Spring has finally arrived and so has our 2019 annual funding opportunity! Our team is excited to accept a new round of proposals through the Healthy Environment portfolio’s statewide program that align with our vision of nurturing a resilient natural environment, while supporting the well-being of Oregon’s diverse cultures and communities.
This year we anticipate awarding grants totaling $3.5 million. Applications are due by 5 p.m., on Wednesday, May 15. We encourage you to consider submitting a day early to give yourself a cushion in case anything needs a little extra time.
The biggest change to the Healthy Environment portfolio this year is that we’ve tightened up our Statewide Program goals. If you are a previous applicant or grantee, you may remember there’s been a fourth portfolio goal the past three years: Achieve the mutual goals of community well-being, economic vitality and environmental stewardship (triple bottom line).
This will no longer be a standalone goal. We changed this because applicants often struggled to decide between the triple bottom line goal and the other goals when preparing their applications. As we considered this change and our continuing value of work that delivers on social, economic and environmental impact, we took a close look at what grants we’ve made in support of the triple bottom line goal over the past three years. What we found is that all of these triple bottom line grants could fit under one of the other three goals.
So, we made the decision to revise our goals. We believe that keeping the three remaining goals of environmental justice, diverse movement and healthy natural systems with brighter lines between them will make the goal selection process for applicants much simpler. Despite making this change, we continue to value triple bottom line thinking and approaches and expect to continue funding work that aligns with this value.
We’ve begun to take a number of steps to simplify the grantmaking process. The biggest change toward simplification that we are rolling out this year is that our application is only one step. As a result, there are a couple of additional questions (but fewer in total than the combined questions in our first and second proposal applications used the past three years). We’ve also upped the word count limit from 1,500 to 2,000 to give you more room to explain your request and how you plan to carry out the work.
In addition, you may hear about a pilot “renewal grant process”, an idea we are testing with a handful of current Healthy Environment portfolio statewide program grantees. This is another strategy to simplify the process and create more space for grantees and our team to find new ways to partner beyond the transaction of a grant application.
What’s the same?
Pretty much everything else.
We will continue to partner with organizations that share our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and working toward a more reciprocal, restorative relationship with each other and the planet.
This means that strong proposals will demonstrate an approach that recognizes the need to change policies, relationships, roles and practices in institutions, structures and systems that govern how people relate to nature and make environmental management decisions. The most competitive proposals will include strategies that aim to address disparities in access to the benefits of a healthy environment and environmental protections in communities, particularly communities of color, indigenous communities and Tribes, low-income communities, and immigrants and refugees, in rural and urban areas.
We also welcome your questions about your plans for a grant application or how to navigate GrantIS, our online application system. Please send your questions to us at questions [at] mmt.org ( )or call us at 503-228-5512.
Thank you for your continued work for a healthy environment that benefits all of Oregon’s diverse cultures and communities.
ICYMI: “Disrupting the Legacy of Colonialism.” An Oregon Funder Partners With Tribes on the EnvironmentdarionMon, 03/11/2019 - 11:40
A partnership between Tribes of the Pacific Northwest and Meyer seeks to integrate and honor Native wisdom within the environmental movement.
Inside Philanthropy examines a recent batch of grants awarded through Meyer's Healthy Environment portfolio and the unique role its grantmaking plays in supporting Tribal communities:
"[We] are excited to learn more about how traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous communities and Western science can work together to support healthy natural systems and communities," portfolio director Jill Fuglister wrote in a blog at the end of 2018. She tells IP this integration "opens the door to addressing the disparate impacts of environmental problems that indigenous communities experience by creating space for indigenous leaders to bring their concerns, priorities and solutions to environmental protection efforts."
By turning to local Native American communities to help steer its environmental grantmaking practices, Meyer may create a rich example of how environmental and social movements can come together. We see more, but arguably not enough, environmental, social justice and human rights-focused groups acknowledging and exploring how their causes overlap. At the crux of this intersection is the fact that minority groups are often the most affected by environmental degradation and calamity, and the recognition that these same communities can be a source of experience-based, authentic responses to these problems.
ICYMI: Chinook Nation buys an Oregon footholddarionMon, 02/11/2019 - 11:00
The Chinook Indian Nation recently bought about 10 acres of heavily forested land in Warrenton around Tansy Creek, one of many locations where Chinookan tribes — Clatsop, Cathlamet, Lower Chinook Wahkiakum and Willapa — were pushed off by European settlers. The plan: to purchase, protect and revitalize the Tribes’ historically important 1851 Tansy Point treaty grounds.
The Daily Astorian documents the purchase, made possible by grants from organizations such as the Oregon Community Foundation, Meyer Memorial Trust, Collins Foundation and others:
“'The Clatsop folks covered this whole south shore of the Columbia, really, from around Astoria itself heading west, and then of course down the adjacent seashore all the way down to Tillamook Head, that country,” (Tony Johnson, chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation) said. “But all the main country people think about here in terms of Hammond, Gearhart, Seaside — that’s all Clatsop territory.'
The property near Tansy Point is near where, in the summer of 1851, members of all five Chinookan tribes gathered to negotiate with Anson Dart, the first superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Oregon Territory, to avoid relocation east of the Cascade Mountains. It is the only known instance when all tribal ancestors were gathered in one place, Johnson said."
Diversifying our environmental movement: Healthy Environment portfolio awards $5.32 million in grants
A guiding principle for the Healthy Environment portfolio is to support work that transform the systems which create and sustain inequities and environmental degradation in our communities. This means changing the rules, relationships, roles and practices in institutions and systems — large and small — that shape culture, politics, the economy, how we manage natural resources and more.
As I consider the 55 grants totaling $5.32 million that we awarded this year through Meyer's Annual Funding Opportunity, I see a common vision woven throughout that seeks to undo the extractive, transactional and damaging relationships we have with the planet and each other to advance new and proven approaches at all levels — organizational, local, regional and state — that are based on values of justice, cooperation, ecological sustainability and equity.
The breadth of applicants and grantees this year reflects the continued scope of this portfolio: advancing solutions toward climate change and climate justice, land and forest conservation, clean air, watershed health and green workforce development. Awards include small technical assistance grants, particularly for organizational development work to deepen internal diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, as well as support for larger projects and broader state policy efforts.
One of the new developments in this pool of awards is a robust collective of grants to Tribes and Native-led organizations that seek to elevate and integrate Indigenous knowledge and practices into conservation and environmental protection efforts across the state. Not only are we delighted to support these efforts, but we are excited to learn more about how traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous communities and Western science can work together to support healthy natural systems and communities.
This collective of Tribe and Native-led projects includes:
$185,000 to The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians to fund a natural lands conservation plan that integrates the Tribes' cultural and healthy traditions goals.
$176,037 to The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to support a program that will improve air quality and mitigate health impacts related to prescribed burning for wildfire management.
$249,850 to support a collaborative effort of five Tribal communities — The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Nez Perce Tribe — to study and assess the loss in Tribal natural resource services of importance to the governments and members of the Tribes as a result of contamination in Portland Harbor and to integrate this information into watershed and habitat restoration in the lower Willamette.
$50,000 to The Confederated Lower Chinook Tribes and Bands to purchase, protect and revitalize the Tribes' historically important Tansy Point treaty grounds.
$136,978 to the Nez Perce Tribe to support the integration of Tribal knowledge into Wallowa Lake management that will benefit Tribal members and Wallowa County communities.
$185,000 to Wisdom of the Elders to train Native American adults living in both urban areas and on reservations about Native plant nursery work and to help them develop agricultural careers and/or micro-enterprises using these new skills.
One aspect of the legacy of colonization is how it privileges the colonizer's viewpoint related to land, which is oriented around concepts of "ownership" and "private property," rather than an Indigenous perspective, which is oriented around the concept of a reciprocal relationship with the land. In short, colonization has destroyed, exploited and invisibilized Indigenous communities and their approach to environmentalism. A common example of this is the predominance of Western science information in environmental education versus an approach that also includes spiritual or cultural values and understanding of the environment. Another example is the commodification of plants by pharmaceutical companies based on Indigenous community knowledge and medicinal use of these plants.
