Chapter 15

Tribes and Indigenous Peoples

State of the Sector

Indigenous peoples in the United States are diverse and distinct political and cultural groups and populations. Though they may be affected by climate change in ways that are similar to others in the United States, Indigenous peoples can also be affected uniquely and disproportionately. Many Indigenous peoples have lived in particular areas for hundreds if not thousands of years, and their cultures, spiritual practices, and economies have evolved to be adaptive to local seasonal and interannual environmental changes. Thus, Indigenous knowledge systems differ from those of non-Indigenous peoples who colonized and settled the United States, and they engender distinct knowledge about climate change impacts and strategies for adaptation. Indigenous knowledges, accumulated over generations through direct contact with the environment, broadly refer to Indigenous peoples' systems of observing, monitoring, researching, recording, communicating, and learning and their social adaptive capacity to adjust to or prepare for changes. One of these knowledge systems that is often referred to in the context of climate change is traditional ecological knowledge, which primarily focuses on the relationships between humans, plants, animals, natural phenomena, and the landscape.

A growing number of tribal governments and intertribal organizations are developing climate adaptation plans, with some in the early stages of implementation. Many Indigenous peoples support their own technical staff who study and manage broad sectoral programs and issues, which now include climate change adaptation planning and implementation. To this end, Indigenous peoples regularly collaborate with climate scientists and other professionals working in academic, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations, especially in the use of downscaled (local-scale) climate information and tools that have become more available in recent years. While not comprehensive, Figure 15.1 identifies over 800 activities across all regions featured in this report that Indigenous peoples and their partners have undertaken in the last decade. This map catalogues several broad types of adaptation projects: planning and assessment, adaptation and implementation, monitoring and research, governance and capacity building, and youth engagement and cultural continuity. Collectively, these activities span many sectors and all regions of the country. Projects are primarily planning related and include adaptation planning, vulnerability assessments, and professional development to increase the skills and capacity of tribal staff and management.

These actions in response to climate change occur in a broader context in which Indigenous peoples today, including federally and non-federally recognized tribes, are continuing to seek and exercise self-determination to define their own political status and to freely pursue economic, social, and cultural development. Limits to Indigenous self-determined action can intensify vulnerability to climate change in many cases. In the 19th century, the United States established a trust responsibility to federally recognized tribes, which is a legal and fiduciary obligation to honor their treaty rights and support tribal self-determination. The trust responsibility is meant to include financial support and the provision of essential services, such as education, health, public safety, and environmental protection. However, trust responsibility also authorizes the U.S. Government to manage tribal lands and the revenues generated from these lands. This can limit self-determination in cases where the U.S. Government's management of tribes’ trust assets lacks accountability or does not adequately fulfill the federal policy requirement of consultation with tribes on a sovereign government-to-government basis. Non-federally recognized tribes, Native Hawaiians, and other Indigenous peoples also have rights to self-determination to protect their traditional knowledges, cultures, and ancestral lands, while developing their economies and providing community services; but they do so without reservation lands, treaty rights, and federal provision of essential services, among other rights, authorities, and capacities to which federally recognized tribes can appeal.

This chapter expands on the Indigenous Peoples chapter from the Third National Climate Assessment7 and on Indigenous contributions to earlier assessments, with a focus on three major themes as expressed in the Key Messages that were not discussed in previous assessments in as much detail. This chapter recognizes that Indigenous communities of the United States represent diverse cultures, histories, governments, and environments and that their individual experiences with climate change will differ. In addition, this chapter attempts to provide more information than previous assessments about Indigenous issues in the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean regions, although in some cases, especially for the Caribbean, the literature is sparse. Thus, uniform, national-scale quantitative metrics of risk across this broad spectrum of conditions are not available. Nevertheless, Indigenous peoples and their partners are building comprehensive understandings of local climate change risks and taking steps to adapt to these threats.

The full chapter can be accessed using the link below.

Jantarasami, L.C., Novak, R., Delgado, R., Marino, E., McNeeley, S., Narducci, C., Singletary, L., Raymond-Yakoubian, J., & Rowys Whyte, K. 2018, Tribes and Indigenous Peoples, Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, & B.C. Stewart (Eds.), Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II. Washington, DC: US Global Change Research Program, pp. 572–603.

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Also of Interest:

Economic Development. In Status of Tribes and Climate Change Report (D. Marks-Marino (ed.)
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This fact sheet contains information on the Walker River Paiute Indian Reservation and the possible youth risk factors. Learn about major problems that affect the youth in the reservation and the protective factors in place.
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Associated Programs

Enhancing climate resilience on tribal lands

Native Waters on Arid Lands

Native Waters on Arid Lands is a five-year (2015-2020) project that partners researchers and extension experts with tribal communities in the Great Basin and American Southwest to collaboratively understand the impacts of climate change, and to evaluate adaptation options for sustaining water resources and agriculture.