Center for American Progress

5 Ways Scientists, NGOs, and Governments Can Support Indigenous-led Conservation

5 Ways Scientists, NGOs, and Governments Can Support Indigenous-led Conservation

Outcomes from the Decolonizing Conservation Symposium at the 2022 National Diversity in STEM Conference.

Canoes near shore
Yurok guides paddle tourists along the Klamath River in traditional canoes handcrafted from redwood trees, June 2021. (Getty/Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Tribal and Indigenous communities have been stewards of land, waters, and wildlife since time immemorial. Increasingly, the Biden administration and conservation organizations across the country are coming to understand the importance of Indigenous-led conservation approaches. A report published in 2021 found that although Indigenous peoples make up just 5 percent of the global population, they are protecting 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. An earlier analysis from 2018 found they manage or have tenure rights over a quarter of the world’s land surface—including about 40 percent of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes.

But what is Indigenous-led conservation? And how can government leaders and conservation organizations share power; create a seat at the decision-making table; and engage meaningfully with Indigenous communities to protect nature?

To explore these questions, the Center for American Progress and the National Ocean Protection Coalition brought together Native experts to participate in a symposium at the 2022 National Diversity in STEM Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The symposium—titled “Indigenous-led approaches in national climate and conservation policy: Decolonizing conservation to deliver just and equitable outcomes on federal lands and waters driven by Tribal and Territorial communities”—included Native speakers leading in different facets of conservation, such as Tribal leaders, NGOs, philanthropies, and those within the government.

The six symposium speakers were: Chief Anne Richardson, Chief of the Rappahannock Tribe; Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation; Joel Moffett, Native Americans in Philanthropy; Anthony Ritter, University of Guam; Haley Case-Scott, White House Office of Science Technology and Policy; and Angelo Villagomez, Center for American Progress. The symposium was moderated by Humna Sharif from the National Ocean Protection Coalition.

The panelists spoke about how they bring Indigenous approaches and experience to their respective conservation initiatives. From these distinct voices, five shared themes emerged: bringing their Indigenous identity to their work; using Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge; centering Indigenous values in conservation; the responsibilities they carry as Indigenous people; and the need for continued advocacy for their communities and nature.

There is a tremendous diversity in Indigenous thought in the world today, and these themes may not apply to everywhere and everyone. In the United States alone, for example, there are more than 600 Tribal Nations speaking 175 languages, with 574 Tribes federally recognized. There are also Indigenous Samoans, Hawaiians, Chamorros, and various Micronesian groups living in the U.S. Pacific Islands and Territories. But across this diversity, there are probably more similarities than differences, just as small-town America shares values and cultures across its geographic diversity. In any case, exploring how Indigenous-led conservation expresses itself across the globe—from the Arctic to the tropics, from rural reservations to urban-dwelling Indigenous peoples—is something worth investigating in future symposia and research.

Yet, despite this diversity, these themes did emerge in our panel. With the America the Beautiful Initiative, the Biden administration has made clear their intention to protect 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030, address climate change, and increase access to nature for all Americans. Understanding and applying these shared themes of Indigenous-led conservation will go a long way toward achieving America the Beautiful goals with Indigenous communities. And it will have the added benefit of making the conservation efforts of today more just and more durable in the long term.

Invite Indigenous identity into conservation work

Each of the panelists emphasized the importance of bringing their Indigenous identity into their conservation work. This contrasts with Western conservation norms, which is often described as “science-based.” The Indigenous approach is more holistic, and allows for other ways of knowing, ways of being, and ways of doing in order to engage in conservation efforts. For many Indigenous peoples, who they are is deeply rooted in where they live and the connections they have to their ancestors who lived there before them. This connection to land and waters, therefore, goes beyond the Western transcendentalism roots of protecting nature, and, rather, combines efforts to protect culture, family, identity, communities, and natural resources into a singular act.

Featured quotes from the symposium

As a young Native woman, I am so proud to hear Native and Indigenous youth speak about their homelands, how much they care and what they are doing, to make sure that the cultural and natural resources that define our identities, as Native people are here for the next generation and beyond. Haley Case-Scott
Don't forget your culture when you're doing science; keep it together. It took me a long time to have that at the forefront; I used to keep it separate. Don't forget to tell your story. Keep that in the center, because no one else is going to tell them, no one's going to come there from their side and say, “what's your story?” You're gonna have to let them know. Anthony Ritter
We are the first stewards, we know how to care-take of our lands and waters and species. Joel Moffett

Indigenous peoples should feel safe bringing their identify and worldviews into conservation discussions which have historically been dominated by white men. Their Indigenous identity is the bedrock of how they define their relationship to nature and how they approach conservation.

Lift up Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge

Indigenous knowledge plays a critical role in Indigenous-led conservation. The White House recently released “Guidance for Federal Departments and Agencies on Indigenous Knowledge” and defines Indigenous Knowledge—also referred to as “Traditional Knowledge or Traditional Ecological Knowledge”—as “a body of observations, oral and written knowledge, innovations, practices, and beliefs that promote sustainability and the responsible stewardship of cultural and natural resources through relationships between humans and their landscapes.” Yet, while it is important to understand the concepts behind Indigenous Knowledge, it is also crucial to understand where it comes from and how it is shared. Western conservation puts a premium on “new science,” whereas Indigenous-led conservation believes the highest form of knowledge is ancient, passed down by one’s ancestors from generation to generation.

Featured quotes from the symposium

They called us emotional Natives, and said that we didn't know the science of what we were speaking. And now the same people that they called the emotional ones are the ones that they come to for what? Traditional ecological knowledge, right? Queen Quet
They're starting slowly to understand that we have a knowledge that's been built up over millennia of how to take care of our lands and waters and take care of the species. We take care of those species like salmon and take care of their own and their ecosystems, so that in turn, they can take care of us. Joel Moffett
I would also visit my grandpa quite a bit. He's the one who helped me learn about the importance of the natural and cultural resources around me and he taught me how to take care of and value my surroundings using the knowledge he carried from his elders. Haley Case-Scott

Traditional ecological knowledge is science. When conservation initiatives take place, Western knowledge and Indigenous Knowledge must be held in equal esteem. This will enrich conservation, making it more meaningful and insightful, and ultimately impactful.

Center Indigenous values in conservation

Our values help us speak to the why and how we conduct conservation. Whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, our ethics and ideals shape how we see our place in the world. Indigenous values are central to understanding Indigenous-led approaches to conservation. Values help inform not only which conservation initiatives should be supported but also how they should be carried out and who is involved. For a century, Western scholars have offered vocabulary on how to think about different approaches to conservation, yet today, it is clear that John Muir’s views on preservation were racist, and the organization he founded—the Sierra Club—has apologized for them. Bringing attention to, learning, and understanding Indigenous values and concepts around conservation will improve our efforts to protect nature. During the symposium, several of the speakers spoke to the values that guide their work.

Featured quotes from the symposium

I spoke to some of the people and asked them, 'What brings you to work?' All of them kept coming back to two values. One of them was Inafa’maolek. And Respetu, it's a Spanish word that means respect, but it's not generally just respect. It's sort of a reverence in the way that you care for your grandmother or grandfather. It's the same thing. We care about the land in that way, and that's Respetu. Anthony Ritter
No matter what language you speak in, speak clearly of your community, your cultural heritage and be proud to be Indigenous to your land. Take a stand there, touch Mother Earth. Queen Quet
We're seeing development and land ownership, things that are destroying the land, destroying the rivers, and the things that we hold dear. The things that have helped our people survive for generations. So we're restoring those lands to the tribe and taking care of them in an Indigenous way. Chief Anne Richardson

Many Indigenous cultures, but not all, have words and concepts that are applicable to Indigenous-led conservation. Western conservation values are newer and have morphed over the decades from scenic landscapes in the days of Teddy Roosevelt, to wildlife protections, to climate advocacy today. But Indigenous values for protecting nature have developed over millennia and have helped peoples maintain their cultures despite five centuries of colonization.