The Tribe-led projects that we are funding this year disrupt this colonial legacy and integrate cultural and traditional ecological knowledge with Western science in their efforts to protect and restore ecosystems. They embody what we in Meyer's Healthy Environment portfolio are trying to achieve.
I'm pleased to celebrate our partnership with the grantees that I've highlighted here as well as the other organizations that we are honored to support this year. View a full list of Healthy Environment grantees here.
I look forward to entering 2019 in search of new opportunities for partnership and to build on our portfolio's growing body of environmental justice and conservation work that aims to benefit communities experiencing disparities in Oregon and change the institutions and systems that perpetuate inequities.
Last May the Healthy Environment portfolio team was honored to sponsor and participate in the University of Oregon Symposium on Environmental Justice, Race and Public Lands. The event organizers at the University Center for Environmental Futures put together an amazing lineup of presenters that included students, practitioners and academics. There were many provocative talks and ideas shared, and we wanted to share a few reflections on several of the themes that we've been talking about since the event.
Decolonization as part of our equity commitment
When Meyer began its equity journey, we started by exploring racism as a systemic, institutional problem of power, and we used this exploration as a foundation for building a shared framework for understanding oppression and privilege and how they operate at individual, institutional and systemic levels. Since then we have continued to expand our analysis by learning about how oppression operates across different identities in addition to race and how different forms of oppression interact with one another. We have also adopted new practices for operationalizing our equity in our work.
In the past couple of years, we have begun to learn more about decolonization and how deeply entrenched colonial language and practices are in the work we do as well as the work we support in communities. Like racial equity work, decolonization requires us to deconstruct thinking, processes and practices that focus on or reinforce the conquering of land and treating nature as a commodity, accumulating wealth at the expense of others, creating a hierarchy of power based on race and identity, and perpetuating a single story of history to support these systems, practices and ways of thinking. Decolonization was a key overarching theme of the UO symposium, and we heard about a number of ways that the environmental movement perpetuates colonial thinking and practices. I offer these takeaways from the symposium in the spirit of shared learning and to support our collective work to elevate the value of indigenous knowledge and leadership as well as to begin to understand the colonial narratives that are deeply entrenched in the mainstream environmental movement.
What's wrong with talking about "our public lands"?
Speakers at the symposium talked about how the dominant public lands discourse and practices used to protect public lands tend to reflect and perpetuate settler colonialism: the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society. By talking about "our public lands," we ignore the truth that all land in the U.S. was tribal land first and that these lands we call "public" were stolen from tribes. This mindset erases the history of Native communities' relationship with the land and also reinforces a possessive way of relating to land as being "ours."
Kyle Powys Whyte, one of the keynote speakers, explained that indigenous peoples' relationship with land is understood as being more consensual and viewed as an "ancestral kinship" relationship. This is very different than the dominant culture view in the U.S. and the legal and management practices that govern land as property, which are based on the view that humans are separate from nature and that nature and land are commodities.
Laura Pulido, University of Oregon professor of ethnic studies and geography, talked about how the use of the Antiquities Act to create new national monument designations that expand public lands can also reinforce settler colonialism, even in some cases where tribes and communities of color are involved in creating these new designations, but not leading them. In her analysis, she shared that "monuments" mark victories, versus "memorials," which are about not forgetting the past, including the indigenous trauma of the past. Public lands efforts don't generally include repatriation of land to tribes, which is a crucial element for meaningful decolonization, nor do they lift up the true and complete history of indigenous communities' past and current relationship to the land.
Tribes have much to teach about climate change adaptation
Whyte talked about how the narrative around climate change as a "dystopian future that humans have never experienced" also reinforces settler colonial thinking because it ignores the actual dystopian histories that tribes and indigenous communities have experienced. They were forced from their ancestral lands and displaced to new ecoregions and reservations, and they have been resilient in adapting to these displacements and new climates by developing new ways of living. He described dozens of examples of tribes and indigenous communities that have been taking their deep knowledge and lived experience with climate change, marrying that with traditional governance systems and science, and applying it to climate change adaptation planning. He noted that this experience and planning expertise is not widely understood, and it is not being fully recognized for its potential impact on climate change adaptation efforts.
