Published February 6, 2016
“Tell them the Pawnee Nation means business,” interim Vice President Adrian Spottedhorsechief declared after the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma committed to join the effort of Tribal Nations in both the US and Canada to protect and preserve the sacred Yellowstone grizzly bear. Within weeks, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is expected to announce a new rule to delist the grizzly from the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
With the success of Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Revenant, both the Pawnee and the grizzly are suddenly front and center in pop culture consciousness. Inspired by the life and times of frontiersman Hugh Glass, in the movie it is DiCaprio’s Glass in a life and death struggle after provoking a grizzly attack in the environs of the Grand River Valley of the Dakotas in early fall 1823. Nearly two centuries later, it is the bear that faces a fight for survival.
If the grizzly loses ESA protections it will fall victim to what tribal leaders have denounced as, “the gun sight wildlife management practices of the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.” Each of those states intends to open what the leaders describe as, “extravagant trophy hunting seasons for the wealthy on this sacred being.” In December, the directors of the tri-state game agencies submitted a draft memorandum of agreement (MOA) to FWS Director Ashe proposing that Wyoming receive 58% of the “regulated harvest,” Montana 34% and Idaho 8%.
“I don’t think anybody could take that [MOA] as anything but support for a grizzly bear population in Greater Yellowstone,” suggests Wyoming Game & Fish Chief Game Warden, Brian Nesvik. “I don’t think anybody should treat Nesvik with anything but disdain after what he did to James Walks Along at the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee meeting last spring,” counters GOAL Tribal Coalition Chairman, David Bearshield.
In its recent resolution, the Oglala Sioux Tribe denounced Nesvik’s action as, “the forcible disruption, intimidation and subsequent removal of Northern Cheyenne tribal government representative, James Walks Along,” and categorized the incident as, “the latest in a catalog of acts that demonstrate the inherent racism that undermines the government-to-government relationship when federal government agencies are charged with honoring consultation mandates, and similarly demonstrates the prejudice harbored by state representatives that undermines the relationship between tribes and state governments in the region.”
“In respect to what Nesvik said, he’s like the rest of his ilk. They inhabit an antiquated echo chamber where all they hear is their own spin and applause from the vocal minority and special interests they serve, at the expense of the majority who abhor trophy hunting and their perpetuation of the ethos of Manifest Destiny,” says Bearshield. The MOA suggests that trophy hunting would be suspended if the Yellowstone grizzly population fell below 600 bears. However, federal and state government data compiled in 2015 indicates that the population may already be below that threshold after 59 known grizzly mortalities were recorded, dropping the lower population estimate of 642 grizzlies below the redline.
“Trophy hunting sentient beings only appeals to a tiny minority of a particular demographic within the US population, and it is antithetical to the traditional cultures and subsistence practices of tribal people. The Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, like the other impacted Tribal Nations, comes from a subsistence tradition, not a killing tradition. Our ancestors taught ceremony, responsibility, and reciprocity in our lifeway,” asserts the Pawnee Nation in its declaration opposing delisting.
In The Revenant, DiCaprio as Glass is shown adopting many of those Pawnee values. Though much of his life is shrouded in controversy, his contemporary, George C. Yount, documented Glass’s residency with the Skiri band of Pawnee in an account first published by the California Historical Society in 1923. The Revenant has enjoyed a largely positive response in the Native community, though some have questioned the impact the portrayal of the bear attack will have on public empathy for the plight of the grizzly.
“What’s lost in the sensationalism of that scene is that the movie responsibly shows a defensive-aggressive attack, which the majority of all grizzly incidents are. Glass does everything wrong in the scene,” says GOAL’s David Bearshield. GOAL has galvanized opposition to delisting the grizzly throughout Indian Country. “Additionally,” continues Bearshield, “I think The Revenant clearly shows who the invaders are, who instigates the violence, and who commits the acts of savagery. And spoiler alert, it isn’t us!”
In its declaration, the Pawnee call upon the federal government to honor the consultation process with the affected tribes, as mandated by Executive Orders issued by President Clinton and President Obama, and a plethora of secretarial orders and Congressional acts. “As yet, that call has fallen upon deaf ears,” bemoans Bearshield. FWS Director, Dan Ashe, is on record as stating that the consultation process should take place after the proposed delisting rule is issued, a position universally criticized by tribal leaders.
“The abrogation of these acts and executive orders threatens potentially detrimental consequences not only for the religious and spiritual rights of the ‘Associated Tribes of Yellowstone,’ but for the sovereignty of all of the Tribal Nations impacted by this issue,” the Pawnee Nation warns. Tribal leaders also petitioned Director Ashe for their respective nations to be contributors to the post-delisting Conservation Strategy, but they were omitted from the process.
In its official press release announcing the declaration, the Pawnee Nation recognizes GOAL’s Co-founder, R. Bear Stands Last, and acknowledges his Pawnee heritage. Bear Stands Last petitioned Yellowstone National Park Superintendent, Daniel Wenk, to add the Pawnee to the twenty-six “Associated Tribes of Yellowstone.” Wenk has subsequently committed to, “contact the Pawnee tribal leadership about becoming an associated tribe of Yellowstone National Park.”
“The Pawnee people have a connection to the Greater Yellowstone Area that is rooted in antiquity. Our ancestors had names for the physical features that today define Yellowstone National Park,” the tribe asserts in its declaration. Bear Stands Last has created a piece of art reflecting that ancestral bond, which will be presented to the tribal government. Entitled “Ancestors,” the artwork is part of Bear Stands Last’s “Rock of Ancients” collection that represents tribes’ connections to the grizzly and their shared sacred landscapes. Original pieces from the series already hang in the tribal complexes of the Kiowa and Eastern Shoshone tribes.
“Like the other ‘Associated Tribes of Yellowstone,’ our people shared a deep cultural relationship with the grizzly bear and the land we both walked upon. Traditionally, the most powerful healers and medicine men among the Pawnee were Grizzly Bear Medicine Men, who when doctoring were transformed and imbued by the spirit of the grizzly,” the Pawnee declaration details.
In his acceptance speech for Best Actor at the Golden Globes, Leonardo DiCaprio drew attention to the struggle of Native people to protect their lands and culture. “It is time that we recognize your history and that we protect your indigenous lands from corporate interests and people that are out there to exploit them. It is time that we heard your voice and protected this planet for future generations.” At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the actor reiterated that urgency.
“What Mr. DiCaprio articulated is exactly what is at stake in this battle to protect the grizzly. We need his voice to help us preserve the very spirit of our lands and culture,” says Chairman Bearshield. “It’s not just our future at stake, it’s the future of the planet if we can’t begin to turn back this corporate tide.”
The Blackfoot Confederacy was the first to caution that if the grizzly is delisted, some two million acres of grizzly habitat in Greater Yellowstone will be open to oil and gas development, with two-thirds of National Forest lands potentially opened for leasing, and approximately 70% of those lands vulnerable to logging.