Tribal and Indigenous Communities

Ojibwe Canoe
Ojibwe Canoe. Credit: NOAA ONMS

Developers, planners, researchers and managers of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) must properly inform, engage and work with affected Tribal and Indigenous groups per U.S. government policy and international recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Tribal and Indigenous peoples are hereditary stewards of the coastal, marine and Great Lakes areas within the United States EEZ. Many areas considered for MPA protection status fall within the historical areas currently occupied by existing indigenous peoples. Typically, these are places considered ancestral homelands and traditional ranges of local native residents with marine resources native peoples depend on and essential in maintaining cultural identity. It is therefore incumbent on the proponents of MPAs—especially managers—to properly inform, engage and work with these affected groups throughout pre-planning, planning, designation, implementation, management, monitoring and evaluation phases of MPA development. MPAs can be designated by federal, state, tribal and local governments; in all cases proper consultation with affected parties must be conducted in order to fulfill legal obligations and to protect the historic and legal rights of concerned indigenous peoples.

An additional topic critical to consider when working with indigenous peoples is Intellectual Property and Sensitive Information. Some information is itself a cultural resource owned or controlled by an individual or group, and managers should consider and accommodate this confidentiality when working with indigenous peoples. Community and Stakeholder Engagement and Climate Change Adaptation are also areas of interest to many tribal and indigenous peoples.

Opportunities and Obligations

multiple canoes starting a group journey
Canoe journey group. Credit: NOAA ONMS

The federal government has a unique relationship with American Indians, Native Hawaiians, Native Pacific Islanders, Alaska Natives, and native peoples from U.S territories and its protectorates based in law and supported by a shared commitment to the stewardship of land and marine resources. This legal relationship is supplemented by cultural, historical, and spiritual relationships that these groups have with near-shore and coastal lands, fringing and barrier reefs, fishing and collecting locations, vistas, and marine and terrestrial resources. For most indigenous peoples, this sense of place with respect to their traditional homelands and associated resources has particular importance in defining cultural identity and well-being.

Proper consultation with recognized tribal and indigenous groups is required by federal, and sometimes state and local, policy. Tribal consultation goes beyond simple compliance as it also is a matter of human rights requiring the attention of agency managers and resource specialists alike. Many native tribes and indigenous communities may not be federally or state recognized; recognition status does not impact these groups' sovereignty, interests in ancestral territory and resources, or the validity of traditional knowledge and cultural practices. Even when formal consultation is not required by policy or law, agencies and managers should follow best practices that are critical and necessary for meaningful and effective engagement, collaboration, and informal consultation.

Indigenous peoples have an intimate and historical knowledge of place, and should be engaged in MPA planning and management processes. Incorporating multiple voices and perspectives has numerous benefits: it can enable the integration of natural and cultural resource management, increase the likelihood that cultural heritage resources will be identified and protected, and improve effective management of an MPA's natural resources.

Methods and Approaches

canoes along the coast of hawaii
Canoes along the coast of Hawaii. Credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority

The process of consultation may involve formal or informal planning activities. Proper consultation begins with one or more of the following mediums: letters, e-mails, webinars, conference calls, on-site visits, or participation in regional and national events. Many tribes prefer in-person, face-to-face consultations. Consultation should be considered part of an overall process of building long-term relationships between the tribes and the agencies. The tribal consultation official or head of each operating unit, as applicable, should make a reasonable (or good faith) attempt to accommodate a tribal request for consultation.  Recent court decisions have emphasized the importance of not only frequent and regular consultation, but most importantly meaningful consultation. The consultation process itself should entail an informal discussion of the proposed federal policy and associated tribal concerns between the designated tribal consultation official and tribal officials.

The basic elements of the consultation process are given below and are described under Section 7 of the NOAA Tribal Consultation Policy (2013: 31-32, PDF)

  • Ongoing communication – early and often – shall be a regular part of government-to-government relationship with tribal governments.
  • Exchange of information.
  • Notification.
  • Consultation planning.
  • Written Communication and Record-Keeping.

Special procedures are shown in Section 8 of the NOAA Policy (PDF) for consultation with Alaska Native Corporations, and Section 9 addresses implementation.

Case Studies

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary's Intergovernmental Policy Council