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Tribal Nation Partners and Indigenous Peoples

There are 25 federally recognized Tribal Nations whose homelands and waters lie within the region of the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center. Prior to colonization, this number was considerably higher. However, many federally recognized Tribal Nations whose homelands and waters lie within the Northeast were forcefully removed, and today reside in the Midwest, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Additionally, many Indigenous communities that are state-recognized, unrecognized, or petitioning for federal recognition are also located within this area.  Like other regions of North America, Tribal cultures in the Northeast have diverse languages, customs, traditions, and identities.

Tribal Nations are the rightful stewards of homelands and waters, and Tribal creation stories, traditions, cultures, languages, and understanding of the world, humanity, and all life forms are intricately tied to these spaces. Tribal Nations possess inherent sovereignty, which means they have autonomous, independent government authority regardless of their recognition status assigned by the United States federal government or individual state governments. This sovereign authority includes jurisdiction and governance of Tribal citizens and lands, administration of justice, and, ultimately, the right to make decisions that are best for Tribal Nations now and in the future, including decisions about climate change adaptation and research.

Tribal Climate Adaptation in Context

Climate adaptation efforts undertaken by Tribal Nations in the Northeast and Southeast occur within a unique and complex historical, legal, and cultural context that has been shaped both by the violent legacy of colonialism and the inherent sovereignty of Tribal Nations. Understanding this context and the specific challenges posed by it is crucial for those seeking to collaborate with Tribal Nations on climate adaptation projects. 

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As federally funded institutions, the Northeast CASC is part of the federal trust and treaty obligation to Tribal Nations.  This includes working with Tribal Nations and Tribal agencies (e.g. Tribal environmental, natural, and cultural resource departments and staff) to:

  • Identify significant natural and cultural resources that are greatly impacted by climate change and to understand those impacts;

  • Identify Tribal information needs to prepare for and address climate change adaptation and concerns, including completing vulnerability assessments and adaptation plans;

  • Increase representation of Tribal Nations on NE CASC Advisory Committees, as rights-holders, to achieve parity with representation from states and federal agencies;

  • Identify opportunities for Tribal Nations and Tribal agencies to lead and frame climate adaptation research projects that align with their priorities;

  • Train NE CASC leadership, principal investigators, staff, and early career scientists in the historical context of Tribal Nations and ethical and best practices in contemporary Tribal engagement;

  • Increase the participation of Indigenous researchers and researchers experienced in effectively working with Tribal Nations in NE CASC activities, including among funded researchers and leadership;

  • Establish systems for evaluating and monitoring collaborations between Tribal Nations and CASC researchers and/or students to ensure the collaborations continue to benefit all parties involved and address Tribal climate science needs and priorities (i.e., through continued ethical engagement practices).

The Climate Adaptation Science Centers are increasing and improving their engagement with Indigenous Peoples and increasing access to resources for researchers and others interested in applications of Indigenous Knowledges to climate adaptation.

Ethical Engagement

As with any political, social, or working relationship, there are practices and principles that will make partnerships with citizens and employees of Tribal Nations more effective and equitable. We encourage individuals interested in partnering with Indigenous Peoples to learn more using the recommended resources detailed here.

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Tribal Resilience Liaisons

Tribal nations and native communities face significant challenges in responding to long-term trends in climate and extreme climatic events. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the US Geological Survey, and Tribal groups have collaborated to station Tribal Resilience Liaisons at Department of the Interior Climate Adaptation Science Centers (CASCs). Liaisons are generally employed by Tribal organizations and work at CASCs, and will increase the resources available to:

  • Help Tribal nations access information, data, and expertise at the CASCs and elsewhere

  • Facilitate research integrating Traditional Knowledge

  • Support Tribal forums and information exchange

These efforts are designed to better understand, communicate, and meet the needs of Tribal nations through partnerships to build Tribal capacity and promote more resilient Tribal communities. 

The Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has also placed Tribal Climate Scientist/Technical Support Coordinators ("Tribal Liaisons") at several of the CASCs to help identify climate information and research needs of tribes and indigenous communities and work with federal partners to address those needs.

Casey Thornbrugh
Casey C. Thornbrugh
Northeast and Southeast Tribal Climate Science Liaison

Casey Thornbrugh serves as the liaison between Tribal nations in the Northeast and the Southeast, the United South and Eastern Tribes Inc. (USET), the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and climate science researchers. Based out of the Northeast CASC at UMass Amherst, he provides current climate science information to Tribal Nations on the East Coast and in Gulf Coast states, as well as identifies climate research needs and priorities, and provides climate adaptation planning support for the Tribes. Casey participates in the network of Tribal climate science liaisons within the Climate Adaptation Science Centers, as well as a national workgroup of Tribal organizations, Tribal colleges, and other partners to address policy and resource issues associated with Tribal climate resilience.

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Steph Courtney
Steph Courtney
Northeast and Southeast Assistant Tribal Climate Science Liaison

Steph Courtney is the Northeast and Southeast Assistant Tribal Climate Science Liaison with United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. (USET). She seeks to connect Tribal Nations and their staff with relationships, tools, and opportunities to improve their adaptation to climate change from the northern Woodlands to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Appalachians to the Everglades. She collaborated with the Southeast CASC throughout her graduate studies at Auburn University, where she studied climate change communication. Her Ph.D. research examined how different audiences interpret and apply climate change science by applying social scientific methods to physical science subject matter. She has studied and practiced science communication for many years and is using this experience to distill climate adaptation research into information that is beneficial and applicable to Tribal Nations.

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