Interview of author

How would you define the success of a Native/non-Native environmental alliance?

The success of an alliance can be defined by its ability to defeat the environmental threat, its ability to sustain Native/non-Native relationships after its immediate environmental cause fades away (whether it’s won or lost), or even to deepen and broaden these political, economic, and cultural relationships. Quite a few of the white neighbors started out working with tribes out of environmental self-interest, but in the process learned about local Native histories, protecting sacred sites, or standing up to anti-Indian violence.

These alliances have to navigate their way through several minefields at once, careful not to step too far in one direction or another, and careful to steer a path between different possible directions. The questions they face are pretty similar to those faced by other ethnonational groups in conflict around the world, just at a smaller scale.

For example, the alliances have to deal with the complex interplay between government-to-government relations from above, and people-to-people relations from below. They have to decide how use social or territorial definitions of place—whether or not a place is defined by the groups who live there, like a reservation or white border town, or if the common place defines its inhabitants. And at what geographic scales do they define their common place—a country, a huge region, a smaller watershed or mountain range?

As their trickiest problem, they have to gain an understanding of the relationship between conflict around particularist or cultural differences, and cooperation around more universalist or common-ground similarities. It’s fascinating how tribes assert their own identity and claims to the land, which can put them at odds with their white neighbors, at the same time as asserting unity with their neighbors to protect the land and water. That’s what drove me to write the book.

Tribal sovereign relations are on the federal level, so why would tribes even need to deal with local white communities?

Tribal nations constantly have to deal with the interplay between building government-to-government relations from above, and building people-to-people relations from below. They’ve emphasized intergovernmental relations mainly because of the federal trust responsibility with tribal governments, and their desire to improve tense relations with state governments. Tribes assert their nationhood partly through making non-Indian governments respect their political leadership, because otherwise their sovereign government chairs are lowered to the status of mayors, or worse.

But relying only on federal protection or state negotiations can leave tribes unprepared for a white backlash against their sovereignty. What if the federal or state officials continue to disrespect sovereignty? A tribal leadership that has put some effort into public relations usually enters government-to-government negotiations in a stronger position than a leadership that relied only on the law, or on the goodness of non-Native leaders. These leaders come and go, so it helps to build a better understanding of tribal sovereignty in the larger population.

A relationship developed solely among institutions risks leaving out the local communities, where conflict usually first rears its head. That can cause resentment at the grassroots—not only among white folks who are drawn to the messages of the anti-Indian movement, but among tribal citizens who feel alienated from their own tribal governments.

Washington State’s co-management of natural resources with the tribes has been a model to other states engaged in natural resources conflicts. Not only do tribes have a role in the allocation of the fishery, but they have a role in protecting fish habitat from harmful development. Yet the relationship has largely been limited to government officials and agency staffs. If the agencies obstruct or drag their feet on protecting habitat—for example from dams or the aviation industry—the tribal leaders can only threaten lawsuits. Building a relationship from the top down has had some success, but the question is how permanent or rooted this relationship has become.

Wisconsin also had an intense conflict between tribes and white fishing groups, and has a state government hostile to Native rights, so cooperation had to built from the bottom up. Tribes, sportfishers and farmers began to cooperate apart from state agencies, or even in opposition to agencies’ pro-industry policies. They built a series of effective local alliances that slowed or stopped mining, power, and water projects, though state officials are still in a position to block the alliances.

But the top-down and bottom-up strategies can co-exist, and even reinforce each other, for example by improving relations between tribal and local governments. Local government leaders also tend to be social, cultural or economic leaders in their local area. Many of the tribal and local leaders have gone to school together, played on the same sports teams, or had business relationships. It is also at a local level that racial contradictions are most apparent, so it’s where these contradictions can be best resolved.

