Last April, in a farm field in eastern Virginia, Ann Richardson gathered with a few hundred people for a celebration. It wasn’t a party, though. Several people were crying. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was there. She was crying, too.
“I can’t really describe it,” Richardson said of that day’s event, which took place along the shores of the Rappahannock River. “Incredible. Surreal. Emotional.”
“I felt like we were surrounded by ancestors who had lived there thousands of years ago. We were standing in their hopes and their dreams for their people.”
Richardson is the chief of the Rappahannock Tribe, and on that Friday afternoon, her tribe took back more than 460 acres of ancestral land along the river that shares her tribe’s name. Last month, her tribe reclaimed another 960 acres of its homeland, too.
It took 350 years. It took survival, after her tribe was forced off of its homeland by English settlers in the 1600s, virtually erased by white supremacists in the 1900s and endured centuries of persecution sanctioned by the U.S. government.
It also took a new kind of partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as the Biden administration forges ahead with what it hopes will spur a seismic shift in the way the government approaches managing public lands: inviting tribes to be co-stewards of the land their ancestors were forcibly or illegally removed from by the government.
Since President Joe Biden took office, Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have signed off on nearly two dozen co-stewardship agreements with tribes. There are another 60 co-stewardship agreements in various stages of review involving 45 tribes. Haaland and Vilsack launched this effort in November 2021 with a joint secretarial order directing relevant agencies to make sure their decisions on public lands fulfilled trust obligations with tribes. In November 2022, the Commerce Department signed onto their order as well.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have since produced a co-stewardship guidance document, too.
To make sure their mandate trickled down to the practical, day-to-day activities of their tens of thousands of federal employees, Haaland’s and Vilsack’s order specifically requires that co-stewardship efforts be discussed in individual employee performance reviews.
Why is this a BFD? For starters, it likely means the U.S. government’s management of millions of acres of pristine public lands and natural resources will be better with tribal voices engaged. They have extensive and traditional knowledge of how to sustainably care for their land, and that, in turn, can play into efforts to mitigate climate change.
“The history of federal public lands cannot be separated from the history of tribes,” said Monte Mills, a law professor and director of the Native American Law Center at the Washington University School of Law. He wrote a 2020 white paper on tribal co-management possibilities.
“So one core starting point for redefining this relationship is the historic and continuing connections tribes have with these landscapes,” said Mills. “To have tribal folks weighing in on decisions on how lands should be managed benefits landscapes and benefits all of us.”
On a deeper level, tribal co-stewardships are simply a matter of justice.
Since the country’s founding, the U.S. government’s relationship with tribes and land has been almost entirely defined by an infuriating series of broken treaties, dispossessions and exploitation of mineral-rich lands. Beyond that, the government has almost completely erased tribes from laws that govern how public lands are managed.
“The National Park Service, in its organizing act enacted in 1916, really set up this paradigm of park management that treated parks as if nobody had ever been there,” Mills said.
“At its core,” he said, “this is about justice and restoring the rightful, in my view, place of tribal voices and their connection to these landscapes.”
Each of these land-sharing agreements is unique, and depends on the way that tribes want to engage. There are distinctions between co-management, where tribes share legal authority with the federal government to make decisions affecting the land or the species on it, and co-stewardship, where they collaborate on activities like forest-thinning.
Co-stewardship is also one of a number of options tribes can pursue to have more say in how the public land around them is used. Some tribes may be more interested in improving their consultation with state and federal governments. Others may be focused on reclaiming their ancestral lands entirely, which taps into the broader Land Back movement to put Indigenous land back in Indigenous hands.
“Co-stewardship is a pathway to land back, a pathway to justice, absolutely,” said Nick Tilsen, the president and CEO of NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led activist organization in the frontlines of the Land Back movement.
While he praised the Biden administration’s “historic” efforts on co-stewardship, he emphasized it’s not the same thing as returning land to tribes that was illegally taken from them. Giving land back is the only way the U.S. government can truly restore justice for tribes, he said, and it’s an issue likely to get congressional attention in the near future.
Co-stewardships remain “a step in the right direction,” Tilsen said. “The more we can manage land, it increases the likelihood we get it back.”
The co-stewardship agreement with the Rappahannock Tribe, for example, involved land being given back to the tribe. It also took a network of Virginia-based partners. The Chesapeake Conservancy bought it with help from a private donor, connected by musician Dave Matthews and The Wilderness Society. This donor wanted to protect the land to honor her late husband, who loved water birds. The Chesapeake Conservancy provided a permanent easement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and donated the land title to the tribe, which placed it in trust with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
An agreement with the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, meanwhile, involved the Interior Department transferring all fish production at a national fish hatchery to the tribe. Then there’s the memorandum of understanding between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and three tribes who share Lenape ancestry, which clears the path for tribal members to rebury ancestral remains on federal land in Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Pennsylvania.
Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is easily the Interior Department’s most prominent example of a tribal co-stewardship. The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and five tribes jointly oversee this monument and the federal lands within its 1.36 million-acre boundaries. The sign at the entrance features the logos of the U.S. governmental entities managing it ― alongside the insignias for each of the five tribes. Each of the tribes has written its own plan for how to manage the land, based on their more than 10,000 years of historical connections to the place that they all call by the same name, something akin to Bears Ears in each of their languages.
This partnership makes for exciting, if awkward, joint events with tribal leaders celebrating not being kicked off their land by the U.S. government for a change.
“Today, instead of being removed from a landscape to make way for a public park, we are being invited back to our ancestral homelands to help repair them and plan for a resilient future,” Carleton Bowekaty, a former Bears Ears Commission co-chair and lieutenant governor of Zuni Pueblo, said at the 2022 co-management signing ceremony alongside government officials.
“What can be a better avenue of restorative justice than giving tribes the opportunity to participate in the management of lands their ancestors were removed from?” he asked.
President Barack Obama established the Bears Ears monument right before he left office in December 2016, only to have President Donald Trump come in and dramatically scale it back in one of the largest reversals of U.S. land monument protections in history. Trump’s move opened the door for oil and gas drilling on the previously protected land, which tribes consider sacred.
When Biden took office, he fully restored the monument’s boundaries.
“This is a place that must be protected in perpetuity for every American and every child of the world,” Haaland, who is the country’s first-ever Native American cabinet secretary, said at the time. “Today’s announcement, it’s not just about national monuments. It’s about this administration centering the voices of Indigenous people and affirming the shared stewardship of this landscape with tribal nations.”
Of course, a co-stewardship agreement is one thing. Securing the federal money to effectively manage 1 million acres of land is another. Because these kinds of partnerships are relatively new, the Bureau of Land Management didn’t have a system in place for transferring money to tribes for labor costs at Bears Ears National Monument. So government officials scrambled to redo their process so tribes could submit a formal request to the Bureau of Land Management for funding.
As the deadline was approaching, “very, very senior people” at the Bureau of Land Management were on the phone with “very, very senior people at the tribal nations,” racing the clock to figure out everyone’s target costs, said an Interior Department official who requested anonymity to speak freely about the chaos it took to pull off this agreement.
“We don’t have a process. We don’t have people. We don’t have technical experts in the bureaus for this,” said this official. “We don’t have a playbook. We’re trying to create the playbook.”
“We don’t have a playbook. We’re trying to create the playbook.”
Haaland has been forging ahead with co-stewardships by using authorities the interior secretary has had all along, but that previous people in her position haven’t used. Some tribes have told Interior Department officials they didn’t even know these authorities existed.
It’s also understandable why tribes would have a healthy degree of caution about making any agreements with the U.S. government, given their historical relationship.
The Interior Department in particular was “a huge, huge force in removing and attempting to sever tribes’ connections to land,” said Hillary Hoffmann, a co-director of the Bears Ears coalition and a former law professor at Vermont Law School.
But many tribes kept up their connections to their ancestral lands through storytelling, she said. In the case of Bears Ears, she said a tribal leader in the area shared with her that his uncle had never been to the monument but could describe a particular spot near it, in detail, because of the stories passed down in his family.
“These stories have been kept alive for generations, the significance and the ways ancestors used these places for medicine or food, subsistence, plant gathering, wood gathering have stayed with tribes, despite all this history, the attempted assimilation, the boarding schools policy….” said Hoffmann, trailing off as she listed horrific injustices tribes have faced.
“It’s remarkable and profound,” she added. “I’m not a member of any of these tribes. I’m not Indigenous. It’s emotional for me, so I can’t imagine how it feels for tribes.”
It’s hard to say how the Biden administration’s efforts on tribal co-stewardship will play out in the long term. Lasting policy change takes time and commitment. There’s a lot of government bureaucracy involved in overseeing public lands. Presidents and their political appointees come and go.
But for the moment, Haaland has already opened up pathways for tribes to have a real voice in managing public lands in a way that hasn’t been seen before.
“The potential for a real paradigm shift is being potentially realized,” said Mills.
This movement toward co-stewardship is also happening amid a shift toward a broader policy of revitalization for tribes, whether it’s in language, culture or economic development. Two years into office, Biden has invested billions in tribal infrastructure and water rights settlements. He’s put record numbers of Indigenous people in his administration, the least of whom include Haaland and National Park Service director Charles Sams. He’s also restarted the White House Tribal Nations Summit, which gives tribal leaders direct access to administration officials to talk about priority issues.
For Richardson, it feels like the country is in a defining moment for reconciling its past ― and in a way that benefits everyone.
“The government is a forever partner for us,” said the tribal chief. “Because they’ve stood with us so that we can regain this land that was lost. They’re standing with us ― for us to teach them our ways, for them to teach us the science ― of why we care for the land the way we do. To be able to share that and teach that to the world.”
CORRECTION: This story has been amended to state that the National Park Service’s organizing act was enacted in 1916, not 1960. It has also been updated to clarify that Hoffman was formerly a law professor and currently is affiliated with the Bears Ears coalition.