Healing is a crucial part of diversity, equity and inclusion practice
Diversity, equity and inclusion trainers and practitioners presented a panel on the opening day of the symposium. The need to integrate healing into this work ran through all their remarks. Without thought and attention to healing, the damage and trauma that individuals and communities have experienced as a result of white supremacy and institutional racism can be reinforced and re-experienced. The work of developing trauma-informed, healing practices and tools needs more attention and widespread adoption. Without this essential work, we are likely to replicate tactics and behaviors that are born out of systems of oppression and privilege and not reach transformative change in our society.
Decolonizing collaborations between students, researchers and indigenous communities
Throughout the symposium, participants had the opportunity to hear a number of indigenous leaders, students and researchers work together in collaboration using approaches and practices that support decolonization and indigenous self-determination. Anna Elza Brady shared the story of the tribal-led effort to establish the Bears Ears National Monument. In contrast to other monument designation campaigns, this effort, which has been led by tribes, has centered on tribal culture, spirituality and self-determination from the very beginning. We also heard about a collaborative research effort between researchers and the Karuk Tribe that focuses on the use of traditional wildfire practices — “Fire as medicine” — to create healthier forests and support tribal sovereignty and spiritual health in tribal communities across the West. This project supports the much-needed shift away from the forest management regime emphasizing fire suppression that has dominated the West and is a key driver in fueling the severe megafires that we are experiencing.
The four reflections I’ve shared offer a small glimpse into the many rich ideas and work discussed at the symposium. Much more could be said. If you also attended and left with other key takeaways or new ideas based on what you learned or if you have reactions to this post, please share your comments and ideas.
A link to the keynote presentations by Kyle Powys Whyte and Carolyn Finney can be found here.
Steve Adelman: Peony farmer, Willamette restoration allydarionWed, 09/19/2018 - 12:34
For all his adult life, Steve Adelman has been a peony farmer. He grows so many flowers on his 200-acre farm near Salem, it takes a 2000-square-foot walk-in cooler to store them all while they await shipment to customers around the globe.
"It started as a hobby for my mom and just continued to grow over time," he says.
After an unexpected phone call six years ago, Adelman found himself in the river restoration business, too.
A neighboring nursery owner had heard some Willamette Basin restoration groups were looking for a place to store native trees and shrubs before planting them along the basin's rivers and streams. She wanted to know if Adelman would consider renting out his cooler.
"I said, 'Well, I'll at least talk to them,'" he recalled.
As it turned out, the restoration groups' needs perfectly aligned with the Adelman Peony Gardens' growing calendar. The farm used the cooler heavily between May and October. But in January, when the restoration groups needed a home for their plants, the facility sat vacant.
"It was a good way for me to keep one of my employees full time through the winter, get a little more business and utilize our cooler when it would otherwise be empty," Adelman said.
The cooler now spends its winters stuffed with hundreds of thousands of bare-root Willamette Valley plants -- 34 species in all. Its fans hum along at a constant 33 to 36 degrees.
"You want to keep the temperature down low enough so the plants stay dormant, but you want to make sure they don't freeze, either," Adelman said.
Adelman Peony Gardens plays a crucial role in the Willamette Basin restoration movement. By providing a space to store large quantities of saplings, the cooler enables restoration groups to buy plants in bulk from area nurseries through a program run by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. That makes it easier for them to get the quantity and type of plants they need, which ultimately enables them to get more restoration done, more efficiently.
From January through March, the cooler is a hub of near-daily activity, with planting contractors dropping by early in the morning to pick up orders before they head to the day's work sites.
Adelman tracks the flow of inventory on a spreadsheet. To date, more than 2 million plants have stopped over at his farm on their way to restoring hundreds of acres throughout the Willamette Basin. Some are now growing at Willamette Mission State Park, just a few miles away.
"It's neat to know I was a part of that effort," Adelman said.
By mid-March, the cooler is empty again, ready to absorb the latest crop of fresh-cut flowers and peony root stock.
“It’s Oregon’s Kitchen Table, which is through Portland State University. The city received a grant of $185,000 from the Meyer Memorial Trust for the collective policy or collective process to determine what are the long term best practices for dealing with the watershed in Lincoln County,” said Spencer Nebel, Newport’s city manager. “This is part of the pilot project that’s being funded by the state as well.”
