U.S. Indigenous Communities Building Capacity to Confront Climate Change

Posted Dec. 13, 2017

MP3 Interview with April Taylor, sustainability scientist with the Chickasaw Nation, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


"Climate Change and Health" was the theme of this year’s annual American Public Health Association conference, held in Atlanta last month from Nov. 4-8. The keynote speaker was an indigenous woman from northern Alberta, Canada who is helping to lead the fight against tar sands extraction. Several of the panel discussions dealt with indigenous community concerns regarding the changing climate and actions they are taking to confront these changes.

For centuries, Native Americans have relied on natural resources to sustain their families, communities, traditional ways of life, and cultural identities. This relationship with both land and water makes indigenous people and cultures particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus attended the American Public Health Association conference and spoke with April Taylor, a sustainability scientist with the Chickasaw nation, who works at the South Central Climate Science Center in Norman, Oklahoma. In the following interview, Taylor describes her job assisting 68 tribes across New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana manage and plan for the many environmental impacts of climate change, including issues such as tribal water rights, sea level rise, flooding, droughts and wildfires.

APRIL TAYLOR: The way I explain my job is I do three things. One, I’m a matchmaker. So I'm out engaged with tribal staff of various types and matchmake them with climate scientists and researchers to work together on projects and go after funding to plan for the impacts they’re seeing in their communities already for climate change and what they might see in the future.

The second aspect is we do trainings. We build tribal capacity. We’ve done 32 trainings in the past 4-1/2 years, and they’re on all sorts of things, including grant writing, data and tools and how to find the right information to develop new plans for their communities.

And then the third aspect we do is youth outreach, so promoting native students in STEM fields, creating our next generation of tribal staff, so we can do these things ourselves. So I’m out at festivals and after-school programs, camps and things like that. I’ve also had 24 native students – undergraduates and grad students – who have worked for me in the past four years, so I mentor them on projects as well. So, lots of different things.

BETWEEN THE LINES: That sounds really important and interesting. You mentioned four states that you cover. I know some of them have had huge climate impacts, including what’s being described as the first climate refugees – a small tribe in Louisiana.

APRIL TAYLOR: I just wrote a piece for the National Climate Assessment on the Louisiana tribes. We’ve done quite a bit of trainings and networking down in Louisiana. It’s really interesting to see them; they’re doing this relocation in their own way; they’re moving their entire community. It’s really cool to see that, that they want to do that; it’s sort of bringing them closer together in that way. So it’s a lot of those communities, they’ve lived on the coast for a very long time; they were forced out to those areas.

BETWEEN THE LINES: This is Ile de St. Jean Charles, right?

APRIL TAYLOR: Right, St. Charles, yeah, but there are other communities out there as well. There’s Pointe XXX, which is hosting a Cultures Under Water conference in Phoenix in a few weeks, which is the first conference on the tribes that are being impacted by sea level rise and flooding, and so that’s really cool to see them take the lead on that and get funding for that. Chitimacha is out there as well. Chitimacha is really leading the way in the scientific aspect, of mapping out sea level rise and making their plans, so they’re really interesting to work with. Houma tribe is out there as well, Houma Nation, and they’re very active and aware of climate change. And we have the kishata tribe, they’re going to be impacted as well, even though they’re very far up the mainland right now, but they’re already seeing a lot of the flooding. They’re seeing plants that are migrating north, and so plants they’ve never seen that are salt water are already showing up in their communities, so it’s really interesting that they’re already seeing those things.

I work with more of the scientist or planner type of people. It’s not uncommon that we get, especially in those communities that are being impacted now, that you get leadership involved. Our last training was in May, and it’s really interesting who all – I mean you get community members, you get native church members who come in for these training because they’re interested. They want to know what’s happening and what are they dealing with.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is it mostly sea level rise and flooding? Are there other issues related to climate change that you’re seeing in the tribes you work with?

APRIL TAYLOR: Yeah. So, drought. Several of the tribes are doing drought planning. Wind River just finished theirs. Chickasaw Nation is waiting for the final approval to finish ours. And they’re really leading the way, and taking the leads before the states and before what’s required. They’re not required to do drought planning, but they’re doing these things. Wildfires is another huge one. So water resources and tribal water rights is a big one. So we’re not seeing the stream flows or the snow melt (of past years). These communities are seeing these changes. We’re seeing changes in species and cultural significant species and how they’re changing already. And so some of these species that they rely on. There’s an indigenous phenology network, and phenology is basically the timing of the seasons and when things change, and so they’re seeing some of those changes happening months earlier, so they’re trying to figure out what that means for their culture, for their communities; do we change the ceremony? And things like that. For my tribe we have a butterfly restoration as well. So there are seven tribes doing butterfly restoration, trying to help the species adapt and have habitat for pollination.

Learn more about how indigenous communities are building capacity to confront climate change issues by visiting South Central Climate Science Center at the University of Oklahoma at southcentralclimate.org and April Taylor's staff page at the Central Climate Science Center southcentralclimate.org/index.php/pages/person/taylor_april.

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