RC&D Councils and Native Americans
Two RC&D Case Studies
This case study focuses on the makeup of the boards of directors at two Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) Councils: Southwestern North Carolina RC&D Council and Northern Plains RC&D Council. It examines the relationships that the two RC&D Councils have formed with Native Americans within their Council areas, the deeper partnerships that grown from those relationships, and the ways in which the RC&D Councils and Native American communities have benefitted.
In both cases, positions on the boards of directors of each RC&D Council have been permanently allocated to members of the Native American tribes located within the RC&D Council areas. That representation has given a voice in Council direction to the Native American communities and has led to a variety of projects that otherwise would be difficult to imagine.
The Southwestern North Carolina RC&D Council serves seven counties in the westernmost portion of North Carolina, a sparsely populated area rich in mountains, forestland, and headwater watersheds. The Council area is also home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), a federally recognized Native American tribe numbering around 13,000 descended from Cherokee who were not relocated in 1838 to Oklahoma Territory through the Trail of Tears march. The EBCI primarily live within what is known as the Qualla Boundary, which includes only a fragment of the extensive original homeland of the Cherokee Nation. The Qualla Boundary lands cover 83 square miles, and the EBCI owns, holds, or maintains additional land outside the Qualla Boundary.
Since its founding in 1971, Southwestern North Carolina RC&D Council has included representation from the EBCI on the RC&D Council. The original by-laws for the Council (then called the Western Six RC&D Council due to its inclusion of six counties) specifically called for three representatives from the EBCI to serve as Council members alongside the members appointed by each county’s County Commissioner boards and Soil and Water Conservation District boards and selected as at-large members by the Council. This policy continued when the Council area was expanded; thus today the Council is governed by a 24-member board of directors. During the past decade, the Vice Chief of the EBCI has always served a member of the RC&D Council; additionally, two Tribal members, Mary Thompson (also a member of the NARC&DC board of directors), and Forest Parker, the head of the Tribal Environmental Department, currently serve on the Council.
This representation of the EBCI on the RC&D Council board of directors has led to joint projects between Council and the Tribal environmental division, with Council staff included in the Tribe’s regular work within and outside the Qualla boundary. The EBCI funds projects within the Qualla boundary that deal with culture and heritage, and the Council works regularly with the Tribal foundation that funds these projects.
In the past, financial considerations placed significant constraints upon the environmental and natural resource organizations that sought to partner with the EBCI on projects such as watershed management and forest health. Since the EBCI did not generate sufficient revenue to enable it to pay for such improvements, its partners typically had to provide the project funding. However, the 1997 opening of a casino on Tribal lands opened new opportunities. Since then, with the EBCI receiving revenue from its operation of gaming facilities, it has been able to contribute significant funds for ecosystem improvement. However, in many cases it needs external technical expertise from outside the Tribe to maximize project success. That’s where the Council has made its greatest contributions: along with other area organizations, some of which are represented on the Council board, the Council has helped the EBCI understand the environmental conditions on its lands better and work out sustainable solutions to community resource challenges.
Several current projects have demonstrated the effectiveness of the partnership:
The EBCI and the Council are partnering on an innovative river cane project with the twin goals of stream bank stabilization and support for native crafts. River cane, the only genus of bamboo native to the United States, has long had its place in Cherokee culture as a traditional material for basketmaking. Due to a resurgence of interest in time-honored crafts, river cane is in increasing demand, but because of habitat loss due to land development, conversion to agriculture, and general ecosystem deterioration, the plant can be difficult to find in sufficient quantity and quality. The stream bank stabilization project is reestablishing habitat by linking the Tribe with landowners: stream banks are stabilized through the planting of river cane and other plants, and once the river cane matures, Tribal craftspeople are given the opportunity to harvest it.
Another collaborative project is a new Cherokee school campus that features heritage-type landscaping, sacred trees, a community garden, and trails. The campus thus serves several needs for students and the wider community: it is attractive, so people are eager to use it; it is instructive, so students have plenty of learning experiences; and it provides a gathering spot that promotes community spirit. The Council has been involved in the construction of such gardens and multi-purpose trails elsewhere within the RC&D area, so it was a natural fit for this project on EBCI land.