Data collection is crucial to ensuring the well-being of human and natural communities and reducing environmental harm. A two-year grant from Meyer's Healthy Environment portfolio will support this project's efforts to ensure that natural systems are healthy and able to adapt to changing conditions and long-term impacts in the Mid-Coast region.
Building a path forward for Team WillamettedarionThu, 04/26/2018 - 10:37
The Willamette River Initiative is in the midst of a transformation.
As we enter the final year of our 10-year commitment to support efforts to achieve meaningful, measurable improvements in the health of the Willamette River and its tributaries, our grantees and partners have accomplished much. But as a recent article in the Corvallis Gazette-Times underscored, our collective quest for a healthy river isn't complete.
Summertime water temperatures throughout the basin are still dangerously warm for native coldwater fish. Toxic pollutants leach into our waterways at unacceptable levels, while invasive plants threaten to alter our native ecosystems. Floodplain habitats, while more abundant than when we began this work, remain too rare. Meanwhile, population growth and climate change are affecting our watershed in ways we don't yet fully understand.
Tackling those challenges will take sustained investment and coordination well beyond March 2019, when the Willamette River Initiative ends.
So, together with our partners, we're planning how best to support the next phase of the Willamette restoration and protection movement. We envision a stronger, more inclusive, nimble and community-driven alliance of Willamette River stakeholders, connected by an entity that provides coordination, technical assistance, and other services while advocating on members' behalf for actions that support river health.
Our community has laid the foundation for this planning process over many years and many conversations. You'll find some of that backstory in this grounding document, and also in this memo detailing our initiative's past, present, and hopes for the future.
While our vision for this new entity is still taking shape, based on our experience and the feedback we've received so far, there are certain traits we know it must have. You can find a full list here.
Conversations with our community have also given us a solid starting sense of the functions this entity could perform and support services it could provide for the field. We've outlined them here.
We have convened an advisory group to help us make this vision a reality. Group members, who are listed here, have a wealth of experience in river health and related issues. Some are longtime members of the Willamette restoration community. Others bring deep expertise in related fields. All are passionate about building a river movement that is effective, equitable and sustainable.
The advisory group will meet several times in the coming months. We're also planning opportunities for the broader Willamette community to help shape this new era in Willamette restoration, during spring and summer 2018. View our planning timeline to learn about opportunities to engage as we move forward.
We'll post periodic updates on the planning process on WRI's website, and share them in our newsletter. Subscribe to stay in the loop.
Recognizing a River Hero: Rosario Franco wins Willamette River Initiative awarddarionThu, 04/26/2018 - 10:06
It takes transformative leadership to be a true hero of the river restoration field.
As a business owner who makes his living restoring native Willamette Basin habitats, Rosario Franco is quite literally transforming this important watershed, tree-by-tree and acre-by-acre.
The Willamette River Initiative is proud to have presented Rosario with the River Hero award in December 2017. The award recognizes his outstanding contributions to the effort for a healthier Willamette.
"Rosario is respected and admired by so many people in our Willamette River restoration community," WRI Director Allison Hensey said as she presented him with the award during the initiative's December grantee meeting. "He and his crews are doing the work everyday of healing this river system."
Rosario got his start reforesting timberlands in the Oregon Cascades, before taking his first restoration planting job in Portland in the the mid-1990s. By 2006, he had launched his own business, R. Franco Restoration.
Rosario and his crews soon became indispensable members of the Willamette Basin restoration movement, known for their specialized knowledge of native plants and habitat restoration, their project planning, planting and landscape maintenance skills and their commitment to the cause. With their help, the pace of Willamette restoration has increased dramatically over the past decade.
Rosario estimated he and his crews have planted more than 14 million trees and shrubs since the early 2000s, including 900,000 last planting season alone. It's not uncommon for them to put 50,000 plants in the ground in a single day.
Despite the staggering volume of work, Rosario knows his sites intimately. He visits six or seven times before planting ever begins, spending two to three years clearing weeds, surveying the landscape and deciding which plant species are best-suited for the area. Often, he and his crews know their restoration sites better than the landowners.
When asked why he does this work, which requires long days of physically demanding labor under stormy winter skies, Rosario's passion shines.
"You fall in love with a project," he said. "You see the changes, you see how (the work sites) look when you started and then, every year, how they change. That makes you want to learn more and do the best every time."
Today, Rosario employs more than 30 people full-time, year-round. He trains his employees not just in the technical aspects of the job, but why the work is essential to protecting our drinking water and creating fish and wildlife habitat. As a result, Rosario's employees are skilled, knowledgeable and passionate about the work they do for our rivers.
"We depend on Rosario and his crew, and could not meet our goals without him," said Jeff Baker, stewardship manager at the Greenbelt Land Trust, which has worked with Rosario to plant more than 300,000 trees and shrubs in the past five years.
In fact, said Kathleen Guillozet, Willamette Model Watershed Director with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, he is "among the most respected conservation leaders in the Willamette Basin."
But beyond his reputation as an invaluable work partner, Rosario is known for his kindness, dedication and humility. That "care factor," as North Santiam Watershed Council Executive Director Rebecca McCoun put it, is what sets Rosario and his crews apart.
"Rosario treats each site as if it's his own personal property," McCoun said, and restoration outcomes are better as a result.
Rosario's contributions to the river extend beyond his day job. He has been a leader in the Willamette restoration community's cross-border exchange with restoration groups from the Rio Laja watershed in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, welcoming visitors into his home and providing learning opportunities for forestry students from the watershed northwest of Mexico City. Rosario has also shared his knowledge and experiences during speaking engagements throughout the region.
We are fortunate to count him as a hero within our river community.
Indigenous rights and public lands: A chat with Anna Elza BradykwilsonTue, 04/24/2018 - 15:39
A key goal of the Healthy Environment portfolio is to support a movement for a healthy environment that is effective and relevant for all Oregon's diverse communities. So we were delighted to have a chance to speak with Anna Elza Brady, an advocate who works to elevate the voices of people and place. Next month, Anna will be speaking on a panel titled “Decolonizing Public Lands” at the University of Oregon Symposium on Environmental Justice, Race and Public Lands. I recently caught up with her to get a preview of thoughts she will share on the panel on Friday, May 11.
Can you please share a little about the coalition of tribes that have led the Bears Ears protection effort and why this place is important to them?
Anna Elza Brady:
From the outset, the effort to protect the Bears Ears cultural landscape as a national monument was developed by elders and local Native American grassroots citizens and later led by a historic coalition of sovereign tribal nations. Five tribes — the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni, and the Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation — came together as sovereigns in 2015 and, with a unified voice, called on the president of the United States to designate 1.9 million acres of shared ancestral homelands in southeast Utah as Bears Ears National Monument.
As I have heard expressed time and again by tribal leaders and elders, the Bears Ears cultural landscape is important to the five tribes because it is the dwelling place of the spirits of the ancestors. For those peoples who have inhabited these lands since time immemorial, the spirits of the ancestors are still very much alive in the Bears Ears landscape. When tribal members travel within Bears Ears, they are visiting those who have come before, who walked these lands, harvested its foods and medicines, and left their stories etched in rock. Archaeologists estimate there are over 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites within Bears Ears National Monument — the densest and most well-preserved concentration of such sites anywhere in the United States. For the coalition of tribes that led the effort to protect Bears Ears National Monument, these sites are not simply objects of study: They are the resting places of the Ancient Ones. In this way, the Bears Ears region is sacred and must be safeguarded accordingly.
Bears Ears is also important to local people because it serves as a key source of essential natural resources, including firewood, medicinal herbs and food plants such as pinyons. In the arid desert southwest, Bears Ears is a sort of island ecosystem, providing habitat for a variety of plant and animal species, many of which are not found elsewhere in the region. Jonah Yellowman, a Navajo elder and spiritual leader who has lived in and around the Bears Ears region since birth, explained to me in 2014 how Bears Ears is “our grocery store; it’s our pharmacy.” Jonah also taught me about nahodishgish, the Navajo word for wilderness, meaning literally “places to be left alone.” Nahodishgish recognizes that some landscapes are meant to be used by human beings and others should remain as they were created: untrammeled places from which wild life emerges. Native peoples of this region know that the Bears Ears landscape — the rugged terrain of canyons and mesas fanning up from the sacred confluence of the Colorado and San Juan rivers — is a place of healing and renewal for all people and all beings.
