How Tribal Wisdom can Help Climate Science

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Native peoples have been studying the climate for generations, and much of that knowledge is highly valuable.

Author: Sophie Yeo
(Originally published on January 6, 2020 at this link)

Berber shepherds in Tunisia
Caption: Berber Shepherds in Tunisia: Photo credit: Felthi Belaid/Getty Images

Story at a glance:

  • There is often tension between Western climate scientists and indigenous communities.
  • Native peoples often have deep knowledge that can help inform science, but they must be treated as respected partners in the process for it to work.
  • “If it’s an indigenous or another vulnerable community, spending time is essential,” says one researcher.

When Shanondora Billiot, a member of the United Houma Nation, decided to study the impacts of climate change on her own tribe, she knew that any mistakes would get back to her family.

“I absolutely knew that I could not be disrespectful while working with the tribe,” says Billiot, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois. “Everyone knows who my family is, so if I were to do something wrong, somebody would let me know.”

Most climate scientists researching indigenous communities won’t have to deal with the ire of their uncles or grandparents if they cause offense during their fieldwork. This lack of personal investment or accountability to indigenous communities can form tense relationships, particularly given oppression that tribes have faced from federal agencies and affiliated institutions over generations.

The Houma Nation has been inundated with research requests over the years. The coastline along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast is rapidly eroding due to climate change and the networks of canals cut for the oil and gas industry. But tribal members are used to being forgotten, as scientists carried out their research and never returned. The Houma people are not alone in this: A 2018 study by Dominique M. David-Chavez, at the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona, found that 87 percent of climate studies used an “extractive model,” where researchers used global indigenous knowledge systems with minimal participation from the communities that had developed them.

Critics say that approach is unhelpful for climate science and unfair to indigenous people, who can end up feeling exploited for the knowledge that they have been gathering for generations. So Billiot carried out her research slowly and deliberately, sitting at marinas where the boats docked, attending powwows and having lunch with anyone who asked. She kept a journal, maintaining separate records of her own feelings and her scientific observations and shared her analysis with the tribe as she went along.

Taking the time

Integrating herself into the community meant that her project took a while — she stayed with the tribe for six months and interviewed 160 people — but she viewed this as an essential component of her research, particularly given its sensitive subject matter: the impacts of repeated environmental disasters on tribal mental health.

“If it’s an indigenous or another vulnerable community, spending time is essential. The knowledge generation has to be co-produced and co-generated. It takes longer, so it’s not something you can fly into and publish a whole bunch of manuscripts off of. It’s a commitment,” Billiot reflects.

But climate scientists need to go further than simply adopting a respectful approach to the communities they study, says Kyle Whyte, a professor and environmental activist at Michigan State University as well as a member of the Potawatomi Nation. He believes that climate scientists should also help rebuild the institutions and knowledge systems that indigenous people built up over generations and stop perpetuating the notion that they are secondary to western science.

Indeed, the knowledge that tribes in the U.S. and beyond have accumulated through generations is now recognized as vital in tackling climate change.

Indigenous peoples’ observations about trends and patterns in the natural world, as well as their insights on the connections between humans, animals and ecosystems, can help to illuminate the changes that the planet is undergoing today and can complement the data gathered by western scientists. In native Alaskan communities, for instance, hunters and elders have described changes in the movement and behavior of animals in recent years: instances of unusually abundant jellyfish, seals with sores and bald spots and smelly walrus meat.

In particular, Whyte would like to see tribal partners paid the same salary as climate scientists when they partner on projects and share their knowledge, “which may seem like a stretch, but it’s actually tremendously problematic,” he says.

“As indigenous people, way before the United States, or Canada or European invasions, we had our own knowledge systems. A lot of them were very scientific in terms of how they related to issues of the environment, sustainability, resilience and climate change,” says Whyte. “We want climate scientists, before they even ask about particular research projects, to be in dialogue with us about how we can rebuild our own institutions so we can be independent and do our own climate science.”

Common ground

Education will be central to improving relationships between climate scientists and indigenous people. Whyte has already trained hundreds of scientists on how better to work with tribes. There are also initiatives like Rising Voices, which aims to advance collaborations between western and indigenous knowledge; the Menominee Tribe runs its own Sustainable Development Institute, which carries out research and projects in line with Menominee beliefs and culture.

