Engaging Bristol Bay's Tribal Communities
With 229 federally-recognized tribal governments in Alaska, 19 distinct language areas, and 6 distinct cultural regions, Alaska Native tribes are a significant presence in the state. Their connection to the land and dependence on it are factors EPA considers when working on environmental issues in Alaska.
Fourteen of the Bristol Bay watershed’s 25 villages and communities are within the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds. 13 of the 14 communities have federally recognized tribal governments and a majority Alaska Native population. The salmon runs of Bristol Bay serve as a major subsistence food source and provide many Native residents with income. They also are the basis for Alaska Native culture, social relations, and spirituality.
Bristol Bay Tribes Petition EPA
EPA launched the Bristol Bay Assessment in response to petitions from federally recognized tribes and others who wrote to EPA with concerns about how large-scale mining could impact Bristol Bay fisheries. Other tribes and stakeholders requested that EPA wait for mining permit applications to determine the potential environmental impacts of mining. The assessment provides a better understanding of the Bristol Bay watershed and will inform consideration of development in the area.
In May 2012, EPA held public meetings in Bristol Bay villages to hear directly from Alaska Native residents. Tribal input was a vital component of the assessment.
A Government-to-Government Relationship
EPA has an obligation to work with tribes on a government-to-government basis on decisions or activities that impact them. The concept of tribes as sovereign nations and has been affirmed by the courts, Congress and the President.
The tribal governments in the Bristol Bay watershed have an opportunity to engage the federal government on decisions impacting watershed resources in a process called tribal consultation.
EPA engaged tribes in official government-to-government meetings as part of the Bristol Bay Assessment. We held discussions and informational community meetings with tribal members, tribal village corporations and non-profit organizations.
Our engagement with tribes was a consistent thread from start to finish of the assessment. As year-round, lifelong residents, Alaska Natives have a great stake in the Bristol Bay watershed’s future.
- Presentation to Tribal Governments on Revised Assessment - May 2013
- EPA Region 10 Tribal Consultation and Coordination Procedures
- EPA Policy on Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribes
The Role of Traditional Knowledge
Tribes have special knowledge of the Bristol Bay watershed because they have lived there for thousands of years. This is sometimes referred to as traditional knowledge.
Two anthropologists with extensive experience in Alaska documented traditional knowledge in the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds by interviewing 53 Elders and other culture bearers who were identified as authoritative sources of information about subsistence, traditional ecological knowledge, nutrition, social relations and spiritual aspects of their culture. This information is included in the Bristol Bay Assessment as Appendix D.
About Traditional Knowledge
Traditional Ecological Knowledge is a system of understanding one's environment based on observations and experience. It is built over generations as people depend on the land and sea for their food, materials, and culture.
Local knowledge systems are based on the shared experiences, customs, values, traditions, lifestyles, social interactions, ideological orientations and spiritual beliefs specific to Native communities. This understanding evolves as new knowledge is obtained and generated.
Scientists recognize the value of working with people who live in an area and who have great insight into the natural processes at work in that area. While the scientific perspective is often different from the traditional perspective, both have a great deal to offer one another. Working together is the best way of helping us achieve a better common understanding of nature.
The tribal governments in Bristol Bay have an opportunity to engage the federal government on decisions impacting Bristol Bay resources during the tribal consultation process.