UA Helps Tribal Nations Balance Sustainability, Tradition

Energy and water use are natural resource topics facing indigenous policymakers who seek to make development decisions that respect culture and community.
June 30, 2010
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Stephen Cornell
Stephen Cornell

Sustainability can be about far more than Earth and its wildlife, researchers at the University of Arizona Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy have learned.

When working with indigenous groups to provide policymakers with information for making critical decisions that determine the future of tribal nations, complex issues often arise when it comes to selecting the best course of action, said Stephen Cornell, a UA professor of sociology, professor of public administration and policy and director of the Udall Center.

Cornell cited a situation in which researchers at the Udall Center's Native Nations Institute worked with a nation in the northwestern U.S. when developers proposed huge tribal economic benefits by building a ski resort on a mountaintop on tribal lands.

"Most of the indigenous nations we've worked with think about sustainability in multiple dimensions," Cornell said. "For many of them, the critical piece of sustainability is sustaining a particular community. That is not just a community of people, but a community of relationships with the land, relationships with each other, and relationships with a spirit world that inhabits that land."

Tribal officials faced choosing between an economic windfall that would have sustained the livelihoods of members and other relationships that existed with the site.

"That mountain happened to play a very significant role in that nation's cosmology. It was a mountain that has very considerable significance in their culture. They went to their people and said, ‘We can make millions of dollars on this ski resort: it won't destroy the mountain. What do you think we should do?' The response was, ‘No, that mountain is not meant for that. That mountain is meant to sit there and sustain us in other ways. We will find other ways to sustain ourselves economically; keep the mountain as it is.'"

Energy and water use are big natural resource topics facing indigenous policymakers today.

"There is quite a move afoot in Indian country right now to think of wind energy. You've got a number of nations out on the Great Plains where you've got pretty high potential for energy generation with wind power.

In the Southwest, there are discussions about solar energy," he said. "The water issue becomes interesting because tribes have in much of the west very significant water rights and they often have primacy in water rights as a result of treaty arrangements. That gives tribes in some cases considerable political clout when it comes to addressing development and water issues. Tribes are thinking a lot about energy, water and the environment and the intersection among these pieces, as they pursue economic initiatives.

"Again that comes back to sustainability issues. We find tribes are very aware that in some of these areas they may be in position of significant leverage, but on the other hand, they are trying to make development decisions that respect other considerations having to do with culture and community," he said. "There is not a mad rush into these things. There is a lot of deliberation going on out there to try to figure if there are ways the tribes can take advantage of the opportunities in the energy and water areas without doing too much environmental damage and without upsetting community relationships and cultural relationships they value."

The Udall Center's mission is to do research and provide needed and usable information to help policymakers make educated decisions in three main areas: indigenous peoples' policy, environmental policy and immigration policy, Cornell said. The center's indigenous peoples research includes work in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Latin America.

"We have a primary interest in our work with indigenous peoples, providing information, perspective and insight about what is working in areas of indigenous governance and development," he said. "We look closely at cases out there around the world, primarily in North America but not exclusively, where indigenous nations are being successful at achieving their own goals. Some of them are economic goals, some of them cultural or social relationship goals, some of them intergovernmental goals in relationships with the countries they are located in, or with each other. We look at what they are doing that is working, try to understand what the keys are to their successes, and share those with other nations."

Sharing research results with the intended audience – tribal decision makers, the tribal community, tribal policymakers and leaders who are wrestling with tough issues – can be challenging, he said.

The information is shared in a variety of ways: on websites, printed materials, at tribal conferences, during executive education forums for tribal leaders, and using more novel approaches. "You name it, and we're probably trying to figure out how to do it," he said.

"You can't just publish it in an academic journal. None of those decision makers are ever going to see it," he said. "We have one tribal leader who said to us, ‘I don't read anything but I make a lot of long trips to the state Capitol in my car. Give me a CD, I'll stick it in my car, and listen to what you've learned.' That was a good clue for us. That is one way we try to make our research available."

The Native Nations Institute's work has been well-received by indigenous nations after meeting with initial skepticism, Cornell said.

"In some cases there is an unfortunate history with some research projects in Indian Country," he said. "As a prominent Indian woman in the education business said to me once, ‘We've been studied to death and have very little to show for it.'"

NNI, founded in 2001, has stayed focused on the issues facing indigenous nations, and tackled research projects requested by tribal leaders.

"As one tribal leader said to us, ‘I've figured you guys out. You gather up stories in one place and give them to us in another place. And that helps.'"