Beyond a Land Acknowledgement: Indigenous People and Public Lands

  • Native Land is a tool that maps out Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages.

Native Land is a tool that maps out Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages. It does not represent or intend to represent official or legal boundaries of any Indigenous nations. It is instead a broadly researched and crowdsourced body of information, meant to encourage education and engagement on topics of Indigenous land — particularly, where you are located.

While this map is a valuable starting point for conversations on ancestral territory and decolonization, it is a vast simplification. For example, there are 48 historic tribes of the land now called Colorado, but only five to six are represented in this map. The Ute Nation, for instance, is not homogenous: there are seven historic bands that have since been divided into three reservations across three state boundaries.

Each year, Colorado Public Lands Day gives an opportunity to appreciate our state’s beauty and renew our commitment to protect the places we hold dear. But, we can’t stop at seeing superficial beauty and enjoying outdoor recreation opportunities. Our acknowledgement of Colorado Public Lands Day must include reflection on the problematic histories of the land and work to create a more hopeful future for tribal leadership in land management. That work is particularly important for those who are not Indigenous to the land now called Colorado.

In a virtual panel discussion (skip to 32:30 for the start of the panel), experts Ernest House, Jr. and Anna Cordova shared their perspectives with over 125 attendees on how public land managers and politicians can effectively and responsibly collaborate with Indigenous tribes, through times of coronavirus and beyond. 

Ernest House Jr., senior policy director at Keystone Policy Center, is an enrolled member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Towaoc, Colorado. He offered insight from his 12 years as Executive Director for the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) and his position as son of the late Ernest House, Sr., a long time tribal leader for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and great-grandson of Chief Jack House, the last hereditary chief of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Bio and photo courtesy of Keystone Policy Center

“Lately, I’ve been getting asked how tribes are going to deal with COVID. We knew where the gaps were. An underfunded healthcare system and existing disproportionate health concerns create a vulnerable population. Then, you have a pandemic that disproportionately impacts rural land-based towns. You’re asking tribal members to travel long distances to Farmington or further to get supplies, because many reservations are food deserts.

We’re identifying the gaps in real time, but also seeing opportunities for more connections and food sovereignty. Tribal consultation, and the groundwork laid by Indigenous leaders in the 1960’s and 70’s, is essential to securing a seat at the table for Indigenous peoples. And good tribal consultation means connecting with leaders early and often – not in the eleventh hour of a project – and a relationship structure that outlasts revolving doors in leadership on both the tribal and state sides. It’s important to build relationships stronger and understand that consultations are closed door meetings that are not meant to be broadcasted. Relationships need to have shared trust and a mutual understanding, and any information from the tribes is their information. Policies for effective tribal consultation are created when the relationship is strong, but they show their true benefits when tribes have disagreements with actions at the state level. That’s when a seat at the table is more important than ever.  

Our presence is not just symbolic. There are more than 60,000 American Indian Alaska Natives in the land we call Colorado and more than 40,000 in the Denver metro area. We represent over 200 tribal nations. Beyond that, members and leaders of tribal nations who have been forcibly removed still return to the Denver area regularly to host meetings, pow wows, and consultations. Tribes want to continue traditional ceremonial practices, and it’s important to educate the public on our own terms that we are still here, and still preserving our culture. 

As the state looks to recognize Colorado Public Lands Day, don’t forget that as Natives, we were green before green was cool. But now we’re seeing the impact of recreation to tribal communities, we’re seeing the impacts to our lands. We love mountain biking and recreating too, but there is a concern that recreation happens too close to our sacred sites. 

So what’s next? I get questions about land acknowledgements almost every day. Are they appropriate? How do you do it appropriately? Is it disrespectful? Is it just jumping on a trend? I respond by asking, in doing land acknowledgment, what is your intent? 

I would like to see an organization show how they’ve been engaged with tribal communities, not just show a policy that sits on the shelf and collects dust. I think reconciliation is always the ultimate goal, and so I tread lightly when I discuss this because for some, true reconciliation will never come. You really have to take a step up and look at how to maintain that apology – through trust, mutual understanding, and sustained work with tribal leaders.” 

Anna Cordova, lead archeologist for the City of Colorado Springs, grounds her work in maintaining relationships with Native American tribes whose ancestors were present in archaeological project sites. Her work has led her to advocate for increased tribal consultation and bringing agency and a stronger voice to tribes in telling their own histories through interpretation. Cordova has Navajo, Chicano and Irish heritage, and ties to Indigenous tribes in Colorado.

“As one of two city archaeologists in Colorado, I am often frustrated that, as a field, archaeologists put people in the past. One of my big goals is to bring modern Indigenous peoples’ experience into light and show that our traditional cultural practices have endured and will continue. 

I believe fields of conservation and archaeology could improve by bringing the Indigenous knowledge, the Indigenous science, to life. We can decolonize western thinking when we stop thinking about humans and nature as being separate from the land. We are not separate from it. Our impacts to the land are great, but we are impacted by it as well. If we could implement significant listening sessions and tribal consultations on land management, it could be truly uplifting to not only tribes, but the conservation movement as a whole.  

But not every tribal consultation is effective, inclusive, or responsible. Policies for tribal consultation must be prioritized in our memorandums of understanding, not just a box to check off or an afterthought. In my professional work, we talk and give preference to officially designated representatives of tribes. Since tribes put work into choosing decision makers, those leaders must be recognized on a government-to-government level. We must consult with them in the same way that we would with state or federal leaders. 

With Indigenous rights and public lands, land acknowledgements have their place and a lot of people find them revolutionary. A lot of the histories of these places – especially post-European contact – is not pretty to hear, but I think it’s important for people to be educated on them. As an Indigenous person, it’s been powerful to hear an Indigenous person standing up to talk about atrocious histories and how disrespect continues. But, I think that they’re not nearly enough. A land acknowledgement is simply a step toward responsible consultation of tribal leaders. 

Still, allies should never underestimate the power that they bring to conservation. As you recreate and observe Colorado Public Lands Day, be conscious of the power that the places you are using for recreation.”

Through their work and participation on this panel, these leaders have pushed forward conversations on appropriate tribal consultation and involvement in public lands management. Discussion of Indigenous rights and roles in public land management is the first step to equitable management, and the conversation must be guided by Native leaders. 

Thank you to Ernest House, Jr. and Anna Cordova for joining this panel discussion, and to all who took the time to reflect on the problematic history and hopeful future for tribal consultation and co-management for Colorado’s public lands.