Indigenous people have long planned for the seasons. Whether
storing food for winter, burning strategically to clear debris and
ensure continued habitat for both wildlife and humans, or migrating
between winter and summer camps, Native people think — and plan — ahead.
In contemporary days, though, tribal governments and
communities are also thinking about, and planning for, events that may
never happen, but which have the potential to greatly disrupt their
lands and peoples. They’re preparing for natural disasters, prolonged
drought, and other possible consequences of climate change using both
traditional methods and 21st-century technology.
In the forests, deep river canyons, and rugged mountains of Northwestern California, the Karuk Tribe
has stewarded its 1.48 million-acre ancestral land in the Klamath River
Basin for millennia. Their way of life, including cultural burning,
watershed protection, and plant husbandry, was disrupted when California
became a state in 1848. But in recent years, the Karuk and other tribes
in the area have recommenced their traditional roles as cultural
stewards — and that includes prescribed burning, which among other
environmental benefits mitigates the magnitude and destructiveness of
wildfires that threaten this fire-adapted land.
“The tribe and local watershed groups have been working for decades
on stream and water quality,” says Bill Tripp of the Karuk Tribe
Department of Natural Resources. “Six Rivers National Forest, the tribe,
and watershed councils sat down and determined we’re going to work
together.” That commitment to ensuring a healthy ecosystem resulted in
the creation of the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP).
Joined by local community Fire Safe Councils, the partnership is
returning the land to the healthy, biodiverse ecosystem that once
provided abundant food and habitat for animals, plants, and humans.
Culturally significant plants such as huckleberry, oak, and hazel are
carefully nurtured. Watersheds are being cleaned up.
The partnership is working to burn more land to save it from the
deadly wildfires that have wreaked havoc in California over the past
decade. So far, the partnership has treated more than 5,500 acres around
neighborhoods. “Our big plan is to use traditional ecological knowledge
(TEK) to build ecological resilience,” says Tripp.
In addition, WKRP is part of prescribed fire training exchanges, or
TREX, an interdisciplinary model that incorporates tribal, public, and
private entities. It also furnishes burning models that help build
capacity that fits a community or region, whether for preventive burning
or fighting wildfires. In Karuk’s case, incorporating TEK into the TREX
model ensures that tribal practices are part of the program.
The partnership also makes use of technology, collecting data on
iPads with special software. “One of the first things we invested in was
our data processing capabilities, and one of our hires was a GIS
specialist and data steward,” says Tripp. “And we started using drones
during TREX exercises.”
The tribe publishes its climate adaptation plan at karuktribeclimatechangeprojects.com, a site that includes information on how Karuk is preparing not only for wildfires but also floods and landslides.
The Karuk Tribe is far from the only California community preparing
for disasters — Southern California tribes are getting ready not only
for wildfires but also long-term water crises. In the Pauma Valley in
northern San Diego County, periodic water shortages are a way of life
for the five tribes that call this semi-arid valley home. But tribes
here are now preparing for a different scenario: drought.
The San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians is a
community of about 2,400 Kumeyaay citizens, most of whom live on the
reservation. The tribe’s land base is discontinuous, which creates a
challenge for infrastructure. But managing water shortages brought on by
California’s historic seven-year drought was even more of a challenge.
“Water is life, but it’s in short supply and high demand,” says John
Flores, a public works manager with the tribe. “Even if we had it to
waste, I don’t want to waste it.”
As the region grows hotter and drier, saving water is more important
than ever, and the San Pasqual tribe has developed a series of
water-conserving measures, like charging residents for water. Leaks also
take a toll on both checkbooks and available supply in this community,
which, as Flores says, is always fearful of running dry. The tribal
water system now offers an app so customers can monitor water use — if
they notice unusually high usage, the problem can be fixed fast. The
tribal water department also encourages reservation residents to avoid
using bleach and hard detergents, which impair the biological functions
of septic tanks and eventually affect the aquifers.
What’s more, the tribe has also moved toward reusing existing water —
gray water — from the tribe’s Valley View Casino as well as from homes.
San Pasqual supplies its fire department with the reclaimed water via
distinctive purple hydrants.
Solar power isn’t usually thought of as a disaster preparedness tool,
but one Lakota business owner in South Dakota is building not only
preparedness systems but also resilience and economic opportunity in his
community. Lakota Solar Enterprises was founded by
Henry Red Cloud in 2006 to help his community, the Oglala Lakota Nation,
return to ancestral self-reliance. “I came home and realized I missed
my culture, my language, dances, and ceremony,” says Red Cloud. But, he
adds, “I couldn’t get a house or work.” So Red Cloud started his own
company, Lakota Solar.
The firm installs solar power systems and constructs solar-powered
home heating units that can save a family up to 25 percent on their
power bill — a boon during the harsh South Dakota winters. The company
also trains tribal members to become solar power installers, building
capacity throughout the Northern Plains. And Red Cloud created a
training facility that teaches tribal members how to build, install, and
maintain off-the-grid power systems, solar-powered water pumps and
filtration systems, and other sustainable utility services. “We’re
getting our students excited about creating their own businesses,” says
But it’s the mobile solar power units that make Lakota Solar
Enterprises stand out as a disaster preparedness tool that any family
can manage. The 5kW units can easily be transported to wherever power is
needed. “We loan the mobile plants out to various organizations,” he
says. Red Cloud’s firm is building more power plants that can be
deployed to keep the lights on during power outages and other
Whether it’s being ready for short-term emergencies or long-term
climatic changes, tribes and tribal entrepreneurs are leading the way in
preparing their communities, their lands, and themselves for whatever
may come their way.