In Wisconsin, a few tribal members were even elected to town or county boards and helped stop mining plans. State officials were less able to pressure tribes into weakening their gaming rights or environmental laws, because the tribes had the backing of local governments. The most effective approach is not to rely either on government-to-government or people-to-people relations, but on a creative mixture, on parallel tracks.

As a geographer, you paid attention to how Native and white neighbors define place. Could you explain why this is important?

How people define a common place profoundly affects their views of their past histories, their ability in the present to reach out to neighbors, and their plans for live together on the land into the future. These definitions are the basis of who belongs and doesn’t belong in the place, who’s an insider and who’s an outsider, who’s included in the place, and who can be excluded.

Treaty rights conflicts center on the social definition of place, based on the ethnic or national identity of the people who live or used to live in the place. Social definitions recognize the rights of people because of who they are, rather than where they live. The social definition of place is associated with particularism, because it asserts the difference between ethnic or racial groups.

Environmental cooperation centers on the territorial definition of place. It uses place as the starting point, rather than the groups that live there, and includes all people who live depend on the place to live. The territorial definition of place is associated with universalism, because it asserts the similarities between ethnic or racial groups.

The evolution of the unlikely alliances from conflict to cooperation didn’t only involve a change in attitudes, but a shift from the social to the territorial definitions of place. Instead of just excluding outsider groups from the place, in what’s called the geographies of exclusion, they included them within a common place. They drew new mental boundaries around a place, such as a watershed and mountain range, and redefined it as a common home for all who lived there. What I call the geographies of inclusion redefined outsiders as the insiders, who together worked to exclude new and more threatening outsiders, like mining or energy companies.

Native/non-Native environmental alliances use a mixture of social and territorial boundaries. The particularist assertion of Native rights strengthened the social boundaries of the Native community, and made the reservation boundaries more evident. Yet ironically, the increasingly social definition of the reservation has helped in some cases to equalize the tribal community with its neighbors. Without self-determination, the tribes would be unequal partners with the white border towns and no common-ground alliance would be possible. Stronger social boundaries created a climate of security that eased the way for a territorial definition of place.

Treaty rights conflicts set the stage for tribes to use treaty rights to aggressively defend watersheds from mining, energy, and water corporations. The geographies of inclusion allow both Indians and non-Indians to together exclude institutions that did not respect the land or water.  Strengthened Native sovereignty was necessary to construct a local common home for both Indians and non-Indians. Native environmental, economic and cultural influence has begun to blur the boundaries between the reservation and border town, and make them a zone of cultural mixture rather than solely confrontation.

Tensions and oppression obviously continue, because decolonization is only beginning after centuries of white domination. In South Dakota, for example, although environmental alliances have had dramatic successes, the state is still plagued with racial conflicts over almost everything else—police brutality, unsolved murders, sacred site desecration, etc.—and the social boundaries between reservations and border towns remain strong. But as decolonization continues, some Native nations may begin to feel more comfortable asserting their cultural, economic, and political powers again in their ceded lands, especially when federal laws such as the Clean Water Act allow them to.

What scale of place is most effective in building these alliances?

Native/non-Native alliances have to constantly negotiate the relationship between place and the state. State citizenship is based on political boundaries constructed by governments. Places may be profoundly shaped by political boundaries, but they’re also shaped by natural and cultural boundaries. Place membership is a concept of belonging in a place, without necessarily centering that loyalty on a government or its history.

Place membership can redefine a territory, with its residents of all nations belonging to the place. But it’s really difficult to construct place membership at a national scale such as the U.S., at a large regional scale such as the huge Columbia or Great Lakes Basins, or even at the scale of a single state. A watershed or mountain range can be more easily reconstructed as an inclusive territory, because of the place loyalty of many of its residents, and their experiences in it.  A place membership at the smaller scale of the Umatilla Basin, Black Hills, or Salish Sea can be more inclusive of Native histories, than a citizenship-based loyalty to a country or state.

