That the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and Native Americans have, until recent times, had an antagonistic and unfortunately one-sided relationship, is a matter of historical fact. But over the last 15 years, the two have begun to turn a new page. USACE and the tribes have recognized that what they can potentially achieve by working together is too powerful to ignore.
“We have ignored tribal governments for 150 to 200 years,” USACE’s Senior Tribal Liaison (TL) Georgeie Reynolds admitted. “There’s a vast pool of knowledge out there. They know their land better than we do. They’re perfect partners.”
The two are partners by law in fact. USACE and all other federal agencies have responsibilities to federally recognized Native American tribes resulting from the federal trust doctrine. While the doctrine may be constitutional fact, building strong relations with Native American tribes is a matter of trust.
“Our history with the tribes in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries is not good,” Reynolds acknowledged. “So we have a lot of baggage with Native Americans up to this day, which we are trying to overcome.”
The drive to change the relationship began in the mid-1990s following a 1994 presidential memorandum that called on federal agencies to work more closely with Native American tribes. USACE held a series of consultation meetings seeking input from tribes in 1995-1996. Nearly 200 tribes participated in the meetings or offered written comments expressing concerns from shoreline protection to access to sacred sites. Reynolds remembers the meetings well.
“I organized the one in the Alaska District. Then, as now, the issue there was erosion. All that information was taken back to headquarters and a team was assembled to make recommendations. In 1998, they came out with six Tribal Policy Principles.”
In addition to the consultations, the principles grew out of the federal trust doctrine, treaties, executive orders (EOs), statutes, and regulations regarding the relationship between the U.S. and tribal governments. They are:
- meet the trust responsibility;
- honor the government-to-government relationship;
- acknowledge the inherent sovereignty of tribes;
- engage in pre-decisional consultation;
- protect natural and cultural resources when possible; and
- find opportunities to use existing authorities to encourage economic capacity-building and growth.
USACE’s Tribal Policy Principles were bolstered by EO 13175, signed on Nov. 6, 2000, by President Bill Clinton and more recently by a presidential memorandum strengthening EO 13175 signed by President Barack Obama on Nov. 5, 2009.
EO 13175 set out a specific set of requirements for all federal agencies regarding their responsibilities to consult and coordinate with tribes. The 2009 presidential memorandum on EO 13175 directs agencies to develop a plan of actions for providing regular and meaningful consultation and strengthening the government-to-government relationship with American Indian tribes. It also requires that each agency submit to the director of the Office of Management and Budget a detailed plan of actions the agency will take to implement EO 13175 within 270 days after the date of the memorandum. Annually thereafter, a progress report on the status of each action included in its Plan of Actions together with any proposed updates to its plan will be submitted.
The result of the various memoranda and executive orders has been a greatly expanded tribal relations program within USACE. In 1996, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works hired its first tribal liaison to improve relations with Native American nations and help establish a tribal relations program throughout USACE. By 1998, a few district offices, largely those in districts near the Missouri River and Columbia River tribes, had TLs on staff. Today, there is a TL or point of contact in every USACE district and division office.
Reynolds was named the first full-time senior TL at USACE Headquarters in 2003, tasked with overseeing the national program and advising USACE in decisions affecting tribal issues. The senior TL sits on the Department of Defense (DoD) Native American Integrated Product Team, which facilitates communication on tribal issues within the department. She also is a sitting member of the Interagency Working Group on Indian Affairs, which reports to the administration on efforts to improve tribal consultation.
“Today, every district has a tribal liaison,” Reynolds said. “Even if there are no tribes in say, the Savannah District now, there were. We, the federal government and the Army, removed many tribes from the East Coast to Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Nebraska, etc. And they have a long memory. So if the Savannah District is doing something in a particular valley, they have to let the appropriate tribe in Oklahoma know. Every Corps district has a point of contact, if not a full tribal liaison, because prior to 1492, all land was Indian country.
“The Corps does the right thing if it knows what that is. That’s why the most important component of this program is education,” said Reynolds. “A lot of people do not know about our trust responsibility, tribal sovereignty, and so on. When we partner with tribes, we can fulfill this responsibility to them as well as fulfill our Corps missions. And of all our major mission areas, environmental restoration seems to be the most popular in Indian country.”
Indeed, the balance between human society and the land is ingrained in Native American culture. As a consequence, tribes have always valued the earth and hold it sacred. Among the many concrete and symbolic steps USACE has taken in improving its tribal relations is the recent return of 310 acres of land used for flood control in New Mexico. Formerly part of the USACE Galisteo Dam Project located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the land was transferred to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be held in trust for the Kewa Pueblo tribe in July 2010. The transfer was the first of its kind for USACE in New Mexico, which followed a request from the Kewa several years ago.
At the transfer ceremony, Kewa Pueblo Gov. Tony Tortalita reflected the sentiments of his and other Native American tribes, saying, “This is the happiest day of my life. Mother Earth has heard our prayers and all these people have helped our land return to us.”
Elsewhere in New Mexico, USACE is demonstrating that it can fulfill its mission, meet its trust obligations, and help build economic capacity within local tribes at the same time. Meeting its Tribal Policy Principles and executing the mission are complementary activities, Albuquerque District TL Ron Kneebone affirmed.
“The Corps’ Civil Works projects are typically cost-share programs,” Kneebone explained. “One of the things we promote with our Native American partners is for them to take an interest in the management of the project but to also take an active part in the engineering, design, and research that is required to execute it. We have their environmental people do the environmental studies and compliance. If they wish, they can have some of their companies participate in design.
“We have a couple of dams in New Mexico located on tribal lands. The Corps has special authorization to enter into a cooperative agreement with those tribes. We acquire the services of the tribes to support our operations’ activities. We fund the tribe to carry out activities on behalf of the Corps – changes in the amount of water stored or special deviations from the usual water control manual. By funding these specifically targeted activities, the tribes build a capacity they would not otherwise have, for example, in contracting or compliance activities. That not only provides economic benefit to the local community, but it aids the tribe’s capacity to govern itself. Self-determination is a goal of our Tribal Policy Principles.”
Partnering with Native American tribes is useful for USACE in subtle ways as well. Tribes’ ability to enter into exclusive agreements with the federal government uncomplicated by strictures from local state and municipal authorities can advance Corps projects more quickly and offer more options.
“It provides something for the government in that it gives us a different tool that we would not otherwise have,” Kneebone said. “Tribes have a unique relationship with the federal government that states or other local governments don’t have.”
Contrary to the prevailing attitude of the past, the relationship can be a thoroughly complementary one. Reynolds likes to stress to USACE employees and leaders that interactions with American Indian tribes present abundant opportunities, not impediments to project execution as some believe.
“The chairwoman of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts says that she looks to the Corps of Engineers as the most important federal agency. Why? Because we deal with water and water is life. So we have a lot in common when it comes to preserving water quality, infrastructure etc.
“Through history, tribes have impeded projects moving forward because that was their only channel of input,” Kneebone said. “By seeking tribes as partners, and by bringing them in early on to develop the scope and goals of a project, it becomes theirs. They become advocates of the project. You can move the project forward with more alacrity. The compliance issues are simpler that way.”
Funding Native American tribes and enterprises to work with USACE on various projects builds on the potential economic activity within tribal lands and the development of business, technical, and engineering talent within the tribes – some of it potentially available to the Corps itself. USACE is one of the major sponsors of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).
“We have a booth at the AISES convention every year in November,” Reynolds added. “We hire Native American graduate students and recent college graduates from AISES’ ranks and they become part of our workforce. The national representative to AISES is Kimberly Oldham, a Muskogee Creek/Yuchi Indian from Oklahoma. She manages portions of John Day Dam on the Columbia River. She won AISES’ Professional Engineer of the Year last year and is a beacon to Native American people. They see what she’s done and say, ‘Well, we’ll give the Corps a try.’ When we have our booth at AISES, we’ll typically have 10 or 20 people gathered there, all Native Americans from around the country.
“One of my favorite moments at an AISES conference was about four years ago. We had a panel of Native American Corps employees and one of them showed a slide of a dam and said, ‘I run that dam,’ to a crowd of students. It made a big impression on them.”
Native Americans number among the group of district tribal liaisons as well. The Portland, Ore., District TL is a Saginaw Chippewa; the Seattle, Wash., assistant TL is an Oglala Sioux. In St. Louis, Mo., a Citizen Band Pottawatomie tribe member is the Corps’ liaison, while the Omaha, Neb., TL is an Osage tribe member, and the Jacksonville, Fla., TL is a Muscogee Creek member. Tribal members are also TLs at the Engineer Research and Development Center and at the Sacramento District.
Tribal liaisons are sometimes confused with the large number of archaeologists employed by USACE as a result of its infrastructure management mission. But they come from a variety of professional backgrounds, from project managers and historians to biologists and engineers.
“People often ask me,” Reynolds said, ‘What does it take to be a tribal liaison? Do you have to be an archeologist or anthropologist?’ The answer is no. It takes a certain personality, a certain willingness to work with people, a certain curiosity about different cultures.
“The Tribal Nations Community of Practice [CoP] comprises about 180 members and growing,” Reynolds said. “We have annual CoP meetings. This year, our 7th, the meeting is in Tulsa, Okla., co-sponsored by the Tulsa District and the Cherokee Nation.
