This chapter, the first of our three focus chapters offers a detailed perspective on the climate change story in the United States and what one particular institution, the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) at Northern Arizona University, has been working on to address climate-related concerns/issues. The chapter highlights not only the human face of climate change, but the ways in which previous colonial trauma exacerbates its impacts. Further, it explores how complex climate governance can be, when engaging with Indigenous needs and aspirations, not just when addressing impacts but in working out how to have a voice at the decision-making table.

Adaptation and Surviving Trauma

The concept of adaptation for American Indians is not new and was forced on the tribes of the United States (US) as they worked out how to survive upon colonial settlement pre-1491. American Indian tribal nations have since endured centuries of genocidal type treatment from non-Indigenous peoples and the US federal government.Footnote 1 Beginning in the late 1500s and 1600s, there have been millions of Indigenous deaths across the Americas primarily caused by disease and European-led massacres (Koch et al., 2019).

In the United States today there are more than 5.2 million American Indian and Alaskan Native people from across 573 federally recognised nations. There are 375 signed treaties, passed laws, and instituted policies that today continue to shape and define the unique and legal contracts that form the government-to-government relationship between the US and these tribal nations. However, almost all of the treaties were signed or agreed to under duress or compulsion. American Indian tribal nations conceded millions of acres of their homelands for a set of rights which include but are not limited to: guaranteed peace and protection, land reserves or legal land boundaries, preservation of hunting and fishing rights, education, health care, self-government and jurisdiction over their own lands. Those rights have not been implemented to the satisfaction of tribal nations and American Indians continue to fight for visibility, recognition and representation.

These colonial beginnings and their legacy are at the root of many of the challenges that American Indians face in the US today, and now, in relation to climate change. Further, the ongoing refusal to honor treaties means that today American Indians endure a continued traumatic syndrome (CTS). The 573 tribal nations [within the US] hold substantial amounts of land and waterways that are being impacted by climate change including habitat for more than 525 species listed under the Endangered Species Act, and more than 13,000 miles of rivers and 997,000 lakes are located on federally recognised tribal lands (Jantarasami et al., 2018, 578). Climate threats to Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and economies will also affect agriculture, hunting and gathering, fishing, forestry, energy, recreation, tourism enterprises and finally traditional subsistence economies:

Such economies rely on local natural resources for personal use (such as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools, transportation, and arts and crafts) and for trade, barter, or sharing. Climate change threatens these delicately balanced subsistence networks by, for example, changing the patterns of seasonal timing and availability of culturally important species in traditional hunting, gathering, and fishing areas. (Jantarasami et al., 2018, 579)

Related to this is the reality that many First Nation peoples of the United States still have much higher rates of poverty and unemployment compared with the national average (Krogstad, 2014; Norton-Smith et al., 2016, 4) and the combination of both climate impacts and poverty will compound existing inequalities. The Tribal chapter in the National Climate Assessment, also highlights the severity of these impacts, noting that climate change is not only having an impact on many of the 566 federally recognised tribes and other and Indigenous groups in the U.S. but that they are compounded by a range of persistent social and economic problems (Bennett et al., 2014).

However, we argue that American Indians have turned their continued trauma and their reaction to these other issues into a positive energy, one which has become a driver of resilience. Tribes have learned that adaptation is a ‘state of mind’, an ‘unspoken way of life’, necessary to endure and thrive. Tribal strength and agency continue through teachings, language, traditional knowledge and culture. There is a tacit understanding among tribal people that despite all the obstacles, tribes will persevere and eventually: to lead. Tribes continue to maintain old traditions today. This is nowhere more evident than in the country wide First Nation led tribal adaptation planning that is underway. The energy and agency of these initiatives represent the diversity of responses and collective effort taken by First Nations groups to address climate issues across the United States. The rest of this chapter provides an overview of and reflection about this example of nationwide First Nation led adaptation program.

Tribal Adaptation Planning

At a national level, one key initiative has been the development of Tribal Climate Change Adaptation Plans (TCCP). The TCCP program is designed to assist tribal professionals and their communities to develop their own Tribal CC Adaptation Plan (CC Plan), an initiative that was boosted in 2011, by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Resilience Program, which began to offer funding for training and technical assistance to tribes. Each of the climate change adaptation plans that have been developed are unique, having become, in essence, sacred documents that include each tribes’ history, challenges, aspirations, laws, culture, traditional knowledge, data and holistic implementation goals. Divided into specific regions for adaptation planning, much headway has now been made: 50 of the 573 (9%) tribes across the United States now have some form of a climate change adaptation plan or assessment. Planning has occurred across the Northeast and Southeast; Midwest; Northern and Southern Great Plains; Northwest; Southwest regions as well as in Alaska. While this large number makes it difficult to summarise each of the current tribal climate change initiatives, we present a range of examples below.

