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Tribal Climate Adaptation in Context

Tribal Nations in the Northeast are unique in that they were among the first Indigenous Nations in North America to contend with distant European powers in the early 16th century and local colonial governments beginning in the 17th century. From the first contact onward, Tribal Nations engaged in treaty-making with European Nations and then with the United States (U.S.). This was a demonstration of Tribes’ inherent sovereignty and the nation-to-nation relationship between the U.S. government and Tribal Nations that continues to this day. At the same time, Tribal Nations faced colonial wars and disease, which decimated populations. The relationship of Tribal Nations in the Northeast with the U.S. government involves a lengthy history of destruction, forced removal, destabilization, termination, and assimilation.

U.S.-Tribal Government agreements often included exchanges of land and resources; these exchanges became the basis for the trust and treaty obligation of the federal government to protect Tribal self-governance, lands, assets, resources, and treaty rights, and to carry out the requirements of federal statutes and court cases. 

Lands relevant to the trust and treaty obligation include:

  • Trust lands (including reservations) - Lands which the United States has reserved and held in trust for Tribal Nations to assert sovereignty and jurisdiction over affairs. Some federally recognized Tribal Nations have less than one square mile of trust lands, while others still have no trust lands at all. Tribal Nations in the NE CASC region are different from Tribal Nations west of the Mississippi River in that Tribal trust/reservation lands in the Northeast tend to be smaller than those in western regions.  Many Tribal Nations in the Northeast are actively working toward the return and restoration of Tribal homelands.       

  • Ceded Lands - Treaties of Tribal Nations with European Nations and then the U.S. resulted in the cessation of millions of acres of land and natural resources, often involuntarily or out of necessity to prevent further violence on Tribal Nations who sought to protect Tribal homelands and cultures. 

  • Unceded Lands - Tribal Nations were violently forced from broad swaths of land without any treaties. 

These ceded and unceded lands and the natural resources that exist within them are the very foundation of the wealth and power that the U.S. and its citizens enjoy to this day. In exchange, the U.S. made promises that exist in perpetuity to ensure Native people’s health, overall well-being, and prosperity as part of the trust and treaty obligations. Thus, Tribal Nations are not just stakeholders to U.S. government operations, but are also rights-holders.

Tribal Nations who have been removed from their homelands (with or without treaty) also still hold inherent and legal interests in those lands, and must be consulted when the U.S. proposes major changes to those lands. There are over a dozen federally recognized Tribal Nations with homelands in the Northeast and Southeast CASC regions who are now located in other CASC regions such as the Midwest and South Central CASCs.  Tribal Nations are also connected with natural and cultural resources over inland waters, coastal areas, estuaries and oceans.  In the Northeast, Tribal cultural connections do not stop at terrestrial boundaries, but extend into areas such as the Gulf of Maine, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean. 

NE CASC is a federally funded institution and is therefore bound to honor these trust and treaty obligations. For the CASCs, this duty includes providing the best possible scientific information for Tribal Nations to utilize in climate change adaptation and the protection of Tribal Trust Lands and ceded and unceded Tribal Homelands. 


Unique Challenges to Tribal Climate Adaptation in the Northeast 

Given the historical and contemporary experiences Tribal Nations in the NE CASC region have faced, climate change impacts and adaptation priorities are unique. Climate change threatens many of the plant and animal species that Tribal Nations rely upon as natural and cultural resources, and many of these species are only found in a particular geographic area or region.  Although Tribal Nations across the U.S. footprint have regained the management of natural resources for over 100 million acres of Tribal homelands (~2.6% of the U.S. land base), United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) member Tribal Nations have substantially smaller Tribal land bases from which to assert direct governance, sovereignty, jurisdiction and management of natural resources. Climate change may cause reductions or shifts in certain species’ habitats and reductions in abundance, possibly causing the disappearance of some culturally important species from trust lands. This is an added challenge for Tribal Nations because Tribal trust lands are politically fixed and cannot move with the climate or natural resources. Additionally, the Northeast is home to several Tribal Nations with coastal homelands threatened by sea level rise and storm surge.  

 Climate change poses serious threats to Tribal cultures and lifeways including impacts on fish and wildlife, traditional foods, medicinal plants, and places of cultural significance, some of which may be outside of Tribal reservation or trust lands. In many instances, places of cultural significance are now located within national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, seashores, marine monuments, state parks and forests, or on private lands. This means Tribal Nations must also work with federal, state, and local jurisdictions to address climate change impacts on natural resources of cultural and economic significance beyond Tribal lands.

Tribal Nations continue to struggle with non-Tribal jurisdictions for access to locations of cultural significance to partake in cultural activities they have been engaging in since time immemorial. Loss of access to these places, over the last few centuries and in recent times, has greatly impacted the physical and mental health of Indigenous peoples. Climate change threatens sites, practices, and relationships that hold cultural, spiritual, and ceremonial importance and which are foundational to Indigenous peoples.


Tribal-led Climate Change Adaptation and Institutional Barriers

Across the U.S., there are at least 65 Tribal climate change adaptation plans and vulnerability assessments.  Some of the first Tribal-led climate change adaptation plans within the U.S. came from Tribal Nations in the Northeast.

The impacts of the 2012 northeastern summer drought/heat wave and coastal flooding from Hurricane Sandy prompted the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and the Shinnecock Indian Nation, respectively, to complete climate change adaptation plans for their homelands, waterways, and communities in 2013. Other Tribal Nations in the NE region are also developing climate change vulnerability assessments and adaptation plans. Certain departments within Tribal governments may take the lead on climate adaptation planning including natural resources or cultural preservation departments, and sometimes Tribal emergency management or economic development programs.

Despite these efforts, there remain significant institutional barriers to Tribal climate change adaptation planning. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Limited jurisdiction and access to traditional territory or places of cultural significance;

  • Limited staff capacity for climate adaptation work while responding to other threats to Tribal environmental health, lands and sovereignty;

  • Funding for long-term climate change adaptation, although there have been recent advances, including the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Often Tribal Climate Change resilience funding remains “project-based” and unsustainable for long-term climate change adaptation plan implementation. 

Furthermore, despite federal trust and treaty obligations, Tribal Nations continue to be limited to competitive funding for climate change resiliency projects. Funding therefore remains inaccessible to Tribal Nations with limited staffing capacity, regardless of significant climate change impacts and concerns. In addition, federal natural and cultural resource funding can be very sector-, species-, or place-specific, whereas Tribal Nations are concerned about the health of whole communities and environments. Many Tribal Nations are forced into the position of pursuing multiple grants and searching for funding from different sources with varying objectives in order to address larger climate change impacts on their homelands and communities. Federal funding for climate change adaptation is also at the whim of political power shifts in Congress and the White House. Opportunities available this year may not be available next year, making consistent or long-term climate change adaptation plans, which are critical to Tribal climate resilience, difficult to enact.

One example of a Tribal climate change adaptation strategy is re-acquiring Tribal homelands and placing these lands into trust. Specifically, lands may be selected to provide Tribal communities safety from sea level rise and to provide them with access to species of cultural importance whose ranges have shifted due to climate change.  Tribal Nations also seek to restore their homelands and jurisdiction to protect natural and cultural resources. In addition to extremely burdensome and lengthy federal processes to restore their homelands, the 2009 Carcieri v. Salazar Supreme Court decision further challenges the ability of Tribal Nations to have lands taken into trust, even when those lands are within Tribal homelands and territories. Thus, if a location becomes uninhabitable or ecosystems of cultural significance shift due to climate change, Tribal Nations may face additional challenges and opposition.