ELI Receives Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Grant to Advance Racial Equity and Justice for California Native American Tribes

January 2022

(Washington, D.C.)—Tribal citizens’ physical, mental, and spiritual wellness is tied to environmental health, food sovereignty, and cultural identity. Yet, state and local environmental agencies regularly make decisions that impact the health and wellness of tribal communities without engaging in meaningful government-to-government consultation. Thanks to a $250,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Policies for Action program, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and its partner, the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (NATHPO), will use California as a case study to examine policies requiring state and local agencies to engage in government-to-government consultation with tribes when carrying out environmental decisionmaking. ELI and NATHPO will partner with California Native American tribes to examine the extent to which tribal involvement in environmental decisionmaking has improved under these policies and whether that involvement has resulted in better outcomes as defined by the tribes. Rounding out the project team is Swinomish Elder Larry Campbell and Dr. Jamie Donatuto, pioneers of indigenous health indicators to measure tribal health and wellness as defined by tribal communities themselves.

“California’s Indigenous people have for millennia maintained a sustainable relationship with the ecosystem, but centuries of racist state policy and ecosystem exploitation has profoundly impacted the health and wellness of California’s tribal communities,” explained project lead Cynthia Harris, Director of Tribal Programs and the Deputy Director of the Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs. “More recently, state and local policymakers have come to better understand these consequences at the same time tribal governments are being recognized as sovereign entities entitled to participate in the environmental decisionmaking process,” she added.

ELI is committed to ensuring the project fully incorporates tribal priorities, perspectives, and involvement from the beginning and that the work with tribes to define their objectives is conducted in a culturally sensitive manner. ELI will partner with NATHPO on the project in addition to tribal governments in California with substantial experience engaging in consultation under existing policies.

“Critically, this project aims to advance not only racial equity and racial justice, but also tribal sovereignty,” noted ELI Visiting Scholar Greta Swanson, co-project lead. “Through documentation of tribal values and related legal analysis, our goal is to aid tribes in reasserting their stewardship over the environmental and natural resources they practiced since time immemorial—a legacy broken by settler colonialism.”

Prior to commencing research activities, ELI will scope out project details and methodology with a project steering committee with majority representation from California Native American tribes and other indigenous peoples. Dr. Donatuto will concurrently develop indigenous health indicators to empower the partner tribes to better evaluate proposed state and local agency environmental decisions and identify repercussions for natural and cultural resources critical to the well-being of the tribal community. A final report will set out the results of ELI’s research, case studies, model laws and policies, and a suite of recommended best practices in consulting meaningfully with tribes on a government-to-government basis, from the perspectives of tribal, state, and local governments.

ELI’s Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs was founded in 1986. The Center supports subnational governments and sovereign tribes in managing natural resources and implementing and enforcing the laws governing environmental protection.

NATHPO and its member tribes, including the historic preservation officers of each tribe, focus on the protection of tribal cultural resources and, as such, offer a wealth of experience with tribal cultural concerns.

Dr. Donatuto is the Community Environmental Health Analyst for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, a federally recognized tribe in Washington State, who for 20 years had lead investigations on behalf of the Swinomish Tribe, and in partnership with other indigenous communities across North America including impacts of toxics in first foods, tribal health-related impacts from climate change, environmental health education, and community-based indigenous health indicators in collaboration with long-time colleague Swinomish Elder Larry Campbell.

For more information on this project please contact Cynthia Harris at harris@eli.org.