NatGeo Photo Series Makes the Case for Native American Sovereignty

National Geographic July 2022

“We Are Here” is the title of the feature story in the latest issue of National Geographic which is filled with striking photos that showcase the people behind the push for Native American sovereignty.

National Geographic’s story covers a range of Native American tribes and features photos that document the people behind the push for their sovereignty.

“Sovereignty to Native nations means both the freedom to decide one’s actions and the responsibility to keep the world in balance,” the story reads.

National Geographic
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. Particularly painful was the loss of new hazel shoots, essential to making baskets, caps, and, especially, cradles. Not wanting to see her grandchildren raised without Yurok cradles, she co-founded the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, which teaches fire-setting techniques to maintain the landscape as her ancestors 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. “When the Europeans came, they said we were illiterate,” explains Joe Martin, the master carver who is overseeing the pole’s creation. “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 1870 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 Hän Gwich’in and Sičangu/Oglala Lakota, but was born on Diné (Navajo) land in Arizona. Here, Chasinghorse stands in Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (Monument Valley), a park administered by the Diné. (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. Unfortunately, with the land no longer theirs (in the eyes of the law), performing such burns is no longer in their jurisdiction. With park services and other government agencies not having the funding or manpower to perform burns, wildfires are occurring at a needlessly high rate.

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. After miners, farmers, and state and federal governments took their lands, Native nations were forced to stop protective burning—a major reason that today’s wildfires are so destructive. (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. The nation now restricts salmon fishing to Ishi Pishi Falls, but with the slated removal of four dams, the Karuk hope the salmon will return. (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. Today, they have almost a thousand animals and meat is available at the reservation grocery, with the larger goal to create ecosystems teeming with free-ranging buffalo.

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. Today they have almost a thousand animals, and meat is available at the reservation 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.