Northwest Region Tribes

The Northwest Region tribes, known as People of the Salmon, are fishing and hunting peoples and rely heavily on the ocean, rivers and lakes for subsistent lifeways. The Northwest region was one of the last areas to be contacted by non-First Nation peoples, however, once contact occurred, diseases like smallpox killed about 90% of the local tribes (Crosby, 1976). In this region, climate impacts also include temperature changes which are of particular significance because they exacerbate existing stresses on salmon and shellfish populations which has an impact on the economic, spiritual, and cultural health of communities (Norton-Smith et al., 2016).

Other impacts include early snowpack melts (causing flooding), increased wildfires and sea levels, and associated impacts such as storm surges, relocation, ocean acidification, mammal and fish migration, droughts, salt-water intrusion and erosion (DOE, 2015; ITEP website, 2019). However, in this region, tribes have bound together in a powerful union to fight climate change and it was the first in the United States to build climate change plans: the Swinomish Nation was the first tribe to complete a climate change plan in 2010. The range of work undertaken is significant as shown in Box 4.1 below which lists the first swathe of tribal climate adaptation plans to be produced.

Box 4.1 Summary of Tribal Climate Adaptation Plans in the USA

  • Swinomish Climate Change Initiative: Climate Adaptation Action Plan;

  • Swinomish Climate Change Initiative: Impact Assessment Technical Report;

  • Puyallup Tribe of Indians Climate Change Impact Assessment and Adaptation Options – 2016;

  • Clearwater River Sub-basin (ID) Climate Change Adaptation Plan;

  • Climate Adaptation Plan for the Territories of the Yakama Nation;

  • Climate Change Preparedness Plan for the North Olympic Peninsula;

  • Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment;

  • Flood and Erosion Hazard Assessment for the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe;

  • Forest and Water Climate Adaptation: A Plan for the Nisqually Watershed;

  • Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe-Climate Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan;

  • Lummi Nation Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Plan: 2016–2026;

  • Makah Tribe’s Climate Resilience, Adaptation, and Mitigation Planning;

  • Nooksack Indian Tribe Natural Resources Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment Indian Tribe Natural Resources Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment

  • Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe 2014 Hazard Mitigation Plan; and

  • Stillaguamish Tribe Natural Resources Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment.

  • Nez Perce Tribe Climate Change and Community Well-Being Survey: Results and Discussion;

  • Shoshone-Bannock Tribes: Climate Change Assessments and Adaptation Plan;

  • Upper Snake River Tribes Foundation Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment

  • Colville Tribes Natural Resources Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment

North and South Eastern Region Tribes

The North and South Eastern Region is a very large region covering the entire eastern side of the US, however there are less tribes in these regions, due in large part to being the first tribes impacted by contact with the colonisers: “[B]y the late 19th century, fewer than 238,000 Indigenous people remained, a sharp decline from the estimated 5 million to 15 million living North America…” (Fixico, 2018, 127). Most of the tribes in this large region are coastal tribes or close to water bodies and are avid fishers. In the northern region, there are many large mammals that the tribes hunt, including moose and deer. The northern tribes also rely on tapping the maple trees for maple syrup. In this region of the US, the climate change impacts that are projected to occur include: increased temperatures and more frequent and longer heat waves; Atlantic hurricanes will be more frequent at either categories 4 or 5, and sea levels will rise (DOE, 2015).

Tribes in this region are also experiencing the migration of subsistence animals, migration and decline of fowl and marine life, migration of forest lines, sea level rise, ocean acidification and increased precipitation. Two tribal adaptation plans for this region include the Climate Change Adaptation for Akwesasne Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and the Shinnecock Indian Nation Climate Adaptation Plan.Footnote 2 These plans embed practical actions that the tribe can institute to help them adapt to the ongoing and expected climate impacts: they also represent innovative forms of tribal governance.

Midwest Region Tribes

The Midwest Region of the US is in the middle of the country. This region contains all the states that surround the five Great Lakes and borders Canada. The tribes in the region share much of the same history of the eastern tribes with regards to being some of the first tribes to be contacted, however more tribes in this region were able to escape, be relocated, and survive. In this region, the tribes are well regarded hunters, fishers, farmers, and rice harvesters. They are stewards of their forests and rice fields. As in other regions, the climate impacts will include increased temperature, longer and more severe heat waves, increased lake temperatures which will increase incidence of toxic algal blooms, and heavier than average winter and spring precipitation levels which will cause flooding (DOE, 2015). Box 4.2 highlights the range of adaptation plans developed in this region to address climate change.

