Q&A with Hester Dillon: Unfencing the future of conservation through relationships

In June, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and the five Tribes of the Bears Ears Commission signed a first-of-its-kind agreement to co-manage Bears Ears National Monument. From left to right, USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Dr. Homer Wilkes, Bears Ears Commissioner Christopher Tabbee and son (Ute Indian Tribe), Bears Ears Commission Co-Chair Malcolm Lehi (Ute Mountain Ute Councilman), Bears Ears Commission Co-Chair Mr. Carleton Bowekaty (Lt. Governor of Zuni Pueblo), Mr. Timothy Nuvangyaoma (Chairman of the Hopi Tribe), Mr. Davis Filfred (Representative for the Navajo Nation), and BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning stand under the newly unveiled Bear Ears National Monument sign. (Photo by BEITC Staff)

In the U.S. and Canada, First Nations and Tribes are asserting their sovereignty and treaty rights, resulting in improved socioeconomic and ecological outcomes that benefit us all. This includes cultural burning for healthier forests; protecting vital landscapes like Thaidene Nëné, Bristol Bay, and Bears Ears; wildlife reintroductions and management; and dam and culvert removal to improve migration for keystone species like salmon.

Many Indigenous peoples have a stewardship responsibility and relationship with lands, waters, and wildlife — carried seven generations into the future — that is central to their communities’ personal, spiritual, cultural, and physical well-being. Perhaps unsurprising then, studies show lands stewarded by Indigenous communities have greater biodiversity and climate resilience.

“We need every person and every tool to address the twin challenges of the climate and biodiversity crises,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) said at the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties. “And when we ensure that Indigenous people are at the table and part of the conversation, we all win. If we are going to be successful in tackling climate change and addressing the biodiversity crisis, we have to empower the original stewards of the land.”

But how? Hester Dillon says “by being in relationship.” Dillon, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, talked with us about her new report, “Unfencing the Future: Voices On How Indigenous and Non-Indigenous People and Organizations Can Work Together Toward Environmental and Conservation Goals,” which offers powerful reflections on relationship-building among conservation and philanthropic organizations and Tribes and Indigenous communities to move toward shared stewardship goals.

Your report is titled “Unfencing the Future.” Why did you choose fences as a metaphor?

As I wrote, the metaphor chose the report. Many people I spoke with talked about fences — real and imaginary. My family, too, has a story about fences. My Cherokee grandfather, Russell Porter Hester, started college just before the Great Depression began. During the Depression, he sold his Indian allotment so that he could finish college. My mother tells a story that, while he was a student, he was presented with this question on an exam: What was the most defining feature of the American West? He wrote a single word on the page, “fences,” and turned in his exam. Reportedly, he received an A.

Fences are both a metaphor and an omnipresent physical marker of colonization and of the accompanying world view that created what we currently call the United States and Canada. Fences, which followed surveying, contain the notion that land can be owned, sold, and divided into private parcels and others excluded from it — or contained within it. Fences imply that landscapes and species can be separated from one another and somehow remain intact or, worse, that their failure to remain intact is not important.

As long-standing stewards of their territories, respectful, reciprocal relationships with Indigenous peoples and communities can help with removing those fences. These relationships are essential if the environmental and conservation movement and its funders are to be effective in protecting and restoring lands and waters and responding to a changing climate.

We need to take down the fences and unfence the future. Relationships can heal, open doors, transform people’s attitudes, and get things done.

Why don’t more of these relationships already exist, and what can be done?

Segmenting land into parcels embodies the linear, Western thinking that impedes and cuts off interconnection. It is a tool of colonialization, domestication, and the settler-colonial states that follow. Categorical parceling and breaking down is part of Western life: science; capitalism; the way people perceive the world around them, their role in it, and what is available for humans; federal policies; and the assimilation policies forced on Indigenous communities. In contrast, Indigenous worldviews recognize interdependence with the land, water, and air; this includes relationship with all beings — human and more-than-human.

Given the genocide and forced removal of Indigenous people from the land, their culture, and their communities across North America, it is not hard to see why these relationships were broken and why early conservation organizations, many of which began in the 1930s, did not conceive that Tribal governments and communities should or would be part of their work. Similarly, it is not hard to see how philanthropic institutions, much of whose wealth derived from Tribal lands, did not envision Indigenous communities as important to support. Many philanthropies still have this bias, regardless of the program area.

Despite this history, today we can tell ourselves different stories about who we are, who we work with, what we do, and why we do it. We can repair and make new relationships. We can help repair the land.

What themes emerged from your conversations with the Tribal leaders, conservationists, and philanthropists you profiled in the report?

Four themes emerged: the importance of relationships; the importance of being inclusive and respectful; that who makes the decisions and who has access to those who make the decisions matters; and the need to challenge thinking about funding and flexibility.

But if people remember only one thing, I hope it is that relationships underlie this work.

Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, attributed the Nation’s success under her tenure to relationships. Strong relationships provide us grace, nurturing, strength, and love as we move through life. This applies to every part of life. Indeed, we are living in a time where our relationships with our more-than-human relatives — the four-leggeds, winged, swimming, and plants — are changing. Now is the time for respectful, reciprocal relationships to be built between people, communities, more-than-human relatives, and organizations that can help us support one another and the incredible world on which we depend.


Dillon, senior program manager for the Emerging Strategies Program at the Schmidt Family Foundation’s 11th Hour Project, has worked in philanthropy, as an attorney, for Tribal governments, and with Native nonprofits for two decades. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation provided support for the publication of “Unfencing the Future.”

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