Tribal Environmental Policy Acts and the Landscape of Environmental Law

Where do federally recognized Indian tribes fit in the development of environmental law? Where do American Indian and Alaska Native cultures fit into the landscape of environmental protection and natural resources management? The answer that I would give to both questions is a lot of places. Tribal cultures are deeply rooted in the web of life in North America, with particular tribal cultures rooted in particular ecosystems. Many of these roots go down through countless generations, with some reaching into mythic time.

In my view, the larger American society could benefit from enhanced appreciation of and respect for tribal cultural values concerning the web of life and from greater attention to incorporating some of these values into the framework of environmental law.

The number of lawyers and scholars working in, or at least interested in, the intersection of environmental law and federal Indian law is not insubstantial and seems to be growing. See William H. Rodgers, Jr., Environmental Law in Indian Country (2005); Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law Ch. 10 (2005 ed.). Still, the number of environmental lawyers who have given much thought to this intersection is dwarfed by the number of those who rarely, if ever, have reason to think about Indian tribal governments. This, I think, presents us with a wealth of missed opportunities.

I say “wealth” because the benefits of efforts to rectify this situation would be immense, profound, and mutual. Scholars and practitioners often say, in reference to the ways that states contribute to the development of environmental law, that the states are “laboratories.” There are fifty states. There are 562 federally recognized Indian tribes. In many ways, each tribe is unique, and what works for any given tribe may not work for others. Yet systematic research could ascertain common patterns in the development of tribal environmental law. In the absence of such research, we can only speculate about the kinds of benefits that more mainstream attention to developments in Indian country and Alaska Native environmental law could bring. The benefits would certainly include an enriching understanding about how individuals, families, and clans within tribes understand their responsibilities to their ancestors and to those who are yet to come and how they did and will find their places in the web of life.