Box 4.2 Range of Adaptation Option for the Midwest Region Tribes

  • 1854 Ceded Territory Including the Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, and Grand Portage Reservations: Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan;

  • Bad River Reservation: Seventh Generation Climate Change Monitoring Plan;

  • Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIGWC) Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment: Integrating Scientific and Traditional Ecological Knowledge;

  • Fond Du Lac Resource Management – 2008 Integrated Resource Management Plan;

  • Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians Climate Change Adaptation Plan;

  • Michigan Tribal Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Planning: Project Report;

  • Resilience Dialogues- Final Synthesis Report Menominee Reservation, USA;

  • Mitigwaki idash Nibi: (Our Forests and Water) A Climate Adaptation Plan for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians;

  • Red Lake Band of Chippewa Climate Adaptation Plan.

Northern and Southern Great Plains Region Tribes

The Northern and Southern Great Plains region tribes are renowned for their great horsemanship skills and rely heavily on buffalo (bison), fishing, gathering, and farming. This region has vast forest lands, large prairies, and rivers and large water bodies. One of the greatest hardships in this region is its high poverty rate; unemployment is one of the highest in the US at 51.9% (Stebbins & Sauter, 2019), and life expectancy is 57 years old which is 24 years less than for the non-First Nation residents (Walker, 2019). In this region, several climate change impacts are projected including: heavy precipitation leading to flooding, an increase in average temperature, decrease in water availability, drought, more tornados, and intense blizzards. Southern tribes will also face intense Atlantic hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico as well as sea level rise (DOE, 2015). There are three key plans for this region: (i) the Blackfeet Climate Change Adaptation Plan, (ii) The Climate Change Strategic Plan Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation and the (iii) Ovate Omnicive’ Oglala Lakota Plan, which is the official, regional sustainable development plan for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Southwest Region Tribal Profiles

The Southwest region is distinguished by the fact that, apart from Alaska, many tribes were dry farmers, gatherers, pastoralists, herdsmen and gatherers. However, the tribes in the region also contended with invasion and disease: they were finally reduced to very small numbers and Rancherias. Tribes in this region are both coastal and inland and face drought intensification, increased wildfires, loss of agriculture and stock (Norton-Smith et al., 2016). Again, notwithstanding this history of loss and invasion, as Box 4.3 shows, the tribes in this region have worked together to produce a wide range of responses to climate challenges including adaptation and mitigation plans, vulnerability assessments and resource management plans (Photo 4.1).

Photo 4.1
figure 1

Monument Valley, part of the tribal territories of the Navaho Nation. (Credit Melissa Nursey-Bray)

Box 4.3 Tribes Responses to Climate Change in the Southwest Region

  • Bear River of the Rohnerville Rancheria Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Action Plan 2018;

  • Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources Eco-Cultural Resources Management Plan;

  • Karuk Tribe Climate Vulnerability Assessment Assessing Vulnerabilities from the Increased Frequency of High Severity Fire;

  • Karuk Climate Adaptation Plan;

  • Navajo Nation Climate-Change Vulnerability Assessment for Priority Wildlife Species;

  • Vulnerabilities of Navajo Nation Forests to Climate Change;

  • Climate Adaptation Plan for the Navajo Nation;

  • Susanville Indian Rancheria: Integrated Resource Management Plan;

  • Campo Climate Adaptation Action Plan;

  • Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment – Pala Band of Mission Indians; and

  • Yurok Tribe Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Water & Aquatic Resources 2014–2018

Factors Facilitating Adaptation Success

This wide range of climate planning across the United States shows collective effort but also captures the unique character of each tribe. Each climate change plan captures the individual tribal history, culture, way of life, and details how each tribe is addressing climate impacts. Each plan is tailored to the specific group and region. The overall goal for these tribal climate change plans is to maintain tribal ways of life on sacred territories. There are a range of support mechanisms in place that enable successful implementation of these plans.

The first of these is tribal leadership. Tribes offer leadership at various levels and some tribal leaders like the President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and Quinault Tribal President, Fawn Sharp, have committed to support Native Americans to tackle the challenges before them (Browning & Aegerter, 2019). Another US climate change leader is Karen Diver, former President Obama’s Special Assistant to Native Americans Affairs and former Chairwoman of the Fond du Lack Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. She worked within the Obama Administration and was appointed to the Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

Inter-Tribal Consortiums and Organisations (ITC) are other means by which tribes are supported in climate actions. The ITC are coalitions of two or more separate Indian tribes that join together for the purpose of participating in self-governance, including Tribal organisations (LII, 2019). They play a major role in assisting tribes in their climate change planning and lobbying efforts. There are currently about twenty-four Inter-Tribal consortiums in the US (NCAI website, 2019) that meet regularly. Examples of such consortiums include the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest Indians (ATNI); Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, and the United South and Eastern Tribes.

Another source of support derives from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which, founded in 1944, every year passes a series of resolutions to help tribes on certain issues. In this context, the NCAI has passed many resolutions relevant to climate change, one good example being the Guidance Principles to Address the Impacts of Climate Change (NCAI, 2013), which calls on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to adopt an agreement that Upholds the Rights on Indigenous Peoples (NCAI, 2013), and support tribes to respond to Federal policies and actions to address climate change. In 2017, the tribes voted to unanimously adopt Resolution MOH-17-053 entitled, “Continued Support for the Paris Climate Agreement and Action to Address Climate Change”. The Resolution seeks commitments that support initiatives that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote climate-resiliency and challenges all tribal nations to uphold the Paris Accord (NCAI Website, 2019).

Outside of these plans, there are a few other tribal climate initiatives worth noting that offer additional support to tribes seeking to adapt to climate change. For example, the Pala Band of Mission Indians has developed a Tribal Climate Health website containing news items, and is a searchable clearinghouse of over 500 resources related to health and climate change, and provides tools to assist tribes with integrating health assessment, prioritisation, and tracking into Climate Action Plans. The Tribe also hosts free online webinar training that focusses on the intersection between climate change and tribal health. Another example is the establishment of the Native Youth Community Adaptation and Leadership Congress which is working to build lasting relationships between several federal agencies and native youth, to deepen understanding and build more resilient, adaptable communities. Through this student-led program, native youth gain leadership skills, knowledge, and support to implement meaningful projects in their home communities and create inter-generational change. Finally, the Climate Science Alliance has partnered with the Pala Band of Mission Indians to expand their Climate Kids program into tribal communities in and around San Diego County and throughout the U.S., and ClimateKids-Tribes offers educational outreach activities, field trips, climate challenges, and a popular educational resource called the Traveling Trunks.

Barriers to Adaptation

Despite the dynamism of tribal climate action, First Nations across the US face many difficulties that inhibit the ongoing success and implementation of these initiatives. Firstly, tribal leaders are inundated with the need to respond to and manage many other urgent priorities such as crime, lack of housing, poverty, substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence and unemployment. As Bennett et al. (2014), convening lead authors for the NCA3 in the 2014 Indigenous Peoples chapter state:Indigenous people communities [or tribes] already face many socio-economic challenges, even before overlaying climate change impacts on them and that climate change impacts will exacerbate these challenges, affecting native communities’ ability to hunt and gather traditional foods, perform ceremonies, even travel. Indigenous Peoples are starting to see a change in how [they] interpret the environment around [them] (NCA3, 2014).These historical stressors compound already difficult economic and social conditions within tribal communities.

Another barrier for tribal nations is the limited tribal staff capacity and high turnover rate of tribal employees. Tribes vary drastically in population size; thus, their tribal government and departments also vary in size. The larger tribes may have over fifty employees, however, a large majority of tribes have less than five in their department. Having a limited tribal staff capacity often leads to over extension of the staff which may lead to employee burn out and having the staff member leave their position.

Time is also often a factor: there is too often limited time and funding to draft a Climate Change Plan and many of the tribes do not have an employee fully dedicated to working on climate change issues (Wotkyns & Gonzalez-Maddux, 2014). According to Rachel Novak, Tribal Resilience Program Coordinator from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), “about 10 per cent [~57 of 573] of federally recognised tribes have a [CC Plan] drafted, but the remaining tribes, still over 500, are at various points in the process, from implementing adaptation plans to assessing possible impacts, to not having begun. Time and resources are usually the biggest barriers to creating a plan” (Ma, 2018). Further, funding for full-time employees is very difficult to secure and maintain. Most tribal environmental offices designate a portion of an employee’s time (i.e. part-time) to work on Tribal Resilience Program issues, but overall the lack of full-time commitment lends itself to non-completion of the climate change plans. The first and greatest need is provision of adequate funding to support climate change initiatives:

Funding limitations are often identified as a barrier to the planning or implementation to climate adaptation or mitigation actions, which suggests that increase economic revenues could create opportunities for tribes to choose to pursue climate actions (Jantarasami et al., 2018 578)

