Native American Communities Get Government Boost Towards Climate Resilience


Native American communities throughout the U.S. are getting a boost to their climate resilience efforts thanks to a series of actions announced by the White House Thursday. The initiatives focus on increasing climate resilience in communities that are most vulnerable to climate-related impacts.

Under one of the new White House initiatives, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs will provide $11.8 million in grants to help tribal communities promote climate resilience through training and technological development to prepare for the future impacts of climate change.

“We know that the risks of climate change aren’t equally shared. We know that some communities, in terms of infrastructure and readiness, have been neglected longer than others,” said Director of White House Office of Management and Budget Shaun Donovan during a climate resilience event at the Center for American Progress on Thursday. “Climate change exacerbates these existing health and socioeconomic inequities, placing children, the elderly, the sick, the poor, and some communities of color at particular risk.”

For indigenous communities, the threat of climate change affects not only economic and natural opportunities, but tribal autonomy and cultural traditions as well. In the cool, lake-dense lands of Minnesota, the Chippewa tribes are struggling to maintain economic and cultural stability in the face of climate change. High levels of flooding prompted by rising temperatures have threatened the quality and sustainability of the wild rice and fishing industries that provide both economic stability and food security to the region.

Hotter summers, shorter winters, and diseases associated with this shift have also been connected to the devastating drop in moose populations in Chippewa country. What was once one of the greatest food staples and cultural traditions for tribes in Minnesota has become a conservationist cause, with populations dropping by almost 50 percent between 2008 and 2014.

Karen Diver is Chairwoman of Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and a member of the White House’s State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force On Climate Preparedness and Resilience. She said Chippewa communities are taking steps to reintroduce alternative food sources in the quest towards working within the barriers of climate change without sacrificing traditional ways of life.

“Particular to our community is a lot around traditional food and habitat protection. One of our traditional foods is moose and there hasn’t been a moose hunt in two years due to declining populations,” Diver told ThinkProgress. “One of the things we’ve been looking at is working with the state and other stakeholders to reintroduce elk, which have more tolerance than moose with the hopes of promoting food security.”

The U.S. has a long history of under-representing and under-supporting tribal communities, and continues to conflict with communities in the Chippewa region on topics such as treaty rights and land appropriation. But Diver said the White House climate resilience task force is taking proactive steps to include communities in the conversation.

“Often, federal Indian policy is on a separate path from other jurisdictions,” said Diver, who emphasized the importance of “working interjurisdictionally to allow tribes to not only look at treaty resources inside of their region, but also working with other jurisdictions outside of their own region.”

While the quest towards climate resilience poses significant challenges, initiatives to promote sustainability adaption also offer an opportunity for employment and economic development. For the Chippewa communities, this has included employing community members in gutter installation on both private and public housing to combat increased rainfall, and employing local community members in other infrastructural sustainability projects.

“There is a remarkable economic opportunity for the American people that climate action represents. And that we have to insure that all families and communities are able to share in those benefits,” Donovan said in his opening remarks at Thursday’s event. “Take energy efficiency for example, one analysis suggests that if we achieve the President’s goal of doubling our energy productivity as a nation by 2030 we could save the U.S. economy $327 billion — billion with a B- in energy expenses net of investment costs. That’s a two percent change in the GDP of the United States of America by 2030, and that is a big deal.”

Katelyn Harrop is an intern at ThinkProgress.