In the Columbia Basin, for example, the alliance for dam breaching brought together tribes and non-Indian fishing groups interested in salmon restoration. Yet the regional alliance was built mainly between professional staffs of the tribes and fishing groups, rather than between fishing communities. The Umatilla Basin Project, also committed to salmon restoration, was centered on a single subregional watershed, and built a stronger people-to-people alliance between tribal members and white farmers.

In Wisconsin, tribal members and white sportfishers found that their place-based loyalty to the northwoods gave them more in common with each than with state agencies, corporations, or even mainstream environmental groups. Though constructing a common identity was perhaps more difficult in a tense racial climate, the movement succeeded in building common ground by redirecting social anger away from neighbors and toward distant institutions, much like the movement against the Keystone XL pipeline.

But in some cases, a lack of leadership from government officials made even the best intentions at the local level virtually meaningless. The federal government’s view of Nevada as first and foremost a military testing range and nuclear waste dump has seemed to trump any developing relationship between the Western Shoshone and white ranchers. The same lack of leadership is exhibited when officials take sides with white anti-environmental groups, like in the Klamath Basin water war.  Even though tribal members had built a positive relationship with white fishers, it was overwhelmed by tensions with white farmers who did not share the goal of protecting the fishery.

Obviously, different scales are not isolated and separable from each other. Developments at the national level can shape relations at the local level. Government actions, such as court rulings on treaty rights, can also alter the relations. Place membership doesn’t replace state citizenship, but provides another venue for improving local relations if governments are still stuck in racist thinking.

How do the alliances treat people’s differences and similarities?

Alliances have to always contend with the interplay between particularism, which asserts people’s differences and identities, and universalism, which asserts their similarities and common ground. Everyone seems to assume that identity politics and unity politics always contradict each other. But I found the Native particularist assertion of sovereignty was not a barrier to universalist environmental collaboration, but actually helped to build connections with the majority white community. Treaty rights and sovereignty struggles lessened the political and economic powerlessness of the Native communities, and built a sense of cultural pride and self-determination.

At the same time, the struggles confronted the invisibility of Native peoples and their cultures in the eyes of white neighbors, many of whom had assumed that Indigenous peoples or cultures had disappeared. The Nez Perce renewed role in the Wallowa Valley, for example, encouraged white residents to propose increased cultural interaction, much as the Lakota claim to the Black Hills enabled cooperation with white ranchers that would not have happened if the tribe had exchanged its claim for cash payments.

Native struggles forced rural whites—however grudgingly—to accept that tribal legal powers and political institutions continue into the modern era. Some rural whites even began to view these tribal powers as safeguarding their own threatened rural lifeways. Treaty rights struggles set in motion a process of political and economic equalization that helped to build unity with the white community on a more level playing field. A false unity without addressing inequality would create an alliance in which whites would still control access to resources and decision-making, and alienate their Native allies.

Native movements helped level the playing field between the communities, enabling cooperation to develop. To achieve unity, the white majority needed to understand how respecting difference could benefit universal values. Treaty conflicts also highlighted both communities’ sense of place, and emphasized the importance they attach to natural resources, just in time to defend the resources from outside interests. Environmental alliances have creatively negotiated the tensions between particularity and universality, by backing Native rights as a way to protect the land for everyone.

The examples of the unlikely alliances may be instructive for areas of the world in the grips of ethnic conflict. Prospects for cooperation can be embedded within conflicts and, under certain circumstances, even harsh conflict may ironically serve as an opportunity to build lasting cooperation between communities. This approach reverses the idea that lessening differences or weakening identities is the way to lessen conflict. An alternative strategy would improve relations among ordinary people, based on a common local place rather than simply a common state, and respect the differences between them.

Additional audio interviews

Winona LaDuke interviews Zoltán Grossman on Unlikely Alliances,” KKWE Niijii Radio, White Earth, Minn. (7/2/14).

KEXP interview about Unlikely Alliances, Mind Over Matters Sustainability Segment, Seattle (7/8/17).