Supporting Tribal Environmental Sovereignty

/ Blog Post

By Robert Lundberg, 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Brico Fund

Photo of Robert Lundberg

Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was not particularly aware of the continued presence and role of native governments in the state. This despite the fact that the place-names of my childhood originated in indigenous names, like how “Wisconsin” comes from “Meskonsing,” meaning, “river running through a red place.” French explorers attributed the name to the Miami Indians who guided them down what is now called the Wisconsin River. While I didn’t know the histories of these names, learning that they were defined in relation to water did not come as a surprise. Living on the shores of Michi Gami (Lake Michigan) instilled within me a meaningful relationship to water from an early age.

What began to open my eyes to Wisconsin’s present-day tribal and environmental realities was spending time in New Mexico, my partner’s birthplace. There, the predominance of Pueblos along the Rio Grande, as well as the ever-present concerns over water availability and quality in the state, was illuminating. This knowledge set me on a path to learn more.

As I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Law School, the conflict over the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock was gaining national attention. This event crystalized for me the connection between ongoing histories of settler colonialism, tribal sovereignty, and environmental degradation. This inspired me to work with Prof. Richard Monette, the University of Wisconsin Indigenous Law Student Association, and Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) during law school. After finishing law school, I could see sustainable relations to water, air, and land as inextricably linked to recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and to addressing the complexities of ongoing colonization. I knew I wanted to spend my career advocating at this nexus.

Working as an Equal Justice Works Fellow, hosted at MEA, allows me to build upon my legal foundation toward this goal. My project seeks to support tribal environmental sovereignty and improve collaborative environmental protection between tribal, federal, state, and local governments. Through this work, I combine legal advocacy with engagement and information sharing.

This work is essential because many tribal governments still lack environmental standards. Tribes are as well situated as states and the federal government, if not better in some cases, to understand how to protect environmental resources within their territories and reserved in treaties. Yet while there are 326 tribal reservations in the United States potentially eligible to set tribal water quality standards under the Clean Water Act, only 45 tribes have water quality standards approved by the EPA under the Act. Even when a tribe has set water quality standards—through the Clean Water Act or based upon its sovereignty—those standards and the tribe’s environmental knowledge and concerns are not always respected by state and federal actors.

There are two reasons for this reality. First, jurisdictional confusions hinder tribal exertion of environmental sovereignty. These confusions are a result of the history of federal Indian policy, which is filled with numerous attempts to undermine and end tribal self-governance. Even today, some government officials and courts see tribes as lacking the inherent authority to set and enforce environmental protections.

Second, the original versions of federal environmental laws ignored tribes as essential sovereigns and regulators with a concern for clean air, water, and toxic substances within their historic and present territories. Despite statutory fixes to change these omissions, the significant investments and personnel needed to administer such programs, as well as continued hostility from many states toward tribal administration of federal environmental programs, has resulted in many tribes still not administering federal environmental regulatory programs.

I hope my work can help to correct unequal distributions of environmental harms and risks, and ongoing denials of tribal sovereignty. These factors endanger all of us, both because air and water have little regard for political boundaries, and because they allow the continuation of extractive and exploitative modes of operating. Finally, I feel incredibly privileged to pursue this work with MEA, as our community-centered and responsive approach to environmental lawyering has been inspiring me since entering law school.

To learn more about Robert’s Fellowship, visit his Fellow profile.

My project seeks to support tribal environmental sovereignty and improve collaborative environmental protection between tribal, federal, state, and local governments.

Robert Lundberg /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow