Connecting Native and Contemporary Land Trust Leaders


Western United States

Conversations are efforts toward good relations. They are an elementary form of reciprocity. They are the exercise of our love for each other. They are the enemies of our loneliness, our doubt, our anxiety, our tendencies to abdicate. To continue to be in good conversation over our enormous and terrifying problems is to be calling out to each other in the night. If we attend with imagination and devotion to our conversations, we will find what we need; and someone among us will act—it does not matter whom—and we will survive. -Barry Lopez

In collaboration with Barry Lopez, with Center for Whole Communities, with the Native Land Trust Alliance, I had the honor of helping to create and sustain a dialogue that had not before existed before between Native and contemporary (non-Native) land trust leaders in the western United States. The purpose was to strengthen relationships between the two and to identify opportunities for more collaboration. I saw, too, the  significant opportunity for this dialogue to further redefine and re-invent conservation as protecting human diversity alongside biological diversity.

Fifty years ago, land conservation was defined largely as protecting wild areas and beautiful scenery and could accurately be critiqued as the providence of the most privileged Americans. Since then, many different definitions of conservation have emerged from different peoples, all of which has made for a stronger conservation movement. Urban gardeners in South Central Los Angles have expanded our definitions of conservation. In 2012, when President Obama created the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, he honored the values of an emerging Hispanic conservation movement. And the creation of a Native Land Trust Alliance working to conserve tribal lands, heritage and cultures has broadened what conservation means. All of this is a very positive re-invention of the American conservation movement that will strengthen our nation’s relationship to land and to one another.

This project of creating dialogue between Native and contemporary land trusts leaders was an historic gathering and a punctuation mark in a much larger effort of making allies for a broader, stronger, more inclusive conservation movement.  

The year before this summit, Ernie Atencio, Danyelle O’Hara and I had completed a six month–long series of listening sessions, workshops and a final set of recommendations to the Land Trust Alliance about how to make this re-invention and a key recommendation was this:

Publicly Honor First Nations and Create a New Standard Regarding Appropriate Engagement with Tribes

Tribes and Native communities hold a unique position among conservation allies simply because all land conservation in this country takes place on ancestral tribal lands; all public and private lands, all lands taken from other racial or ethnic groups, were originally taken from Native people. “Natives are the people who are most connected to land, and the most impacted by activities of land trusts.” We have a special responsibility to acknowledge and honor First Nations as the first people of this continent. Proclaiming that truth would be an important first step in re-forming and strengthening relations with Tribes and Native land trusts, which the conservation movement has long venerated as examples of conservation and stewardship. This is essential in signaling respect not only to Native Americans but to all marginalized land-based peoples in the United States.

The gap between the stories told by conservationists and those told by others who are deeply connected to and love (and need)  the land impede authentic collaboration, although connection to and love for the land should unite the two groups. This is the sorrow of the conservation movement, of our nation too, and one major obstacle to creating healthy, whole communities.

The ability to integrate land trust stories with the depth and complexity of the movement’s roots and with the fullness and richness of the broader United States story about land requires first that land trusts know and understand these different stories.

Many of us saw an historic opportunity to strengthen conservation in our nation by convening leaders of Native-led and  Contempraray (non-Native) land trusts to share these different stories. Our goal was to develop stronger relationships that might foster deeper mutual understandings, begin to create structural change, and create the conditions for future collaborations.

That these two worlds – Native and non-Native conservationists- are largely separated diminishes the potential for both. Through open dialogue together, knowledge and story can be shared and heard, greater respect can be achieved, and repairs begun.  Stronger relationships between these two worlds can lead to greater results for both movements. Native conservationists would benefit from the access to political and financial and land resources that are held primarily by White-led land trusts. Contemporary land trusts would benefit from greater understanding of the principles of traditional ecological knowledge and sensitivities to a cultural landscape to balance their predominantly scientific approaches to land management. At another level, the prevailing Contemporary understanding of land ethics and conservation will never be whole without an understanding of what those ideas mean to Indigenous people. There is face-to-face healing and listening that can be achieved among these leaders. And there’s the much greater unknown potential that will arise as these two worlds become closer.

In service to these goals, Ernie Atencio, and I began meeting regularly with the Native Land Trust Alliance, and with Center for Whole Communities and arrived at an 18 month plan for preparing and then bringing together these communities. The “preparation” part was extensive and included a convening of non-Native Land Trust leaders from the Pacific Northwest region with capacity-building dialogue and presentations by writer/thinker Barry Lopez and Native Leader and conservationist Chuck Sams in Portland, Oregon.

A webinar program of the Lopez – Sams presentations was broadcast to 40 locations and more than 50 leaders across the country.

We recognized early on in the process that Native land trust leaders generally saw a greater need for the Summit than their non-Native or contemporary counterparts. A critical strategy had to be found for attracting more of the land Trust leadership to recognize the importance of the opportunity to engage with the emerging Native Land Trust community.

