Posted by: Aandeiyeen | January 29, 2015

Bill of Responsibilities? Reinstituting Relationships and Traditional Laws/Governance

In Tlingit culture, it is customary to introduce yourself by stating who you are related to and where you are from. We acknowledge relationships so those listening know how they are related to the speaker. We also acknowledge local clans whose lands we stand on and thank them for allowing us to be there. This conscious awareness of relationships traditionally made Tlingits conservationists. Natural surroundings help define who we are, how we live our lives, and helps determine our relationship to our environment and each other. We are a place-based culture due to the bounty of the land. There is a Tlingit say: “when the tide is low, the table is set“. We live on a rich and healthy diet that has proven health benefits which exceed store-bought processed foods. But traditional foods are important not just because of nutritional benefits. Many values are associated with traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering. To repeat from a previous post, below are a few illustrative examples of such values:

  1. Respect. Respect for the land; respect for the clans that manage certain areas; respect for resources that have given themselves to us for our nourishment.
  2. Sharing. We share our harvest with family, with elders, with those that cannot hunt for themselves. As another saying goes, “if we do not share, the food sticks in our throats.”
  3. No waste. We do not take more than what is needed, which is a basic conservation principle. Proper stewardship and respecting the limits of the land were acknowledged because if we offset this balance, we would destroy what we depend on.

Technologies and methods used to harvest, fish, and hunt may have changed but the values remain. We must keep these values in mind when managing lands, waters, and ourselves.

Traditional Relationships to Lands and Waters
Indigenous peoples have occupied their territories since time immemorial and have established ways and means of relating to each other and to the land. This relationship is based on a very pragmatic understanding that if we fail to consider what the environment has to offer and that we must respect its limits – we will cease to exist. Lands are a link to our ancestors and the legacy we will pass onto future generations. As indigenous peoples, respect and responsibilities guided our conduct for we cannot envision our existence without the lands and waters that nourish us.

To uphold our values and ensure responsible stewardship, clans required permission prior to going onto another clan’s territory. Yet under current land management, foreign corporations can enter into our ancestral territories without permission from the local communities – those whom have the strongest relationship to the land and will experience the brunt of any associated risks from development.

Land Management: Property/Commerce under a Western paradigm
It’s a long-standing assumption that Western style development, political structures and governing documents, and lifestyles are the world’s singular shining example of “progress” and that all societies should aspire to these standards. Yet the health of the planet has been compromised by these practices which are based on a false belief that the earth has unlimited capacity to absorb pollutants and that land can be modified/manipulated to increase its capacity.

Laws are supposed to be a codification of a society’s values – agreed upon principles on how citizens conduct ourselves and our affairs. Our decision making process shows how we value and view the world around us. In the United States, environmental laws are written by Congress under the authority of the property and commerce clause in the U.S. Constitution. Federal agencies responsible for promulgating regulations to enforce these laws are crafted through a property/commerce lens: this is how land is seen and valued. Land is seen as a passive, non-living entity whose resources need to be harnessed to have utility (and therefore purpose/value) for human beings. For Western society, protection of humankind (which extends to corporations which are considered people too) is first and foremost. Protection of the environment and non-human communities are deemed important only if doing so does not have adverse impacts to the cash-economy.

Multiple Use Management and Conflicting Values
Through a variety of means, such as executive orders and legislation, Tribes throughout the country had ceded lands to the United States. Here in Southeast Alaska for example, the Tongass National Forest was established by presidential proclamation without input from the affected communities and particularly not with the clans and tribes. These lands are considered publicly owned and are managed primarily under a “multiple use” policy. This naturally leads to conflicts over how land ought to be utilized and how to ascribe its values. Western society focuses on the desires of the current moment and justify these decisions with a false belief that technology will evolve to fix problems that result from wanton consumption, rather than addressing the values and behaviors that drive this consumption.

Improper land management will continue to erode our communities’ sovereignty, cultural existence, and well-being by destroying our traditional resources. When we separate ourselves from the environment that sustains us and view it solely as property/commerce, we lose the understanding that it is our responsibility to maintain a balanced relationship to the natural world. We fail to appreciate something so precious, such as clean water or salmon, and their values when we distort or diminish that value by seeing the world through a commodity-lens.

We need to look towards alternatives – including the governing principles and guiding values that came before us.

Bill of Responsibilities
It’s unfortunate that in the United States we have a Bill of Rights but not a Bill of Responsibilities that address how we interact with our environment and each other. This was something the Tlingit had embedded in our culture through our values system. For example:

  • Acknowledging the need for responsible environmental stewardship
    • Our livelihoods and well-being depend on responsible and well-calculated environmental management to not off-set the balance of ecosystem
  • Family/Community come before individual entitlements
    • Status and wealth was determined by how well you could provide for others
    • Future generations must be considered during decisions

These weren’t simply traditional protocols – this was tribal law. Values such as respect, sharing, and do not waste were foundations of how we governed ourselves and determined our relationship to the environment. Within this governing framework, we cannot view land solely as economic opportunity and property – especially for the short-term and with limited benefits to an elite few. Further, under this framework that is based on relationships, we cannot talk about environment and humans separately. We can only acknowledge that we are part of the ecosystem. This should be self-evident but it’s difficult to appreciate when environmental laws and management are framed under a property/commerce principles, thereby placing all of the environment under human control and for our economic benefit in a cash-economy paradigm.

We need to look at both the past and towards the future during our decision making and carefully evaluate what values should guide that process. As a species, we cannot claim any entitlement rights when it comes to the environment. Based on a pragmatic understanding that community welfare and particularly out of respect for future generations, we only have responsibilities to the environment.



  1. Many thanks for continuing your blog. Are SE tribes stakeholders at SEACC’s table?

    • Gunalcheesh/thank you for reading my blog. I’m not sure if I understand your question correctly but I am interpreting this question to be whether there is outreach to and representation of Native interests within SEACC’s scope of work.

      I should note that I am a former SEACC intern – an internship I actively solicited for them to create when we (my hometown and SEACC) had shared concerns over mining activity in the Yakutat Forelands. I no longer work there as of 2011 and I have been with Central Council’s Native Lands & Resources Department for a little over two years now. I should also add in a disclaimer that this blog is my personal views, I take ownership of my writing as these posts are not representative of those I work with.

      But to answer the question as I understand it, there is a working relationship between SEACC and some Native groups, at least in regards to mining and clean water issues. I can’t speak to everyone’s history and experience with them as I know there have been points of contention in the past and that still lives on into the present with some Native groups. And for those that do work well with SEACC, I’m not saying that everything always goes smoothly. Building and maintaining trust among any organizations is challenging. SEACC has provided information and technical advice for Tribes when Tribes have requested it. Clean water has been one focal point that has been uniting different groups who generally do not get along – Tribes, commercial fisheries, tourism, traditional/customary use fisherfolks, etc. The perspectives are different, but overall the goal is similar: protecting the health of our environment and waters. The values that motivate us for this goal, what means is most appropriate to achieve that goal, and what is the standard to go by in order to consider ‘success’ can, and will, differ.

      I intend on writing a post about “wilderness” and why I cringe when people refer to me as an ‘over-educated tree hugger’ that believes in and advocate for concepts like wilderness protection (not me at all) because of my former affiliations and networks. There certainly is a disconnect between mainstream environmentalism and Indigenous peoples I hope to touch upon in a future post – that post will be motivated by some personalities I have worked with in the past as well as witnessing how other organizations have conducted themselves while trying to work ‘with’ Native communities.

      Gunalcheesh for your question and for taking the time to reach out to me.

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