Two weeks ago at the 2013 White House Tribal Leaders Conference, tribal leaders stood side-by-side with President Obama and 13 of his cabinet leaders, and raised climate change as a top priority of Native Nations. Tribes are on the front lines of climate change reality. From the 180 Alaskan villages facing relocation from the places they have lived for thousands of years, to the graveyards uncovered by rising seas around Hawaii, to the droughts in the southwest, and to the storms sweeping across the Great Plains, we are all facing one fact: we are being threatened to our very core by climate disruption. Tribal nations and the Obama Administration need to elevate our partnership to unprecedented levels – through a tribal-federal task force – to address these unprecedented threats.
Let us be clear: The Obama Administration has done more for our Tribes than any other administration in United States history. No other Administration has held annual meetings with tribal leaders or established a White House Native Nations Council. We are grateful the Obama Administration created a Climate Change Action Plan and established a State, Local and Tribal Task Force on Climate Resilience. But we need something even bolder, something that enables tribes a fair opportunity to tackle climate disruption, something to meet this grave threat on its terms, something that will also keep with the trust responsibility.
Climate disruption is a fast-moving reality striking at the very being of our indigenous communities, cultures and ways of life. We are place-based people. This means when our homes, environment, resources and quality of life are destroyed, we cannot leave our reservations and communities that we were placed on by the federal government. The fabric that keeps our peoples and cultures together is being torn asunder by a human-caused phenomenon we did not cause or choose.
Compared to States, we are even further behind the eight ball in our ability to respond, due to a lack in the fulfillment of funding and program development for our governments under our treaties and the trust responsibility of United States federal government.
What does unfilled responsibility to the Tribes mean? In the past and presently, we do not have access to dozens of federal energy, environmental, and natural resource programs that are available to States, such as the Coastal Zone Management Act. In most years, when the Department of Interior’s ("DOI") annual budget rises or falls, the Bureau of Indian Affair’s (BIA) budget, compared to other DOI agencies, rises the least and falls the farthest. In 2011, when DOI asked Congress for $136 million for its Climate Change Adaptation Initiative, BIA was to receive nothing. When DOI asked Congress for $175 million the next year, it asked that BIA receive a mere $200,000 – to be used for 566 tribes across the nation.
Today, while 32 of the 50 States have climate action plans, the vast majority of the 566 federally recognized tribes do not. Without a plan, how good can a response be?
Alaska Native Villages are the starkest example. Ten years ago, the General Accounting Office ("GAO") stated that 86 percent of Alaska Native Villages are threatened by flooding and sea level rise due to climate change. Four years ago GAO still found that no federal agency leader, interagency plan, or adequate resources exist to address these threats. Today little has changed. Half of the homes in the village of Galena remain uninhabitable due to this summer’s flood. This month, as reported by ICT, the Yup’ik villages of Kotlik, Unalakleet, and other predominantly Native communities along Alaska’s west coast were ravaged by a series of four storms with near hurricane force winds, strong sea surges, freezing rain, and snow.
These crises and inequities almost speak for themselves, except for this point: they persist. Far too often, federal agencies view tribal challenges as so systemic and different that they would rather look away, cover-up, or apply band-aids. Now with the Obama Administration, this is an opportune time to forge a new dynamic implementation plan. First, we need a new kind of partnership with federal agencies and it starts with a lead federal agency willing and able to organize the effort around climate refugees in Indian Country and Alaska Native Villages. A foundation for solutions can be found in the White House Council on Native American Affairs, the Climate Action Plan, and the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.
This is a great foundation, but more is needed.
We feel strongly that the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force is a reflection of drastic decades of lack of knowledge and disconnection in the federal trust relationship. It is unlikely this task force of eight (8) Governors, sixteen (16) Mayors, and only two tribal representatives, will recommend tribal government access to dozens of federal programs available only to state and local governments, or place a high priority on tribal ecological knowledge, subsistence practices, and indigenous interpretations of sustainability.
Tribes know from repeated experiences the need for a specific federal tribal task force to deal with tribes' unique and immense climate challenges. We want to be true partners with the federal government to make lasting repairs of past dysfunctions.
We feel an intertribal interagency task force on climate resilience and preparedness must be established to address the United States' treaty and trust responsibilities to place-based nations. We believe the Obama Administration is willing and able to put treaty and trust responsibility into action on the climate crisis. We seek a courageous and unprecedented partnership to address civilization’s greatest challenge – climate disruption.
Now is the time!
On behalf of Idaho Tribe, Nez Perce Councilman and Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Natural Resource Committee Chairman, Brooklyn Baptist and Alaska Tribe, Akiak Native Community Councilman Mike Williams.