In what ways is their organizing approach different than other national monument/public lands protection organizing efforts, particularly those led by mainstream environmental organizations?
The tribes’ organizing approach around Bears Ears National Monument has been fundamentally different than other public lands protection efforts, in part because of tribal peoples’ profound history and depth of relationship with these lands. The tribal leaders continually express and bring to bear the central role of culture and spirituality that has driven the vision of Bears Ears National Monument from the very beginning. Tribal leaders aren’t simply advocating for a place they find beautiful or enjoy visiting from time to time. They are giving voice to the land — its plants, animals, waterways, weather patterns — that has sustained their peoples since time immemorial. Bears Ears holds the songs and stories of their past and the seed-in-promise of their future. In that way, the organizing effort around Bears Ears National Monument has been a reaffirmation of identity.
I’ll never forget something that Willie Grayeyes told me on my first day helping out with the Bears Ears initiative in 2014. Willie is the board chair of UDB (Utah Diné Bikéyah) and a Navajo elder and grassroots community leader from Naatsisʼáán (Navajo Mountain). Willie is also a former Navajo Nation council delegate and currently serves on the Bureau of Land Management’s Utah Resource Advisory Council. Willie has long, silver hair that he wears bound in a traditional Navajo bun, a tsiiyéé?, and he is both quick-witted and wise. Our Ute Mountain Ute board members have teasingly nicknamed him gamuch, which means jackrabbit. Willie has been a thought-leader of the Bears Ears initiative since its inception. It was he who articulated that Bears Ears has always been first and foremost about healing. That notion has been an orienting and unifying compass for the entire Bears Ears Coalition throughout the long journey to protect and defend Bears Ears National Monument.
On that first day, I was timid and quiet, listening and observing, not wanting to impose or offend. I had written an essay about the fledgling vision for Bears Ears National Monument, and to my surprise (and mild alarm) the executive director had given copies to all the board members. I remember Willie Grayeyes approaching me late in the day, my essay in his hands. His eyes were on mine, unwavering, as he leaned in and told me, in his signature growl, both fierce and patient, “Don’t be afraid to say it’s spiritual.”
The tribes have never shied away from saying that protecting Bears Ears is ultimately a spiritual journey of healing: healing the relationship between Native peoples and their ancestral homelands, between tribes and the federal government, between people and the Earth. Organizing takes on a whole different feel and purpose when it rises out of the long history and deep spiritual connection that Native cultures and communities have with the land. Such a spiritual orientation cannot be manufactured, nor should it be co-opted. Yet individually and collectively, we all share an inimitable bond with the Earth that sustains us. Starting from that space, and constantly nourishing and returning to it, has made tribes’ organizing approach around Bears Ears uniquely resonant and powerful.
Do you see some of this approach reflected in public lands protection efforts in Oregon? If no, what’s a missing piece?
That’s a tricky question. I have not been as intimately involved in public lands protections efforts here in Oregon as I have been in Utah (even as an Oregonian!). From what I saw and knew of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument designation effort, as well as the ongoing Owyhee Canyon National Monument initiative — both areas very worthy of federal protection — tribes have not been nearly as involved as the five tribes at Bears Ears, much less in the lead.
That said, a significant facet of recent public lands protection efforts here in Oregon has been the defense of public lands against the armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016. Perhaps the most potent and resounding response to that bewildering occupation was the Burns Paiute Tribe’s statements on behalf of the 190,000-acre wildlife refuge, which lies within the their ancestral territory. Tribal Chair Charlotte Roderique cogently pointed out the irony of the armed occupiers’ claims to be returning federal public lands to their “rightful owners”: “This is still our land, no matter who is living on it.” Chairwoman Roderique told reporters, “Armed protesters don’t belong here. By their actions, they are endangering ... our sacred sites.”
