Jim Waddell, now the director of the Corps' military integration division in Atlanta, launched the program in 2002, while he was working in the Corps' Walla Walla District. Waddell felt that the agency was struggling to respond to the needs of local tribes, especially when managing culturally important resources such as salmon. "We were having a hard time with the tribes," he says. "We were not communicating with them well, and many of our decisions lacked values related to their cultural and environmental resources."
The program, which is listed in the Corps' training directory alongside more traditional engineering courses on concrete fundamentals and welding, is an anomaly for a quasi-military agency known more for massive dams and building projects than for promoting cultural understanding. But in 2002, the Corps laid out seven environmental operating principles, which emphasize practicing sustainability and respecting stakeholders' opinions in all Corps projects.
Many Corps employees found it difficult to integrate the new principles into their daily work, says Waddell, so he designed the tribal training program with two main goals: improving relationships with the tribes and helping participants understand the principles from a Native American perspective. "It's a new way of listening," he says. "It takes a while to build a relationship with a tribe and build trust, so they believe you will actually come to listen and not to preach to them."
To date, the Corps has run eight training sessions in partnership with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla in Oregon and the Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota. The courses are open to any government employee, and personnel from other agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, have attended them. Tribal leaders working with the Corps set the agenda, which typically includes hand-on activities, such as making fishing nets and flint-knapping, as well as discussions of native traditions and culturally important resources.
"They had us making a fishing net from scratch," says Susan James, a park ranger for the Corps at the Bonneville Lock and Dam, who attended the October session on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "While we're doing this hands-on task, the instructor is talking about how he and his grandfather used to fish on the rock platforms along the river."
So far, the program has received good reviews. James says she can now give dam visitors in-depth explanations of why salmon are important to the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, and explain how the dams have affected their lives. Hearing a native fisherman recount how his livelihood was harmed by changes to the river hit home for her. "We can all relate to that," she says, "because we all have to provide for our families."
Waddell, who hopes that the program will soon expand to New Mexico, believes it has helped ease tensions in the districts where it has been conducted. In particular, he points to the Walla Walla River Feasibility Study, a highly contentious issue between the tribes and the Corps that cooled off after people on both sides connected through the trainings.
"It's hard to blatantly disagree with someone with whom you've established a relationship," one participant wrote in her evaluation at the end of the course. "You can still disagree, but not be disagreeable."
This story first appeared in High Country News.