In the fall of 2013, I was asked to interview the respected conservation/culture writer Barry Lopez in front of an audience of conservationsits in New Orleans and that interview was framed up to address many of the issues of the Native Lands Summit.  Barry Lopez was able to say many challenging things to these conservation leaders about how Native Americans have been intentionally and unintentionally excluded from the conservation movement. Lopez spoke about how the story of conservation didn’t include Native peoples and until that changed, conservation would struggle to reach a larger audience of Americans or its fuller potential as a movement of people. Lopez’s speech received a standing ovation, and I spoke to him that day about the possibility of his playing an ongoing role in helping to bring the non-Native land trust community together with the Native land trust community. Because of the practical importance of the idea, Barry agreed.

The objective we had in hosting this meeting in advance of the Summit was to educate and prepare the contemporary land trust leaders with a baseline of knowledge of the Native perspective on land issues in the U.S. While many know some history of the Native genocide and broken treaties in this country – there is less awareness of the continued challenges faced by Native people in addressing their sovereign rights to land and the laws that govern those rights.

In May, 2014, we convened the actual Summit in Pescadero, California  between 10 Native land trusts met with their counterpart leaders of 10 traditional or non-Native land trusts at the Costanoa Retreat, a carefully selected location that embodies stories of conservation from both worlds. We also had two facilitators and several other participants that brought the summit to 30 people.

Much effort went into assuring that structure and process was put in place to ensure that every participant felt heard, understood, and that their values as people and as conservationists were seen and honored. This began with the section of the retreat facilitators, then to the choice of the location for the Summit, then to the fact that many participants were interviewed in advance, and finally through to the creation of a responsive retreat agenda.

The Summit began with statements made by each participant toward their intentions for the gathering.  I tried to set the tone: “I want to do my part to co-create a new conservation movement that honors indigenous knowledge, that protects cultural diversity alongside biological diversity, and that recognizes how Native and non-Native conservationists are both unintentionally diminished if we are not intentionally aligned and mutually supportive.

There was great honesty and care taken by all of the participants from the very opening of the Summit to demonstrate openness, empathy, and commitment to act.

The most substantial, content-rich portion of the Summit occurred on day two when the groups were mixed together for small groups discussions to hear stories, grievances and opportunities, and  to share those conversations with the full group. Immediately following this in the afternoon, the full Summit divided into Native and Contemporary caucuses to specifically consider what each group needed from and could offer to the other group.

Both the contemporary and the Native caucuses reported these conversations to be hard, meaningful and ultimately very rewarding. Though there was no expectation that either side would do more than listen fully and openly to the needs and offerings of the others, the contemporary land trust leaders began to find a consensus and clarity around what they could offer and wanted to offer. And this awareness came to them with the humility that their power and privilege made this possible. An important conversation developed around acting out of grief, guilt or shame versus acting out of a commitment to use their privilege in certain ways to support the Native land trust leaders.

Any process to build trust between groups that have been racially and ideologically divided for hundreds of years will take great lengths of time to repair. And small steps will come long before large steps. The organizers of this first Summit had one over-arching hope: that there is a second Summit.  Our goals are to make relationships where there have been none or few, not necessarily to jump directly to action steps and commitments (that might not be fulfilled).

But among this group of leaders, which was small and well chosen, there was a desire to move forward quickly. The contemporary land trust leaders decided to prepare, read and to share this statement with their native counterparts:

As contemporary land conservation leaders, we make the following personal commitments to our friends in the Native American land trust community:

  1. We acknowledge that the lands of North America are originally the lands of tribal nations.  We also openly acknowledge and will communicate that the roots of contemporary land conservation in America begin with a generation of leaders who while building a tradition of protecting iconic landscapes, included people who engaged in practices and held beliefs that ranged from disrespect of Native American culture to forced displacement and worse.
  2. We will work together to improve how we recognize conservation leaders, and how we build new models of community, collegial land protection.
  3. In our work with Native Americans, we intend to focus as much effort on listening, learning and relationship building as we invest in facilitating land protection and stewardship.
  4. In this regard we hope to learn from you how you read and steward the land in a broad sense, how to be attentive to the spiritual and cultural importance of land, and how to hear and honor stories connected to the land you value. We expect to apply what we learn from you in our land conservation work now and on into the future.
  5. We recognize there is often a major imbalance between traditional land trusts and contemporary land trusts with respect to access to capital and other resources. We intend to work with you to remedy this imbalance and expand the resources available to safeguard lands on tribal importance.
  6. We will join with you in working to conserve, assure Native American access to, and steward cultural landscapes.

This statement was taken by the Native leaders with respect and appreciation, as well as some testing of it purpose and realness. One native leader remarked how often throughout history they had taken important words from Whites and had them broken or not followed up. The heartfelt request was made and repeated: “You will have done worse if you say these words, smile and bob your head and then walk away and do nothing.”

Four months later, many of the participants in the Summit met again at the National Land Trust rally and took stock of progress that both communities were making on their pledges to one another. Rand Wentworth, president of the Land Trust Alliance, the alliance of contemporary, land trusts attended both the Summit and the follow –up meeting and fulfilled important aspects of the pledge that had been extended earlier. The work is begun.

Facilitation Type:

Culture Change in Conservation

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