Biden is laying the groundwork for a seismic shift in public land management ― one that treats tribes as partners instead of an afterthought.
President Joe Biden listens to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speak before signing a proclamation restoring protections to Bears Ears that were stripped by the Trump administration. - OLIVIER DOULIERY VIA GETTY IMAGES
Last April, in a farm field in eastern Virginia, Ann Richardson gathered with a few hundred people for a celebration. It wasn’t a party, though. Several people were crying. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was there. She was crying, too.
“I can’t really describe it,” Richardson said of that day’s event, which took place along the shores of the Rappahannock River. “Incredible. Surreal. Emotional.”
“I felt like we were surrounded by ancestors who had lived there thousands of years ago. We were standing in their hopes and their dreams for their people.”
Richardson is the chief of the Rappahannock Tribe, and on that Friday afternoon, her tribe took back more than 460 acres of ancestral land along the river that shares her tribe’s name. Last month, her tribe reclaimed another 960 acres of its homeland, too.
It took 350 years. It took survival, after her tribe was forced off of its homeland by English settlers in the 1600s, virtually erased by white supremacists in the 1900s and endured centuries of persecution sanctioned by the U.S. government.
It also took a new kind of partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as the Biden administration forges ahead with what it hopes will spur a seismic shift in the way the government approaches managing public lands: inviting tribes to be co-stewards of the land their ancestors were forcibly or illegally removed from by the government.
Since President Joe Biden took office, Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have signed off on nearly two dozen co-stewardship agreements with tribes. There are another 60 co-stewardship agreements in various stages of review involving 45 tribes. Haaland and Vilsack launched this effort in November 2021 with a joint secretarial order directing relevant agencies to make sure their decisions on public lands fulfilled trust obligations with tribes. In November 2022, the Commerce Department signed onto their order as well.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have since produced a co-stewardship guidance document, too.
Author: Jennifer Bendery