Indigenous Adaptation in the Face of Climate Change

This article discusses important social considerations for developing adaptation plans, including human rights, environmental justice, sovereignty, and traditional ecological knowledge - with a focus on indigenous adaptation planning. It is suggested that tribal and non-tribal communities alike can benefit from incorporating these conscious considerations into planning efforts. The article also explores trends among the adaptation plans of four indigenous tribes in order to identify commonalities in strengthening climate resilience - including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Nez Perce Tribe and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

The paper outlines the following priorities of indigenous communities in planning for and responding to climate change, that can support successful adaptation: 

  • Human rights: International human rights frameworks, specifically the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, can offer baseline, internationally agreed upon references for what should be considered the basic human rights of indigenous peoples. These norms can help frame a community’s adaptation plan to invoke the protection of human rights.
  • Environmental Justice: Indigenous communities tend to also be environmental justice communities disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and climate change. Considering environmental justice issues within planning efforts can ensure that adaptation actions further climate justice.
  • Tribal Sovereignty: In accordance with tribal self-determination and sovereignty, indigenous communities should be the decision-makers in adaptation planning applied to their own communities. Additionally, adaptation policies should include broad, community participation within the affected community.
  • Connection to Land: Many indigenous communities have a strong social, cultural, and spiritual connection to the land and the environment; therefore, adaptation planning should be sensitive to the intimate connections with the land and how adaptation policies may affect this.
  • Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK): Long-evolved knowledge, practices, and beliefs for living within and as a part of a particular location can offer flexible guidance for adapting to environmental changes and are considered valuable additions to adaptation plans.

To identify common trends, the adaptation plans of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Nez Perce Tribe and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community are explored. The article discusses how each plan either explicitly or implicity addresses the social considerations described above. Some common trends among the adaptation plans are identified including the incorporation of TEK, the importance of cultural preservation and of community participation, and the need for community/local decision-making along with coordination with federal/state governments in adaptation planning. The article suggests that other tribes and non-tribal communities can learn from these trends and consider similar factors in their own adaptation planning efforts.


Publication Date: 2015

Author or Affiliated User:

  • Elizabeth Ann Kronk Warner

Related Organizations:

  • Tribal Law and Government Center, University of Kansas School of Law


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Academic research paper
  • Best practice

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