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Haaland, tribal leaders stress importance of Indigenous knowledge

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) commemorated Indigenous Peoples’ Day on Oct. 7 with a virtual event highlighting the importance of Indigenous knowledge in the stewardship of land, water and wildlife.

Haaland’s guests were Chairwoman Frances Charles of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, former Chairwoman Karen Diver of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Wizipan Garriott of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who is principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

In an opening statement, Haaland noted the historic climate changes taking place and said there are no better allies than Indigenous communities to help combat that change.


“We use nature-based solutions,” said Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary. “Indigenous people carry generations of knowledge that is passed down to us through our families. It is by incorporating Indigenous knowledge into our work that we can restore balance to nature. My responsibility to future generations is ingrained in me by my culture and traditions. I believe we all have that obligation to the future.”

As a child, Haaland spent summers with her grandfather who passed down agricultural traditions and taught her that people should take from the earth only what they can use. She convened the virtual event so Native American leaders could share how their traditions are shaping the work of climate resiliency and adaption.

“Passing the torch represents an opportunity for Indigenous people to do exactly what Haaland was taking about,” Garriott said. “The Bureau of Indian Affairs will carry on this important work across the federal government.”

Charles told a story about her 1,000-member tribe. The Lower Elwha Klallam is located on the northern coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Charles said the tribe has lived in balance with the salmon runs for thousands of years. In 1855, the tribe signed a treaty with the U.S. government which preserved its gathering rights, but in 1915 a dam was built a few miles upstream. The dam blocked 95% of the river and reduced the salmon runs to a tiny fraction of what they once were. In 1925, a second dam was built. The tribe worked for nearly a century to get the dams removed before Congress, in 1992, passed an law that launched the removal process. Demolition began in 2011 and was completed in 2014.

Wampanoag Tribe Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais. (Courtesy photo)

“Dam removal was possible because we were inspired by all the sacrifices of our ancestors and for our future generations,” Charles said. “We never gave up. Our name means strong people and that is what we have shown.”

The tribe forged strong relationships with local governments, states, federal agencies, local businesses, other tribes and the National Park Service. It also worked closely with the National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure the dam removal would not wipe out any salmon runs.

“They helped us develop hatchery programs that preserve native genetics without destroying wild fish,” Charles said. “This is the largest ecosystem restoration project ever undertaken in the U.S. and it isn’t finished yet. Things are definitely moving in the right direction.”

Diver said members of the Fond du Lac Band, located in Cloquet, Minnesota, worked with researchers from the University of Minnesota and were involved in state actions and permitting activities with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help protect its resources, including wild rice.

“We take young, college-educated tribal members and they do field work together so [researchers from the university] can hear the stories about generational learning, much like Madam Secretary referenced,” Diver said. “We know we need the Western science as well. These researchers … were coming from hydrology and biology and not thinking about what the tribes need. They were motivated by their own research agenda.”

She talked to the researchers about sovereignty and protocols of asking permission to come onto tribal land. In order for them to understand how the tribe takes care of their own resources, the researchers needed to be trusted. That meant going into the field and implementing data agreements with the tribe and respecting sovereignty about where the work is done and whether or not it can be published

Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe Chairwoman Frances Charles. (Courtesy photo)

“They soon learned that it was multidisciplinary because [the research] was a cultural activity and important for our youth to be involved,” Diver said. “It is a public health issue because [wild rice] is part of our traditional foods and diet. These researchers got changed by this project. Going into the community and hearing from Elders, they had to give up control. When we can exert our sovereignty and marry our research with Western science, we can take care of our relatives much better.”

Indigenous knowledge is also being used in projects by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard, an island in Massachusetts.

“The Creator blessed us with Mother Earth and our gifts, along with the responsibility to maintain them,” Andrews-Maltais said. “We have stewarded our lands and waters and we are taking care of our Mother Earth so she can take care of us in future generations. What is happening to our Mother was not meant to be and we must act quickly to return to our old ways to restore our balance and help our Mother heal.”

Andrews-Maltais said cranberries is an important crop for the Wampanoag Tribe that is maintained in their bogs in a natural and traditional way which doesn’t require intentional flooding to increase harvest. Andrews-Maltais believes blending Indigenous knowledge with Western science will enhance the ability to protect the land and water.

“We have been experiencing the effects of climate change for years; the 100-year storms are almost annual now,” she said. “Our beaches and ponds, wetlands and bogs are feeling the effects of climate change and these impacts are changing the delicate eco-balance of our Mother Earth, which sustains us.”

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy destroyed the protection of the dunes, so the tribe reached out for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for funding. The beach nourishment and restoration project to regrow the dunes that protect the bogs was successful. She said the dunes have since been rebuilding themselves with firmly rooted grasses.

“The dunes went from being a tribal initiative to an island-wide initiative because we are all in it together, especially on an island,” Andrews-Maltais said. “By taking our traditional knowledge and ingraining it with contemporary science, we have been able to reproduce and restock our ponds. A lot of our tribal members still use our oysters and other sea life to sustain themselves as well as supplies to make a living or supplement their living. We know we are restoring our Mother to her health as we evolve into a more responsible community of human beings.”

Haaland agreed that it is important for the Indigenous knowledge to be handed down.

“As we face the climate crisis, Indigenous knowledge will be an invaluable resource that must be acknowledged and elevated,” Haaland said. “The truth is, if we are going to be successful in tackling the climate crisis, we must empower the original stewards of our lands.”

Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at