We humbly ask permission from all our relatives; our elders, our families, our children, the winged and the insects, the four-legged, the swimmers and all the plant and animal nations, to speak. Our Mother has cried out to us. She is in pain. We are called to answer her cries. Msit No’Kmaq – All my relations!
– Indigenous prayer
The peoples, lands, and resources of indigenous communities in the United States, including Alaska and the Pacific Rim, face an array of climate change impacts and vulnerabilities that threaten many Native communities. The consequences of observed and projected climate change have and will undermine indigenous ways of life that have persisted for thousands of years. Key vulnerabilities include the loss of traditional knowledge in the face of rapidly changing ecological conditions, increased food insecurity due to reduced availability of traditional foods, changing water availability, Arctic sea ice loss, permafrost thaw, and relocation from historic homelands.4,26,64,11
Climate change impacts on many of the 566 federally recognized tribes and other tribal and indigenous groups in the U.S. are projected to be especially severe, since these impacts are compounded by a number of persistent social and economic problems.13,21 The adaptive responses to multiple social and ecological challenges arising from climate impacts on indigenous communities will occur against a complex backdrop of centuries-old cultures already stressed by historical events and contemporary conditions.99,100,101 Individual tribal responses will be grounded in the particular cultural and environmental heritage of each community, their social and geographical history, spiritual values, traditional ecological knowledge, and worldview. Furthermore, these responses will be informed by each group’s distinct political and legal status, which includes the legacy of more than two centuries of non-Native social and governmental institutional arrangements, relationships, policies, and practices. Response options will be informed by the often limited economic resources available to meet these challenges, as well as these cultures’ deeply ingrained relationships with the natural world.102,103,104,105,53,106,107,108,109,5
The history and culture of many tribes and indigenous peoples are critical to understand before assessing additional climate change impacts. Most U.S. Native populations already face adverse socioeconomic factors such as extreme poverty; substandard and inadequate housing; a lack of health and community services, food, infrastructure, transportation, and education; low employment; and high fuel costs; as well as historical and current institutional and policy issues related to Native resources.21,109,5,110,111 The overwhelming driver of these adverse social indicators is pervasive poverty on reservations and in Native communities, as illustrated by an overall 28.4% poverty rate (36% for families with children) on reservations, compared with 15.3% nationally.110,111 Some reservations are far worse off, with more than 60% poverty rates and, in some cases, extremely low income levels (for example, Pine Ridge Reservation has the lowest per capita income in the U.S. at $1,535 per year).112,113
These poverty levels result in problems such as: a critical housing shortage of well over two hundred thousand safe, healthy, and affordable homes;114 a homeless rate of more than 10% on reservations;49 a lack of electricity (more than 14% of reservation homes are without power, ten times the national average, and, on the Navajo Reservation, about 40% of homes have no electricity115); lack of running water in one-fifth of all reservation homes and for about one-third of people on the Navajo Reservation (compared with 1% of U.S. national households);116,62,55 and an almost complete lack of modern telecommunications – fewer than 50% of homes have phone service, fewer than 10% of residents have Internet access, and many reservations have no cell phone reception.117,118,119 In addition, Native populations are also vulnerable because their physical, mental, intellectual, social, and cultural well-being is traditionally tied to a close relationship with the natural world, and because of their dependence on the land and resources for basic needs such as medicine, shelter, and food.22,81 Climate changes will exacerbate many existing barriers to providing for these human needs, and in many cases will make adaptive responses more difficult.
Of the 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives registered in the U.S. Census, approximately 1.1 million live on or near reservations or Native lands, located mostly in the Northwest, Southwest, Great Plains, and Alaska. Tribal lands include approximately 56 million acres (about 3% of U.S. lands) in the 48 contiguous states and 44 million acres (about 42% of Alaska’s land base) held by Alaska Native corporations.95 Most reservations are small and often remote or isolated, with a few larger exceptions such as the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, which has 175,000 residents.95
Native American, Alaska Native, and other indigenous communities across the U.S. share unique historical and cultural relationships with tribal or ancestral lands, significantly shaping their identities and adaptive opportunities.109 Some climate change adaptation opportunities exist on Native lands, and traditional knowledge can enhance adaptation and sustainability strategies. In many cases, however, adaptation options are limited by poverty, lack of resources, or – for some Native communities, such as those along the northern coast of Alaska constrained by public lands or on certain low-lying Pacific Islands – because there may be no land left to call their own. Conversely, for these same reasons, Native communities – especially in the Arctic – are also increasingly working to identify new economic opportunities associated with climate change and development activities (for example, oil and gas, mining, shipping, and tourism) and to optimize employment opportunities.4,33,120