Help Indigenous peoples achieve the responsibilities they carry

Responsibility and advocacy are related, but subtly different. They both involve taking some kind of action: While responsibility is “I have to do this,” advocacy can be thought of as, “I have to make you do this.” Many western scientists like to think of themselves as neutral observers of the natural world, sometimes going as far as thinking political engagement is detrimental to the integrity of research. For practitioners of Indigenous-led conservation, responsibility and advocacy are mandatory. During the symposium, the speakers shared some of the responsibilities they carried for themselves, between generations, among their communities, and toward nature.

Featured quotes from the symposium

As an Indigenous person, you're constantly educating people about who you are your whole life. And so you become a teacher, whether you want to be one or not. Chief Anne Richardson
Youth today are the ones who will take the reins long after our generation and others are gone. It is important to pursue a path, whether for your career or education, that you find meaningful and important. If you have something that you care deeply about, there's always something that you can do to find a way to make a difference. Haley Case-Scott
Indigenous peoples lay claim or own about 20 percent of the planet today, but 80 percent of nature is on our lands and in our waters. So we are the stewards of nature. And we carry the burden of protection proudly. But we need support. And we demand it. Angelo Villagomez

The responsibility for conservation in Indigenous communities comes from the need to provide for one’s family, and to ensure the ability to do so is passed down through the generations. But it is more than just conservation, this responsibility is equally tied to natural resources management, identity, ownership, language, and culture.

Support Tribal and Indigenous advocacy

Several recommendations were made on the need to engage with government leaders to advocate for Indigenous approaches to conservation. In our symposium, most of the advocacy was directed at the federal government, but there are other targets of advocacy including Congress; state and Tribal governments; international governance bodies; and various government agencies.

Featured quotes from the symposium

You have to advocate in order to get anything done, the government's not going to say, 'Oh, that's a great idea! Let's go ahead and do that.' They have their own agenda. Chief Anne Richardson
We're starting to see a little bit of hope, a little bit of [a] ray of light, and we just have to keep pushing, it's like this is the time now to really put the gas on and drive these demands straight up to the people of power. Joel Moffett
So the better thing is to find ideas like this that the community has already led, the community has already designed, the community has the imagery and the vision for, and then directly allocate funds. Queen Quet

History shows that the government is not going to implement Indigenous priorities without being pushed. Indigenous peoples currently use the power structures available to them to advocate for the policies their people need implemented. But that power structure leans heavily in favor of the Western approach to conservation. To truly advance Indigenous priorities scientists, NGOs, and governments need to let Indigenous peoples take the lead and then support that leadership.


Indigenous-led conservation is multifaceted and looks different across sectors and geographies. However, several themes emerged from conversations with the group of experts during the symposium. It is important for Indigenous peoples to be able to center their identity in their work, whether they are scientists, advocates, or Tribal or federal government leaders. This includes weighing indigenous traditional ecological knowledge equally with western science—and balancing that with Indigenous values. The speakers showcased how Indigenous peoples are already leading conservation efforts in their communities and made a strong case for why governments, philanthropies, and conservation organizations should support the many Indigenous solutions that have a proven track record.

You have more power than you realize. I have a friend in Saipan, she's an elected official, Representative Sheila Babauta. One time she met Barack Obama and she asked him, ‘I want to do something about the military in my islands, they’re bombing our islands. What can we do?’ And he said, ‘Raise awareness, gather allies, and unify your voice.’ And I challenge you to do the same. You are an ambassador for yourself. You are an ambassador for your people and your education is your weapon. So take that education to reach for the stars; get jobs in the White House, become Tribal chiefs, and go out there and change the world. Angelo Villagomez


The authors would like to thank CAP’s amazing Editorial, Video, and Production teams for their work and guidance.

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Angelo Villagomez

Senior Fellow

Humna Sharif

Government Relations Manager with the National Ocean Protection Coaltion

Alex Verdeja Perez

Program Associate with the National Ocean Protection Coaltion

Margaret Cooney

Campaign Manager

Andrew Sonntag

Former Events Video Producer


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