I see a lot of misconceptions swirling around tribal resource rights, particularly hunting and fishing. People with minimal understanding often repeat the claim that tribal people can ‘do whatever they want’ on tribal land even if it means ‘stealing’ resources from other people. Some like to suggest that it’s not ‘fair’ for tribes to get ‘special treatment’ under the law. There’s a lot to deconstruct when it comes to how people, usually white people, view tribal rights.
Let’s start with the idea of ‘special treatment.’ When the Americas were colonised, one of the first moves was to harry the indigenous population off their land, when white people weren’t enslaving them. The colonisers fundamentally changed tribal ways of life by forcing people onto reservations. The evils of the reservation system have been very well documented, but suffice it to say that many reservations were chosen because they were poor, ‘useless’ land white people weren’t interested in occupying. Many tribes were forced onto unfamiliar land far from home and in the process they were ordered to assimilate. To speak English, to adopt white culture and norms. When you’re starting from that basis, I have a hard time seeing how anything is ‘special treatment.’
When the United States is based on the theft of land and labour, it is hard to take cries of ‘resource theft’ from people in power seriously. If theft of resources is really such a huge issue (and I think it is!) it’s worth doing a little more probing to see who stole from whom before pointing fingers. When white people arrived in the Americas, there were plentiful stocks of both buffalo and cod. Both were gone not long after they made themselves at home, and this didn’t happen coincidentally or by accident; it happened because they deliberately and rampantly used resources with no concern for conservation. Resources which indigenous people had been utilising for a very long time without any problems.
So, yes, tribes, operating on sovereign land, do not operate under the same rules that people off reservation do. Hunting and fishing ‘out of season’ are permitted in some circumstances and tribes get to set some of their own land and resource use policy. They also have the right to selectively harvest and use organisms, like polar bears, that white people may not be allowed to take, because it is part of their cultural heritage. Tribes are allowed to set their own rules on their own land because it is their land, and that gives them the right to decide how they want to use natural resources on their land.
It should be noted that tribal land does not exist in a vacuum, either; even as people are screaming about people ‘taking all the fish,’ they are depriving tribal communities of resources by doing things like overextracting rivers and lakes. Activities off reservation like logging, hydroelectric power, and so forth have a direct impact on the availability of resources on reservations. Proportionally, if the concern is issues like declining fish stocks, people should be far more concerned about the mismanagement of resources off reservation; for example, the metrics used to determine how much water can be siphoned off from rivers for agricultural purposes rely on data from flood years, allowing people to use far more water than is safe or advisable. Believe me, not being able to get up the river is a much bigger problem for the spawning than a handful of indigenous people grabbing some dinner.
And, yes, tribes can decide to allow people who are not members of the tribe onto their land for hunting and fishing, and to determine when that is going to happen, and how much people are allowed to take. This is not, however, ‘special treatment.’ It’s pretty standard resource management wherever you go; I cannot waltz into my back yard and shoot a deer any time I feel like it. Likewise, I can’t fish rampantly and at will. If I want to do any of those things, I have to get a permit and I have to abide by the law. These are basic conservation measures to make sure animal and fish populations remain for future generations to enjoy, whether it’s on the plate or on a stroll through the woods. I see very few people arguing for absolutely no controls over fishing and hunting off reservations, which suggests a specific resentment of tribal sovereignty, rather than actual concern about natural resources.
Much of the fussing over tribal fishing and hunting smells extremely strongly of racism to me, cloaked in environmental concern trolling. Honest, we just care about the environment! Which is why we are dedicating huge amounts of resources and rhetoric to a relatively minor example of resource use, while ignoring much larger problems, like shrinking animal habitat, pollution, water shortages, and so many other issues that pose a much bigger threat to wildlife. I see members of the white environmental movement arguing against things like the indigenous seal hunt in Canada because it’s ‘brutal’ or ‘unnecessary,’ or suggesting that because some tribes use modern equipment and sell the proceeds, it shouldn’t be allowed, this despite the extremely high rates of poverty in many indigenous communities, which argue strongly for the need for economic self determination, including the right to sell resources. Meanwhile, these ‘critics’ ignore equally brutal and unnecessary acts committed on behalf of white people in factory farms and slaughterhouses.
It’s hard to see that as anything but a racially motivated attitude; those uppity indigenous people, using natural resources in a sustainable and practical way! How dare they! Using the land white people ‘gave’ them! How ungrateful! So, yeah, count me out of the ‘debate’ over whether indigenous tribes should be allowed to decide how to use their land and resources, thanks. And most definitely leave me out of rhetoric about how tribes ‘do whatever they want’ on their land, like this is a. true and b. somehow offensive.