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At second annual Sovereign Nations of Virginia Conference, Tribes address role in conservation

With climate disasters mounting, and their ancient lands up for development, Indigenous communities around the world want a greater role in conservation efforts. Key for Tribes in the U.S. is the so-called Land Back movement that seeks restoration by buying back or obtaining decision-making powers of ancestral lands.

Here’s keynote speaker, Kitcki Carroll, executive director for the United South and Eastern Tribes.

"These places are often the sites of our origin stories, our places of creation, as such we believe that we have been in these places since time immemorial," said Kitcki Carroll, executive director for the United South and Eastern Tribes. "Through these sites we are inextricably linked to our spirituality, the practices of our religions, and to the foundations of our cultural beliefs and values. Our sacred sites are of greatest importance as they hold the bones and spirits of our ancestors and we must ensure their protection and that is our sacred duty."

One discussion was punctuated by gasps as tribal members talked about the loss of their lands and communities because of historically poor conservation practices by businesses like oil and timber, made worse by climate change. Lora Ann Chaisson is Chief of the United Homa Nation in Louisiana. "Because of the land loss and the environment that we are in our people are just separating right now, moving to higher ground, so there’s not community like it used to be."

In Virginia, the historic and sacred capital of the Monacan Indian Nation was nearly lost to a water pump station. And, the Rappahannock Tribe is scrambling to raise money to buy back their sacred ancestral lands on Fones Cliffs along the Rappahannock River. Bankrupt developers are auctioning off the land next month. But development may not be so easy now that these two Tribes and five others are sovereign nations, according to Marion Werkheiser, an attorney with Cultural Heritage Partners who works for many of the Tribes. "If anyone wants to develop that land and impact any of the wetlands that are there, of which there are many, they will need a permit from the U.S. government, from the Army Corps of Engineers. And that means the Rappahannock Tribe will be consulting on that permit," Werkheiser noted. "So that could be a complication for any developer that’s looking to develop that property. The Tribe will be at the table with a very loud voice about what can be accomplished on that property."

The previous owners illegally clearcut clifftop acreage, creating a landslide into the Rappahannock River below. To protect Indigenous lands, Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson is establishing the Chesapeake Bay Indigenous Council with Tribes here and in states that are part of the bay watershed. "It’s Indigenous people protecting Indigenous land," she noted. "The things that we want to address right away for me, would be that thousand acres that’s going up for auction that we are just teetering on right now. They’re advertising for development on a place that’s sacred to us where our ancestors are buried."

Chief Richardson announces Chesapeake Bay Indigenous Council
Pamela D'Angelo reports

And there’s a legal side to that as well says Werkheiser. "In Virginia, if you want to disturb burial sites that are connected to a Tribe, you have to get that Tribe’s consent to do that. So, that would be a huge red flag if I were going to make any kind of investment in that property."

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.