US Recognizing Tribal Rights

Lorraine Loomis

Lorraine Loomis

by Lorraine Loomis

A wave of federal recognition of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights has reached a high-water mark in the closing days of President Obama’s administration. We hope President-elect Donald Trump will help push that wave even higher.

Obama kept his campaign promise to meet regularly with tribal leaders and give us a seat at the table where decisions are made about health care, education, natural resources, economies and many other aspects of our lives. For the past eight years, he has invited all 567 federally recognized tribes to the White House for an annual Tribal Nations Conference. That’s something no other president has done.

More than that, he has confirmed that tribal sovereignty and treaty rights are the cornerstones of Indian communities, and the federal government’s trust responsibility to the tribes is sacred.

He’s had good help from people like Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, who earlier this year instructed the agency to consider tribal treaty rights throughout its decision-making processes for all actions. It was the first time a director of a federal agency has done that.

That led to the recent signing of a memorandum of understanding among the federal agencies to acknowledge treaty rights as the center of our trust relationship. Right where it should be.

Some of this surge in federal recognition is directly tied to the Treaty Rights at Risk initiative begun in 2011 by tribal leaders in Western Washington.

We started the effort because we are losing the battle for salmon recovery. Salmon habitat is being destroyed faster than it can be restored. If there are no salmon to harvest, our treaty-reserved rights are meaningless.

We are asking the federal government to align its agencies and programs and lead a more coordinated salmon recovery effort. We want the United States to take charge of salmon recovery because it has the obligation and authority to ensure both salmon recovery and protection of treaty rights.

We received more assurance that our message is being heard when the White House Council on Environmental Quality last month announced the strengthening of a federal task force to establish priorities for restoring Puget Sound. The task force will work with tribal, state and local governments to develop an action plan that will better coordinate and advance work aimed at improving the health of Puget Sound.

We will not accomplish our goals without aligning our strengths to protect and restore the long-term economic strength and environmental quality of our region. Our treaties might well be what holds the effort together for everyone.

Habitat is the key to salmon recovery, protection of our treaty rights and ensuring that salmon will be here for future generations. If salmon are to survive, and if our treaty rights are to be honored, we must make real progress in habitat protection and restoration.

We hope Trump is listening and will continue Obama’s legacy of honoring the promises made to Indian people through treaties that are the supreme law of the land.


Lorraine Loomis is chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission,