A Stealth Attack on Tribal Sovereignty
Federal delisting of the grizzly bear could leave tribes vulnerable to state interference
Tribes in the tri-state region of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho will soon be faced with a new threat to their sovereignty. Those among the 26 tribal nations that the federal government acknowledges to hold an ancestral connection to Yellowstone could, by the spring of 2015, see their sovereignty undermined by unwittingly permitting the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to carry out their collective political wills on reservations and ancestral homelands.
Elected tribal officials and the citizens they represent must be made aware of this stealth attack and resist it. Under the auspices of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the federal government is in the process of removing the sacred grizzly bear from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection and handing the future of the Great Bear over to the “game and fish” agencies of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
Though fewer than 600 Yellowstone grizzlies may exist, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho classify the grizzly as a “trophy game animal” and intend to aggressively pursue the sale of high-dollar tags to affluent trophy hunters. Wyoming Game and Fish is expected charge at least $6,000 for a non-resident grizzly tag (2007 WY G&F), while Idaho Fish and Game has discussed a staggering $100,000 fee (Teton Valley News 11/27/13).
Given the close associations between tribal fish and game departments and their state counterparts, tribal governments and concerned citizens must ensure that these departments do not inflict the states’ policies on reservations.
Cultural imperatives and the preservation of sovereignty require, first, a repudiation of the federal government’s desire to delist the grizzly bear from the ESA; and second, the legislative resolve to deny the states’ determination to see trophy hunting of grizzlies on reservations and the extirpation of the grizzly from swathes of reservation and ancestral homelands.
Anything less will set a dangerous precedent for tribes with state governments that are consistently hostile to their rights and sovereignty issues. If a state is allowed to impose its will on a reservation in this instance, what will be next? To find the answer, one only needs to consider recent water rights litigation, continual jurisdictional conflicts, and the present struggle the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho of the Wind River Reservation are engaged in with the State of Wyoming over the recent EPA boundary ruling.
The State of Wyoming has identified the Wind River Range as one area from which they intend to extinguish the grizzly. The federal government’s so-called “grizzly bear czar,” USFWS coordinator Chris Servheen, has already provided Wyoming Game and Fish with the mechanism to do so, if and when the grizzly is delisted. “The state will have the ability to direct mortality in areas where it wants to manage for lower densities of grizzly bears,” Servheen has assured Wyoming Game and Fish commissioners. “You have the discretion to direct mortality to those areas you see as necessary,” he said. (Casper Star Tribune 2/17/06).
How tribal members on the Wind River Reservation will feel about Wyoming dictating that this sacred being may be exterminated on their lands remains to be seen. While commenting on the EPA conflict and Wyoming’s anti-sovereignty stance, Arapaho councilman, Ronald Oldman, recently offered a direct summation of that threat, which is salient to this. “Tribal members at Wind River should not be misled,” warned Oldman. “The people in leadership for Wyoming are not our friends.” (Casper Star Tribune 4/2/14).
Tribal members throughout Montana, Wyoming and Idaho should not be misled. Consenting to follow the lead of the federal and tri-state governments by tolerating trophy hunts for grizzlies not only represents a threat to tribal sovereignty, but also contravenes the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA. PUBLIC LAW 95-341--AUG. 11, 1978).
The government is also in contravention of the Secretarial Order issued by the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Commerce pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531), which sets forth the framework to be followed when actions taken under authority of the ESA affect tribes.
These commitments have not been honored, which is one more echo of the government’s historic abrogation of its treaty responsibilities.
It is undeniable that the grizzly bear holds a unique position in the traditional cultures and ceremonial life-ways of the traditional spiritual practitioners of tribes identified by the federal government as possessing centuries old, and in some instances, millennia-long connections to the lands where the grizzly now survives on less than 2% of its range, pre-Lewis and Clark.
Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho classify the grizzly as a “trophy game animal;” but to tribal people, the grizzly is the Ancient One, the first two-legged, the first healer – quite simply, a sacred being. Protecting the grizzly is an act of remembrance, a memorial for those lost, and a step toward reclaiming what was taken.
If the grizzly is shorn of ESA protection and its fate served up to the states, the only areas off-limits to “the great white hunters” will be parcels of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks that rest within what the USFWS has designated “the Primary Conservation Area.” According to the USFWS and the states, it is not “socially acceptable” for grizzlies to live beyond those boundaries within the vast landscapes where they once roamed before the march of Manifest Destiny.
The dominant society’s perception of what is “socially acceptable” carries dark connotations for tribal people. The grizzly, like our ancestors, is only going to be permitted to survive if it is confined to reservations.
“What they did to the grizzly, they then did to us, and now they are going to do it again,” said Sweetgrass Woman, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member. They are, and we must stand against it. Our ancestors, our children, and our future generations deserve no less.
Copyright © 2010 by R Bear Stands Last, all rights reserved.
Spokesman: Don Shoulderblade – Cheyenne Spiritual Leader.