Another huge challenge is working out how to acknowledge and include traditional tribal knowledge into adaptation planning. Traditional Knowledge (TK) as a term does not have a universal definition and every tribe and tribal member has the right to define their TK in their own way. It is precisely due to this lack of a precise definition that its use can become a complicated venture and tribes have fought for the right to use – or not use – their TK when developing their climate change plans. However, this ambition is complicated by the fact that the information the tribe wants to incorporate in their climate change plan could be endangered if published in federally grant funded documents. Safety concerns became apparent for example, when tribes began developing their climate change plans in a holistic manner and into which they included knowledge about prayers, songs, sacred locations, sacred ceremonies, sacred places, medicinal plants, location of plants, use of plants, to name a few. Tribes became concerned that the incorporation of their TK could expose them to theft and general misuse of TK (Wotkyns & Gonzalez-Maddux, 2014).

Related to this is the issue of reciprocity: in 2015 while climate change was starting to be addressed in the US, tribes were not being included in many of the federal initiatives and funding – and government employees did not understand nor respect tribal traditional knowledge as they did Western science/knowledge. Funding for federal grants was consistently awarded to organisations that used western science as a basis for research, yet for many tribes, western science was not only not available but also not culturally compatible. At that time, federal and state agencies did not know what TK was or why it was important to tribes.

Further, climate data collection on tribal lands is problematic as many nations do not trust federal and state agencies due to historical colonisation. Tribes are sovereign and can dictate who is allowed on their lands; yet for many decades, tribes simply did not allow state officials or researchers on their lands to monitor their environment. As many tribal nations also do not have the funding to monitor and collect data on their lands, climate data that may be readily available for states, just does not exist for tribal nations. When tribes began applying for federal funding to support climate change initiatives, they opted to use their TK in lieu of western science because it was available and culturally appropriate for their Plans. Tribes wanted to use their own knowledge from their Elders and citizens. One classic example is an instance where the intent is to monitor a stream. A tribe would want to use an Elder’s account of the stream. This Elder who had lived on that stream for 50 years could relate as much or more about the stream, equivalent to the data that would have been collected in a scientific manner. However, when tribes applied for funding from the federal government, their grant applications were being rejected as they were seen to be based on non-western (and hence invalid) knowledge and methods.

It took a collective effort by many tribal experts in the climate change arena to educate the federal and state governments about the definition of TK and its value. One noted expert stated that,It is detrimental for the federal government to exclude tribes in climate-change initiatives because long histories of adaptation in response to colonialism, genocide, forced relocation, and climatic events have provided tribes with extensive experience with resistance, resilience, and adaptation (Warner, 2015).It was at this time that the Guidelines for Use of Traditional Knowledge in Climate Change Initiatives (Guidelines) (CTKW, 2014) were developed and these lay the foundation of and principles for partnerships between tribes/Indigenous groups and the federal government.

Finally, the idea of relocation – as a potential adaptation to climate change remains contentious, especially since the colonial history of the forced relocation of US tribes is one of trauma and has not been forgotten:

The [forced] dispossession and displace of [tribes] from their land [which] began during European exploration and colonization of North America in the 16th century. In those 500 years, over a billion acres of land were coerced from tribes under threat of violence, encroachment, and catastrophic epidemic (Burkett et al., 2017)

Most of those tribes never returned to their original territories and were never compensated for the theft of their lands. The suggestion then that tribes may need to relocate again, this time due to climate change impacts, is a highly traumatic one and yet one of the high priority considerations in climate change planning for tribes:

Most of the people currently dealing with climate change-induced relocation are Native Americans and Alaska Natives (NAAN) living close to coastal resources… NAAN are vulnerable to sea level rise (Burkett et al., 2017)

Of the 573 tribal nations, 13–17 tribal nations are urgently threatened by sea rise and thus actively engaged in discussions about the feasibility of relocation. The first issue that tribes must contend with is deciding whether or not to move. A collective tribal decision to move from ancestral lands is fundamentally heart breaking. Tribes are place based peoples thus relocation would abruptly split every aspect of their lifeways. Julie Maldonado who has worked with the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctow Indians (IDJC) of southern Louisiana points out that community relocation efforts are…not just about moving a house from X to Y. Rather, it’s crucial that tribes, particularly when they decide to move their entire community, are able to choose a safe location that is close enough to their original home that they can still access their natural and cultural resources and sites of cultural importance (cited in Dermansky, 2019).Tribes also need to be able to sustain a sense of and similar structures to their community in ways that culturally align and are compatible with their previous lives (Loftus-Farren, 2017).

