Environmental Justice (Archive.org)*
National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee Guidance for Tribes (Archive.org)*
Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation Guidance on Tribal Consultation (Archive.org)*
Native America Calling Radio Episode on Tribal Consultation
Commonwealth of Virginia FAQ on Tribal Consultation
United Nations Special Rapporteur Statement on Consultation & Rights of Indigenous Peoples
*Archive.org links intended to preserve existing content from these sites.
is a scientist and enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe. Ryan leads the Ecohydrology and Watershed Science Lab at North Carolina State University and tweets @WaterPotential. NC Native Environment is a public outreach arm of his research program.