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Learning to Build Resilience from Tribal Nations

While concerns about Climate Change have grown greatly during the last half century, Tribal Nations have been focused on protecting the planet for generations. One way that Tribal Nations build resilience to current and future threats is through Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).

TEK encompasses the wisdom, practices, and beliefs of Indigenous communities and their relationship with the environment. As the first resilience strategy of this land, TEK is rooted in centuries of observation, adaptation, and experience that serves as a guiding principle for sustainability and resilience.

“Tribal Nations have been doing emergency management work well before the United States was the United States,” said FEMA’s National Tribal Affairs Advocate and citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Kelbie Kennedy. “And they've been utilizing traditional ecological knowledge to tackle climate change and its impact.” 

Tribal Nations are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change, including extreme weather events, loss of biodiversity, and threats to traditional livelihoods. In response, many Tribal Nations draw on TEK to develop and adapt strategies and nature-based solutions to build resilient communities.

“Having knowledge of what you need to do during a blue-sky day will help save lives, and Tribal Nations are very much focused on planning for the next ‘seven generations’,” said Kennedy. 

One example of TEK in action is the management of fire ecosystems. These controlled burns mimic natural processes and help rejuvenate the land, fostering the growth of important plant species, creating habitats for wildlife and to stave off flooding while reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

At its core, TEK recognizes the connections between all living beings and the environments they share. It acknowledges that nature is not just a resource to be exploited but a partnership that must be honored and preserved. This approach to ecology also informs various aspects of Indigenous life, from hunting and gathering practices to land management and conservation efforts.

The recovery process for the Santa Clara Pueblo Tribe following the massive 2011 Las Conchas Fire is a case study that reveals the creativity, perseverance, and a long-term mindset needed to manage and build resilience after a large-scale disaster and the challenges that follow. 

Before and after photographs of the Santa Clara Canyon.

The 90-square-mile pueblo is situated along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico, running west to east down a steep, 26-mile canyon dropping from 11,000 feet to 5,500 feet of elevation. Since time immemorial, the lands encompassing Santa Clara Pueblo have supported a lifestyle that continues to provide resources through farming, grazing, hunting, and fishing. The canyon is at the center of the nation’s ancient history and culture.

The wildfire preceded a series of three monsoon seasons from 2012-14 that loosened soil and removed vegetation that created perfect conditions for erosion and flash flooding in the Pueblo’s watershed. Through a series of partnerships and collaborative work with FEMA and other federal agencies, the Tribal Nation successfully navigated the long recovery process and established a culture of resilience that mitigates hazards and prepares the community for future threats. Read the case study on FEMA.gov to learn more about how TDK and other concepts provided pathways to restore pueblo and the people who live there.  

Traditional Ecological Knowledge has other benefits for those who embrace it. In addition to environmental resilience from nature-based solutions, many Tribal Nations have preserved heirloom seeds and use agricultural techniques passed from generation to generation to produce drought-resistant crops that require less water and chemical inputs and improve food security and protect biodiversity.

TEK also fosters social and cultural resilience within tribal communities by helping to preserve traditional languages, ceremonies and practices that are interconnected to ancestral lands and identities. 

Traditional Ecological Knowledge is a powerful tool for creating resilient environments and communities within Native American tribes and Tribal Nations. By honoring Indigenous wisdom and integrating it with modern science and technology, we can build a more sustainable and equitable future for all. 

“There are traditions that Tribes have used to build climate resilience,” said Kennedy. “The federal government must first support Tribal Nation’s TEK through funding and then work with the Nations to learn from their best practices in a respectful way that does not appropriate their knowledge.”

You can learn more about Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Indigenous Knowledge, and you can also read the first ever Guidance and Implementation Memorandum for federal departments.