2017 is the Year of Climate Change and Health, a 12-month APHA-led initiative with monthly themes related to the health impacts of climate change. In recognition of National Native American Heritage Month, November’s focus is on Tribal and Indigenous Health. Today’s guest blog comes from the Tribal Public and Environmental Health Think Tank, a work group convened by APHA with the support of the Centers for Disease Control to increase awareness of the unique public and environmental health challenges faced by American Indian/Alaska Native communities.
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Climate and Health is one of the Tribal Public and Environmental Health Think Tank’s six tribal health priority issues, along with Food Sovereignty and Access, Infrastructure and Systems Development, Resource Extraction, Clean Air and Clean Water.

The Think Tank’s forthcoming report, “Tribal Health Priorities,” covers all six and provides some of the historical, political, social and cultural contexts key to understanding the issues tribal communities face, including the effects of climate change.

Climate change significantly impacts tribal air, water and food. It has resulted in rising coastal water levels; more frequent forest and grass fires; increased pests and vector-borne disease; extreme weather conditions; decreased food availability; lower inland water and underground aquifer levels and non-native plant encroachment.

As a result of geographic vulnerabilities and extreme environmental changes, some American Indian/Alaska Native communities have been displaced and traditional food practices, medicines and ceremonies are threatened.

Disruption of traditional practices
Weather pattern changes and warming waters can impact the health of local animals and plants if they are unable to migrate or adapt well to changing ecosystems. By threatening the health of local plants and animals, climate change disrupts the ability of Native populations to access traditional food sources and medicines and perform traditional ceremonies.

American Indian/Alaska Native hunting and fishing rights are limited by treaty right boundaries, which historically have been subject to encroachment and litigation. This limits access to culturally important species that have migrated to other geographic areas and native plants that are unable to survive in the changing environment. Treaty rights give Native populations legal protections over these specific geographic areas, so merely reestablishing communities elsewhere is not an option.

Water concerns
Furthermore, many tribal reservations are located in rural areas that are highly dependent on surface water — such as reservoirs, lakes and streams. Surface water is particularly susceptible to non-point source pollution that enters waterways during heavy precipitation and storms. As climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather, this becomes more and more of a concern.

The impacts of natural resource extraction also cause not only local, but also global problems as they contribute to water contamination and greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, climate change is predicted to decrease snowpack that would affect surface water availability.

Knowledge from the source
To combat the effects of climate change, many tribal communities are looking to their own cultural knowledge and practices. Many American Indian/Alaska Native communities have relied on traditional subsistence lifestyles and cultural practices based on direct contact with the environment for thousands of years. These communities have invaluable knowledge regarding the connection between human interaction with the environment and its resulting impacts on human health and well-being.

This Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which is constantly evolving and passed down through generations, gives tribal communities a holistic understanding of the impacts of climate change and a unique approach to interpreting climate research. As an essential resource, TEK is critical to anticipating climate change impacts and designing adaptation responses in tribal communities. This knowledge can be used in identifying food substitutions, adjusting hunting and fishing cycles and practices and more.

Working in partnership
It is important to build understanding of tribal public and environmental health issues and increase support for initiatives addressing the concerns tribal communities face. Despite the large number (567) of federally recognized tribes in the US today, there remains little national recognition of the environmental injustices and lack of health equity that impact Indian Country.

On the federal level, in July 2014, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued its Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples for all Agency Programs. Principle 6 of this policy states: “The EPA encourages, as appropriate and to the extent practicable and permitted by law, the integration of Traditional Ecological Knowledge into the Agency’s environmental science, policy and decision-making processes, to understand and address environmental justice concerns and facilitate program implementation.”

With such efforts, American Indian/Alaska Native communities can have a healthier future, while preserving their cultural traditions and practices. As champions of the Tribal Public and Environmental Health Think Tank, APHA works to connect partners and advance the issues. Look for the upcoming “Tribal Health Priorities” report on the Think Tank’s webpage.