Climate Change

Facing Climate Change, Indian Country’s Hands are Tied

December 6, 2019  • David K. Gibson

When we talk about areas impacted by climate change, the discussion often focuses on distant places, often island communities in oceans that seem a world away. Sea level rise is so easy to picture, and the metaphor of a slowly drowning planet is so easy to grasp. But far away from the Solomon Islands and the Maldives, and from cities like Venice and Miami, communities are already suffering — and some of the hardest hit are in Indian Country.


As California burns, so do Native communities; high temperatures and drought do not stop at the borders of Indian Reservations. But while the rest of the state can plan ahead to mitigate disaster, that’s not the case in the public lands of Indian Country. Because of this designation, Native people aren’t allowed to follow their traditional methods of fire mitigation — practices developed over centuries — and instead must rely on federal and state agencies to schedule prescribed burns. The results can be catastrophic, and are particularly wounding in light of the loss of tribal sovereignty.


When the Midwest floods, it’s the poor and disenfranchised that are impacted most, and that often includes Native Peoples. During a series of disastrous floods in 2019, South Dakota’s Pine Ridge was hit especially hard. That community, already dealing with widespread poverty, suffered extensive destruction of housing and environment, and several deaths. Yet federal recovery assistance was both inadequate and late in arriving — and many see this as a well-established pattern of neglect.

Rising Temperatures

As temperatures rise, the foundation of many Native communities crumble — literally. Several Alaskan villages have had to relocate as the permafrost underneath their homes thaws and rivers begin to erode the land away. As temperatures rise, 86 percent of Alaska native villages will become vulnerable to flooding and erosion, and 31 entire communities will likely need to be moved.

While the situation is dire, there are many Native Youth dedicated to helping their communities regain some control of their lands. They cannot stop climate change alone, but they can help empower their tribes to mitigate disasters and recover more quickly from its effects.

These climate-related issues, as well as other challenges faced by Native communities, are detailed in the 2019 State of Native Youth Report by the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute.