Building Relations with Northwest Tribal Nations: The Role of Chas Jones, Tribal Liaison

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The Northwest CASC Tribal Liaison is Chas Jones, employed by the Associated Tribes of Northwest Indians through a BIA-funded program. He utilizes knowledge of Northwest tribal cultures to aid tribal resiliency to changing climate and landscape conditions.

Each year in August when the huckleberry shrub begins to fruit, many tribal nations of the northwestern United States hold a celebration called the Huckleberry Feast to give thanks for tribal ‘first foods’, or the variety of plants and animals most culturally significant to those tribes. Chas Jones, employed by the Associated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) as the Northwest CASC’s Tribal Climate Resilience Liaison, was invited to attend this year’s Huckleberry Feast by a member of the Umatilla Tribe in Oregon, whose first foods include Chinook salmon, bison, elk, deer, root vegetables such as the Indian potato, choke cherries and, of course, huckleberries.

“First foods were historically praised for their regional abundance, making them reliable dietary sources for regional tribes, and are valuable to the identity of the tribe which harvested or hunted them,” says Jones.

A brown, woven basket full of tiny blue hucklberries sits on top of a wood-weaved mat on a ground of grey stones.

Huckleberries are a culturally significant first food of tribes in the Pacific Northwest United States. Here, a handwoven basket containing huckleberries is displayed at The Museum at Warm Springs on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Oregon. (Credit: Chas Jones)

Unfortunately, concerns are growing among Northwest tribes that important aspects of their cultures and histories, like the annual Huckleberry Feast, are slipping away due to regional shifts in climate conditions which impact the availability of first foods. The fruiting patterns and growing ranges of the titular huckleberry plant, for example, were once predictable and extensive. Now, fruiting huckleberries are becoming more difficult to find as changes in temperature and precipitation alter the distribution of these traditionally important shrubs.

“The loss of culturally important species could be very impactful for tribes,” says Jones. “It has the potential to affect their cultural identity by not allowing them to continue cultural traditions that rely upon those species, which could make it challenging to connect with their ancestors in their traditional ways.”

A second noticeable and concerning change is the decrease in another first food: salmon. For a number of Northwest tribes located near rivers and streams where wild salmon spawned historically, this is alarming. Jones, who attended a recent ATNI conference during which the lack of access to salmon was a central topic, says that some of the traditional stories from these tribes suggest that the salmon are considered direct ancestors to Northwestern tribal peoples.

“Decreased streamflow and warmer water temperatures during droughts, combined with much reduced access to habitat because of dams makes it so that salmon are no longer able to spawn in many traditional salmon streams,” he says. “Each tribe prioritizes different culturally significant plants and animals. The impact of climate on those species is often a big deal.”

To support tribes in adapting to changing conditions, the Bureau of Indian Affairs collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey and tribal organizations to fund the placement of Tribal Climate Resilience Liaisons throughout the Climate Adaptation Science Center network. Jones is one of several Tribal Liaisons stationed within this network, and is dedicated to increasing CASC engagement with tribal nations, tribal consortia, and tribal organizations such as ATNI. Jones has worked with tribal nations in Alaska and the Southwest during his master’s and Ph.D. programs, and even holds a professional certificate in tribal relations. After holding this position at the Northwest CASC for more than a year, he has become familiar with the practices and traditions of Northwest tribes as well.

“Building relationships with tribal members and staff is the foundation of this position. It’s a challenge to have a job that relies on your ability to build relationships, but it’s very rewarding.”

Jones has also researched the climatic concerns of different tribal groups, focusing on the resources offered by the surrounding landscapes. Northwest tribes are generally located near the coast, near the Columbia River, or inland, so Jones has informally categorized Northwest tribes as either coastal and marine tribes, Columbia River tribes, or inland tribes. The climate risks associated with each of these landscapes varies, as do the priorities of the tribes. Risks range from specific impacts on wildlife to effects on habitats and ecological processes, such as how certain species of plants, like the huckleberry, might redistribute themselves across the landscape.

“When I started talking to people I realized how different the concerns of every tribe were,” says Jones. “I went back to look at 15 tribal vulnerability assessments and adaptation plans and analyzed them, looking for trends inside those three geographic groups.”

In total, Jones identified 281 wide-reaching environmental factors of concern to Northwest tribes related to regional changes in climate. While coastal and marine tribes worry about ocean acidification and the implications this has for culturally important marine life, inland tribes are currently threatened by drought and wildfires. Aside from the economic and ecological implications of wildfire, smoke decimates regional air quality and causes or worsens numerous health issues like asthma and respiratory diseases. Additionally, drought causes water shortages which limit the ability to irrigate crops and provide water for cattle or horses.

