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Supporting Native and Indigenous Community Climate Adaptation Efforts Across the Country

In recognition of Indigenous Peoples' Day, we're exploring the ways in which the CASC network is supporting and partnering with Tribal nations and Indigenous communities to address science needs, build capacity, and inform climate adaptation planning.

In recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day on October 8th, we’re exploring the different ways in which the Climate Adaptation Science Center network is supporting and partnering with Tribal nations and Indigenous communities to address science needs, build capacity, and inform climate adaptation planning.

Though familiarly recognized as Columbus Day, many people in the U.S. instead choose to recognize the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The day celebrates the Indigenous Peoples of the United States and commemorates their histories and cultures. Hawai‘i has chosen the name Discoverer’s Day, in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands.

For centuries, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and other Indigenous peoples have stewarded natural resources to sustain their communities, traditional ways of life, and cultural identities. This close relationship with the natural world puts Indigenous communities at the forefront of climate change impacts. Drawing upon a strong history of adaptation and innovation, Tribal nations and Indigenous communities are key collaborators on adaptation work within the Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC) network. The CASCs partner with Native and Indigenous communities to better understand their specific knowledge of and exposure to climate change impacts, to increase or assist with capacity to support adaptation planning, and to identify and address their climate science needs. The CASCs have funded, organized, and participated in a variety of research projects, training workshops, and stakeholder meetings. In fact, in 2015 the South Central CASC received a Department of the Interior Environmental Achievement Award for “Climate Science and Partnerships - Increasing the Tribal Capacity for Climate Change Adaptation”. The CASCs have also worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to support Tribal Resilience Liaisons who provide another avenue for communication, engagement, and research between Indigenous peoples and the CASCs. These Liaisons are dedicated to increasing CASC engagement with Tribal nations, Tribal consortia, and Tribal organizations so that the CASCs can further understand and meet their information needs.

The projects CASCs have funded to support and assist Native and Indigenous communities can be grouped into four main categories: 1) assessing science needs; 2) increasing capacity; 3) understanding impacts to food, water, and culturally important resources; and 4) incorporating traditional knowledge into adaptation planning. Read on to learn more about our efforts in these areas.

Photo taken from top of ridge, looking down in the Great Basin (dry with some green shrubs, blue sky).
Great Basin National Park, NV. Credit: Alan Cressler

1. Assessing Science Needs
Assessing the science needs of Native and Indigenous communities is the first step in developing and implementing effective climate adaptation strategies. Several CASC projects have focused on interviewing Indigenous communities to identify their current capacity to adapt to climate impacts and determine what science information is needed to build upon this capacity.

Southwest CASC: Climate Planning Assessments of Native Nations in the Southwest 
The southwestern U.S. is home to over 200 federally-recognized Tribes. Climate impacts in the region include extreme drought, leading to water quality and supply issues, reduced ability to grow traditional crops, and health impacts from heat waves, dust storms, and wildfires. To address these problems and those associated with other climate extremes, such as strong storms and widespread flooding, the Southwest CASC recently partnered with the University of Arizona Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions to organize a Tribal Leaders Forum and to conduct a follow up climate adaptation needs assessment. Through extensive interviewing and surveying, this project identified existing and emergent opportunities for supporting Tribes. The Southwest CASC’s newly-hired Tribal Climate Adaptation Liaison, Althea Walker, will use this work as a springboard for engaging with Tribes in the region and as a basis for strengthening connections that foster information sharing, access to formal training, and capacity building.

Northwest CASC: Climate Adaptation Capacities of Columbia River Basin Tribes
For thousands of years, the flora and fauna of the Columbia River Basin have been central to the economy and traditions of Tribal nations in the Pacific Northwest. Projections of warmer temperatures and decreased snowfall over the next 50 years suggest an altered ecology in this region, and Tribal communities could lose culturally and economically significant foods such as salmon, deer, root plants, and berries. To assess the capacity of regional Tribes to prepare for and respond to these potential changes, researchers from the Northwest CASC collaborated with the Tribal Leadership Forum to survey 15 Northwest Tribes and three inter-tribal organizations on their technical, scientific, and policy awareness related to climate change preparedness and adaptation. While each Tribe displayed different capacities, all Tribes and organizations surveyed had limited resources to adequately plan for and adapt to climate impacts affecting their communities. Researchers found that adaptation capacity could be strengthened by heightening community awareness of climate change impacts and increased funding and staffing to develop vulnerability assessments, adaptation plans, and effectively engage in regional climate planning forums.

