While the lands, waters, and other natural resources of Indigenous peoples hold sacred cultural significance, they also play a principal role in ensuring the viability of these communities’ economies and livelihoods.5,8 Tribal trust lands provide habitat for more than 525 species listed under the Endangered Species Act, and more than 13,000 miles of rivers and 997,000 lakes are located on federally recognized tribal lands.9 For many tribes, despite this endowment of natural resources, median household income is only 69% of the national average median income.10 Challenges to economic development for federally recognized tribes are in part related to institutional barriers to tribal self-determination stemming from federal trust authority over tribal trust lands.8,11 Due to past federal polices, including the Dawes Act (1887) and Indian Reorganization Act (1934), most reservation lands today constitute a checkerboard pattern of trust and fee-simple (private) land ownership, highly fractionated government trust lands with many owners, and trust lands subject to ongoing federal oversight in resource management decisions.12,13,14,15 These issues are complicated further when multiple or overlapping federal, state, or local government jurisdictions are involved.16
Historical and ongoing federal oversight of natural resource management on tribal lands can, in some cases, hinder growth in tribal and individual natural resource-based business enterprises, because tribes lack the autonomy to determine their own property rights and related institutions.17,18 Similar critiques of historic and contemporary U.S. policy have been identified in studies of Indigenous climate change adaptation.19,20 Non-federally recognized tribes lack legal status to qualify for federal funding and economic development support, though some are eligible for state support.21 Funding limitations are often identified as a barrier to the planning or implementation of climate adaptation or mitigation actions,22 which suggests that increased economic revenues could create opportunities for tribes to choose to pursue climate actions.
Many Indigenous peoples continue to express their cultural relationships with ancestral lands through traditional subsistence economies. Such economies rely on local natural resources for personal use (such as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools, transportation, and arts and crafts) and for trade, barter, or sharing. Climate change threatens these delicately balanced subsistence networks by, for example, changing the patterns of seasonal timing and availability of culturally important species in traditional hunting, gathering, and fishing areas.4,5,7,22,23,24,25,26,27,28,29,30,31,32 Each of the Fourth National Climate Assessment’s regional chapters includes at least one example of climate impacts or adaptation related to Indigenous subsistence species or practices.
Most Indigenous peoples across all regions of the United States pursue a mix of traditional subsistence and commercial sector activities that include agriculture, hunting and gathering, fisheries, forestry, energy, recreation, and tourism enterprises.5,22,33,34,35 Observed and projected changes of increased wildfire, diminished snowpack, pervasive drought, flooding, ocean acidification, and sea level rise (Ch. 2: Climate) threaten the viability of each of these enterprises.22,29,33,36,37,38,39,40,41,42,43,44,45,46,47,48,49,50,51,52 Tribal casino properties, for example, often include water-dependent recreational amenities that, due to pervasive drought, are impacted by changes to local water regimes,53 and some tribes account for this in their adaptation plans, such as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes54 and the Lummi Nation.55 In addition, Indigenous agriculture is already being adversely affected by changing patterns of flooding, drought, dust storms, and rising temperatures, with future projections varying by region but indicating increased soil erosion and irrigation water demand and decreased crop quality and animal herd sizes (Ch. 25: Southwest, KM 4 and 6).22,41,52,56,57,58 Some tribes include consideration of subsistence and commercial economic resources in their adaptation plans. For example, the 1854 Treaty Authority Adaptation Plan,59 which includes the Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, and Grand Portage Tribes, provides detailed adaptation strategies customized to protect and sustain walleye, sturgeon, moose, and wild rice, among others (Ch. 21: Midwest). Similarly, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation60 have identified climate risks to salmon, elk, deer, roots, and huckleberry habitat (Ch. 24: Northwest, KM 2).
Federal and state legal frameworks and regulatory actions can compound physical climate change stressors on Indigenous peoples’ subsistence economies and act as a barrier to climate change adaptation. For example, federal and state fish and wildlife regulations, such as endangered species listings, are meant to respond to species population declines that can be exacerbated by climate change (Ch. 7: Ecosystems), but they can further stress Indigenous subsistence economies that have traditionally relied on those species.61,62,63 Such regulatory actions taken without the input of Indigenous peoples can limit traditional sources of income, such as arts and crafts that are part of Indigenous economies. For example, some Alaska Natives utilize skins, furs, and walrus tusks to support local subsistence economies and to produce clothing and crafts that support local tourism.64,65
Another recognized barrier to economic self-determination and climate adaptation for federally recognized tribes with resource constraints is the costly and lengthy process to quantify, secure, and use appropriated water rights.7,41,53,66,67,68 This is particularly the case in the arid western United States, where the majority of reservation land acreage is located and where prior appropriation doctrine is the primary mechanism for allocating scarce water resources.66 As water becomes more scarce and regional demands increase, the quantification of water rights is viewed by many as necessary to design and plan adaptation strategies that secure water for various uses: cultural, municipal, recreational, agricultural, fisheries, and aquatic resources, among others.4,19,58,66,67,69,70,71 To date, approximately 30 reservations have engaged in water rights settlements,72 and while research shows that water rights quantification can positively affect tribal economies, additional analysis is necessary to better understand these effects.66
Infrastructure and linked systems that support Indigenous economies and livelihoods are at risk from more frequent or intense heavy downpours, floods, heat waves, wildfires, and droughts, as well as higher sea levels and storm surges.19,49,73 As shown in Figure 15.2, Indigenous peoples are vulnerable to infrastructure disruptions that can occur at the level of an individual household (for example, housing and sanitary water supply); within larger regional, integrated systems (such as for power, transportation, and telecommunication) (Ch. 17: Complex Systems); or within human systems that rely on such infrastructure to provide other essential services (such as emergency medical response). This vulnerability is partly due to long-standing, unmet infrastructure needs and deferred maintenance challenges.74 For example, many Indigenous communities lack sufficient water delivery and treatment facilities and the operating capital needed to maintain and/or improve those facilities.41,75,76