Tribes Prevail in Defending the Sacred: Judge Rules to Reinstate Protections for the Grizzly

Published September 25, 2018

MISSOULA, Mont. — After years of struggle to defend the grizzly bear and consequently tribal religious freedoms and treaty rights, tribal nations finally prevailed over the US Government on Monday evening when Judge Dana Christensen ruled in favor of tribal and environmental plaintiffs in Crow Tribe et al v. Zinke.

Chief Stan Grier, President of the Blackfoot Confederacy Chiefs

“With our sister tribes in the coalition of conscience we prevailed today in defense of the sacred for our children and our future generations, and we did so without having to make some of our strongest arguments. As we have said repeatedly, the grizzly bear is fundamental to our religious and spiritual practices. With Judge Christensen’s decision, those religious rights and our treaty rights remain intact,” said Chief Stanley Grier, Chief of the Piikani Nation and President of the Blackfoot Confederacy Chiefs.

The Piikani Nation was among the lead plaintiffs in Crow Tribe et al v. Zinke, and initiated the historic grizzly treaty signed by over 200 tribal nations that became the basis for the Tribal Heritage and Grizzly Bear Protection Act, introduced to the 117th Congress by Rep. Raul Grijalva.

Judge Christensen’s order vacated the grizzly bear delisting rule announced by President Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, on June 22, 2017, which became final June 30, 2017. The judge’s order restored the grizzly’s status in Greater Yellowstone to the Endangered Species Act. Infamously, on the morning of June 22 before making the delisting announcement, Zinke pledged before Congress to engage in government-to-government consultation with tribes impacted by the delisting of the grizzly bear. “I will commit to that. I think it’s not only a right, it’s the law. But two things, it’s the right thing to do,” Zinke committed to the House Natural Resources Committee.

“Secretary Zinke never contacted me on this grizzly bear issue,” affirmed President Troy “Scott” Weston of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, echoing multiple tribal presidents, chairpersons and elected chiefs who became plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“President Trump is doing one thing right, by attacking everything we hold sacred as tribal people he’s uniting us all,” commented Chief Counselor Brandon Sazue of the Global Indigenous Council. During Sazue’s administration, the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe joined the legal struggle. “Let’s keep focused on what the Trump Administration’s primary objective was: by removing protections from the sacred grizzly bear they removed protections from over 34,000-square miles of sacred land in Greater Yellowstone, opening the way to this administration’s paymasters in extractive industry to move in. That is ancestral and treaty land to many tribes. We will never give up this fight for our Mother, the Earth,” vowed Sazue.

Don Shoulderblade, Cheyenne Sun Dance Priest and Founder of GOAL Tribal Coalition

What evolved into a powerful coalition of tribal nations standing in solidarity against the delisting and trophy hunting of the grizzly, began with Northern Cheyenne spiritual leader and Sun Dance Priest, Don Shoulderblade in Lame Deer, Montana. Shoulderblade is the founder of GOAL Tribal Coalition, which galvanized support for the grizzly issue throughout Indian Country.

“This is a historic moment not just for the Cheyenne Nation, but all tribal nations. We are humble people, and this movement had humble beginnings, with myself and my nephew, Bear Stands Last. You are witnessing the power of prayer, the power of our ceremonies, with this outcome,” said Shoulderblade. “I acknowledge my nephew for the incredible work he did to protect the grizzly, our traditional ways and our treaties, and I recognize my relative, David Bearshield, who became chairman of GOAL,” added Shoulderblade.

Former Northern Cheyenne President, Llevando “Cowboy” Fisher, was the first tribal leader to issue an official declaration opposing the delisting and trophy hunting of the grizzly bear, a position that was embraced by his successor, President L. Jace Killsback.

The Trump Administration is expected to appeal the decision, following the lead of Wyoming’s Governor, Matt Mead, one of the most vocal advocates for delisting and trophy hunting the Great Bear in Yellowstone. Mead has had a tortuous relationship with tribes during his administration and described himself as “disappointed” with the decision. Mead has encouraged the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act.

“We anticipate Governor Mead attempting to encourage Senator Barrasso, Senator Enzi and Rep. Cheney of Wyoming to pull some legislative skullduggery to attach grizzly delisting to an 11th hour rider of some critical finance bill or something equally underhanded,” said GOAL Chairman Bearshield. “My advice to the governor would be to think twice. We warned you that we’d fight this delisting and that you’d lose – and you did,” cautioned Bearshield.

In his ruling, Judge Christensen described the government’s rationale as “illogical” and added that the US Fish and Wildlife Service “failed to make a reasoned decision.” “Moreover, the Service’s analysis of the threats faced by the Greater Yellowstone grizzly segment was arbitrary and capricious,” the judge concluded.

“In wake of the court’s decision, we again offer our hand to Secretary Zinke and invite him to sit down with us on a government-to-government basis and discuss the implementation of the grizzly treaty signed by over 200 tribes. The treaty presents the solutions to this ongoing issue. The future of the grizzly bear and tribal, federal and state cooperation lies in the grizzly treaty,” said Chief Grier, who expressed optimism that Zinke would meet with him and a delegation of leaders he hoped would include Crow Chairman, AJ Not Afraid, who has been pivotal in the grizzly case, and Blackfeet Chairman Tim Davis.

Nolan Yellow Kidney, Blackfeet Sun Dance Leader

“This is the work of many who spoke, prayed and lobbied for the ones who can’t speak for themselves. My prayer continues for more understanding from people, so they can live with and respect Bah-sik-kwi, the grizzly bear. In the words of my father, ‘If you want to be respected, you must first show respect,’” reflected Blackfeet Sun Dance leader, Nolan Yellow Kidney, who with Chief Arvol Looking Horse, is among the spiritual leaders who became plaintiffs in the lawsuit.



Photographs ©Alter-Native Media.

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