SAF Recognizes National Native American Heritage Month 

November 18, 2022

In coordination with our Diversity and Inclusion Policy, the Society of American Foresters (SAF) is committed to promoting an environment designed to embrace our differences in which all community members are welcomed and valued, creating diversity and inclusion in our leadership, membership, programs, and activities. SAF is making an intentional effort in 2022 to be more inclusive in the way we celebrate community members and connect with those who value forests and their benefits. 

November is National Native American Heritage Month, and it is a time to celebrate and honor the history, legacy, culture, and contributions of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Island communities. Indigenous peoples of North America have shaped our landscape for millennia and continue to do so through enduring philosophies and management systems. The relationship to the land and the management systems they developed—often referred to today as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)—have historically been ignored and suppressed in discussions of forestry, conservation, and ecology. This month is an opportunity to honor their heritage, and in that reflection, explore what we gain from embracing indigenous voices and practices.

In a special issue of SAF’s Journal of Forestry, 24 articles were collected to highlight the innovative systems being modeled on Native American forests and in tribal forest management practices. The introductory article of this issue provides important context for the recent attention and value placed on tribal forestry, noting that 300 of the 567 federally recognized tribes manage more than 18 million acres of forestland today. With nearly 4,000 acres of shared boarders with the USDA Forest Service alone, there is real opportunity for landscape-level collaboration and mutual expansion of perspectives, knowledge, and impact. As the authors write, “Every tribe is unique, has a different history, holds multiple levels of cultural perspectives, and is internally diverse.” Yet still, a 2022 assessment in the Journal of Forestry illustrates that insufficient funding and research partnerships remain a critical barrier for natural resource professionals in Native American and Alaska Native tribes.

The inequities faced by many Indigenous communities today can be traced directly to long-term impacts of dispossession of land and forced migration. A recent study by Farrell et al. compared historical and present-day tribal lands to determine that Native Americans have lost nearly 99% of their original land holdings due to European and American colonization. Forced migration placed many tribes onto new lands that today hold less economic and natural resource value, and which are faced with a higher risk of exposure to the effects of climate change. Reckoning with this history has for many motivated an interest in restoring lands to tribal nations, expanding research opportunities, and improving tribal input in cross-boundary management decisions.

As the forest sector seeks to cultivate forested systems resilient to threats like climate change and severe wildfire, it’s been important for researchers to understand historic forest conditions as guidelines for resilience and restoration. Prior to European colonization, fire was among the most prolific tools used by Indigenous communities of North America. Indigenous burning—often referred to as cultural burning—played a substantial role in managing fire-adapted ecosystems from coast to coast. At the dawn of the forestry profession in the 20th century, a strict policy of fire suppression was adopted alongside bans on prescribed burning that stemmed from a legacy of indigenous oppression. Nearly a century of fire suppression has led to dense and fuel-laden forests in the 21st century, culminating in the wildfire crisis we see today across the American West. Over the past several decades the forest sector has come to acknowledge and adopt prescribed fire practices that have been foundational to TEK for centuries. Cultural burning is now being shared through collaborative partnerships that are integrating tribal science and values to bolster forest resilience. This recognition and its resulting partnerships demonstrate the pivotal role that diversity and inclusion can play in strengthening our professional community and shaping a sustainable future.

Despite this difficult history and its residual challenges, there are many instances of collaboration and progress that are cause for celebration. Following her historic role as one of the first Native American women in Congress, Deb Haaland—a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo—became the first Native American Cabinet secretary in US history. Under her leadership as Interior Secretary, the Biden Administration reached an historic agreement earlier this year to give cooperative management authority over Bears Ears National Monument to five tribes who inhabited the region for centuries. Comprising the Bears Ears Commission, these tribes included the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni. Secretary Haaland recently welcomed attendees of the 2022 SAF National Convention, and her remarks can be found here. Important steps are also being taken by the USDA Forest Service to ensure equity and support for Native American tribes. In its Equity Action Plan released earlier this year, the agency acknowledged historic patterns of discrimination and eroded trust, pledged to remove barriers to access for USDA programs and services, and promised to be inclusive of tribal values and indigenous perspectives. Such efforts are critical as we strive for a more inclusive profession that can address landscape-level challenges.

Sustainable, thoughtful stewardship of forests and rangelands is of mounting importance as we balance human needs with the biodiversity, wildfire, and climate change crises. SAF recognizes that promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in our professional community is key to effecting holistic, long-term solutions to these challenges.

"As I reflect on this month many thoughts and emotions come to the forefront," said SAF CEO Terry Baker. "We are at a pivotal time in the importance and use of our forests. Indigenous communities represent a key voice in what our next steps will be to balance our needs with a changing climate. We have all learned that we cannot do this on our own. It will take multiple perspectives, histories, and cultures to address the issues of today and tomorrow. Our act of support for our members from indigenous cultures is a humble ask to continue sharing your knowledge as we all search for solutions."