“We shouldn’t start off with the idea that climate science begins with some experiments that were done in Europe in the 19th century,” says Whyte. “Instead we should talk about how many societies historically were studying the climate and talk about the wisdom from those traditions and how that occurred for generations. And then show how, later on, what’s currently called climate science emerges as a relatively new approach to studying the climate.”

In her study, David-Chavez suggests 10 questions that climate scientists should ask themselves when planning projects with indigenous communities. These include whether communities were included in the decision to initiate the study and if findings are accessible to community members.

A more respectful and inclusive approach to indigenous knowledge is not only ethical; it is also good for science. Billiot ultimately felt that her research was improved by the extra time she took to knit crab traps and sort shells alongside other members of her fishing community. “I was able to get deeper information, because I was there and people trusted me,” she says. “They trusted I wouldn’t try to profit off of or exploit the information they shared with me.”

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BIA 2020 Tribal Resilience Funding Opportunity

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BIA 2020 Tribal Resilience Program Planning Grants 

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has announced the 2020 Notice of Funding opportunity for the BIA Tribal Resilience Program Planning grants. This program supports tribes preparing for extreme events and harmful environmental trends that impact tribal treaty and trust resources, economies, infrastructure, and human health and safety. The Program will provide funding for projects that support tribal resilience and ocean and coastal management planning as tribes incorporate science (including Traditional Knowledge) and technical information to prepare for the impacts of extreme events and harmful environmental trends. There are seven award categories:

  • Adaptation Planning (Categories 1-3)
    • Category 1. Trainings and Workshops (maximum: $150,000)
    • Category 2. Adaptation Planning (maximum: $150,000)
    • Category 3. Travel Support for Adaptation Planning (maximum: $15,000)
  • Ocean and Coastal Management Planning (Categories 4-5)
    • Category 4. Ocean and Coastal Management Planning (maximum: $150,000)
    • Category 5. Travel Support – Ocean & Coastal (maximum: $15,000)
  • Capacity Building (Category 6)
    • Category 6. Capacity Building for Scoping Efforts to Support future Category 2 Proposal development
  • Relocation, Managed Retreat, or Protect-in-Place Planning (Category 7)
    • Category 7. Planning for Relocation, Managed Retreat, or Protect-in-Place Activities for Coastal and Riverine Communities (maximum: $150,000)

The solicitation is for federally-recognized tribes and tribal organizations* (as defined by 25 U.S.C. Section 5304(1)). Other entities may participate as sub-grantees. The solicitation is available on, named BIA-TRP-2020-0001 and is also directly linked here on the BIA Tribal Resilience Program site. Additional details, including evaluation criteria, are described in the Notice of Funding (i.e., Request for Proposals or Solicitation).

Proposal Deadline:  March 2, 2020, by 5:00 p.m. Alaska Time / 9 p.m. Eastern Time. Send completed proposals to or by hard copy to: Ms. Jo Ann Metcalfe, Attention: Tribal Resilience Program, Grant Officer, Central Office Acquisitions, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 12220 Sunrise Valley Dr., Reston, VA 20191.

Upcoming Informational Webinar: Please register for a webinar describing the 2020 Solicitation [Thursday, January 9, 2020 from 10:00am-11:30am (Pacific Time)].

General Discussion: For the larger awards ($150,000), there is one award per category. Those awards do not include travel support. Rachel highlighted that this year’s award includes a new category that is meant to provide increased support to tribal communities in planning for relocation, managed retreat, or protect-in-place planning (category 7). The 2020 funding opportunity gives tribes a two-year timeframe for projects. There is an online application for categories 3, 5, 6 to simplify the process for smaller awards. The FAQs have been updated on the site and will be presented during webinar hosted by the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) on January 9, 2020. Rachael suggested that if you are looking for programmatic support, you should reach out to your regional tribal resilience liaison. The NW regional contact is Chas Jones, and his position is funded through a partnership between the NW CASC and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

Climate Impacts: The first and last Hockey game at the North Pole

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Hockey players are planning a game at the North Pole: The goal is to bring attention to the climate crisis.

Listen to the audio story:

Hockey player stick

Athletes from around the world plan to play a hockey match in April. They’ll be surrounded not by bleachers of adoring fans, but by a vast expanse of snow and ice, and maybe a passing polar bear.

