The Status of Tribes and Climate Change Report — Status of Tribes and Climate Change Working Group

Click here to read the report. Here’s the executive summary:

The climate is changing. Global air temperatures are rising, as are sea levels throughout most of the U.S. Heavy rainfall is increasing in intensity and frequency. Atlantic hurricane intensity is on the rise, and the number of large forest fires in the western U.S. and Alaska is increasing and is exacerbated by drought and heat. In Alaska and the Arctic, sea ice is declining, permafrost is thawing, and warming is more than twice the global average (Walsh et al., 2014; Hayhoe et al., 2018; USGCRP, 2017).

Given close relationships with the natural world stemming from deep spiritual and cultural connections and subsistence lifeways, Indigenous peoples are on the frontlines of those experiencing and adapting to climate change. Indigenous peoples possess incredible resiliency and innovation, borne from Indigenous knowledges, worldviews, and countless generations of connection to place (Ford et
al., 2020). At the same time, climate change impacts for many Tribal communities are already severe (such as shifts in/loss of key cultural species and land loss due to erosion, flooding, and permafrost thaw), and the challenges they face responding to impacts are daunting (such as lack of funding and technical resources and legacies from colonialism and discrimination). The time to at is now, and the way to act is together: in community, taking care of one another and all our relations.

What Is the Status of Tribes and Climate Change (STACC) Report?

The Status of Tribes and Climate Change (STACC) Report seeks to uplift and honor the voices of Indigenous peoples across the U.S. to increase understanding of Tribal lifeways, cultures, and worldviews; the climate change impacts Tribes are experiencing; the solutions they are implementing; and ways that all of us can support Tribes in adapting to our changing world. Given this, the STACC Report was written for diverse audiences, including Tribal managers, leaders, and community members; the authors of future National Climate Assessments; federal and state agencies and decision-makers; and nongovernmental organizations. Over 90 authors representing diverse entities and perspectives contributed to this report, including the authors of 34 personal narratives and author teams who wrote topic reviews using elements from their own experiences and knowledge as well as information from the most current peer-reviewed literature. The development of the STACC Report was coordinated by the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), which was established in 1992 at Northern Arizona University with a cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Tribal Climate Resilience Program. ITEP is honored to have worked with these authors, who together, along with the Steering Committee, form the STACC Working Group.

Why This Report Was Created

The Indigenous peoples of North America have seen many hardships, including legacies of colonialism, forced assimilation, intergenerational trauma, upheaval and repression of Native economic systems, and the loss of ancestral lands, languages, natural resources, and traditions. Due to colonialization and subsequent land dispossession, social exclusion, and discrimination, researchers have identified Indigenous peoples globally and in the U.S. as populations “at-risk” to environmental change (Ford et al., 2020; Nakashima et al., 2018). Tribes have, however, continually proven to be resilient and innovative, which is evident in their creating adaptation and mitigation plans and continuing to rely on traditional knowledges to inform actions and strategies. This resiliency and adaptation dates back thousands of years and holds true in today’s changing climate.

As numerous Indigenous persons would attest to, the close relationship that Tribes have with their lands, waters, resources, and heritage includes a responsibility to one another, to all relations, and to the past and future generations of human and nonhuman relatives alike. It embodies the need to care for and respect the needs of all things and recognizes the responsibility to honor the wisdom of their ancestors and carefully consider the consequences of their decisions and actions for future generations. This may lead Tribal members to ask: what does it mean to be a good ancestor?

Due in part to these worldviews that are tightly interwoven with many compounding dimensions, Tribal experiences with climate change can make Indigenous peoples particularly vulnerable to cascading and disproportionate impacts, while their responses simultaneously support Tribal resilience to those impacts and are discussed throughout the STACC Report.

While Tribes cannot be thought of as one monolithic group, diverse Indigenous persons are in dialogue about synergies that exist among their worldviews. Numerous Indigenous persons have articulated that their worldviews understand all things as an interconnected whole, as shown in Figure 1, the Indigenous Holistic Worldview Illustration. There is inherent difficulty in writing a report that includes sectoral chapters about impacts experienced by Indigenous peoples that also reflects the interconnected nature of those experiences. However, as Figure 1 shows, each topic is interwoven with the others and all the systems of the world.

Although Indigenous peoples have been involved in various scientific reports related to climate change (see Ch. 1), a gap exists in the published literature of a holistic, in-depth review of the unique experiences of and threats to Tribes, in particular with first-hand experiences described. The STACC Report aims to fill this gap as well as provide recommendations for decision-makers and others supporting Tribal efforts.

Understanding Tribal Sovereignty

In order to effectively support Tribes in their efforts to address climate change, it is vital to understand Tribal sovereignty, self-determination, the federal trust responsibility, and consultation requirements within the government-to-government relationship. Tribal sovereignty is the inherent right of American Indians and Alaska Natives to govern themselves, and any decisions that could impact their property or citizens must be made with their participation and consent (NCSL, 2013; USDOI Frequently Asked Questions, n.d.). Similar to states, Tribes “possess the right to form their own governments; to make and enforce laws, both civil and criminal; to tax; to establish and determine membership (i.e., tribal citizenship); [and] to license and regulate activities within their jurisdiction…” (USDOI Frequently Asked Questions, n.d.). The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 articulates a

The Indigenous Holistic Worldview Illustration visually depicts the interconnected way in which many Indigenous peoples experience the world and includes factors that influence the natural world. The various topics that the STACC Report addresses are included in the roots to demonstrate that while the Report is divided into independent chapters, the topics are, in reality, part of an interdependent whole. This illustration’s shape resembles a turtle in reference to Turtle Island, as some of the creation stories of Indigenous peoples of North America include a turtle, which can be thought of as either the continent of North America or as the entire Earth, depending on the storyteller. -Illustration design: Coral Avery and Molly Tankersley

pathway for Tribal control, responsibility, and autonomy over programs and services usually administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (USDOI Self-Determination, n.d.; USDOI Frequently Asked Questions, n.d). The federal trust responsibility addresses the reality that Tribal nations ceded their homelands in exchange for the guarantee of protection of their rights to self-government and lands and to provide for federal assistance (NCAI Tribal Governance, n.d.). The government-to-government (or nation-to-nation) relationship is a fundamental principle of the federal trust responsibility (NCAI State/Tribal Relations, n.d.), and government-to-government consultation must occur from the beginning stages of all decision-making that could potentially impact Tribes.

Executive Order 13175, which was established in 2000, “reaffirms the Federal government’s commitment to tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and self-government. Its purpose is to ensure that all Executive departments and agencies consult with Indian tribes and respect tribal sovereignty as they develop policy on issues that impact Indian communities” (DOE, 2000). This executive order was reaffirmed by the Biden administration on January 26, 2021. Sovereignty is an inherent right of Tribes, and the onus is on the federal government to ensure that right and government-to-government consultation are upheld. It is important to note that not all Indigenous groups/peoples have federal recognition, which limits their access to federal resources and impacts their ability to address climate change.

Interwoven Key Messages & Recommendations

The full list of Key Messages & Recommendations can be found within each chapter and in the Conclusion. Much like the interwoven nature of all the topics addressed in this report, the key messages and recommendations are interdependent and can be distilled into two themes: Respect and uphold Tribal sovereignty and self-determination and Integrate holistic responses in line with Tribal values.

Key Message & Recommendation: Respect and Uphold Tribal Sovereignty and Self-Determination

Tribal sovereignty and self-determination help to counteract historical trauma, disproportionate climate change impacts, and vulnerability and are strong themes in the Recommendations across all chapters. The remedial dynamic of recognizing and respecting the pre-existing right of self-determination of Tribes should be acknowledged. Each chapter identifies key ways to promote Tribal sovereignty, including, but not limited to, the following actions and examples:

