||National Adaptation Forum 2013:
A Dynamic Tribal Presence
In recent years tribes have recognized the urgent nature of addressing climate change and have organized numerous tribal
conventions and symposia to gather and share knowledge on the impact of climatic shifts on Native communities.
Despite these vigorous efforts among Native American scientists and others, tribes have not always been so well represented
at large-scale nontribal conferences. That was certainly not the case in early April, 2013, when more than 30 tribal
representatives gathered at the inaugural National Adaptation Forum in Denver alongside nearly 500 nontribal city and town
managers, water managers, government representatives and non-tribal organization staff and others to grapple with ideas on
how to adapt to climate impacts on a variety of fronts.
ITEP Climate Change Program Manager, Sue Wotkyns, conference organizer Lara Hansen, and others helped provide support for
many of the tribal participants who attended the conference. The strong tribal showing and the perspectives that tribal
environmental representatives added to the mix made a significant impact on nontribal attendees throughout the three-day
The NAF, organized by Lara Hansen and her group, Eco-Adapt, was created to explore climate adaptation, a topic that has
received somewhat less attention than that of mitigation (reducing rates of carbon and other greenhouse-gas compounds that
enter the atmosphere). Adaptation advocates have in recent years pressed their view more vigorously, insisting that although
mitigation is crucial, climate change is already impacting communities and ecosystems and must be addressed now— even as
sluggish governmental action continues as a result of hardheaded political and ideological barriers.
The conference featured an almost
dizzying array of sessions dealing with water and infrastructure, urban planning, developing a community adaptation plan
(there are literally dozens to choose from), coordinating services within a community, anticipating the climate-related
weaknesses of a community system, and many others. Films on the topic were screened and attendees had many opportunities
to network with others and develop action plans for their specific situations.
Numerous NAF participants expressed that they knew little about the emerging science/discipline of adaptation; a strong
sense of enthusiasm for understanding adaptation strategies pervaded the event. Nearly as often, overheard comments related
to the tribal presence and the unique perspectives that tribal members brought to the gathering.
Many tribal communities have been addressing adaptation for some time. Native people are among the groups most impacted by
climate stresses, for a variety of reasons. Tied inextricably to the land in terms of both sustenance and spiritual/cultural
links, tribes are often also located in rural areas where infrastructural "cushions" such as piped-in water sources and
easily accessible food are lacking. Subsistence and strong cultural ties to tribal ecosystems make the issue of adaptation
crucial to the continuing vigor of Native communities.
Tribes in the northern-tier
states, and particularly in Alaska, now suffer the most obvious impacts of atmospheric warming—a fact that surprised many
nontribal participants. But tribes (and nontribal communities) across the U.S. have felt the impacts of rampant carbon
combustion in the form of droughts, more frequent and more intense storms, loss of traditional food sources, incursion
of exotic species, and other problems.
Along with their participation in general forum sessions, tribal members attended tribal-specific breakouts designed to deal
with climate issues and their impacts on Native communities. The tribal sessions were notable for going beyond simply sharing
information; several of those gatherings emphasized problem-solving, and a number of action items were developed by tribal
participants. National Wildlife Foundation staff member Garrit Voggesser, who often works with tribes and helped organize
tribal participation as well as presenting at the conference, followed up with coordinating emails to tribal participants
to help carry the process of adaptation planning forward.
Integrating the efforts of tribal and nontribal scientists, technicians and ways of thinking offers the promise of
improving strategies and stimulating broader perspectives on the issue. That exchange clearly goes both ways—during the
conference numerous participants, many of whom had rarely interacted with tribal people in the past, repeatedly made
comments such as, "There was a tribal person in my breakout session, and from her we got a completely new perspective on
Opening communication lines on climate change is a process that can’t help but benefit all communities. The organizers hope
to see even more tribal reps at the next NAF, which is tentatively scheduled for 2015.
National Adaptation Forum: www.nationaladaptationforum.org/
Photos provided by Dennis Wall, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals.
This profile was developed by Dennis Wall, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, Northern Arizona University. It
was first published as an article in ITEP’s Native Voices newsletter, Volume XX, No. 1, Spring 2013.
The profile is available on the Tribes & Climate Change website: www4.nau.edu/tribalclimatechange/.
The tribal climate change profiles featured on the website are intended as a pathway to increasing knowledge among tribal
and non-tribal organizations about climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.
For more information about the tribal profiles and the website, contact: Sue Wotkyns, Climate Change Program Manager,
Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, Susan.Wotkyns@nau.edu