Sergey Rybakov is helping organize the event near the North Pole.

“It’s a project that is about bringing everyone – all the countries, all the sportsmen, all the people – together on one topic: climate change,” he says.

Global warming is rapidly melting Arctic sea ice, so the event is being billed as the first and last hockey game to be played at the North Pole.

A slew of organizations and sports figures are involved. The UN Environment Programme is helping lead the effort. It was spearheaded by Slava Fetisov, a legendary Russian hockey player.

Mike Richter, formerly of the New York Rangers, is on the roster, as are players from Russia, Canada, Scandinavian countries, and beyond.

Rybakov says it provides an opportunity for each well-known athlete to learn firsthand about melting Arctic ice. Then he says they can give interviews and share the information with others, becoming ambassadors in their own countries about what is going on globally.

For this game, the ultimate goal is to bring attention to the climate crisis.

Yurok Tribe awarded 2019 Equator Prize for Carbon Sequestration Project

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On September 28, 2019, the Yurok Tribe was one of the first two indigenous nations in the United States to receive the United Nations Development Programme’s prestigious Equator Prize.

The award is an acknowledgement of the Tribe’s forward-looking, climate change mitigation work, which merges Traditional Ecological Knowledge with western science to facilitate the restoration of healthy forests. Rehabilitating biologically diverse woodland habitats is critical to resolving the climate crisis.

On the eve of the United Nations 74th General Assembly, Yurok Tribal Councilmembers Lana McCovey and Mindy Natt will be representing the Tribe at the Equator Prize Award Ceremony, which is happening at the iconic Town Hall Theater in New York City. A short film highlighting the Tribe’s cutting-edge forest stewardship practices will be shown to the numerous, high-ranking government officials, international media outlets and celebrities in attendance at the illustrious event.

“We are incredibly honored to accept the Equator Prize on behalf of the Yurok people,” said Yurok Tribal Councilmember Lana McCovey. “Similar to Tribal nations all over the globe, our culture, quality of life, and economy require intact forests to flourish.”

“The Yurok Tribe is proof positive that it is possible to live in harmony with the environment in the 21st century,” added Councilmember Mindy Natt, who will be attending the UN’s 74th General Assembly. “As we restore biodiversity to our forests, we are creating a landscape and a community that is resilient to climate change.”

The Equator Prize, created by the UNDP’s Equator Initiative, aims to acknowledge efforts to reduce poverty through environmentally sound projects. The award ceremony begins at 8 p.m. EST. This year’s 22 winners were selected from a pool of 847 nominations across 127 countries. In addition to the recognition on the world stage, each recipient will receive $10,000.

Residing along the Klamath River in far Northern California, the Yurok Tribe is the most populous Native American nation in the state. For millennia, the Yurok people enjoyed an affluent and comfortable existence, which was anchored by the Klamath’s bountiful salmon runs, the abundant game and edible plants in the expansive prairies adjacent to the river and prolific quantities seafood from the nearby ocean. The richness of the region afforded the Tribe ample time to develop a complex system of governance, a thriving economy and timeless artwork. More than 50 Yurok villages had access to the same immense wealth until the California Gold Rush and ensuing genocide, which resulted in a 95 percent reduction in the tribal population and caused significant damage to the natural environment in the Tribe’s ancestral territory. However, the Yurok people persevered to overcome incredible obstacles to arrive at a positive place in the present.

Currently, the Tribe is in the middle of the most substantial growth period in modern times. For example, the tribal government and Tribe-affiliated workforce recently swelled to more than 400 individuals, most of whom are Yurok citizens. A large majority of the staff are involved in the types of natural resources enhancement projects that elicited the commendation from the Equator Initiative.

The Tribe was one of the first participants in California’s cap and trade program and has dedicated a signification swath to forest for carbon sequestration. With proceeds from the program, the Tribal Council started recovering the Tribe’s 500,000-acre former territory. This summer, the Tribe celebrated the reacquisition of approximately 60,000 acres of forest. The Yurok Forestry, Fisheries and Watershed Restoration Departments are working to turn much of the newly acquired land into a salmon sanctuary and an old-growth for ecosystem. This project will also improve wildlife populations as well as the availability of crucial cultural resources, such as traditional basket-weaving materials and plant-based foods. Revenue generated from the program also enabled the Tribe to recover approximately 2,000 regalia items. The ceremonial items are used in the Tribe’s ceremonies, which aim to bring balance to the world.

