Cheryle Zwang and Brenda Takes Horse (BLM employee and AK native) along with traditional dance group in AK. (Brenda TakesHorse is a long time BLM employee and has worked in tribal relations for some time.  She is also a SAIGE board member.)
Brenda Takes Horse, left, and Cheryle Zwang with a traditional dance group in AK. (Takes Horse is a long time BLM employee and has worked in tribal relations for some time.  She is also a SAIGE board member.)

The Maturing of BLM’s Tribal Relationships

By Cheryle Cobell Zwang

There are more than 560 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and I am an enrolled member of one, the Blackfeet Nation.  I was born and raised on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, and I am very proud of my American Indian heritage.  I began my federal career as a GS-3 in 1987, and over the years, as I have moved into positions of greater responsibility, I have always strived to enhance federal–tribal relations.  Often I have served as a cultural translator, educator, and mediator for both federal and tribal leaders to help avoid missteps or miscommunication.  In this role, I have witnessed great patience and perseverance by both tribal and BLM leaders, creating a foundation on which the BLM and the tribes have built and maintained strong relationships. 

During my first year on the job, I was fortunate to be introduced to another tribal member in our office.  She coached me and helped me to learn and adjust to the federal culture and to share my culture.  For me, federal meetings were a lesson in themselves.  I learned, for example, that in federal meetings, time is the driver, and when the time is up, the discussion ends.  In many tribal meetings, by contrast, the topic drives the meeting, and regardless of the time allocated, a discussion does not end until the attendees decide they are done.  In federal meetings, interrupting another person is often tolerated and sometimes even expected, indicating that people are engaged.  Generally, in tribal meetings, interrupting another person is viewed as unnecessary, as everyone will have time to speak.  Finally, in federal meetings, while decisions are sometimes made by consensus, often the meeting is to brief the leader and the decision is made solely by that person after listening to his/her advisors and staff.  At tribal meetings, leaders do not typically operate autonomously.  They need to know what the other council members are thinking and reach a majority or consensus before a decision can be made.  

During my second year on the job, I was asked to serve as a facilitator/recorder in a meeting between tribal and federal leaders being held at a reservation facility.  Early on in the meeting, many cultural miscues took place, and I could see frustration was building for both the federal managers and the tribal officials.  I watched as the more senior federal facilitator managed the on-reservation meeting with tribal leaders as he would a federal meeting.  For me, it was like watching two teams play a game, with each having a very different understanding of the rules.  Luckily, during the morning break, we discussed the situation, the cultural translation was shared with federal leaders, and adaptations were made so that the meeting was ultimately successful.  I believe this sort of coaching by Native American staff to federal leaders has often laid the foundation for great strides in federal–tribal relations.  

Much has changed over the years.  Most tribal governments have natural and cultural resource departments in their organizations, and tribal members and other resource professionals are often working as department heads.  These individuals typically understand how federal organizations and processes work.  The same is true for federal leadership and staff; we now have a better understanding of how tribal governments operate and how they are organized.  Federal agencies have made it a priority for their managers to learn the history of federal–tribal relations and to understand what our unique roles and responsibilities are to American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives today.  The BLM is now more diverse and culturally sensitive.  Consultation with tribes has progressed from us informing the tribes of our actions to ongoing government-to-government consultation.  In fact, tribes are expressing ever-greater political influence, and with each new administration, elected officials are responding.  As a result, President Obama was adopted into the Crow Tribe of Montana.  He hosted tribal summits in the Nation’s Capital, and his administration resolved the Cobell class action lawsuit resulting in improved management of American Indian trust assets.   

Yes, there have been missteps, but superimposed over all of this, I have seen a sincere belief by both federal and tribal leaders in thevalue and importance of our public lands and resources and a resolute desire to find a way to work together.  There is a famous proverb to which I subscribe:  “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”  As a BLM employee, I am able to contribute to the care of the public lands and resources we manage today and to help ensure that they remain a treasure for our children and all those generations yet to come.  It is why I encourage other Native Americans to join our ranks, and it is why I so strongly believe in the need for strong federal–tribal relations.  It is also why I joined the BLM and the federal family and why I remain here more than 20 years later. 

Cheryle Cobell Zwang is the deputy state director for communications in the Idaho State Office.  She has been a federal employee for more than 24 years.  Cheryle assists BLM leaders in advancing the unique relationship between the federal government and federally recognized tribes.