Elevating Community-Led Climate Action and Environmental Justice

First Nations has always recognized that the strongest solutions for Indian Country come from Native communities themselves. That is why, in 2021, after receiving a $5 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund, we provided direct funding to Tribes and Native-led nonprofits to conduct and operationalize climate change plans, expand workforce development programs, and facilitate discussions on ways Native knowledge and practices are used to address climate impacts.

The Climate Change and Environmental Justice project was the first under the Stewarding Native Lands Climate Initiative. Through this project First Nations’ staff hoped to gain a greater understanding of the impacts of climate change on Native peoples, highlight examples of community-led climate action, and elevate models and strategies that may be useful to other Native and non-Native communities as they promote environmental justice.

As the Associate Director of Stewarding Native Lands, I was honored to work directly with the 25 Native community partners that are part of three opportunities launched in 2022 – Green Jobs in Indian Country, Climate Resiliency in Indian Country, and Regional Dialogues in Indian Country – and to increase awareness of climate efforts happening across Indian Country by sharing their stories, strategies, and perspectives.

These stories are highlighted in three reports: A Summary of Native Workforce Development Models, Climate Change & Building Adaptive Capacity Across Indian Country, and Climate Leadership Across Indian Country: A Summary of Regional Climate Change Dialogues.

The Reports

The Native Workforce Development Models report highlights projects supported through the Green Jobs in Indian Country grant program. This report aims to bring attention to policy, infrastructure, and job pathway challenges and opportunities in Indian Country and highlights examples of successful and sustainable workforce development models that may be useful to Native communities and organizations. The Climate Change & Building Adaptive Capacity report highlights projects supported through the Climate Resiliency in Indian Country grant program. This report focuses on the disproportionate impacts of climate change on Native communities and highlights examples of community-led climate action that address the impacts of climate change. The Climate Leadership Across Indian Country report highlights projects supported through the Regional Dialogues in Indian Country grant program. This report aims to bring attention to policy and funding barriers and opportunities, models, and community perspectives that may be useful to Tribes and Native communities looking to host discussions, engage in political advocacy efforts, and navigate municipal, state, and federal administrative routes to address the impacts of climate change regionally.

Across all three reports, two of the most prominent themes were funding challenges and the importance of Native knowledge.

Primary Challenge for Native Communities Responding to Climate Change

As demonstrated throughout these three reports, one of the biggest challenges for Native communities to respond to climate change continues to be securing funding from state and federal grants, philanthropic, and/or institutional-giving that is in alignment with Native needs and goals. Climate action requires long-term and flexible funds that allow Tribes to address limited staff capacity and resources, and environmental issues from a holistic, not sector-specific, approach. Long-term, meaningful funding partnerships that prioritize Tribal sovereignty and Native leadership are necessary for sustainable economic growth and environmental justice.

 “There is an idea that if you throw money at a problem it will go away and that isn’t always the best solution. One of the things that I always think back to is that there are changes that need to be made within the system itself. If the process is continuing to end up with the same results, whether its addressing climate injustice or environmental racism, then you can still go through and check all those boxes but you’ll end up with the same result. It’s the process that need to change. Untangling that knot is what is going to take a lot more intention and investment. And not just a financial investment, but political will and individual courage. It’s not a sprint – this is the marathon for humanity.” — Amelia Marchand (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation) Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, Senior Tribal Climate Resilience Liaison

“A huge funding challenge for Tribes is trying to meet someone else’s priorities and objectives. Tribes all have a need but it’s really hard when you’re in that grant world because you’re constantly writing to what the funding is for instead of being able to fund what is a priority.” — Julie Thorstenson (Lakota) Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, Executive Director

Using Native Knowledge to Address Climate Change

Woven through these reports is the importance of Native knowledge in addressing and responding to climate change. Over thousands of years, Tribes and Native communities have developed strategies and nature-based solutions rooted in Native knowledge to build adaptive capacity and respond to climate impacts. These strategies and solutions are designed to build pathways that advance local infrastructure, leadership training, food security, resource management, and environmental justice to accomplish sustainable social, economic, environmental, and cultural goals. Some of the Native-led strategies featured in these reports include cultural burning to prevent catastrophic wildfires and sustain biodiversity, clam bed restoration to address flooding and beach erosion, and reintroducing ecocultural plant species to strengthen soil quality and increase local food security.

“The main knowledge that we’re trying to integrate into this project is the ancestral approach we have to land management, which is, we didn’t manage the ocean, nearshore areas, or mountains separately. All resources were managed holistically by community members.”  — Jane Au (Native Hawaiian) Aina Momona, Program Director

We hope that these reports enlighten a diverse audience about the historical inequities that have hindered many Tribes and Native communities’ abilities to respond to climate impacts. And more so, we hope readers will feel inspired by the ingenuity and endurance of Native peoples as they, despite these historical inequities, advance community-led climate action and environmental justice.

Jacque Demko (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation)
Associate Director, Stewarding Native Lands