Indigenous peoples of the Northern Great Plains are at high risk from a variety of climate change impacts, especially those resulting from hydrological changes, including changes in snowpack, seasonality and timing of precipitation events, and extreme flooding and droughts as well as melting glaciers and reduction in streamflows. These changes are already resulting in harmful impacts to tribal economies, livelihoods, and sacred waters and plants used for ceremonies, medicine, and subsistence. At the same time, many tribes have been very proactive in adaptation and strategic climate change planning.
The rich cultural heritage of the Northern Great Plains began with the region’s Indigenous peoples who are now in 27 federally recognized tribes, 1 state-recognized tribe in Montana, and several unrecognized tribes in addition to the myriad Native Americans spread throughout the towns, cities, and rural areas of the region (Figure 22.7). Because tribes and Indigenous peoples are among those in the region with the highest rates of poverty and unemployment, and because many are still directly reliant on natural resources, they are among the most at risk to climate change.24,25,27,28,29,30,31
Indigenous peoples in the region are observing many climate and seasonality changes to their natural environment and ecosystems, many of which are impacting livelihoods as well as traditional subsistence and wild foods, wildlife, plants and water for ceremonies and medicines, and health and well-being (see Case Study “Crow Nation and the Spread of Invasive Species”).14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,26 Specifically, tribal elders and natural resource managers in the region have observed seasonal changes, such as those in hydrological cycles, phenology, bird migrations, and bear hibernation cycles, as well as reduced availability of traditional plant-based foods and the decline in pine tree species. There is also a mismatch between traditional stories and current climate and seasons.14,19 They are also experiencing significant impacts to subsistence fisheries and riparian ecosystem health, including declines in salmon, trout, frogs, and mussels as a result of reduced streamflow and warmer water temperatures.19,26,119,120 Extreme heat and declines in traditional plants (such as sage, cottonwoods, and cattails) are already impacting summer outdoor ceremonies when participants fast and camp for days.19 In addition, tribes are experiencing increased fire frequency and intensity, and climate projections that show increased fire risks for the region are causing concern for the health of forests, wildlife, freshwater systems and fisheries, and human health.14,19
To the Indigenous peoples of the Northern Great Plains, the Lakota phrase Mni wiconi means “water is life.” Water plays significant cultural, religious, and economic roles across tribal communities that transcend consumptive water use. Because water is so integral, these communities are particularly sensitive to climate change impacts on water in the form of extreme flooding and droughts, changes in snowpack, and changes in the timing of precipitation events. These climate sensitivities, along with substandard water infrastructure and complex institutions and water rights, all combine to create water insecurity.14,18,19,20,23,24,28,120,121,122,123,124 In the Northern Great Plains, just under 29,000 (76%) Indigenous households are in need of new or improved sanitation facilities, and approximately 5,000 households lack safe water supply, sewage facilities, or both.125 The total cost to remediate sanitation facility deficiencies in the region was estimated at around $280 million according to a 2015 annual report from the Indian Health Service.125 Climate change has already begun to exacerbate the problem of disruptions to water supplies from decreased water availability, as happened in 2003 when Standing Rock Reservation ran completely out of water during drought.28
Agriculture, particularly livestock ranching, is a primary tribal livelihood in the region, and warmer temperatures and changes to water cycles (for example, reduced snowpack, earlier transition from snow to rain, and reduced or early runoff) pose a large threat and are already drying soils, reducing forage production, increasing livestock stress, and reducing water availability for irrigation systems throughout the region.20,120 Reservations in the region would require a combined $176 million in maintenance or $491 million to replace neglected and failing Bureau of Indian Affairs irrigation systems (Table 22.4).126 High leakages and inefficiencies in these systems hinder effective management of water and irrigation systems for climate change.20