2015 Tribal Leaders Summit participants discuss topics in small group meetings, using the World Café format. Photo courtesy of Renee H. Reyolds, UA/Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership.
Institute of the Environment 2017

Native Nations Address Climate Change Challenges with Tools of Collaboration

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

by Abby Dockter, Institute of the Environment

Althea Walker tries to see climate change through the eyes of her fellow Gila River Indian Community members. As an environmental education and outreach specialist for her tribe’s Department of Environmental Quality, she looks for opportunities to answer their questions about climate change and to bring people together for community gardening, recycling, air quality awareness, and other mitigation efforts.

“I think if you can paint that picture for them, then climate change will mean something to them,” Walker said. “This is affecting your upper respiratory health, or this is going to affect the success of your crops. The most important part of responding to or adapting to climate change is bringing back that relationship with the environment. It definitely is a part of the lifestyle and traditions here.”

For Walker’s community and other Indigenous people of North America, climate change is “a very real and culturally relevant issue,” said Kathy Jacobs, director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment, which is working with tribes from across the country to address their climate-related challenges.

A Culturally Relevant Issue

While each community’s concerns are different, economic vulnerability and close ties to the land expose many Native Americans to effects of climate change that directly impact their everyday experiences.

Changing climate impacts water resources and traditional foods such as fish, game, and wild and domesticated crops. More than 30 Alaska Native villages are already facing relocation due to melting permafrost, coastal erosion and severe weather events, according to a 2014 government report, Climate Change Impacts in the United States.

Health is also a primary concern, as documented in the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2016 report The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health. Higher ambient daily temperatures, forest fires, and dust storms associated with climate change affect air quality, aggravating cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Heat stress is also expected to increase, particularly in the hot, dry Southwest region.

For example, changing ambient daily temperatures and precipitation patterns have immediate consequences for the 40 percent of Navajo Nation residents without electricity. One-third of Navajo Nations residents lack running water. “When it’s hot, they don’t have air conditioning. They might have to drive 60 miles to access potable water instead of 10,” Jacobs said.

Schuyler Chew, who is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River and a Ph.D. student in the UA Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, tailored his research and outreach efforts to the concerns of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in the Truckee River Basin of Nevada.

“People are concerned about the unpredictability of environmental factors and experiencing extremes,” Chew said. “One community was displaced twice this year, once from fire and later from flood.”

Climate change also impacts natural resources used in the practice of traditional sacred ceremonies in Native American communities, said Valerie Small, who is Apsaalooke'-Crow and an assistant research scientist for the Native Nations Climate Adaptation Program, or NNCAP. “Western science doesn’t always acknowledge the importance of the ‘sacredness’ in how Indigenous people value their natural resources,” she said. “Cultural lifeways and values are inherent in our interaction with the environment.”  

Call to Leadership and Collaboration

Karletta Chief, UA assistant professor in the Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science, records key discussion points in her breakout session at the 2015 Tribal Leaders Summit. Photo courtesy of Renee H. Reyolds, UA/Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership.

In 2015 tribal leaders met at the UA for the Tribal Leaders Summit on Climate Change, hosted by NNCAP, to gauge best practices for facing their climate-related concerns.

To keep the momentum going, NNCAP continues to host monthly conference calls with an average of 25 leaders participating, said Chad Marchand, member of the Colville Confederated Tribes and a project coordinator at the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions.

Walker is one of those leaders. “On those calls you learn about what other tribes are doing, what resources are out there. You hear from experts in regards to climate change, and it’s just a platform to build on relationships and potential collaboration,” she said. “It’s been really helpful to see the bigger picture and understand climate change in all of its complexity and how we can address it here from our perspective.”

Tribal officials reach out to Marchand to know what has been done before, and what information can be gathered about their individual situations to create programs that work. “We’ve got tribes calling from Louisiana and Minnesota and Long Island, so we are a national-level program,” Marchand said.

Student Engagement

Marchand made it a priority to connect Native people on campus. He helped start the Indigenous Collaborative Network, a monthly gathering of university staff, faculty, and students who are Native American or working with Native American tribes.

“I don’t think there’s another example like that anywhere in the country,” Marchand said. “There are groups of faculty, but nothing on the scale of bringing everybody together who is Native American.”

Marchand added, “Sometimes you don’t think about a climate change program really fixing relationships on campus, but I think NNCAP has done a lot.”

Student engagement is key to cultivating climate change leadership, and NNCAP employs four student employees, the majority of them Native American. “Half of them are not environmental majors, but it’s really building within them a sense of engagement with the environment,” Marchand said.

Haley Ford was an NNCAP student employee before graduating from the UA in May 2017, and is a member of the Pueblo of Jemez. “I had always been pretty aware of these issues in the news and in articles, but it wasn’t until I started this position at NNCAP that I really became involved in environmental concerns,” she said.

As a journalism major, Ford said communication skills are especially important to her work managing NNCAP’s social media presence. She also acted as note-taker at the Tribal Leaders Summit on Climate Change and met tribal leaders from around the country. “I’m a member of a federally recognized tribe, so this is my little way of giving back to my community,” she said.

Ways of Knowing

Climate programs at the UA aim to give tribes access to up-to-date climate science and to create decision-making tools that help Native American communities respond to climate change as it occurs.

Alison Meadow is a staff scientist for the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions and part of a team that produces Climate Profiles for Arizona tribes. Climate Profiles are small reports that identify vulnerability and address the problems likely to affect that area.

A Climate Profile report addresses issues of concern to the tribe that can be affected by climate change, such as air quality, water quality and quantity, predicted precipitation changes, ambient temperature rises, the impacts of invasive species, protection of species endemic to the area, and strategies to maintain species that are culturally important.

“It is sometimes just sitting in a room, having a lot of conversations, going back and having a lot more conversations,” Meadow said. “Bring the information, talk it through, listen to their questions. This problem-solving is human rather than tech a lot of times.”

Small also works on the Climate Profiles, which are a first step towards adaptation plans, and she aims to incorporate traditional knowledge and observations of tribal elders into the final products.

“What we do is the research of Western knowledge, but we also recognize there are other ways of knowing,” Small said. “Research is an important tool to help tribes prepare for a changing climate, but it is equally important to address the concerns of tribal members and honor their collective voices in preparing these documents.”

The goal of creating a Climate Profile is to give tribes the tools to understand what climate change will mean for their communities, so tribes can take appropriate action to protect their people and resources.

UA climate programs provide support for the on-the-ground action of community educators such as Walker. “Sometimes it can feel like you’re alone or you don’t know where to go from here, and you hear something in those calls or webinars that helps point you in the right direction,” she said.

Since tribal governments have few resources to invest in climate adaptation measures, Walker said, “It’s always nice to know of the resources we have out there and the people who are willing to help.”