Chairwoman Roderique’s words rang out across the globe, exposing not only the narrow hypocrisy of the Bundy-esque perception of the commons, but the narrative of settler colonialism that has underwritten natural resource management and allowed the Malheur occupation phenomenon to take root and persist. The Bundys’ rallying cry to “return federal lands to their rightful owners” — i.e. Euro-American ranchers and resource extractors — rings hollow in the face of Chairwoman Roderique’s resoundingly simple statement about true belonging: of people to place, rather than the other way around.
If there’s one piece that’s missing when it comes to efforts to protect public lands, in Oregon and throughout most of the country and the world, it’s this idea of letting tribes lead. Getting out of the way, stepping aside, making room for other voices to rise in their own time and in their own way. Listening: that is the biggest takeaway from the Bears Ears process, and it’s right there in the name — Bears Ears. Native people listened to the land, tribes listened to one another, and the federal government listened to the sovereign tribal nations — for a time anyway.
We’ve got to learn to listen, and not just when it’s convenient or comfortable or happens to behoove our mission or our egos. Rather than approaching tribes and Native communities with ready-made solutions, the first step that the conservation community and mainstream environmental organizations can and should take is to recognize tribes as sovereign nations with complicated modern histories and carefully guarded, highly nuanced traditional knowledge about ancestral ecosystems, organisms and lands. Then organizations that are really ready to be in it for the long haul might patiently seek to cultivate relationships and build trust with tribes. Show respect for tribal protocols and observe tribal chains of command. Be prepared for long pauses. Talk to tribes before talking about tribes. Start by asking, “What do you need?”
What would it look like if public lands protection in the West accounted for the U.S. legacy of colonization and focused on indigenous rights and tribal sovereignty?
That would look amazing! In fact, public lands are a natural space for such a reckoning to take place, where truth and reconciliation might begin. As ecologist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Potawatomi) has explained, public lands are ancestral lands after all. Where do we think public lands came from in the first place? Who did they belong to before the National Forest Service or the BLM stuck a sign in them and traced their boundaries on a map? Federal public lands, in particular, are a tremendous seed of reconciliation waiting to sprout.
Under the legal doctrine of the federal Indian trust responsibility, all branches and agencies of the federal government owe a fiduciary duty to every federally recognized sovereign tribal nation and enrolled tribal member. This solemn trust responsibility has been articulated and recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly 200 years and imposes an affirmative duty of care and loyalty on the part of the federal government toward all 573 recognized tribes and Alaska Native villages. This includes the obligation to protect tribal interests and property.
When we put the two together — the very real fact that virtually all public lands are ancestral tribal territories, alongside the doctrine of the federal trust responsibility (not to mention the perennial underfunding, understaffing, and under-enforcement that federal land management agencies face) — a holistic solution begins to emerge that could help heal the legacy of colonization and honor indigenous rights and tribal sovereignty. What if agencies and administrators charged with managing federal public lands invited tribes to the table and formally engaged the continent’s original sovereigns in helping to oversee and steward their ancestral territories? What if, with the permission and inclusion of practitioners, tribal traditional knowledges began to inform management of America’s public lands? What if tribal co-management of traditional lands and resources was the rule rather than the exception? What if healing historical wounds, inflicted on both people and place, was part of our public lands policy?
That is the vision that was realized through the designation of Bears Ears National Monument, and it’s a model that resonates in our bones and in our bedrock. It also makes sense economically, as the West transitions from a resource extraction economy to a recreation, service and information economy, in which quality of life and climate resiliency increasingly drive decisions about where to live and work.
In this process, tribes have much to teach about renewing humanity’s relationship with the natural world and dwelling in place for the long haul — should we choose to finally listen.
Anna Elza Brady hails from the Olympic Peninsula and has been a lifelong resident of the American West. She has served as co-director of the University of Oregon's Native American Law Student Association and as the policy and communications strategist for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Native American-led nonprofit, where she supported tribes in securing protection and designation of Bears Ears National Monument. Anna holds a master's degree in environmental humanities from the University of Utah.
View our cardstack to learn more about Anna and the Bear Ears National Monument leaders, here.
The Bears Ears Buttes at sunset with Navajo Mountain (Naatsisʼáán) in the distance. Bears Ears National Monument was named for these distinctive twin buttes, visible throughout the Four Corners region. (Photo by Anna Elza Brady)