Finally, a third partnership seeks to retire unused logging trails through the seeding of worn areas and the creation of collars to keep the trails from turning into stream channels during heavy rains. As a result, stream and watershed health have been significantly improved through decreased runoff and reduced sedimentation.
The long-standing relationship that has been built up through Cherokee representation on the Council board has been the key to these projects. Based on their experience, the Council now encourages its other local partners -- community organizations, watershed associations, and units of government -- to work with the EBCI and, in particular, to invite Tribal members to join their governing boards in order to increase participation, buy- in, and project effectiveness.
Meanwhile, in north central North Dakota, Northern Plains RC&D Council has established strong partnerships with two Native American Tribes through the same method. Through its founding by-laws, the Council permanently allocated a seat on its board to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and another to the Spirit Lake Nation. Additionally, the Council has also added two local colleges that primarily serve Native American students, Turtle Mountain Community College and Cankdeska Cikana Community College, to its board as associate members. As a result, four of its 23 board seats are occupied by representatives of Native American communities.
Tribal representation has helped the Council explore additional project ideas and expand its outreach and impact in its local area. The partnership with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa is particularly dynamic: during the past decade, the Tribe has approached the Council with ideas that have eventually culminated in innovative projects that have benefitted Tribal and non-Tribal members alike. Much of the credit goes to the Tribe’s representatives on the Council board: Doc Brien, Tribal Chair of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and Gene Laducer. Both have a strong sense of purpose and commitment to improving life throughout the region and a keen awareness of the potential of Northern Plains RC&D Council to bring all the local communities together in joint action. They immediately recognized that the Council’s and the Tribe’s goals were complementary and have consistently placed high priority upon being active in the Council and supportive of all its activities.
The projects that developed out of the partnership focus primarily upon supporting healthy lifestyles and promoting opportunities for young entrepreneurs and local artisans. Projects include:
Community Garden – To promote healthy lifestyles for the elderly residents of the reservation, the Tribe established a community garden with funding from the Council, land donated by the tribe, and labor provided by tribal employees. The garden provides many opportunities for communal work and rewarding physical activity, fresh vegetables, and a chance to connect to nature.
Anishinabe Trading Post – The Turtle Mountain Community College has restored the historic Anishinabe Trading Post into a small business run by students at the college. The trading post serves as a cyber café and coffee house as well as a consignment store for cultural artwork and goods. The RC&D Council provided technical assistance to the college
in its successful application for a $100,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the USDA. The trading post will also help to strengthen the tourism plan for a “One-Stop Wellness Center” on the nearby reservation.
Dunseith Walking Shield – The RC&D Council provided financial and technical assistance to sponsor a series of Homebuyer Education Classes for reservation residents. The classes helped Tribal members earn Homebuyer Education Certificates so that they could qualify for federal loans and grants that would enable them to purchase excess housing units relocated from Minot Air Force Base to Dunseith.
Conservation Day Camp – For the past several years, the Anishinable Wellmess Center has served as the site of the NRCS conservation day camp held for Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa youth. Participants receive instruction in soils, range characteristics, forestry, wildlife, wetlands, and culturally significant plants. The RC&D Council assists in the planning and sponsorship of the day camp.
As a result of all this great work, in 2008 the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa was named the outstanding supporting organization in North Dakota by the North Dakota State RC&D Association. Additionally, the Council Coordinator, Jill Haakenson, has received awards from the NRCS for her work with Native American Tribes in the Northern Plains RC&D Council area and from the Chippewa as recognition for her contributions to the Tribe’s well-being.
The NARC&DC thanks Tim Garrett, Coordinator at the Southwestern North Carolina RC&D Council, and Jill Haakenson, Coordinator at Northern Plains RC&D Council, for their guidance in the creation of this case study. We would also like to thank the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for providing financial assistance for the creation of this case study.