The Yurok Tribe is the largest Tribe in California with more than 6,000 members. The Tribe’s ancestral territory comprises 7.5 percent of the California coastline and is home to the Klamath River, the lifeline of the Yurok people. The Tribe’s major initiatives include: condor reintroduction, dam removal, ecological restoration, fisheries management, natural resources management, sustainable economic development and land acquisition.

For more information about the Equator Prize, please visit:

How Yurok and Karuk Traditions Sustain Delicate Balance of North Coast Species

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[Excerpt] The founding documents of the Yurok Tribe, the basic laws that guide the decisions and actions of tribal leaders and citizens, are much older than the Tribe’s 1993 constitution. The people’s true legal and moral bedrock consists of their stories told and their ceremonies conducted starting in the remote past; stories and ceremonies so old their ages can’t be accurately measured; stories and ceremonies that have animated Yurok lives since time immemorial.

These stories, ceremonies, and certain associated works of art and music continue today to express and shape Yurok people’s relationships and responsibilities to their ancestral territory — including the Bald Hills, adjacent redwood forests, the Klamath River, and the Pacific Ocean — and Yurok people’s relationships and responsibilities to other people in and around the Klamath region. Those relationships and responsibilities are too complex to be adequately encapsulated in a constitution or a collection of written laws.

Yurok relationships with other people and with land, water, animals, and plants are difficult to articulate in straightforward, linear English sentences because those relationships form an extremely complex, dense network of moral obligations. People care for all of their family members, and their kin — including condors and salmon — reciprocate the care.

Tribal condor biologist Tiana Williams describes Yurok people’s connection to their ancestral territory as multidimensional. “It’s a web more than a line,” says Williams. “Returning condor to Yurok ancestral territory is really bringing a member of our community, our family, home.”

“We feel like the salmon is related to us, we feel like the condor is related to us… It’s our place, culturally and ceremonially, to protect them,” Clayburn says about the deep connections with every species within Yurok homelands.

Read more here…

‘Fire is medicine’: the tribes burning California forests to save them

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For millennia, native people have used flames to protect the land. The US government outlawed the process for a century before recognizing its value

When Rick O’Rourke walks with fire, the drip torch is an extension of his body. The mix of diesel and gasoline arcs up and out from the little wick at the end of the red metal can, landing on the ground as he takes bite after bite out of the dry vegetation in the shadow of the firs and oaks.

“Some people are like gunslingers and some people are like artists who paint with fire,” he says. “I’m a little bit of both.”

Read the article here…


Historically left out of Western water talks, tribes intend to have greater influence in future

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Earlier this year, Arizona, one of seven states that rely on the Colorado River, was in the midst of a heated discussion about Colorado River water.

“It’s time to protect Lake Mead and Arizona,” Doug Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor, said in his state of the state address in January 2019. He spoke to state lawmakers in the midst of uncomfortable, emotional discussions about who gets access to water in the arid West and who doesn’t.

“It’s time to ratify the Drought Contingency Plan,” Ducey said to applause.

The multistate deal was the first issue Ducey brought up in his address, and he indicated it should be the Legislature’s first priority. The deal was designed to keep the Colorado River’s largest reservoir – Lake Mead south of Las Vegas – from dropping rapidly and putting the region’s 40 million residents in a precarious position.

Within weeks, Arizona finished its portion of the plan.

Ducey’s address lauded the leadership of former Gov. Bruce Babbitt and former Sen. Jon Kyl, but he didn’t mention the crucial role of tribal leaders in the state. But a recent Arizona State University report suggests that without the actions of the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the deal would’ve likely collapsed.

Read more here…

California Climate Investments Fire Prevention Grant

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Deadline: December 4, 2019. CAL FIRE’s Fire Prevention Grants Program (FP) provides funding for local projects and activities that address the risk of wildfire and reduce wildfire potential to forested and forest adjacent communities. Funded activities include: hazardous fuel reduction, fire planning, and fire prevention education with an emphasis on improving public health and safety while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For more information and to apply, click here.