Another major issue relating to climate change relocation is how to fund it and find alternatives. As already stated, securing adequate funding is a very difficult task and there is no Federal policy nor much funding to assist those communities who will bear the burden of climate change (Kim, 2019). Tribes that are attempting to meet the challenge and relocate include the following, the Northwest tribes Quinault, Hoh, Quileute and Sauk-Suiattle and the Southeast tribes of the Isles de Jen Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctow. In Alaska, 31 villages are facing imminent risk from climate change due to coastline erosion or flooding. Thus far, 3 villages Kivalina, Shishmaref and Newtok have decided to move (Loftus-Farren, 2017). Ultimately, relocation of tribal nations will become a larger issue for many of the coastal tribes in the near future.

Introducing the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP)

Set against this dynamic background, we now introduce the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) at Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) and its work with US tribes and climate change. We present this as another example of the diversity and agency exhibited by Indigenous tribes in the United States, as they collectively seek to address the challenges of climate change. At the request of Hopi Tribal Elders, ITEP was created in 1992. Assisted by ITEP’s original director, the late Virgil Masayesva, Professor William Auberle and the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), ITEP has become the largest and only Institute to provide continuous national environmental services to tribes. ITEP’s vision is to achieve “A Healthy Environment for Strong, Self-Sustaining Tribal Communities” and meets a critical need to increase tribal capacity and strengthen tribal sovereignty across the United States. A premier tribal training organization in the US, it has directly served 95% of all 573 federally-recognised Tribes and Alaskan Native Villages.

The environmental training programs that ITEP host range from small one-person programs in the start-up phase; to large and complex monitoring and regulatory programs and encompass in-person and on-line training, technical assistance, mentoring, and policy development in climate change, air and water quality, solid and hazardous waste, emergency response, policy and environmental code development. ITEP has also pioneered an innovative and substantive Tribal Climate Change Program (TCCP).

ITEP Tribal Climate Change Program (TCCP)

In 2009, in recognition of the ongoing impacts of climate change on their tribes, and the need to actively find capacity to respond, ITEP and the USEPA developed the ITEP Tribal Climate Change Program (TCCP). This program’s brief is to build tribal capacity for addressing climate change by providing climate change training, informational resources, and adaptation planning tools to tribes throughout the US (Wotkyns & Gonzalez-Maddux, 2014). The TCCP was the first program in the nation to begin the process of assisting tribes with climate change education, mitigation and adaptation. The TCCP was originally funded by the USEPA, however, it is currently primarily funded by the US Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). These partnerships have allowed for all of ITEP’s climate change services to be delivered at no cost to tribal professionals.

Early TCCP Years

When the TCCP began in 2009, much of the public still did not understand climate change. The general lack of knowledge about climate change was amplified in First Nation country due to the lack of access to communication. To address this issue, the emphasis in the first 5 years of the TCCP was on educating tribal professionals about the basics of climate change. The curriculum then advanced to include more emphasis on climate change adaptation planning. During the early years of TCCP, the development and implementation of climate change plans was hindered by the lack of a community champion, funding, staff and tribal prioritisation. The sheer geographical scale of tribes is also a challenge – tribes in the US encompass almost every state in the union, with the largest number of tribes in the state of Alaska – thus reaching a diverse set of tribes in their regions is a rigorous task. To address these challenges, ITEP set up a range of management mechanisms one of which was a Tribal Climate Change Advisory Committee.

The Tribal Climate Change Advisory Committee (Advisory Committee) is composed of a panel of six members from tribes/tribal organisations, six from federal agencies, and eight tribal resilience liaison staff. They meet with the ITEP once or twice a year and maintain strong communication. The Advisory Committee’s role is to assist with the development of new courses and training materials, and it oversees an active website. It offers a port of call for others seeking advice on tribal climate matters. For example, in 2019, the US Congress requested information about tribes and climate change impacts and the Advisory Committee responded with a comprehensive response about the impacts and solutions. In 2020, the Advisory Committee was a great source of guidance for input into the US’ first National Tribal CC Forum. In assisting ITEP to in turn help tribal professionals/communities to increase their adaptation to climate change, the Advisory Committee has become a critical component to ITEP’s success.

The TCCP offers four core programs: (i) training via delivery of climate change courses, (ii) a suite of communication and mapping tools, (iii) technical and tailored assistance to tribes, and (iv) support in adaptation planning. Two of these will be described here to give some insight into how the TCCP works in practice (i) the training programs and (ii) tribal climate profiles.