  • Engage Tribes early and often in decision-making processes (Chs. 3 and 10). Many federal programs and policies affecting Tribes have been designed without meaningful Tribal participation. Tribes should be central to such decision-making. Engaging Tribes early and often helps to ensure that programs developed are accessible to Tribal communities and that Tribal concerns, values, and priorities are included in decisions such as those about land or water management, the development of regulations, choices about what science questions to pursue, and more. One best “early and often” engagement practice is to establish Tribal partnerships before developing project proposals. Building relationships with Tribal leaders, managers, and community members is key to ensuring respectful dialogue and that intentions are trustworthy.
  • Increase co-management of natural resources. Co-management of natural resources involves cross-jurisdictional, cooperative, participatory collaboration in decision-making, planning, and enforcement (Ch. 3), and contributes to strengthening of food security and the realization of food sovereignty (Ch. 5). As the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho describes in their narrative in Ch. 4.1, their state-Tribal partnership improved monitoring capabilities during the 2020 wildfire smoke season.
  • Respect, include, and protect Indigenous and traditional knowledges in climate change actions. Such knowledges are a fundamental and interwoven part of Indigenous cultures and are important for understanding and responding to changes that are occurring. For instance, during climatic and other disruptions such as wildfires, extreme weather, and the COVID-19 pandemic, when access to commercial foods may be cut off, traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering methods form a source of local resilience. In addition to the information in Chs. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 12, a resource for better understanding this concept is the Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives.1 As described in the Guidelines, Tribes must be able to choose to share or not share traditional knowledges with others.
  • Provide adequate funding for climate change adaptation (Chs. 4–12 and Appendix A). Inadequate funding remains one of the greatest barriers for Tribes to plan for and adapt to climate change, as well as to mitigate climate change through greenhouse gas reductions and developing a zero- carbon economy (Chs. 4.2.1, 6, 7, and 12). For example, across the U.S., Tribal communities are experiencing land loss due to erosion, flooding, and permafrost thaw (Chs. 4 and 10). Nationwide, at least $6.2 billion is needed over the next 50 years to protect, replace, and move existing Tribal infrastructure. This amount includes at least $175 million needed annually nationwide over the next ten years (Ch. 10).
  • Increase coordination among federal programs so that financial and technical resources are more easily accessed by Tribes and are used more efficiently. When accessing climate change adaptation resources, Tribes may face hurdles navigating a federal system in which funding and technical expertise are dispersed across multiple departments and programs, each with differing and sometimes complicated processes for accessing resources (Ch. 4.2.1, 9, and 10). For example, programs that provide funding to construct public drinking water systems are located within seven different federal agencies, and there is no lead federal agency or program to help communities facing relocation (Ch. 4.2.1 and 10).
  • Build and retain capacity within Tribes to manage and adapt their resources and infrastructure to climate change through passing down of knowledge between elders and youth, workforce development, professional training to increase technical and managerial expertise, and the equitable and ethical use of Indigenous knowledges and Western science (see Chs. 3, 4.2.1, 5, 7, and 12). Tribal Colleges and Universities, for example, are important institutions for students to transition from education to their careers as professionals; on-the-job training programs allow for the application of emerging technologies such as those in energy generation; and hiring community members first ensures the local community will benefit. Workforce development can transcend inequity issues, contribute to strong economies, and help maintain cultural integrity. Federal responses should integrate support for these local capacity-building and retention efforts.
  • Provide Tribally-focused data, resources, and actionable science to support Tribal decision-making (Chs. 3 and 6 and Appendix B). Climate change occurs globally but is experienced locally in a variety of ways. Climate change data that is more local and integrated with local observations and knowledge can be more relevant for planning and actions. The University of Washington’s Tribal Climate Tool,[2] for instance, provides Pacific Northwest Tribes with reservation-specific climate change data. Actionable science helps people make better decisions about things they care about and should start off with the question, “What does this community value?” This is aided by engaging Tribes early and often (see above).
  • Support the planning and implementation of Tribally-led solutions to Tribally-identified needs (Chs. 4.1 and 12 and Appendix A). Due to colonization, Tribes have had decisions about their futures imposed on them from outside entities. A key element of Tribal sovereignty involves Tribes identifying their own needs and priorities and leading their own responses and actions. The Climate Science Alliance’s Tribal Working Group is one example of successfully building, supporting, and accelerating Tribal resilience in a Tribally-led environment in which the planning and implementation aspects are fully supported (narrative, Ch. 12). Another example is described by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi in Ch. 4.1: they had concerns about air pollution from area sources, which led to them directing their resources to strategically install PurpleAir monitors and develop an Environmental Dashboard to help protect the health of their Tribal members.

    Key Message & Recommendation: Integrate Holistic Responses in Line with Tribal Values
    As described above, Tribal worldviews, experiences, and responses embody interconnectedness. Cascading impacts from, and holistic and interconnected responses to, climate change are addressed throughout the STACC Report and include actionable steps such as:

