A Year of Advancement for Environmental Justice

Amplifying Native Strategies to Climate Change

Climate change impacts for Native communities across the nation are already severe, and preserving lifeways, ceremonial practices, and subsistence will only become more challenging with the changing climate. However, we know tribes have demonstrated diverse strategies for climate adaptation rooted in Native knowledge.

To support these strategies and help tribal communities continue to address ongoing and anticipated impacts of climate change and preserve lands and cultural lifeways, First Nations’ Stewarding Native Lands team selected climate as one of four strategic program initiatives. In 2021, we embarked on the inaugural project under this initiative, a learning journey called “Climate Change and Environmental Justice.”

Telling 56 Stories of Impact

The project, implemented in partnership with the Bezos Earth Fund, shared Native adaptation strategies with potential for global application, supported culturally relevant and community-led climate programming, brought attention to policy and funding barriers that Native communities face, and highlighted successful workforce development pathways in Indian Country. In all, we awarded 56 grants totaling over $3.8 million, and visited several communities to see firsthand the results of First Nations’ grant support.

There is an incredibly high demand for hale and a varied market that spans educational and health institutions, schools and universities, national parks and botanical gardens, hotels and golf courses, county and state parks, nonprofit organizations, and nature preserves.

One of those community partners is Hōlani Hāna, based in Hana Hawaii, which works to elevate the well-being of families and communities through amplifying Native Hawaiian values, practices, and lifeways. Since the organization’s creation, they have been working to increase culturally rooted, revenue-generating opportunities for Native Hawaiian communities by strengthening practitioner knowledge of ancestral Hawaiian architecture. In bolstering Native Hawaiian construction and masonry skills, the project created jobs specifically in building hale, traditional Hawaiian structures that serve as community gathering places.

While this work has uplifted the local economy by creating full-time practitioner positions, the additional cultural, educational, and ecological benefits cannot be undermined. There is a Hawaiian prophecy, “E iho ana o luna, e pi’i ana o lalo, e hui ana nā moku, e kū ana ka paia,” which means “that which above shall descend, that which is below shall rise, the islands shall be united, and the walls shall stand.” It is said that a time will come when Native knowledge and peoples will rise to meet the challenges produced by a toppling system of Western dominance and environmental disregard.

Through this project, Hōlani Hāna supported the creation of local jobs in Hana. It also cultivated a new generation of builders to revitalize cultural practices and sustain Hōlani Hāna’s mission-driven work, which will continue to build their adaptive capacity and advance socio-ecological management practices.

Constructing clam gardens strengthens shellfish growing conditions and expands an ideal clam habitat, which increases biodiversity by providing space for other intertidal species, such as sea cucumbers and sea urchins.

The Organized Village of Kake, in Kake, Alaska, works to provide services and opportunities to tribal and community members, monitor and maintain healthy ecosystems, improve food security, and address and adapt to climate impacts. Their goals are to enhance the quality of life of tribal members through economic enterprises and social programs, preserve and sustain cultural traditions, and advocate for the protection and preservation of customary and traditional areas and gathering practices important to their subsistence activities.

This project supported jobs creation and the expansion of the tribal shellfish garden through community planning, education, training, and monitoring. The project also increased disaster preparedness, as shellfish gardens have been used to buffer coastal communities from impacts of extreme weather events and disasters. The ecological, economical, educational, and cultural benefits of this project are readily apparent.

What might not be as evident is the community benefit. This project would not have been possible without community support or effort. “I hope that the legacy of this project will be community effort because that’s what it’s always taken, that’s what it will continue to take to not only build the garden, but also maintain them and make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons,” said Simon Friday, project lead.

The project supported job creation in Kake and the expansion of their tribal shellfish garden. But moreover, it validated tribal sovereign rights to utilize traditional Native technology on their ancestral homelands.

Quotes from a few of these community leaders are featured in the video above, and we are honored to be able to share these partners’ voices in amplifying their stories.

This project has been extensive, and it’s an honor to be a part of it. From the early project-mapping to the final publications that will serve as resources for Native communities everywhere, it has been a valuable opportunity to hear from communities, invest in their strategies, and make measurable impact when it comes to building adaptive capacity in response to climate change.

Next Steps

We look forward to strengthening our relationships with these communities and connecting them to additional resources to sustain their work. As the Stewarding Native Lands team strategizes to direct training and financial support through our Climate Initiative, one thing is certain: We will continue to support community-led climate action that is rooted in culture and centers Native knowledge.

We thank everyone who’s been involved with this project and has shared their stories with us. This project has been a journey, and we are just getting started.

Literature Cited

Evans, L.E., Dolšak, N., Plog, M.T. et al. Native American tribal governments, cross-sectoral climate policy, and the role of intertribal networks. Climatic Change 160, 35–43 (2020).
Cozzetto, K., et al. “Climate change impacts on the water resources of American Indians and Alaska Natives in the US.” Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples in the United States: Impacts, Experiences and Actions (2014): 61-76.
Whyte, K., R. Novak, M.B. Laramie, N.G. Bruscato, D.M. David-Chavez, M.J. Dockry, M.K. Johnson, C.E. Jones Jr., and K. Leonard, 2023: Ch. 16. Tribes and Indigenous Peoples. In: Fifth National Climate Assessment. Crimmins, A.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock, Eds. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, D.C., USA.
Long, Jonathan W., et al. “How traditional tribal perspectives influence ecosystem restoration.” Ecopsychology 12.2 (2020): 71-82.