USGCRP logo & link to home

Updated 12 October, 2003

US National Assessment of
the Potential Consequences
of Climate Variability and Change
Educational Resources
Regional Paper: Native Peoples and Native Homelands


Back to Table of Contents




About this Paper

























[next section]


In this section...

The Earth and Nature are inseparable from Indians themselves. Land sustains the lifestyle of countless tribes, even when little acreage is in production or has little productivity. Land sustains far more than subsistence, and indeed many Indians recognized decades ago the folly in attempting to sustain their daily needs on acreage that is marginal, both in resources and in per capita size. But land has emotional meaning, a psychological significance for the Indian that is far more intense than our nostalgic longing for the family farm and a rural way of life.

James Rattling Leaf, Sicangu Lakota

Native peoples, including American Indians and the native peoples of Alaska, Hawaii, and the Pacific and Caribbean Islands, currently comprise almost 1% of the US population. Formal tribes include approximately two million individuals, more than half of whom live on or adjacent to hundreds of reservations throughout the country, while the rest live in cities, suburbs, and small rural communities outside the boundaries of reservations. The federal government recognizes the unique status of more than 565 tribal and Alaska Native governments as “domestic dependent nations. -- The relationship between each tribe and the US federal government is unique and is determined by treaty, executive order, tribal legislation, acts of Congress, and/or decisions of the federal courts. These actions cover a range of issues that will be important in adapting to climate change, from responsibilities and governance to use and maintenance of land and water resources.

Tribal lands in the 48 mainland states currently total about 56 million acres, or about 3% of the land. If put together, this area would be approximately the size of the state of Minnesota. Also, Alaska Native corporations hold approximately 44 million acres of land. Despite the relatively large total land holdings, most individual reservations are small, supporting communities with populations of less than 2,000. Larger reservation populations, while unusual, do reach as high as 200,000 as on the Navajo Reservation.

The federal government has recognized that tribes and tribal governments also have legal rights in territories that lie beyond the boundaries of their reservations. Treaties in the Pacific Northwest and the north-central states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan recognize rights of tribes to fish, hunt, and gather off-reservation. Further, federal laws have recognized tribal interests in historical and cultural areas beyond reservation boundaries. These interest areas cover a significant fraction of the 48 contiguous states, generally matching the “Native Homelands -- that Native peoples inhabited prior to or since European settlement.

With the documenting of clearly observable climate changes, and because of the relationships of plants, water, and migrating wildlife with ecosystems inside and outside reservation boundaries, the potential consequences of climate change are of significant interest for Native peoples. Native peoples are interested in climate changes because the consequences will affect both their reservation lands and the much larger land areas included in the idea of Native homelands.

This is not the first time that the Native peoples of North American have been faced with disruptive climate changes. However, in the past the changes seemed to be region specific rather than world-wide. For example, about 2000 years ago, ancestors of today's Pueblo people inhabited expansive areas of the Southwest, including much of what is now known as New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. They developed advanced architecture, moved water via extensive and complex irrigation systems to grow crops, made baskets and pottery, and created sophisticated social and religious structures. Today, those ancestral homelands are dotted with the ruins of large villages that show deserted centers of trade and commerce, abandoned road systems and multi-story houses, forsaken art, and elaborate ceremonial chambers.

What happened to these communities is believed to have been a result, in large part, of changes in the climate of this region. Evidence from the growth rings of trees documents significant changes in the weather and climate in the late 1200s. In particular, indications are that droughts became more frequent in southwestern North America. These conditions in turn would have led to disruption of the agricultural lifestyle of the communities dependent on the runoff from the southern Rocky Mountains. Although these regional climate changes were not particularly evident in the global climate record, the regional changes were apparently so large that they contributed to the abandonment of these ancient cities. As communities became unable to adapt their abilities to grow food to the deteriorating environment, these changes apparently triggered a mass migration of what had been a typically stationary, agriculture-based people.

Pueblo people living today pass on migration stories that recall the early journeys that brought them to the villages they still occupy, mostly along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. Some clans migrated as far to the west as today's Hopi tribe in Arizona. Others settled in the Pueblos of Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna. Since these moves, much has changed to limit the ability of Native peoples to move again to escape the consequences of climate fluctuations and change. Thus, if another disruptive climate fluctuation or change were to occur, the Pueblo people could no longer easily move as a group to places with better conditions in order to preserve their societies and cultures.

While each tribe will face its own challenges, this paper focuses on a few general issues facing large numbers of Native peoples, particularly American Indians, should the climate change as projected.

Weather and Climate

Distinguishing clearly between the terms weather and climate is important to understanding how to interpret the results of this section. Weather is the hour-to-hour and day-to-day state of the atmosphere, providing specific indications of whether, at a particular time, it is rainy or sunny, warm or cold, windy or calm. Climate is the average weather over time, and encompasses a locale's typical weather patterns, including frequency and intensity of storms, cold outbreaks, and heat waves.

