By Chuck Walker
MOBILE, Ala. – One of the most unique, challenging and rewarding aspects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Mobile District when it comes to projects, is its relationship with the different Native American Tribes throughout the country.
USACE, and the Mobile District in particular, strive to ensure Native American lands and sites are not disturbed and that the concerns of tribal leaders are understood, and to ensure their sacred lands are protected and preserved.
Timothy Dodson, Regulatory archaeologist, who conducts staff level tribal coordination and consultation for the Regulatory Division, says that great lengths are taken to review each project that has the potential to affect tribal lands or treaties. Each project goes through a multi-layered process of review.
“The regulatory division routinely conducts pre-decisional coordination and consultation with federally recognized Tribal Nations when reviewing permit applications for work that may have the potential to impact significant cultural resources,” Dodson said. “Staff-level coordination and consultation between USACE and the tribes is the most common form of interaction.”
Dodson said that after USACE staff (project managers, archaeologists and/or tribal liaisons) evaluate all the available information, it is then forwarded on to the next phase of evaluation.
“The USACE staff then provides the project and site descriptions and proposed effects to historic properties to the designated representatives of federally recognized tribes, which typically includes the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO) for review,” Dodson said. “Once the information has been received, the tribe has a 30-day review period to provide comments, ask for additional information or concur with USACE’s effect determination. USACE evaluates the comments received and may require additional studies or project changes to avoid or minimize potential effects to tribally significant resources.”
Allison Monroe, Regulatory Division acting chief, said the goal of the regulatory division is to build trust between the district, USACE and the tribes and seek consultation with state representatives if the project is not on federal property.
“We typically engage a Corps archaeologist and/or a district tribal liaison when consulting with the tribes, to ensure that these interactions are conducted in a manner that builds trust and maintains a meaningful and effective collaborative process between the Corps and the tribes,” Monroe said. “In accordance with the National Historical Preservation Act, the regulatory division also consults with the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) for any proposals that have the potential to affect tribal resources outside of tribal lands.”
Alexandria Smith, who is one of the tribal liaisons in the Mobile District, said the main goal of her job is to ensure that the communication between the tribes and the District is straightforward and within all applicable laws.
“Wholistically, the primary goal of my job is to ensure transparent and meaningful consultation in line with all applicable laws, regulations and most importantly our trust responsibility,” Smith said. “Focally, my main objective right now is to ensure compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in good faith consultation with Tribal Nations.”
Smith said the greatest challenge of her job also brings her the most joy, and that is bringing awareness to tribal concerns, especially in the southeast.
“The greatest challenge of my job is conveying the relationship of the Southeastern tribes have with the lands in the southeast due to their removal from those lands,” Smith said. “All of our consultation must be conducted under this sensitive topic. But this aspect also brings me the most joy to bring awareness to tribal concerns and work diligently with the great team here at the District to ensure that we adequately address and satisfy those concerns to the best of our ability.”
Dodson said that the District’s relationship with the tribes is constantly evolving, but they work to build trust with the tribes and to let them know the District respects their concerns.
“Our relationship with each of the 17 tribes that have lands or historic interest within the Mobile District varies and depends on the level of trust and respect that has been developed,” Dodson said. “The nature of these relationships are evolving and depends on the District’s continual commitment to meaningful consultation, education and respect for tribal histories, interests and beliefs.”