This article considers what role, if any, can tribal environmental ethics play in the re-examination and consideration of American environmental ethics? The answer—quite a substantial role. Tribes must straddle two worlds—a traditional one and one dominated by Western culture and values. As a result of this dichotomy, tribes are necessarily experts at adaptation and innovation. To demonstrate the value of looking to tribal environmental ethics when considering alternative ethical paradigms for the United States, this article begins by discussing the link between environmental ethics and policy making. With this understanding in place, the article then examines the importance of environmental ethics to tribes. This Part considers factors that may motivate tribes to adopt environmental ethics alternative to American environmental ethics, and also uses legal ethics as an example of the necessity, in some instances, for the development of an alternative ethical paradigm, such as one separate from the model ethical code presented by the American Bar Association. Finally, the article concludes with a discussion of how tribes are serving as laboratories of environmental ethical innovation. The Part begins with an introduction to some ethical paradigms other than anthropocentrism, such as animism and deep ecology. The purpose of this introduction is to demonstrate how tribal environmental ethics might parallel some of these alternative ethical frameworks, but also to show that tribal environmental ethics can be different. With this introduction in place, the Part argues that tribes have the capacity for innovation, and then provides explicit examples of where tribes have departed from American environmental ethics. Ultimately, given the significance of emerging environmental challenges, such as climate change, the article concludes that, if policy makers decide on the necessity of an ethical paradigm other than anthropocentrism, tribal environmental ethics provide a compelling alternative, and, tribes, as the third sovereign in the United States, demonstrate how such an alternative environmental ethic may be codified into environmental laws.

Although this article advances the idea that tribes are and can be innovators in the field of environmental ethics, it in no way seeks to perpetuate the stereotype of tribes as environmental stewards or as Noble Savages. Just as other governments have the right to develop and act in ways contrary to the ethics described above, so too do tribes have the right to depart from such norms. Moreover, given there are 567 federally recognized tribes and many non-recognized or state recognized indigenous groups in the United States, it is difficult to identify one tribal environmental ethic. Instead, this article seeks to use examples where possible and to focus on commonalities where they exist, as there are similarities between the environmental world views of some tribes.