Stories articles Indigenous Guardianship

Vina Brown (Heiltsuk) and Heiltsuk and Haida dancers at the ceremonial gathering before the meetings began welcomed participants.

Vina Brown (Heiltsuk) and Heiltsuk and Haida dancers at the ceremonial gathering before the meetings began welcomed participants. Photo by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

June 5, 2024

Asserting Our Power by Connecting with Each Other: Growing Interest in a US Network of Indigenous Guardians

Michael Painter and Nancy Kelsey

Young Lummi Nation Blackhawk  dancers filled a hall in northern Washington State with joy and hope at a gathering in April. Some wore traditional regalia that synced rhythmically with the sounds of drumming and song that filled the air. The dancers moved about the room with their hands raised as their feet followed the beat of the drum. Younger children danced, looking up at older youth, mimicking their movements.

These young dancers were a fitting reminder of why dozens of Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous allies from around North America gathered on this spring evening. This ceremonial community feast helped kick off an important three-day Indian Country convening. Its purpose: to explore the possibility of nurturing an Indigenous-led guardians network in the United States that would help Indigenous people protect their homelands and our planet for future generations.

Indigenous guardians have long loved and cared for the lands of their ancestors. Indigenous Peoples’ generational knowledge is a key climate solution for the health of our planet in the face of the destruction brought by climate change and colonization. Indigenous Peoples make up about 5 percent of the global population but sustain at least 40 percent of Earth’s remaining intact ecosystems. Indigenous-led approaches to stewardship help conserve lands and waters, nourish Indigenous languages and cultures, support peoples’ health and wellbeing, and ensure Indigenous knowledge systems are passed on to future generations. In the United States, there is a growing interest in creating Indigenous-led conservation systems, particularly through Indigenous protected areas and guardianship programs on traditional lands.  In several regions, Indigenous guardianship projects are already being designed and implemented.

“There is strong and growing interest across Indian Country linking Indigenous stewardship and guardianship efforts,” said Michael Painter (Cherokee) Managing Director, Impact and Learning, Nia Tero. “We at Nia Tero are grateful to help provide space for this critically important conversation to flourish. You can feel the surge of power and pride as the leaders assert themselves in these discussions.”

A Historic Gathering 

A loose coalition organized this gathering to help support Indigenous stewardship and guardianship in North America. That coalition included Nia Tero, the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI), the Alaska Venture Fund, the Christensen Fund, Alaska Conservation Foundation, and the Resources Legacy Fund. Many other Indigenous organizations, tribes, and supporting partners also participated. The Lummi Nation’s gracious opening of their beautiful land, waters and space was a critical part making this meeting moving and meaningful.

A key agreement and takeaway from the gathering was the unanimous interest in building a network of Indigenous guardianship efforts across the United States and that such a movement must be led by Indigenous Peoples. There was also a sense that this building movement should be framed as a North American Indigenous movement, rather than limited to just a U.S., Canadian or other effort.

The parties uniformly appreciated and agreed to continue this effort as an informal coalition or consortium, as we have so far. There was also strong support for continued cross-border cooperation on networking, and a significant interest in connecting with Canada, Australia, and other countries.

Attendees – who came from as near as Washington and as far as Hawaii, Alaska, the Great Lakes, Southwest and the East Coast - were gathered in a talking circle-style formation where everyone had the opportunity to share insights and lived experiences. Other attendees from across the northern US and Canada. Most speakers offered thoughts about their work to protect their tribal nations’ homelands. Some also spoke about why this work is important to them and about the organizations and nations they represent. There were many common threads and shared struggles.

“I was immediately confronted with the existential threat of climate change at Quinault,” said Fawn Sharp (Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Washington), who is a past president of her tribe and the National Congress of American Indians. “I quickly began to realize I wasn’t alone.”

She continued, “I realized that I was standing on centuries of knowledge and wisdom that comes from our ancestral heritage and the legacy of leadership [Indigenous Peoples] have all inherited. And while the world seems to think Indigenous Peoples are on the front lines and are weak and vulnerable, on the contrary; We are strong. We’re resilient.”

What is an Indigenous-Led Guardianship Network? 

Indigenous-led guardianship networks are intended to help frontline defenders of their territories by connecting many local efforts and growing their power by sharing knowledge and voice. For example, ILI has been recognized around the world for its success in helping build the First Nations Guardian Network throughout the lands known today as Canada.

This Canadian network model relies on Indigenous guardians on the ground connecting with each other to help provide solutions to climate change, biodiversity loss, the impacts of colonialism and more. Indigenous guardians are trained experts who manage lands and waters on behalf of their Nations. First Nations Guardians in Canada root their work in Indigenous knowledge and culture – helping their communities heal from the trauma of colonialism, including residential schools.

Also present at the gathering were some of ILI’s First Nations partners and Indigenous guardians. Those attendees shared with their fellow attendees a bit about their journey to building a guardianship network in Canada and best practices how a similar network might thrive in the U.S.

Today, there are more than 200 First Nations Guardians programs in Canada. In 2022, the National Guardians Network launched in 2022. In Australia, over 120 Indigenous Ranger groups care for lands, including 82 Indigenous Protected Areas. In the U.S., many Native Nations are caring for their territories and exploring the Guardians model for stewardship. Some from lands also known today as Australia participated virtually to share more about Indigenous Protected Areas in the country and the guardians who protect them.

Next Steps 

While many tribal nations in what is known as the United States are doing their work separately today, a network would help them share experiences, knowledge and collective power.  All these efforts share a common need for long-term funding partnerships. A network like this one could help connect funding with these critical solutions at scale. Although the U.S.-Based Indigenous-Led Guardianship Network is in its inception, many in the room acknowledged the need for a structure or organization that could provide the Indigenous leadership needed to bring this idea to fruition in the U.S.

The group agreed to convene again soon to continue exploring the creation of an Indigenous-led guardianship network in the U.S. Participants voiced unanimous consensus to continue working towards a larger, more comprehensive meeting later this year. The attendees also expressed an interest in reaching out to as many interested Tribes and organizations as possible to determine the best timing and location for the next meeting.

Click here to read more about the gathering. And stay tuned for more updates.

Participants in the US Indigenous led Guardianship Network gathering pose for a photo on the last day of the convening

Participants in the US Indigenous led Guardianship Network gathering pose for a photo on the last day of the convening. Photo by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

Participants gathered in a talking circle style setting where each person was able to speak or pass if they like

Participants gathered in a talking circle style setting where each person was able to speak or pass if they like. Photo by the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.