Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes: Applying the Values Taught by Our Ancestors
Climate stressors and impacts
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are made up of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreilles Tribes. Together, their aboriginal territories include over 20 million acres in western Montana, northern Idaho, and southern Canadian provinces. Today the reservation of the CSKT is just 1.3 million acres along the Flathead River in western Montana.
The land currently supports a thriving community that has been recognized as a model of a self-sufficient sovereign nation. However, climate impacts threaten the diverse range of ecosystems on the reservation and throughout their homelands. For Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreilles peoples, these impacts have serious ramifications for their cultural, material, and spiritual well-being. Observed and expected changes that will impact the CSKT include increasing temperatures, lower summer stream flow, earlier and greater spring runoff, shifts in species ranges, increased likelihood of severe wildfires, and increased spread of invasive species.
Drawing on the knowledge of tribal elders
As the CSKT began recognizing the growing threats climate change represents to their traditions and livelihoods, they looked to their peoples’ knowledge and ability to overcome challenges. They drew heavily on the knowledge of tribal elders to ensure that Traditional Knowledges (TKs) would be integrated into their adaptation planning, and that cultural priorities would inform all aspects of their path forward. For example, elders’ observations about changes in plant availability and location are helping the CSKT prepare for future reductions in resource availability. One elder related, “As an Indian people, we get concerned especially for the higher elevation plants that we use for medicines—not only for medicine, but some of the plants that we use for a mountain tea.”
Drawing from both climate data and elders’ observations resulted in a more nuanced and effective understanding of site-specific climate impacts the tribes might experience over time. This approach also placed the information in an appropriate cultural context.
The tribes recognized that taking stock of current and potential climate impacts is an important first step in promoting their continued community health. However, in considering an adaptation strategy, the CSKT didn’t want to restrict their activities to cataloging present and future climate impacts facing the tribes…they also wanted to imagine how they might address these impacts.
Ultimately, the tribes integrated TKs with other research and analysis of community impacts to develop a comprehensive Climate Change Strategic Plan. The final plan they developed addresses climate impacts and vulnerabilities in nine categories of tribal life: forestry, land, fish, wildlife, water, air, infrastructure, people, and culture.
The CSKT’s integrated method for considering impacts recognizes that some of the effects of climate change will be more immediate than others. For instance, the tribes identified fish habitat and species as having low adaptive capacity, which makes them highly vulnerable to climate impacts. Given that the tribes expect fish populations to be impacted by warming streams and changes in seasonal flows within the next decade, this area is a high priority in the plan. The plan acknowledges that restoring and improving the resiliency of fish habitat may improve the resiliency of fish: it includes goals to “improve integration of ecological principles into tribal agricultural leases that negatively affect native trout” and to develop a comprehensive fish habitat restoration plan.
The CSKT plan provides targeted actions for tribal departments to take as they move forward—each action in the plan addresses a specific vulnerability in one of the nine categories. By accounting for existing and future impacts, the CSKT are able to better anticipate the impacts coming their way.
“Our survival is woven together with the land,” says Tribal Chairman Joe Durglo. “Our people have long lived by an idea that we know best how to govern ourselves.”
The plan is a testament to the ability of the CSKT to care for both themselves and their homelands. While climate will certainly continue to impact the health and well-being of the community, their approach to addressing these impacts provides a path for other Tribal Nations.
Adapted from "Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes: Climate Change Strategic Plan" published by the Tribal Climate Change Project at the University of Oregon and the Tribes & Climate Change website published by the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University.
Susan Wotkyns, Program Manager, Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, Northern Arizona University