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Indigenous Peoples

Case Study: Addressing Climate Change at a Tribal Level

August 12, 2012, 4:37 pm
Content Cover Image


Skill level:  undergraduate, graduate, upper high school.  Class size: modifications can be made according to size and length of class.

This case study presents a macro examination of how and why climate change is a global issue affecting indigenous peoples everywhere, with a micro focus on what that means to Native American Tribes, and how they can respond locally as seen by the efforts of one Washington State tribe, the Swinomish.

It includes: An overview of climate change, tribal implications of climate change; climate change as a universal indigenous peoples’ challenge; bringing the challenge home, with pointing the way to localized responses; and a focus on the Swinomish Tribal Climate Change Initiative. The Swinomish focus includes its framework, efforts of the Swinomish Office of Planning and Community Development, the partnership effort and model employed in the initiative, the Initiative's work products, and concluding questions

Learning Objectives:

Students will:

• Understand why climate change is an issue in general.

• Discuss the role of greenhouse gases in climate change. • Understand how and why climate change is an indigenous peoples’ issue.

• Understand how climate change is a tribal issue and the implications of that reality.

• Discuss how tribes can best come to see the relationship of climate change to indigenous peoples, including Native American tribes.

• Examine the process by which one tribe takes the initiative to assess climate change effects on itself.

• Examine how climate change can particularly affect a tribe's cultural and economic resources.

• Examine how the tribe proceeds to planning for its own adaptation and mitigation steps.

• Strategize how any tribe might best approach climate change adaptation and mitigation planning.


Implementation: This case study lends itself well to small group discussion followed by whole group amplification on the starting points elicited in the small groups. Groups of three to five students can be assigned several questions to discuss with the task of presenting their discussion and conclusions to the larger class. A moderator can track and post salient points from all of the small groups. The whole group can then examine the discussion questions in total for further input and conclusions.

Modifications to this model can be made according to the size of the class. It can also be modified according to the length of the class. It may work well as a two-class undertaking, with the first class devoted to reading the case study and holding the small group discussions, then the whole class taking notes on the small group summaries and being prepared to discuss them all at the next class.


Download full case studyfiles/176801_176900/176816/robinsonaleskocase.pdf

This case study is suitable for college undergraduate and graduate students at any level. It is an especially appropriate resource for classes in the areas of Native American studies, environmental studies, natural resource policy, and public administration. It should also be appropriate for upper level high school classes dealing in general with these subject areas. The discussion questions undertaken here can be modified for high school classes at the teacher's discretion but should be approachable at their level.


Download pdf of teaching notes: files/176801_176900/176817/robinsonaleskoteachingnotes.pdf

Discussion Questions:

1. Why is climate change in general a vital topic for study and action today?

2. Is climate change a global issue? Why or why not?

3. Do you agree that greenhouse gases are the primary cause of climate change? How does this occur?

4. Can greenhouse gasses be effectively offset in the face of global politics and emerging industrializations?

5. Do you think climate change is or is not necessarily a topic of particular relevance to indigenous peoples? Amplify in detail.

6. From what you have read in this case study, do Indigenous peoples seem to be ahead of the curve in proposing actions and commitments to climate change solutions amidst the global political impasses on this issue? Do you think they being heard and heeded? If not, why not?

7. Is climate change a topic particularly relevant to Native American tribes? How and why? Or why not?

8. Does it have particular implications for Northwest Native American tribes? How so?

9. How might climate change effects differ for different Northwest tribes depending on their history, geography, culture, economies and other factors? What might be those other factors?

10. Do you think it is incumbent upon Northwest tribes to make their own climate change assessments and adaptation and mitigation plans?

11. How does a tribe go about identifying its issues of concern and what would or should they be?

12. What are the resources, from human ones to financial, that a tribe needs to address climate change?

13. What are the health implications of climate change for a tribe? What might they be in the areas of water-borne, food-borne and vector borne?

14. Do you think tribes should pursue climate change actions alone or in concert with other tribes?

15. For many Northwest tribes, salmon are a core part of their historical cultural identity, and their sustenance. For others, such as coastal tribes, shellfish are a keystone natural resource. How does climate change threaten these resources?

16. The Swinomish Climate Change initiative has identified over 1,100 acres of Swinomish Reservation lands (or approximately 15% of reservation uplands) potentially at risk of inundation from increasing sea level rise, including the tribe's sole agricultural lands, its primary economic development land and sensitive shoreline areas. How does a tribe address such imposing impacts? How does a tribe communicate to the world how an impact like sea level rise has particular implications for a tribe, given its very finite resources and land areas?

17. Realistically, will climate change assessment and planning make a meaningful difference for a tribe given the global nature of the issue and the political, economic and social implications of the issue globally?

Questions for Discussion Based on Additional Research

1. Go to the University of Washington, Climate Impacts Groups Site:, On the site, access the "about Pacific Northwest Climate" link, then "Climate Issues in Brief" under that link. You will find separate briefings on Pacific Northwest water resources, salmon, forests and coasts, as each relates to climate change. Read and discuss one or more of these briefings relative to how the identified impacts affect your tribe, or a tribe of your choosing. What can your chosen tribe do to adapt and mitigate for these impacts?

2. Go to the National Congress of American Indians site, Access the policy link on the site. Read and discuss the NCAI Policy On Climate Change.

How do you see it relating to the national political, social, and economic arena on climate change issues?

Will it be/is it being heeded by non-tribal audiences?

How realistic is it?

How does it relate to Northwest tribal climate change issues?

On the same site's policy link, go to the link for Tribal Priorities for Senate Climate Legislation.

Do you think these priorities are in line with the mainstream ones of the Senate on this issue?

Are they realistically achievable?

What are the barriers to their adoption and/or implementation?

What opportunities do they present for educating the public and our elected leaders on the unique relationships of tribal history, cultures, economics and lifestyles to climate change issues?

3. Go to the Northern Arizona University, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, Tribes and Climate Change site: Go to the "take action" link on the site. Do at least two of the action items indicated as a group and/or individual exercise. Also, go to the "resources" link on the site, then to "impacts" then to "Pacific Northwest." Link to, read and discuss the article "Northwest Coastal Nations at Risk of Climate Change Disruptions," from News From Indian Country, 1/8/09.

Included in the discussion should be what particular relevancies the article has for your tribe or organization.

Questions for Research Papers

1. Compare and contrast adaptation and mitigation. What do you see as the main elements of each in a tribal climate change plan? Is one more important than the other? Provide examples.

2. For tribes, how does addressing climate change also mean addressing cultural sustainability? What are the critical cultural resources involved? What is the role of traditional knowledge? Can you find examples of this?

3. Find an example of another indigenous group that has addressed climate change. Can other indigenous peoples learn and benefit from the example of proactive climate change and mitigation efforts such as those of the Swinomish?


Belfast Telegraph (2008)_Friday, Oct. 31. Downloaded 6/08/10.

Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit on Climate Change (2009) Downloaded 6/02/10 from:

Mother Earth Journal. (2009) Posted 2/16/09. Downloaded 6/08/10 from:

Swinomish Climate Change Initiative. Downloaded 6/08/10 from:

Swinomish Climate Change Initiative Impact Assessment (2009) Technical Report. Downloaded 6/02/10 from:

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. http:/

UN Climate Change Conference 2009 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2010) Science – Climate change Downloaded 6/02/10 from:

Additional Resources:

An excellent and primary resource for this case study is the web site of the Swinomish IndianTribal Community. It is suggested that students first peruse the web site overall to gain a good sense of who the Swinomish are, where their tribal lands lie, and for more overall context ofthe tribe as part of the fabric of Northwest Native American tribes. Then case studyusers should study in particular the section of the Swinomish web site dedicated to theSwinomish Climate Change Initiative. Under the project information and reports link of thatsection is a pdf-accessible presentation of the full Impact Assessment Technical Report (October2009) which is the major work product now extant (as of June 2010) from the Initiative. TheSwinomish tribal website's Initiative section also features a subsection with numerous externallinks on climate change. One of particular interest and relevance is that of the
Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC.)
The web site of the University of Washington, Climate Impacts Group, one of the Swinomish'spartners in their Initiative, provides another valuable resource. The web site of Sustainable Northwest features a section on climate change with notes and other resources on recentNorthwest tribal climate change conferences. Their site also has policy papers on the climate change issue as it pertains to the Northwest. The Tribes and Climate Change site is part of the Northern Arizona University, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals organization. It features a wealth of information on climate change as it pertains to tribes.The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) site provides policy and other informationon climate change as it pertains to advocacy by Native Americans on the nationallevel. Students also may wish to examine the web sites of the Hoh and Quileute Tribes ofWashington State for study and considerations of the climate change issue which they areinvolved with.

Web Site References:

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community --

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. Swinomish Climate Change Initiative.

Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC)--

Sustainable Northwest --

University of Washington, Climate Impacts Group --

Quileute Tribe --

Hoh Tribe --

Northern Arizona University, Tribal Environmental Professionals, Tribes and Climate Change

Coastal Salish Gathering --

National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) --





(2012). Case Study: Addressing Climate Change at a Tribal Level . Retrieved from


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