Training Programs

ITEP has developed a wide range of training courses that assist tribes to build climate planning. These courses provide training in how to protect traditional knowledge (TK) and often include an Elder from the tribal community who addresses and guides the participants as well as youth. The bringing together of different tribes within a region also enables a sharing of ideas about how to combat impacts they all have in common. As they are often dealing with many of the same climatic issues, they share their data, findings and best practices, so that other tribes do not have to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when drafting their climate change plans. Talking Circles are used at the start and end of each course to help participants introduce and learn from each other.

The learning program begins with an introductory course called Climate Change 101 – Introduction to Climate Change Adaptation Planning. To start this course TCCP staff work with local tribal experts for at least 6 months to prepare the course and ensure the curriculum meets the needs of the region and audience. Training aims to build the capacity of tribes and resource managers to engage in climate change adaptation planning. Each course usually has about 20–25 tribal environmental professional participants from a region of the US. Location-based focused curricula enable participants to establish Climate Change Plans for their own regions. For example, a course in the northwest region will focus on ocean acidification and salmon related issues, whereas, in the southwest, the instruction would focus on drought related issues. Topics such as wild fires and flooding would be considered baseline topics due to their pervasiveness in all regions. ITEP organises the courses by region, i.e. southwest, northwest, Alaska, northeast, north and south central and southeast (ITEP, 2019). Learners are guided through a five-step planning process known by the acronym S.A.D.I.E.: Scope and engage; Assess Vulnerability and Risk; Determine options and actions; Implement and monitor; and Evaluate and adjust. An integral part of the course is a place-based field trip, where participants are taken to tribal locations to see and experience examples of tribal climate projects.

A second course called Topics in Climate Change Adaptation Planning and Implementation is an on-going series of webinars that was established to serve the many tribal professionals and public community who cannot attend an in-person course. The goal of the course is to provide an easily accessible way for participants to learn about emerging information on climate change impacts, planning methods, tools, and solutions, and find out about the latest funding opportunities. The webinars provide a forum through which participants can directly ask questions of practitioners and experts in the climate change field.

Finally, ITEP have a third online course called the 201 Cohort Course. This course provides an opportunity for tribes to advance their skills and knowledge and occurs over an extended time period of 18 months. It requires long-term commitment that involves the facilitation of cohorts of tribes through the entire process of developing an adaptation plan. The course is divided between in-person meetings, many web-based modules, and assignments that will culminate in a completed draft climate change adaptation for each tribe that participates. Participants are helped by the cohort instructors throughout and are mentored by other tribal professionals that are also completing their plans (ITEP, 2019).

  • Underpinning the training and planning for tribes is a strong outreach and communication strategy which provides climate change outreach and communication materials that are culturally sensitive and relevant for tribal populations. At the heart of all of ITEP’s tools is the ITEP Tribal Climate Change Program Website where current and accurate information is constantly being curated on a website that receives over 20,000 hits annually. It is the base for all the TCCP activities. Since 2015, the TCCP has also been producing a free monthly Tribal Climate Change Newsletter which has an ongoing listserv of about 1850 recipients including tribal resource managers, and representatives from government agencies, universities and tribal colleges, non-tribal organisations, the general public, and international subscribers.

The ITEP Tribal Climate Change Adaptation Toolkit

Another component of ITEP’s work has been the development of the Tribal Climate Change Adaptation Toolkit. The Toolkit contains a range of resources that provide background material for adaptation planning, and a checklist and templates for Tribal Climate Change Adaptation Planning. Associated with this toolkit is the ITEP Tribal Climate Change Resources ‘Mind Map’: another key resource that helps build agency and capacity of tribes to respond to climate change. Launched in 2018, the Tribal Climate Change Resources Mind Map is an easily accessible “one stop shop” designed to show tribes how to find resources that will assist them with their climate change capacity building and adaptation planning.

ITEP Climate Change Tribal Profiles

The ITEP Staff also develop Climate Change Tribal Profiles which are then posted on the ITEP website. The purpose of the Profiles is twofold. First, they summarise the tribal region by explaining the uniqueness of the land, water, air, species, major regional impacts, state-wide initiatives, and some cultural issues. Second, the Profiles highlight the work that tribes are currently engaging in that may not have yet been published. This tool also allows tribes to see what is currently occurring throughout the US and to potentially help or request assistance for that tribe. ITEP staff develop the Profiles with tribal staff through personal interviews. The Profiles are intended to be short one to two-page documents that summarise the tribes’ current and projected climate change impacts and how the tribes are addressing those impacts through planning and actions. The Profiles serve as examples for other tribes to see how they could identify their own climate challenges, how to evaluate and then address them in their own climate change plan process. All the Profiles are approved by the tribe before they are posted on the ITEP climate change website: there are now over 60 Tribal climate change profiles on the website. An example of a few profiles is provided below, simply to show the richness of activity each tribe is enacting in various regions.


  • Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes: This profile discusses the climate change adaptation planning activities of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. When the tribes of southeast Alaska began seeking out climate change data specific to their region, they could not find relevant data. After 16 tribes passed resolutions calling for more data, several tribes partnered with ITEP to develop a workshop investigating the impacts of climate change specific to southeast Alaska. Stemming from that workshop, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska drafted their first Climate Change Adaptation Plan (CAP). In addition, they created a template available to all tribes in the region who also want to author their own plan.

Central U.S.

  • Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (Montana): While the Whitebark Pine tree has been in steady decline for decades, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes used it as a high priority species as they researched and drafted their Climate Change Strategic Plan. Valuable for preserving high altitude snowpack, the plan now plays a key role in the repopulation of the Whitebark Pine tree both on tribal lands and beyond.

  • The Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska (Kansas and Nebraska): The Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska is tapping into the strength of collaboration among tribes in the EPA Region 7 to improve communication, build resiliency, and directly address vulnerabilities in the face of climate change. Water resources and water management are essential components of the vulnerability assessments being developed by the tribes, and training sessions will aid the climate adaptation planning each tribe is undertaking.


  • Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians (Wisconsin): The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) has seen unprecedented flooding events in the last several years, in keeping with predictions on changing weather patterns. These flooding events impact their infrastructure, cultural resources, and natural resources. Yet they continue to thrive as a community, due in large part to their communication and cooperation with neighbouring tribes and their own Natural Resources Department.

  • Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin: The Menominee Tribe has long been a model of forest stewardship resulting in a profitable timber industry based on sustainable yields. In the 1980s, oak wilt, a deadly tree fungus, began appearing on their land. The tribe recently partnered with the Climate Change Response Framework to repopulate areas affected by oak wilt with tree species that are adapted to a changing climate.

  • 1854 Treaty Authority organisation (Minnesota): The 1854 Treaty Authority is an inter-tribal resource management agency governed directly by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. In support of their responsibility to preserve, protect, and enhance the treaty rights in the 1854 Ceded Territory, they successfully developed a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan in collaboration with the Bois Forte and Grand Portage Bands, as well as the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.


  • Aroostook Band of Micmacs (Maine): Looking to promote healthy, local food options in the face of climate change and overfishing, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs has developed a successful land-based fish hatchery. Now, in conjunction with their community farm and market, the tribe can make fresh fruit, vegetables, and brook trout, available to their people.


  • Bishop Paiute Tribe (California): The Bishop Paiute Tribe has established multiple programs to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. They have a growing Rooftop Solar Program, Food Sovereignty Program, and Conservation Open Space Area all of which complement one another.

  • La Jolla Band of Mission Indians (California): Over the past years, Southern California has seen an increase in both severe drought and devastating wildfires. This trend is anticipated to continue with climate change. In response, the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians has recently drafted a Forest Management Plan that will be part of a larger, overarching Integrated Resources Management Plan. The tribe also intends to incorporate previously completed Drought and Pre-Disaster Mitigation Plans, both of which, have already received approval at the federal level.


In the United States, First Nations continue to be impacted by the legacy of trauma caused by colonisation and subsequent overlapping institutional and policy barriers that inhibit First Nation capacity to address climate change. There is a history of genocidal treatment and policies towards First Nations; every possible effort was made to eradicate tribal nations and tribal lifeways. Despite the funding now offered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA, 2019), a lack of power and persistent poverty are consistent challenges.

As this chapter has outlined, despite that grim history, tribes and tribal peoples have survived and are thriving today. Indeed, many tribes believe that the trauma they endured has prepared them for this current era of climate change. Tribes continue to tirelessly protect their original homelands and to teach their children their lifeways. Tribes are building their future through their Climate Change Plans which will protect their land, water ways and seas. They have a resilient spirit and believe that despite all the atrocities that may come, they will prevail and lead during these times. Tribes continue to teach their children their languages, stories, prayers, songs, dances, prophecies, and lifeways. One prophecy by a Lakota Holy Man in the mid nineteenth century said that it would take seven generations for the hoop to heal. That 7th generation walks with us today. They are the hope to heal our planet for the next seven generations.