Photo of river flowing between two cliff faces
The Wind River, WY. Credit: Shannon McNeeley

2. Building Capacity
Planning for and responding to the impacts of changing climate conditions is critical to the well-being of Native and Indigenous communities that rely on natural resources to sustain their families, communities, and traditional ways of life. Efforts are underway across the CASCs to support and enhance the capacity of communities to adapt to the impacts of climate change. These efforts include supporting Tribal staff in assessing their vulnerability to climate change, providing trainings on climate science and available data resources, and teaching data collection techniques so that Native and Indigenous communities can further contribute to quantify changes occurring on the landscape.

North Central CASC: Drought Preparedness on the Wind River Indian Reservation
The Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes, who depend on water from the streams that feed into the Wind River. In recent years, this region has experienced frequent severe droughts, which have negatively impacted Tribal livelihoods and cultural activities. To help the reservation prepare for future drought, researchers at the North Central CASC worked with Tribal water and resource managers to develop a drought management plan which includes quarterly summaries of current climate, water, and drought conditions, as well as what conditions might be expected during the following season. To date, ten Wind River Drought and Climate Summaries have been produced and are being used by the Office of the Tribal Water Engineer to make informed water allocation decisions throughout the reservation. In 2017, the project lead and partners were recognized with a Climate Adaptation Leadership Award from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies for "demonstrating exemplary leadership in reducing climate-related threats and promoting adaptation of the nation’s natural resources.”

South Central CASC: Climate Science Training for South Central Tribes
The South Central U.S. is home to 68 Tribes and Pueblos who face climate change-related disturbances such as sea-level rise, seasonal temperature shifts, droughts, and flooding. New Mexico and Louisiana, in particular, are home to 27 federally recognized Tribes and Pueblos. Leaders from several of these nations have expressed the need for resources and information which would enable them to make better climate adaptation decisions in managing the natural resources they depend on to sustain their traditional ways of life. To address this need, the South Central CASC conducted trainings for Tribal professionals in Louisiana and New Mexico to increase their knowledge of climate science, connect them with tools to assess their communities’ vulnerabilities, and build their skills to develop adaptation strategies. These trainings emphasized regionally specific aspects of climate change that are relevant to the Tribal nations’ land management and planning decisions.

Southeast CASC: Engaging Tribal Environmental/Natural Resources Staff in the Southeast
Through in-person visits and virtual presentations, the Southeast CASC is engaging Tribal environmental and natural resources staff to identify the information and technical support needs of regional Tribal nations. Located within the Southeast CASC footprint are six federally recognized Tribal nations, and many state-recognized Indigenous communities. In 2018, the Southeast CASC presented the latest science on climate change in the region at the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals Climate Adaptation workshop hosted by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The CASC also implemented a Climate Adaptation Science Field Intensive for graduate students, which included an introduction to working with regional Tribal nations. The training included principles and ethics of Tribal engagement and field visits with natural resource managers from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who taught students about the climate change challenges they face and strategies they are using to adapt. These place-based learning opportunities provide grounding for additional engagement with Eastern Band of Cherokee and other Tribal partners in the region.

Koa tree - dense, bare branches with greenery at the tips.
A Koa tree. Credit: The National Parks Service

3. Understanding Impacts to Food, Water, and Culturally Important Resources
The natural environment represents a valued source of food, medicine, and materials for culturally important items for many Native and Indigenous communities. In order for these communities to successfully manage natural resources in the face of changing climate conditions, information is needed on how vulnerable these natural resources are to changes in climate, and which management strategies could be implemented to support adaptation. The CASCs are partnering with Native and Indigenous communities to assess the impacts of climate change on food, water, and other culturally important resources. These efforts aim to improve understanding of how the abundance and distribution of important resources might shift over time, and to identify priority management activities.