“I have talented people to turn to when I have a question,” Reynolds said. “There are people like Ron Kneebone who have done this longer than I have and everyone brings their own gift and talent.”
Though each TL may have his or her own specialty and spend much of their time exercising that specialty at the district level, each has tribal consultative responsibilities, often including issues surrounding sacred Native American artifacts and human remains. The treatment of these issues is central to the Tribal Nations CoP.
Human remains found on federal property come under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, at the behest of American Indians distressed by decades of desecration of their burial and sacred sites on federal lands. This act dovetails with the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), which also applies on Indian lands, and the overarching National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which applies to all lands, including private land. Sites are protected from plunder by strict legal and monetary penalties. As a result, when human remains or artifacts are discovered in the course of a USACE project, the local district TL must be informed and must begin consultation with the relevant tribes before the project can progress. The archeologist is, of course, also involved.
“We work very hard in our CoP to differentiate ourselves from the archeologists,” Reynolds noted. “They’re interested in NAGPRA, Sections 106 and 110 of the NHPA, and others, whereas tribal liaisons are also interested in clean air, clean water, environmental infrastructure, flooding, drought, and other environmental concerns. I may add that as a courtesy, if you’re talking to a tribal member who has a concern that may not be under Corps jurisdiction, you don’t say, ‘That’s not in my lane.’ A tribal member once asked me about access to grave sites that were on property owned by a different agency. I found out who the tribal liaison was in that geographic area for that agency and asked on behalf of the tribal member for access to those graves. You go the extra distance.”
A tribal liaison is a generalist, but even generalists need training. That’s why USACE directs its TLs to training programs including DoD’s free “American Indian Cultural Communications Course.” Other programs include a free 2.5-day course, Consulting With Tribal Nations, held twice a year and taught by Reynolds and other USACE instructors. There is also a cultural immersion course, which gets USACE employees out from behind their desks and onto an American Indian reservation for a week.
“‘Native American Perspectives on Corps Projects’ immerses students in one of four different reservation settings [with the Osage near Tulsa, the Pueblo de Cochiti near Albuquerque, the Lac du Flambeau near Detroit, or the Umatilla near Pendleton, Ore.] and can be a transformative experience,” said Reynolds. “This is Prospect Course 950 in the ‘Purple Book.’”
Kneebone says of the Cochiti course: “It really is a mind-expanding experience because everyone is going toward ‘green’ today. Learning the Native American perspective on the earth, which is almost the same as the saying, ‘The Earth is Sacred,’ is really important. It influences your world view and how you’re going to make decisions about Corps projects.”
The Cochhiti course is a direct result of improved tribal relations and, for Kneebone, illustrates one of the main challenges faced by USACE personnel throughout the world – working within different cultures.
“One of the dams we built destroyed 50 percent of the land base of the Pueblo de Cochiti tribe. Needless to say, they weren’t happy with the Corps of Engineers and for 60 years, we had a very difficult relationship. As a result of leadership developments within the Cochiti community and the Corps commander of the Albuquerque District, a process of rapprochement began. They basically recognized that after 50 years, the dam wasn’t going any place, the tribe wasn’t going any place, and theirs was a mutually destructive attitude. In 2000, they started building a partnership and that culminated with our class this past spring.
“The course discussed the impact of the dam on the tribe’s way of life from their perspective. It was a good class and good for some of the military folks who attended not just in building relationships with Native Americans but in building relationships with people from another culture. We’re a worldwide organization. We work with all sorts of different cultures and this is kind of a leadership class in that it takes us outside the comfort of a Corps office and puts us out in the real world where we have to deal with people who differ with us even at the basic level of interpreting problem definition.”
Finding solutions to complex problems in a sustainable way is at the heart of what the USACE does. Sustainable solutions are likewise part of the continuum of Native American tradition. The two intersect in almost every USACE project, which explains why USACE has made as much progress with tribes as any federal agency, according to Reynolds and Kneebone.
“I believe our tribal program is ahead of most other agencies,” Reynolds said. “It’s because we do so much development, we work on private land, we build many, many things, we are a highly visible agency.”
“All federal agencies are asked to coordinate with the Bureau of Indian Affairs so that there’s not duplication of effort,” Kneebone added. “But I agree with Georgeie in that the Corps is different from all other agencies in terms of how targeted its programs are. The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, those types of land management agencies tend to focus their activities within particular venues. The Corps plays an active role in the day-to-day management of water resources, flood risk, and environmental restoration projects. Those things tend to make us more aggressive in terms of seeking out relationships and partnerships.”
And the USACE will continue to build its relationship with Native American tribes in years to come. It’s a matter of trust.
This article first appeared in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong, 2010-2011 Edition.