Tribal leaders urge lawmakers to fund Native American climate resiliency projects

Oljato-Monument Valley (Nik Shuliahan/Unsplash https://unsplash.com/license)

By Delaney Nelson

WASHINGTON — Tribal leaders and experts called on lawmakers Thursday to invest much more money in tribal climate resilience efforts and elevate Indigenous knowledge in climate change decision-making

Indigenous people across the country have lost nearly 99% of their historical lands through forced displacement, which has left them in areas that are more vulnerable to climate change, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Science

While tribal nations have long been stewards of their land, the climate crisis has forced them to develop new strategies for land and environmental protection based on their traditional knowledge and practices, Fawn Sharp, vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation and president of the National Congress of American Indians, told the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Tribes need significantly more funding to protect their communities from droughts, floods, fires and more, Sharp said. 

“We are chronically underfunded. Without the added support of addressing climate change,” Sharp said. “We would see our lands, our resources, our territories, even our traditional foods and plants disappear and they're already disappearing. It would prove to be devastating for Indian country.”

Without sufficient federal funding for climate resilience and mitigation projects like solar rooftops and methane capture initiatives, Sharp said tribes don’t have the resources to understand the scope of the climate crisis on their lands. She also urged lawmakers to establish with Indigenous people a federal relocation framework to provide support to communities forced to move because of the effects of climate change, such as rising water levels and drought.

Allocating more resources to support small-scale projects would create jobs for Indigenous people and tap into the abundance of natural resources on their lands, Sharp said. 

Most important, though, is that the federal government provide Native American communities with direct, long-term funding for climate change adaptation while giving tribes sovereignty over program development, said Casey Thornbrugh of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and climate change program manager at the United South and Eastern Tribes Inc. 

Thornbrugh said tribal leaders need the authority to help shape national climate policy and incorporate Native American knowledge and practices into the decision-making process. 

“Tribal nations must be afforded the dignity and the means to move to preserve the wellbeing of our nations, as well as our rights to our ancestral places which must be maintained, even if these places become submerged,” Thornbrugh said.

In 2010, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory reported that Indian Country, which makes up 5% of land area in the United States, contains 10% of all energy resources in the country. NREL data shows that many tribal lands are in areas with abundant renewable energy resources, including wind, solar power and biomass.

Pilar Thomas, former deputy director for the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs at the Department of Energy, said Indian Country has an outsized amount of clean energy resources that can be used in climate resilience efforts. Effectively using them will require federal investment in tribal climate projects and relevant technology, she said.

Acquiring funds is a challenge for many Native American communities, Thomas said, because the process is too complex. She said there are around 75 federal renewable energy programs across nine agencies that tribes can apply for, which can cause confusion.

Thomas said aligning federal programs and consolidating funding sources for climate resiliency projects would help more tribal nations to implement these initiatives within their communities.

“The big opportunity for the administration, as with any administration, is, how do we better coordinate amongst ourselves?" Thomas said. "Part of that really should start with asking the tribes who are trying to develop projects: what do you need from us, and what can we do from the federal government perspective to support that effort?”

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