Tribal Nations: Not just another public interest group

A sizeable crowd— nearly 400 in person and via webinar—joined together on August 10 at NOAA Boulder to learn about how to engage with federally recognized tribes when doing field missions for NOAA. “Your agency’s work and mission are very much intertwined with the Tribes, as they are on the front line of climate change,” said guest speaker, Carla Fredericks.

Ms. Fredericks, Director of the American Indian Law School at the University of Colorado, described the unique and very complex relationship between Tribes and the Federal Government. In fact, the cornerstone doctrines dictating that relationship are so convoluted that the American Indian Law Program offers more than 24 credit hours on the subject.

Carla Fredericks, Director of the University of Colorado American Indian Law School

Carla Fredericks, Director of the University of Colorado American Indian Law School, teaches NOAA staff about the laws that form the complex relationship between American Indians and the U.S. Government.

“The Marshall Court decided three cases that form the basic framework of federal Indian law in the United States, and they are referred to as the ‘Marshall Trilogy,’” said Ms. Fredericks. She explained how the Marshall Trilogy evolved by introducing some treaties, policies, and concepts of Tribal Sovereignty, Federal Trust Responsibility, and Government-to-Government Relationships, highlighting her explanations with lively stories and poignant examples.

One take-home message is that the federal government has both very broad authority and trust responsibility. Because of E.O. (Executive Order) 13175, there is a NOAA Consultation Handbook that outlines procedures for formal government-to-government consultation for NOAA actions and policies that have direct effects on an Indian Tribe or its relationship with NOAA.  “Please read that handbook!” Ms. Fredericks urged the audience.

The second guest speaker built on the discussion of this legal framework by focusing on the important trust responsibility the government has for tribal communities. “Trust is the operative word in relationships,” said Professor Grace Sage Musser, an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Indians of Wisconsin, clinical psychologist at the University of Montana, and Adjunct Faculty member at the University of Denver.

Grace Sage Musser, clinical psychologist at the University of Montana and adjunct faculty member at the University of Denver

Grace Sage Musser, clinical psychologist at the University of Montana and adjunct faculty member at the University of Denver, asking the audience, “What do you know about Indians?”

“Building cultural knowledge is the biggest asset to building trusting relationships,” emphasized Dr. Musser. Both government employees and American Indians need to move beyond some of the deep-seated stereotypes and labels each holds, she said. For example, Professor Musser urged the audience not to generalize Indian culture. There are 567 federally recognized and 62 state-recognized Tribes. “Imagine the diversity in these tribal groups!” she exclaimed. “They are not just another public interest group.”

With effervescent energy, humor, and illustrative stories, Dr. Musser offered some concrete best practices to consider when forging strong and sustainable partnerships: “Experience the culture—go to their powwows, talk to them about the different songs and dances, “the heartbeat” of their nations. Tell them you are committed and how will follow up. Develop sustained communication and information-sharing channels with consistency. Realize the wealth in that commitment. Be intentional; ask if they understand you. Ask for interaction—listen to all the voices and the value of the Indian knowledge while you encourage collaborative     engagement and showcase that. Be deliberate about power sharing. Train stakeholders and other community members. Be a resource! Say ‘call me any time – here’s my number.’”

In the end, NOAA staff came away from this seminar with a better understanding of how to build respectful and long-term relationships with the Tribal communities they encounter professionally. After all, both groups share the same vision for our planet: to sustain its “heartbeat” and its inhabitants.

For questions, please email Georgia Madrid (OAR EEO/Diversity and OAR representative to the NOAA Tribal Team) at or call 303-497-6732.