  • When developing climate change solutions, recognize the interconnectedness of systems and consider strategies that achieve multiple objectives (see Chs. 4.2 and 5). Ocean acidification and harmful algae events negatively affect Indigenous food systems and security, human health, and local economies. Solutions like clam gardens—essentially, rock walls in bays or inlets that increase shellfish productivity—are an integrated response to multiple climate change impacts (e.g., rising tides, food security, and ocean acidification) and draw upon traditional knowledges. Exerting economic sovereignty through sustainable enterprise development is another strategy Tribes use to address system interconnectedness and achieve multiple objectives (see Ch. 6). Additionally, rising air temperatures and increasing drought may stress native vegetation, leaving plants more vulnerable to insect outbreaks and providing greater opportunities for invasive plants to become established. Large-scale, uncharacteristically high-severity wildfires that could contribute to ecosystem conversion may continue to increase. Cultural burning is a stewardship practice that can enhance ecosystem resilience to climate change and achieve multiple objectives by promoting drought-tolerant and fire-adapted vegetation species; inhibiting insect pests that affect foods such as nuts, seeds, and berries; mitigating large-scale detrimental fires; and promoting the growth of basket-weaving materials and medicinal and food species. By working with the fire regimes of native and nonnative vegetation, cultural burning can also inhibit the establishment of invasive plants. Momentum is gaining for the use of this multifaceted strategy as recognition of the benefits of cultural burning spreads beyond Tribal communities, scientific understanding of the role that fire plays in ecosystems builds, and legal policies that limit cultural burns shift (Chs. 4, 4.1, 5, 8, and 12.)
  • Increase partnerships across jurisdictional boundaries and at different scales and integrate climate change considerations into ongoing planning and implementation processes (Chs. 3, 4.2, 6, 9, and 12). Climate change impacts are often interconnected and complex, sometimes crossing jurisdictional lines. Integrating climate change into ongoing planning and implementation, along with collaborative responses at larger geographic scales, has the potential to be more cost- efficient, more inclusive with respect to decision-making, and less time-consuming and to lead to actions that are more sustainable in the long term. Ch. 12 describes how Tribes are participating in a variety of cross-boundary, collaborative projects, including the Rio Grande Water Fund hosted by The Nature Conservancy. The Fund supports large-scale forest restoration by a variety of entities in the aftermath of an extensive wildfire to ensure a clean water supply for the region’s people and wildlife, both now and in the future. Examples of plans in which climate change can be considered as one factor among many include: FEMA Tribal Hazard Mitigation Plans; EPA Tribal Environmental Plans; Land/Resource Management Plans; Community Comprehensive Plans; and BIA forest, wildland fire, irrigation, fish and wildlife, agricultural, and integrated resource management plans.
  • Implement climate adaptation strategies that are proactive versus solely reactive (Chs. 4.2, 4.2.1, and 11). In contrast to reactive responses, proactive strategies anticipate future scenarios and plan for problems that may occur before they take place, helping to minimize harm. Climate-resilient drinking water systems, for example, provide reliable service with limited disruptions and/or harm in the face of changing environmental conditions and extreme climate events. If disruptions occur, systems can recover quickly. Infrastructure deficiencies provide opportunities to install new infrastructure in climate-resilient ways that can help decrease emergencies. System upgrades provide occasions to improve the climate resiliency of existing infrastructure.
  • Connect solutions to Tribal values and priorities, and recognize the tangible and intangible significance of climate change impacts. Tribes may have different views than their non-Tribal counterparts with respect to what they value and prioritize, and not all resources have tangible value or risk of loss (Ch. 8). Ch. 5 describes how the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, for instance, developed Indigenous Health Indicators (IHIs) that contrast somewhat with a more western view of health. The indicators include community connection, cultural use, education, natural resource security, self-determination, and resilience. The Swinomish Tribal government used these IHIs to prioritize and make decisions about how to use limited time and resources to address sea level rise and storm surge impacts to key first foods habitats.
  • Support Tribes’ just transitions away from fossil fuels. Tribal self-determination means that decisions made by individual Tribes will vary, but a just transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy will ensure that regenerative and sustainable economies are a part of the restoration of Indigenous peoples’ lifeways (Chs. 6 and 7). Some Tribal economies are dependent on fossil fuels, which is an unsustainable economic model, and the burning of fossil fuels is ultimately driving climate change. The Hopi Tribe’s economy has depended on coal for 50 years, and the closure of the area’s coal mine was a devastating loss. The Tribe is working towards transitioning to renewable energy development to improve the health of the community while also creating new revenue and jobs (narrative, Ch. 7).
  • The 2021 STACC Report is the first of its kind. Future STACC Reports will seek to identify new topics and developments important to Tribes and current topics that this edition did not cover. The authors of future Reports will also continue to strive to integrate topics holistically.

    Building on the successes of Tribes and individuals who have dedicated their lives to elevating Indigenous peoples’ concerns and implementing the changes imperative to improving their lives, the 2021 STACC Report demonstrates the unique climate change impacts experienced by Tribes and the many ways they are responding. Gaining an understanding of Tribal worldviews, traditional knowledges, and the increased impacts that many Tribal communities face may lead to improved responses to climate change in the U.S. and greater environmental and social justice for the original peoples of this land. When we recognize we are not separate from our natural environment and value justice, equity, and respect for all our relations, we may collectively achieve a society in which all can thrive.

    Leave a Reply