NatGeo Photo Series Makes the Case for Native American Sovereignty

We Are Here The title of National Geographic’s feature story is We are here . It is full of striking photographs that show the individuals behind Native American sovereignty.

National Geographic’s story features photographs that show the individuals behind Native American sovereignty.

“Sovereignty for Native Nations means both freedom and responsibility in order to maintain the balance of the universe,” reads the story.

As she grew up, Margo Robbins watched U.S. fire suppression policies transform the forests around her into monocultures of Douglas fir that no longer sustained species important to the Yurok people. The loss of hazel shoots that were essential for making baskets and caps as well as cradles, was particularly painful. She didn’t want her grandchildren to grow up without Yurok Yurok cradles. So she founded the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network. This network teaches firesetting techniques and helps preserve the natural landscapes as her forefathers did. (Kiliii Yuyan/National Geographic)

The Indigenous communities of North America have long fought for self-rule and sovereignty, only recently beginning to make progress on the issue in the United States. While Washington has started to cooperate — for example, efforts are underway for the co-management of land with tribes and the Supreme Court has declared half of Oklahoma is still Native American country in 2020 — the magazine brings to focus the arguments that it is still imperative that such advancements continue.

National Geographic
This totem pole will rise in the village of Opitsaht on Meares Island to commemorate the Tla-o-quiaht’s recent history. The skulls (at far right) symbolize victims of COVID-19, students who died in residential schools, and murdered and missing Indigenous women. Joe Martin is the master carver responsible for the creation of the pole. “But so were they–they couldn’t read our totem poles.” (Kiliii Yuyan/National Geographic)

The story is well-timed, as earlier this week, a mountain in Yellowstone National Park was renamed in honor of the Native Americans who were massacred, changing it from Mount Doane to First Peoples Mountain. Gustavus Doane led an attack in 1970 that saw 173 Native American killed, many of them elderly or children who were sick with smallpox.

“We are Here” examines that with amidst global issues such as climate change, intense fires, growing poverty levels, and more, the publication argues that the answers to many of these problems are inherently linked to Native American sovereignty.

National Geographic
Quannah Rose Chasinghorse, a groundbreaking Indigenous model, uses her fame to support her activism, reminding people “whose land you’re living on.” Native sovereignty, she says, is key to “defending my ways of life, trying to protect what’s left.” She is Han Gwich’in and Sicangu/Oglala Lakota, but was born on Dine (Navajo) land in Arizona. Here, Chasinghorse stands in Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (Monument Valley), a park administered by the Dine. (Kiliii Yuyan/National Geographic)

The publication makes the case that Native communities have extensive experience in addressing some of the biggest problems facing the planet today:

Constructing Infrastructure: With the income from their casinos and businesses, the Chahta tribe now constructs roads, supports schools, puts up clinics, and builds homes for their elders. The tribe has erected 17 community centers, one in almost every town in their nation.

Performing prescribed burns on their land: The Karuk, Yurok, Hupa, and the Klamath Tribes keep order by regularly subjecting their terrain to low-level burns that prevent severe fires and maintain uncluttered areas, which promotes game and useful plant species. They are no longer allowed to burn the land as it is not theirs. Wildfires continue to rise at an alarming rate, despite park services and other government agencies lacking the funds or personnel required for burns.

National Geographic
Low flames in cool weather–set during a Yurok-led training exercise–burn harmlessly through underbrush near Orleans, California, consuming fuel that could drive dangerous conflagrations. Native countries were made to cease protective burning after miners, farmers and the federal and state governments took over their land. This is why today’s wildfires can be so devastating. (Kiliii Yuyan/National Geographic)

Cultivating cleaner water: Tribes including the Karuk, Yurok, Hupa, and Klamath Tribes which have fought for the removal of dams along the Klamath River, which will help restore the natural river’s flow, improve water quality, and revive the area’s diminished salmon runs.

National Geographic
With a dip net, Karuk fisherman Ryan Reed searches for Chinook salmon under the watchful eye of his father, Ron, on California’s Klamath River at Ishi Pishi Falls. The Reeds caught no fish–in stark contrast to earlier times. Before California became a state, the river saw about 500,000 salmon each fall, but last year just 53,954 mature Chinook swam up, a 90 percent decline. Although salmon fishing is now restricted to Ishi Pishi Falls by the nation, four dams are being removed and the Karuk expect that the salmon population will recover. (Kiliii Yuyan/National Geographic)

Repopulating buffalo populations: For example, the Siksikaitsitapi have been raising buffalo in Montana after part of calculated attacks on Native land and culture. They now have more than a thousand buffalo and their meat can be purchased at the reservations grocery. The larger objective is to establish free-ranging ecosystems.

National Geographic
The Siksikaitsitapi have raised buffalo in Montana since the mid-1970s, but systematic restoration began there only in 2009 on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. They now have nearly a thousand animals and the meat can be purchased at the reservations grocery. But to buffalo program director Ervin Carlson, the larger goal is to recreate Siksikaitsitapi landscapes–ecosystems teeming with free-ranging buffalo. (Kiliii Yuyan/National Geographic)

The story of the different tribes is impactful, but so are the photos that help showcase the topic. National Geographic says that the images bring to life the case for Native sovereignty.

For more on this story, visit National Geographic or check out July 2022 issue.