Published October 9, 2016
FORT WASHAKIE, WYOMING – From Alaska to Arizona, Ontario to Oregon, tribal leaders and traditionalists gathered to sign “The Grizzly: A Treaty of Cooperation, Cultural Revitalization and Restoration” in a weeklong sequence of signings that began at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) in Ottawa, and concluded on the Wind River Indian Reservation at the Northern Arapaho tribal complex. AFN National Chief, Perry Bellegarde, was the first signatory to the treaty, followed by the AFN Regional Chiefs, before the treaty traveled to the Piikani Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy.
“Within this struggle to protect the grizzly and see the Great Bear reintroduced to tribal nations from the Rockies to the Pacific where biologically suitable habitat exists, we find many of our struggles – the struggle to defend our sovereignty, our treaty rights, consultation mandates, and our spiritual and religious freedoms,” explained Chief Stan Grier, Chief of the Piikani Nation, in his opening address. “Should we lose this fight over the grizzly, we may lose any part of those at any time,” he warned. Supported by the Piikani Nation Council, Chief Grier initiated the treaty, only the third of its kind in 150 years. Chairman Ken St. Marks of the Rocky Boy Chippewa-Cree supported Grier’s assessment, and elaborated upon the consultation process. “They call it consultation,” said St. Marks, “but all they are doing is just pulling our chains to make us feel good about ourselves because they never listen to us. It seems like the government is out of control again, and it’s good that we are coming together again on this important issue.”
When the treaty moved to the Blackfeet Nation, Chief Earl Old Person, Chief of the Blackfeet, signed the treaty alongside traditional and ceremonial leaders, including Leon Rattler and Larry Ground, Headsmen of the Crazy Dogs Society. “I have been in government a longtime,” began Piikani Councilman, Brian Jackson, at the Browning event, “and I want to share with you that this treaty is high on the list of importance and actions in all of those years.” The treaty movement comes as the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is on the cusp of removing protections from the grizzly in Greater Yellowstone, which will enable the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to open trophy hunts on the Great Bear that tribes across North America revere as sacred. Some fifty federally recognized Indian tribes, supported by the AFN, have formalized their opposition to delisting the grizzly from the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“Delisting and trophy hunting? How about an alternative: creating linkage zones between these fragmented, isolated populations; returning the Great Bear to sovereign tribal lands; and committing to a future day when the grizzly on the flag will not be the only one you can see in California,” Chief Grier asked during his speech to an overflow crowd in Jackson Hole that received a standing ovation. Grier warned that restrictions on land usage will be lifted in the region if protections are removed from the grizzly, and cited prospective mines USFWS has conceded may become operational upon delisting. “We are fully aware that the plague of corporate greed that will be visited upon Yellowstone with the opening of these sacred lands, will be visited upon the Crown of the Continent next,” he said, highlighting the vulnerability and potential of sacred site destruction if USFWS continues to ignore the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Among the tribal government delegations at the Jackson treaty signing were the Eastern Shoshone and the Shoshone-Bannock, two of the historic Yellowstone treaty tribes. “When this first started to happen,” said Eastern Shoshone Chairman Darwin St. Clair, Jr., “we didn’t have consultation.” St. Clair described the evolution of a dialogue with the federal government and the State of Wyoming, and explained, “but we are not in agreement about how we protect our grizzly,” though he stressed the importance of continuing “to share our reasons.” Chairman St. Clair directly related the Dakota Access Pipeline conflict with that of grizzly delisting. “Nowadays our tribes have to get along. We don’t have a choice. We have DAPL going on in Cannon Ball, North Dakota to protect the water, and today we have our grizzly that we’re trying to protect.”
In a wide-ranging address, Shoshone-Bannock Vice Chairman, Darrel Shay, returned to the theme of tribal unity. “Those who study our history realize that as Indian people we should have come together more. If we’d have come together, like what happened with Custer, things probably would have been very different,” he suggested. “But with the signing of this treaty, we are one step closer to that. This is a fantasy come true,” he said. “I would hope that the things we are talking about with this treaty will be adopted, and that we can show everybody how important this web of life is. I think we have a strong message.” Vice Chairman Shay clarified the issue of consultation, “There has been some consultation, but it has not been meaningful.” The mandated consultation benchmarks USFWS has to meet are “meaningful” and “pre-decisional.”
“The grizzly is the wisdom keeper. Without the grizzly we couldn’t be who we are,” Vice Chairman Shay illustrated, a point reiterated by former Hopi Chairman, Ben Nuvamsa, and Tewa Bear Clan Chief, Cliff Ami. In an inspired oratory fitting of such a historic occasion, Sgt-at-Arms Lee Juan Tyler of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes urged the defense of the sacred and the implementation of the tribal alternative to delisting and trophy hunting, the reintroduction program at the heart of the treaty. “The grizzly bear is sacred. The grizzly needs more habitat and so let’s give him some,” he rallied the crowd, listing areas the grizzly should be returned to.
USFWS spokesperson, Serena Baker, responded to the treaty movement by claiming that tribes had widely undertaken government-to-government consultation on grizzly delisting and that, as members of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) – Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee (YES), the Eastern Shoshone, Shoshone-Bannock and Northern Arapaho supported delisting. Baker’s claims are contradicted by the facts. In the glare of national press and social media, each of those tribes very publicly signed the treaty, and all have been party to prior resolutions opposing delisting. Mary Erickson, Chair of the IGBC-YES, conceded that “nobody on the committee” believes the Eastern Shoshone, Shoshone-Bannock or Northern Arapaho support delisting. Treaty signers Crawford White, Sr. and Herb Welsh of the Northern Arapaho Council of Elders confirmed that USFWS has made no attempt to consult with them.
Further treaty signings in the Black Hills, Oklahoma, California and British Columbia are planned. “We must recognize that this struggle for the protection and preservation of the Great Bear is a struggle for the very spirit of the land – a struggle for the soul of all we have ever been – or will ever become,” concluded Chief Grier. “Here is where we make our stand.”
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