Caring for our Rez Pet Relatives through Governance

“Rez dogs are happy.” It’s one of the main messages we took away from attending the recent Humane Society of the United States 2023 Animal Care Expo.

Rez dogs have a special role within many Native nations: they often roam free and belong to not just one individual or family but to the community as a whole. Rez dogs’ ability to ramble as they please usually stems from community members’ deep respect for them. As Rick Haaland, Community Outreach Manager for the Leech Lake Tribal Police, explains, “We refuse to do to the Rez dog as what the colonists did to us. That is, to put us in fences and to force us to be something outside of our nature.” 

There’s no doubt that Rez dogs are happy. Take a look at our 2022 Give to the Max Day campaign, “Sovereignty’s Best Friend,” and you’ll see plenty of examples of very happy dogs. But, did you know there’s a link between governance and Rez dogs’ ability to thrive within Indigenous communities? Below, we share key takeaways for using governance to promote community safety and Rez dog happiness. In addition, we explain how animal welfare practitioners can establish meaningful partnerships with Native nations and be good relatives to Rez pets and the people who love them. 

We’re grateful to Bobbi Jo Favel (Chippewa Cree DNR), Marta Pierpoint (Humane Society of Western Montana), and Rick Haaland (Leech Lake Tribal Police) for sharing insights during the Animal Care Expo that form the basis for much of this content.

Who’s Responsible for Rez Dogs?

At Native Governance Center, we define Indigenous governance as the structures and processes Native nations use to promote the physical, cultural, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of all relatives. When we say relatives, we include our living community members, ancestors, future generations, plants, and creatures (including Rez pets). 

We assist Native nations with strengthening their governance systems, which can include re-envisioning structures like Tribal codes to better align with community needs and goals. Due to the ongoing impacts of colonization, many Native nations are still operating with governance frameworks imposed upon them by the U.S. federal government. Some of these nations are in the process of rebuilding their governance systems to better align with their visions for the future. 

Using Codes to Promote Health

Linking governance with Rez dogs, Native nations have the opportunity to structure their Tribal codes to provide clarity on who’s responsible when something goes wrong. While they’re most often fluffy and friendly, Rez dogs can have bad days. A Rez dog might bite a human. Or, a dog could feel hungry and decide to link up with other dogs to find food. Traveling packs of dogs can be dangerous and intimidating for community members. In these instances, it’s important that Tribal citizens understand who to call and how to get help. 

Bobbi Jo Favel, Chippewa Cree Tribe Natural Resources Department Director, mentions that when there’s a dangerous animal, it’s sometimes unclear which Tribal agency is responsible. Many Native nations do not have animal control departments because of budgetary constraints and/or views about the role of animals in the community. Tribal codes should directly outline who’s in charge of dealing with dangerous dogs in order to prevent accidents and keep community members safe. Having clear and fair Tribal policies aligns with the strong governing institutions principle of Native nation rebuilding. Research demonstrates that Native nations that follow the rebuilding framework are more likely to thrive into the future. 

The Chippewa Cree Tribe is currently working to update its Tribal code to reflect community needs around dangerous dogs. Bobbi Jo Favel notes the importance of creating codes that are realistic and implementable. Nations should ensure they have capacity to carry out the codes they develop and to update them frequently to reflect changing levels of resources and capacity. 

Native nations can also develop codes to prioritize Rez pet care. Nations’ sovereign status allows them to create policies that look different than those of surrounding municipalities, making it easier for providers to deliver care for Rez pets. The barriers to care for Rez pets are often numerous and challenging in rural areas. Care can be especially difficult to access during winter months. Codes that allow vet techs to administer rabies shots and traveling out-of-state vets to stay for an extended period of time can be especially advantageous for Native nations. Statutes like these allow more pets to receive care than they would in surrounding off-reservation areas.

How to Help Rez Pets

Many Native nations receive requests from non-Native animal welfare practitioners to help support Rez dogs and Rez pets. Approaching the relationship in a thoughtful way can lay the groundwork for long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships. Below we outline best practices shared by Animal Care Expo panelists for being a good relative to Native nations and Rez pets. And, we share a few helpful starting points for providing resources to meet current needs. 

Approaching the Relationship

If your animal welfare organization wants to support Rez pets, it’s important to do some self-reflection first before jumping into a partnership. Marta Pierpoint of the Humane Society of Western Montana asserts that if your staff is uninterested in helping Rez pets and your mission does not align with providing this type of support, you may struggle. 

Base any collaboration you’re initiating on authentic relationships. Work to build connections first, and wait to receive an invitation from a Native nation before starting a program. Before beginning their partnership with the Chippewa Cree Tribe, the Humane Society of Western Montana received an invitation to provide support. Their friendships with community members created trust and opened the door for this invitation. Once invited, consider starting with a pilot program if it makes sense. And, remember, a good way to measure success is the simple fact of whether your organization is invited back year after year. 

Dismantling Stereotypes

You’ll also need to consider if you’re holding onto any stereotypes about Rez pets, particularly Rez dogs. If you are, change your mindset before starting a partnership. Rick Haaland explains, “When people reinforce stereotypes toward any aspect of Indigenous communities, including Rez dogs, they miss out on opportunities to learn about–and from–Tribal nations with rich cultures and histories.” Community members who allow their Rez dogs to run free care deeply about their pets. The vast majority of Rez dogs do not need to be “saved.”

Everyone, no matter their income level or access to resources, deserves to have the option to have a pet. Focus on ways to keep pets within the community rather than removing them. Avoid shaming individuals for the level of care they’re currently able to provide. Consider the systemic, intersectional factors that can sometimes make pet care challenging for specific community members.

If you have a question about an individual Rez dog or Rez pet, talk with folks from the community first before making an assumption. Usually, community members are aware of who provides care for a particular dog or pet. If you’re not sure who to contact with questions, call that nation’s Tribal police department or Tribal government office. 

Sovereignty and Data

On the topic of Tribal governments, remember that Native nations are sovereign, independent nations. They make their own laws to serve their people, and these laws may be different from those of neighboring governments. Respect nations’ sovereign status, and don’t assume all nations have the same needs and goals. 

Finally, the Western Montana Humane Society takes a particularly helpful approach to data sharing with Tribal governments. They provide the Chippewa Cree Tribe with full-time access to the records they create when working with Tribal clients. This way, if an animal bite situation arises, Chippewa Cree officials can easily access the data to see if the animal has been vaccinated. Providing nations with access to records can potentially save them tens of thousands of dollars in the case of an accident.

Current Needs

To get a sense of where to begin your partnership and what resources are needed, lead with questions. Ask the community about their needs. Conference panelists shared with us that providing pet food is always a great starting point. They also communicated that access to emergency vets is a major need. In the case of Leech Lake, the nearest vet is more than 20 miles from the Reservation and doesn’t currently provide emergency services. Spay and neuter clinics, along with vaccine clinics, can also be an effective way to help–especially if they are mobile.

It’s likely the case that a Native nation near you already has several pet care-related initiatives underway. Look for ways to amplify what that nation is already doing and fill gaps in care. Each time you deliver services, look for new ways to learn and grow. 

Additional Resources