Furthermore, coastal tribes and Columbia River tribes have voiced their concerns over recent harmful algal blooms (HABs) that are erupting along the Northwest coast and in rivers and reservoirs. For these tribes, HABs mean that shellfish can no longer be harvested because eating them will make people sick, and the affected reservoirs can no longer be used for drinking water.

“My approach is to identify what resources are important to tribes and how those resources change over time,” says Jones.  “Then I can ask myself: How are these resources affected by climate?”

Chas Jones, in a brown sable fedora and a bright orange t-shirt with the white words "Ask Me!" written on it, stands on shore.

Chas stands upon the Puget Sound shores of the Puyallup Tribe reservation as he volunteers at the 2018 Tribal Canoe Journey. (Credit: Chas Jones)

Jones has four major goals for addressing these issues: identify which resources are most important to each individual Northwest tribe, determine the risks climate change poses to these culturally important resources, connect Northwest tribes to climate adaptation projects that can help improve tribal resilience, and finally, use Northwest CASC assets to help these projects succeed.

“These are real-world impacts the tribes are concerned about,” says Jones. “They want to know what they can do to alleviate these problems.”

Workshops and other collaborative projects have been a key component of building tribal resilience, according to Jones. For example, Jones partnered with Meade Krosby, a Research Scientist with the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, to help guide tribes in the Northwest and Great Basin through the process of developing vulnerability assessments. Partially funded by the Northwest CASC, the team conducted workshops in Nevada, Washington and Oregon, during which they introduced and explained a web tool developed by Krosby that helps tribes identify specific climate impacts to their targeted locations and geographies of interest.

“These workshops were very successful, well attended, and tribal members seemed to really enjoy them,” says Jones. “We talked about the different steps to conducting a vulnerability assessment and part of that was learning about this tool and how it can help each tribe.”

Jones also attends tribal conferences, such as the ATNI annual meeting held recently in September, to interact with members of different tribes, eventually creating relationships which he says are critical to his work as a Tribal Liaison.

“Building relationships with tribal members and staff is the foundation of this position. It’s a challenge to have a job that relies on your ability to build relationships, but it’s very rewarding,” he says. In one instance, Jones connected tribal staff of the Nez Perce Tribe to appropriate sources of funding for climate science and resilience projects. He has worked with them through the proposal process for different grants offered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, several of which the Nez Perce ultimately acquired.

“One of the awards included partnering with me to provide vulnerability assessment training to other tribes,” says Jones. “This was pretty great because before it was only academics providing this type of training, but the tribes obviously found those vulnerability assessment trainings helpful and now it’s becoming a tribally-led effort.”

“These are real-world impacts the tribes are concerned about. They want to know what they can do to alleviate these problems.”

Jones attributes his successes in helping tribes procure funds to his relationship building skills. He is constantly meeting and talking with tribal members, identifying their tribe’s priorities, and contacting them when he finds ways in which the Northwest CASC can assist the tribe and help them successfully implement climate adaptation plans and assessments.

“There are so many different ways in which tribes are challenged economically, so economics are often a priority for them. I can identify grant funding sources and identify potential partners to assist them,” says Jones, who offers the Bonneville Power Association, which operates the dams along the Columbia River, as an example of a successful partner to the Northwest tribes.

“Once I get a feel for what resources are available and important to different tribes I can really pinpoint how I can be of assistance to them,” says Jones, who began working with tribal peoples in natural resource issues in the year 2000. In the past, he was regularly involved with different tribal issues through projects located in Alaska and the Southwest. His passion for both climate science and tribal work drove him toward applying for the position of Tribal Liaison.

“When I think of working with tribes, at least for myself, it’s a very rewarding type of work to assist a population that has faced struggles but at the same time holds a very strong cultural identity,” says Jones. “Different tribes are trying to maintain or revitalize their traditional cultures that have been facing challenges for a long time, retaining their ancestral connections, and holding dear to their cultural identity. They are a proud people and it’s a population that is very rewarding to work with.”

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Jones has an interdisciplinary background studying the relationships between climate, water, ecology, and society. He received his master’s in Environmental Science and Policy from Northern Arizona University, where he studied the ecological impacts of removing dams for river restoration. This interest carried over into his Ph.D. and post-doctoral research which focused on the impacts that changes in climate have on hydrologic systems in Alaska, where he first began incorporating traditional knowledge and science to assess exposure of indigenous people to the impacts of climate change. Jones has also worked as an environmental consultant in the southwestern U.S., examining riparian restoration plans to benefit endangered species. Throughout these experiences, Jones was constantly working to foster communicative and beneficial interactions between tribal nations and government institutions, which he says contributes greatly to his role as the Tribal Liaison for ATNI.

Get a glimpse of some of his experiences below!

Want to read more about Chas Jones and Northwest tribes? Check out this article about the annual canoe journey to the reservation of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians on the shores of the Puget Sound.