Relationship building between Tribal Governments and Federal Agencies

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Don Côqayohômuwôk Chapman was responsible for developing the Department of Commerce Tribal Consultation Policy as the Senior Policy Advisor on Native American Affairs in the 1st Obama Administration. He also has been a participant and contractor supporting tribal engagement and participation in the National Ocean Council, National Ocean Plan, and NOP implementation processes. Don is a member of the Mohegan tribe of Connecticut.

Working as the Senior Policy Advisor on Native American Affairs for the Department of Commerce, I worked with a multitude of tribes as the national dialogue evolved about the National Ocean Policy (NOP) Regional Planning Bodies (RPB), and tribal participation. The NOP represented one of the first times that federally-recognized tribes would participate as co-leads alongside federal and state agencies in the comprehensive ocean resource planning process.

To begin, all US federal agencies are required to have a Tribal Consultation Policy (TCP) through Executive Order 13175. This requirement is the formal basis of how all federally-recognized tribes want to be communicated with by all federal agencies concerning regulatory policies that directly or indirectly affect their tribal nations, as tribal consultation represents the unique government to government relationship stated in treaties and federal recognition. Many federal agencies have both a department-level TCP and a handbook for regional / local tribal engagements tailored to the unique aspects of the mission of the agency and specific cultural and historical knowledge of the tribes in a given area.

As a federal agency, you must notify senior tribal leadership about a specific issue of concern or change of policy or implementation of new policy such as environmental concerns, aquaculture projects, sacred sites, usual and accustom hunting and fishing areas, or anything relating to tribal lands and treaty rights. It is essential that the designated tribal leader of any sovereign tribe be formally notified as a sign of respect. This notification may lead to a request for further information or for formal consultation with the tribal leadership or designated representative(s). It may also not be a primary concern to the tribe or leader’s current priorities.

Since most tribes are both financial capital and human capital resource-challenged, not all notifications are responded to. And, while some tribal leaders will want to have direct conversations with federal agencies, some may not be interested…or be aware of the issues of concern. I suggest that all agencies also make tribal connections with an individual you may have worked with in the tribe in the past or connecting directly to tribal environmental, historical/Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPO), or water quality departments as well. Be sure to tell these staff members that you have formally notified tribal leadership first.

My best advice is that there is no “cookie cutter” approach to tribal engagement. Every tribe has a different history, government, sense of environmental concern and management, and resources to respond. And, they all have their own unique experiences working with federal agencies and with other tribes in the area. You’ll need to be respectful and sensitive to all of these concerns for each tribe you engage. They’ll recognize and appreciate that, and your planning process will be more thorough and inclusive!

The CMSP-AT project surveyed hundreds of coastal managers in 2012 and 2014 to understand the challenges faced around the United States. Many respondents suggested they were confident in their abilities in stakeholder outreach, but the biggest obstacle was working with other agencies. What have you experienced?


The CMSP-AT course features watercolor artwork in its online course handbook and in-person training handbook.