Northeast CASC: Climate Adaptation for Maple Syrup Production in Northeast Tribal Nations
Maple syrup is a culturally significant food for a number of Native communities in the midwestern and northeastern U.S., such as the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, who have collected and boiled down maple sap for centuries. This sap is collected in the late winter and early spring, a period that is vulnerable to warming temperatures, changes in precipitation, and changes in freeze and thaw cycles. The Northeast CASC supported the development of the Acer Climate and Socio-Ecological Research Network (ACERnet), an international network of scientists and managers dedicated to studying the relationship between climate and maple tree sap quality. ACERnet found that climate change will reduce the number of trees available to tap, shorten the length of the tapping season, and decrease sap quantity in the U.S. Researchers engaged with Tribal groups and other local producers in workshops designed to facilitate climate adaptation and planning in maple sugaring, aiding in the preservation of this culturally and economically significant tradition.

Pacific Islands CASC: Indigenous Collection of Unique Hawaiian Plants
Several hundred plant species found only in Hawaiʻi are threatened by shifting climate patterns such as warming temperatures, drought, and wildfires. Many of these plants have deep significance to Indigenous culture. For example, the Koa tree has been used by Native communities to craft canoes, dyes, and medicines. Traditionally important plants are currently collected from areas within and near Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (HAVO), an elevated region that is particularly vulnerable to decreased rainfall. Scientists supported by the Pacific Islands CASC tracked growing ranges and possible shifts in the distribution of native and invasive Hawaiian plants, and found that 60% could experience a range contraction, and 30% could experience an increase in range size within the next 100 years. Science from this study serves to inform Hawaiian cultural practitioners and HAVO resource managers on when and where collection sites for culturally significant plants need to be relocated to track shifts in growing ranges.

Permafrost loss dramatically changes Yukon River chemistry and hydrology. Credit: Ryan Toohey, USGS Alaska Climate Science Center

4. Incorporating Traditional Knowledge into Adaptation Planning
Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and local ecological knowledge can provide important and unique information about the natural world that might not otherwise be readily available through western science. Developed and refined through systematic observation, adaptation and innovation, and reflected in oral traditions, TEK can provide complementary information on topics such as changes in the abundance and distribution of plants and animals and resilience of natural systems. Several CASC projects with Tribes have focused on helping gather and incorporate traditional and local knowledge into Tribal climate adaptation planning, to identify priority issues and ensure that these plans address the needs of Native and Indigenous communities.

Alaska CASC: Indigenous-led Water Quality Monitoring in the Yukon
In a unique project, the Alaska CASC is collaborating with the Indigenous Observation Network (ION), an Indigenous-led, community-based water quality monitoring network, to investigate hydrologic and chemical changes occurring in the Yukon River Basin as permafrost thaws. ION is a collaboration between the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, Yukon River Basin communities, and the USGS, and aims to combine traditional knowledge with western science to document environmental change. Results of this effort have so far shown that the loss of permafrost is fundamentally transforming Arctic ecosystems. The data collected through ION enabled the first assessment of long-term changes in water movement and chemistry over such a large geographic region.

National CASC & Northwest CASC: Applying Indigenous Knowledge to Climate Adaptation Planning
The Schitsu'umsh people, or the Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho, is the oldest Tribe of farmers from the Palouse region of the northwestern United States. Their unique farming traditions incorporate the preservation of valuable regional plants such as the Sqigwts, or water potato, which is an important source of food for aquatic mammals like the North American beaver. The Schitsu'umsh people’s rich knowledge of how to interact with the environment allows for successful adaptation to changes in climate. Such knowledge and practices can provide insight as to how resource managers, communities, and governments can best respond to possible future changes. This project was undertaken collectively by the Northwest CASC, the National CASC, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and the University of Idaho's Northwest Knowledge Network to collect and translate indigenous knowledge and practices into shareable formats. These include interactive 3-D virtual reality simulations that effectively convey Schitsu’umsh knowledge and practices and supply recommendations for how these practices can be modified and expanded by other Tribal and non-Tribal communities seeking to improve their climate change decision making by incorporating traditional ecological knowledge.

Learn More 
Learn more about the CASC network's partnership with Indigenous People & Cultures and explore all of our projects related to Native and Indigenous Communities.