Native communities in the U.S. are often considered climate change frontline communities, suffering from the effects of the changing climate due to the unique nature of territories designated as reservations, said Maureen McCarthy, the project director for the Native Waters on Arid Lands program sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“They tended to be what we would call marginal lands, in that they had limited access to water,”  she said in an interview with The Daily Yonder. 

“Soil health wasn’t great. They were in many cases displaced from their traditional hunting or farming ranching areas. So the lands themselves tend to be, you know, what many people consider less desirable. They’re also confined geographically.”

In response to these challenges, the USDA has announced a multi-year project grant to McCarthy and her team and others to examine how best to strengthen climate resilience among tribal communities and agriculture. 

The USDA announced in mid-January that The Desert Research Institute Native Climate project team will strengthen the role of the agency’s Climate Hubs in Indian Country. It will do this by enhancing Native agroecosystem resilience through the expansion of climate services and outreach in the Southwest and Northern Plains Climate Hub regions. Agroecosystems are generally ecosystems that have a relationship with the surrounding soils, plants, and humans, among other elements, in a given space. 

USDA Climate Hubs are located in 10 locations across the country and connect USDA research and program agencies to agricultural producers and professionals. The Northern Plains Climate Hub includes Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota, while the Southwest Climate Hub encompasses Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and the U.S. Pacific Islands.

Before reservations were created, Native communities would migrate based on swings in climate and adapt that way, McCarthy said. Another important thing to note is that some communities lack major infrastructure like dams and canals and water handling systems, which tend not to exist on reservation communities, she added. 

“It’s different from tribe to tribe and area to area, but you have levels of stress that have pushed these communities beyond what we would consider beyond the breaking point, but they haven’t broken,” she said. “They’re very resilient. But they’re dealing with challenges that just aren’t within the realm, even of a lot of what they have experienced over thousands of years of knowledge. So it’s really stressful and it’s not just the environmental change, right? It’s the cultural aspects.”

The grant is aimed to create two-way partnerships and communications in which “Western science” is provided through what is called climate services to the tribes to help them in their planning for water, agriculture, natural resource management, air quality, all the things that are being affected by climate. 

But then traditional practices of climate adaptation, climate resilience and other practices will also be communicated to the “Western science” world, she added. 

One important aspect of the project is climate data sovereignty, said Kyle Bocinsky, another member of the team who is on faculty at The Desert Research Institute as well as at the University of Montana. That means that when and where climate data is shared, it’s done in a culturally relevant way that both attributes that knowledge to the community from which it came and works to benefit that community. 

For example, right now Bocinsky is part of a project through the Montana Climate Office in which they are working to establish 205 weather stations across eastern Montana, including many on tribal lands. 

“It’s essential that there be a plan in place for making sure that the data that comes from those stations that comes from tribal land, is returned to tribal members, and is used to generate products, knowledge, information, dashboards, you name it,” in order to benefit the tribal communities, he told The Daily Yonder. 

One aspect this project will focus on is community members sharing those stories. To that end, in addition to Native American collaborators on the project, the funding will also allow for Native climate fellows as well as Native climate reporters. The reporters will be reporting on climate impacts in their communities through different communication channels. 

“One of the things that we think is really important is that students find ways that communicate the best way they can about these issues,” McCarthy said. “So these stories are not only going out, but they’re going to their communities.” 

McCarthy noted that the project is less research-based and more relationship-building with tribal communities.

“We have developed over the years good working relationships with many tribes, with many tribal colleges,” she said. 

“But now we’re bringing to the table some unique resources, such as the USDA Climate Hubs, who are dedicated to making climate information effective for improving agriculture, and they haven’t had a lot of work directly with tribal communities. And that’s what this project is really aimed to do.”

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