Just as the weather varies naturally, the climate varies naturally in response to such factors as sunspots, volcano eruptions, and atmosphere-ocean interactions (e.g., El Niño events). Climate change is a shift in the climate that lasts a few decades or more. Human activities in the last two centuries have become important drivers of climatic change. For this paper, whether the cause of an impact is natural or anthropogenic (human) is less important than whether it has to do with long-term trends or shorter patterns of variation. Thus we use more intuitive definitions: 1. variability refers to day-to-day, season-to-season, year-to-year, and decade-to-decade patterns of weather and climate; 2. climate change refers to longer-term trends in the average weather and climate, usually measured and experienced by long-term changes in temperature, precipitation, and sea level.


Global Warming or Climate Change

The media often uses the term global warming when talking about changes to the global climate. The phrase climate change, however, actually encompasses the more intricate set of changes that scientists are projecting. For example, the world is not expected to warm uniformly and some areas actually could become cooler as other parts of the Earth warm. Although more rain and snowfall are expected as the globe warms, some areas will become drier at the same time that other areas become wetter. The phrase climate change is, therefore, a more accurate way to describe projected changes to the global environment.

Historical Climate Trends

Over recent decades, Native peoples have been observing that changes in the environment have been occurring, some due to regional or global-scale changes in the climate, and some due to changing practices of land management and use. During the 20th century, much of the western US, where most reservation lands are located, has warmed several degrees F, contributing to apparent changes in the length of the seasons. After relatively dry periods in the central and western US during the first half of the 20th century, the second half has been wetter, with more runoff in key rivers and streams. Much of this additional precipitation has come in heavy downpours.

Already observed changes are important for at least 3 reasons:

  1. the science indicates that warming in the 21st century will be significantly larger than in the 20th century;
  2. the rising temperatures are very likely to be associated with more extreme precipitation and faster evaporation (more very wet and very dry periods); and,
  3. Native peoples need to change their practices in relation to the climate changes.

For example, regions in Alaska are already experiencing significant warming with thawing of permafrost and melting of sea ice. Elders lament that winter temperatures have become so warm (now typically only -20˚F instead of -70˚F) that the traditional ecosystem on which they have depended for generations is deteriorating and is no longer able to provide the needed resources. In the Southwest, elders remember (and are corroborated by Army records from the early 1800s) valleys full of tall sacaton grasslands used for hay and animal feed. The region now is scarred by deep arroyos (water carved gullies) and supports only sparse vegetation, likely as a result of overgrazing and drought. All across North America, tribal histories and scientific records indicate that change is occurring.

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Phenomenon

El Niño events occur when the trade winds that normally blow from east to west over the Pacific Ocean diminish and the waters of the central and eastern tropical Pacific become warmer than normal. The term El Niño is used to refer to the warm phase of the ENSO and La Niña is used to refer to the cool phase. The ENSO cycle, normally about one year in length, is a continuously changing pattern of ocean-atmosphere behavior and is one of the dominant patterns of natural variability in the climate system worldwide. It often causes rainfall patterns and amounts to change in various locations around the globe, for example, during El Niño there is increased rainfall and during La Niña there is likely to be decreased rainfall in the US Southeast. Historically El Niño events have occurred approximately every 2-7 years.

Possible Future Climates

Note about
General Circulation

Some Native peoples are already experiencing warming, as described above, and such climatic changes are expected to intensify over time. Most of the large Indian reservations in the US are located in the central and western United States and most climate models project that changes in temperature and precipitation will be greater over the western than over the eastern US. The models used in the US Assessment project warming of as much as 5 to 10˚F (3-6˚C) over the 21st century over much of the western US, with more warming during winters than during summers in many areas. Some models also project that El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) extremes are likely to increase. El Niño events impact rainfall in much of the western US.

Some models project that, particularly in the Southwest, warmer winters will also bring increasing wintertime precipitation, a rising snowline (because much will come as rain), and earlier springtime runoff, affecting the timing and volume of river flows. Increased precipitation would be expected to increase river runoff, which, if it occurs in seasons when the water can be used or stored, could help to increase water supplies. Increased precipitation, however, with much of it coming in heavy downpours, can cause erosion on sparsely vegetated land, distribute contaminants more widely, and create greater potential for flash flooding. Warmer conditions will also lead to increased evaporation, especially in summer, that will dry summer soils and vegetation in ways that could more than balance the increase in runoff in some regions. For example, these changes will likely lead to lower river and lake-levels in the northern Great Plains and Great Lakes.

[next section]

Jump to top of page


USGCRP logo & link to homeUS Climate Change Science Program / US Global Change Research Program, Suite 250, 1717 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20006. Tel: +1 202 223 6262. Fax: +1 202 223 3065. Email: Web: Webmaster: