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2012 Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award

Honoree: Gail Small

Gail Small
Gail Small
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Gail Small was born and raised on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in southeast Montana. She graduated from the University of Oregon Law School in 1982 and began her career with California Indian Legal Services (CILS) in Eureka, California, working on tribal fishing rights and assisting Northern California tribes in protecting their sacred high country. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, a United States Supreme Court case also known as the GO-Road case, Gail traveled with tribal elders to the Federal Circuit Court in San Francisco where she helped them formulate such compelling testimony that it won the case for tribal people. 

Small returned to Northern Cheyenne reservation in 1984, and with a team of Cheyenne leaders, founded Native Action, one of the first nonprofit organizations on an Indian reservation. For nearly 30 years, Gail’s work with Native Action has changed the landscape of Indian law and environmental policy in the West. Her work has resulted in the establishment of Northern Cheyenne’s first bank, first public high school and first Chamber of Commerce. She has successfully drafted tribal laws for a number of Indian tribes, including a Traditional Tribal Burial Law, a Tribal Environmental Policy Act, and a Tribal Administrative Policy Act. Gail also facilitated the assertion of tribal authority over air and water quality standards on her reservation.

Small has served as an elected member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, and she remains active in both national Indian policy and international indigenous issues. Gail has taught Natural Resource Law and Federal Indian Law at Humboldt State University, Chief Dull Knife Memorial College, and Little Big Horn Community College. She has served on a number of national committees and currently sits on the U.S. EPA National Advisory Committee for the Tri-lateral Commission on NAFTA. She often lectures on environmental topics at universities throughout the country and has testified before Congress on many native issues.

Gail was honored with Ms. Magazine’s Gloria Steinem Women of Vision Award in 1995 and A Territory Resource Foundation’s Jeanette Rankin Award in 1997. She was recognized by Montana Magazine as one of Montana’s most influential leaders in the past 25 years. Small was awarded the Next Generation Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation for 2001-2003 and a W.K. Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship. Gail’s environmental justice work is featured in the award-winning 2005 documentary, “Homeland,” produced by Katahdin Productions.

Finding common ground is the hallmark of Gail’s career. She prides herself on building and nurturing long-term alliances with non-Indians, labor unions, universities, non-partisan political leaders, and other tribes. Through empowerment and education, Gail’s work bridges race, socioeconomics, and environmental justice gaps to protect and preserve the quality of life for generations to come.

Currently, Gail is working to address climate change issues related to fossil fuel use in the Rocky Mountain region by ensuring that a tribal voice is present and heard in all energy development activities in a five-state area. She continues to expand Native Action’s presence through leadership development initiatives designed to create a new group of young native leaders ready to carry on the important environmental and social justice work so critically needed on reservations. Gail lives in Lame Deer, Montana and is the mother of four children.


2012 Honorees

Brian Cladoosby

Gail Small

Jonathan Andrew Waterhouse

Micah McCarty

Patience Andersen Faulkner



Astrid Scholz
tel: 503.467.0758
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Jason Pretty Boy
Indigenous Resilience Fellow
tel: 503.467.0803


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