Tribes around Alaska are trying to find ways to prevent climate change from eroding their ways of life – such as access to traditional foods, clean waterways and infrastructure in small villages.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs recently announced more than $45 million in federal grants for tribes across the country to address problems caused by climate change.
More than a third of that goes to Alaska, which has the most federally recognized tribes in the country.
Alaska is warming faster than any other part of the United States. Climate change has forced communities to deal with issues ranging from eroding shorelines and riverbanks to bacteria-infested waterways.
The Biden administration’s climate action grants are partially funded by last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law. They are intended to give tribes an injection of cash to invest in projects that will help fend off the worst impacts.
In the southeast, there is a lot of pressure to ensure that vital waterways remain clean and subsistence foods remain available.
The Indian community of Ketchikan received $246,221 to continue working on the goals set out in their climate action plan. Tribal officials say it is the tribe’s largest federally recognized federal climate grant to date.
Tony Gallegos, cultural resources manager for the tribe, said climate change threatens the native way of life.
“Well, this presents a kind of urgent risk to our traditional resources, the food that our citizens depend on,” he said.
And part of preserving the way of life is understanding the role of traditional foods. The tribe therefore plans, among other things, to interview local elders to find out which traditional food sources are most important to them. Gallegos said the effort is already underway.
“We have already made significant progress (in) collecting and documenting tribal citizens’ reliance on traditional food and priorities, with over 320 responses to our initial survey last year,” explained Gallegos.
Some of the grant money will also be used to collect bacteria samples from local waters. The tribe has been monitoring bacteria levels at local beaches since 2017, and evidence suggests spikes after heavy storms.
“So sometimes they call (it’s the) ‘first flush’ after a rain event, especially when there hasn’t been rain for a while, can often carry pollutants in, in this case, the (Tongass) Narrows where we… have problem bacteria,” Gallegos said. “And we want to start collecting water quality samples, right during and right after these rain events.”
Gallegos said he hopes to test at least 10 samples over the next two years.
Another $15,000 was given to the tribe to fund staff travel costs to attend conferences to learn other ways to adapt to climate change.
Further north, the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe plans to use a $113,830 grant to help deepen local knowledge of tribal lands using LiDAR mapping technology. This will allow the tribe to conduct detailed aerial surveys of their lands.
Andrew Gildersleeve is the tribe’s executive director.
“LiDAR is a very exciting way for us to accurately map tribal lands as they are,” Gildersleeve said. “And that creates a record for us and a baseline that we can use in the future, and hopefully future generations can set and recognize trends.”
With LiDAR, Gildersleeve says the tribe can learn about rising ocean levels, salmon habitat and tidal zones.
Tribe grants consultant Amanda Bremner said the project will be completed in three phases. And it might even help expand ancestral knowledge.
“We have a map of indigenous and traditional place names that for years has just been, you know, a map on the wall of boundaries and areas from a time, you know, decades ago, that , in this ever-changing climate, is not necessarily accurate,” Bremner said. “So we’re looking forward to having those high-resolution images.”
In the Upper Lynn Canal community of Klukwan, a grant of more than $589,000 is planned to fund bank stabilization as the community copes with accelerating glacial runoff and melting permafrost. The tribe hopes the bank stabilization project at the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center will preserve salmon runs.
The Sitka Tribe of Alaska has received more than $298,000 for its Tribal-operated research facility, Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research. This will support more research into harmful algal blooms and paralyzing shellfish toxins that thrive in warming waters.
And the Southeast’s largest tribe, the Central Council of Alaskan Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, is working toward food sovereignty with a region-wide community garden program. This project will be funded by a $2 million grant. Tlingit & Haida did not respond to repeated requests for comment from KRBD.
In Klawock, the only community on Prince of Wales Island to receive a grant, the Klawock Cooperative Association will use $248,206 to implement its own climate action plan. It will be modeled on that adopted by the Tlingit and Haida. The Klawock Cooperative Association did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Elsewhere in the state, a handful of villages have received funding to seek higher ground as they face increasingly brutal storms and erosion.
This includes Unalakleet. With approximately 800 people, it is the largest community to receive a dedicated grant for what is called a “managed retreat” from the Norton Sound coast. A 2019 Denali Commission study found Unalakleet to be the eighth most at-risk community in Alaska for erosion and flood damage.
The local tribe received $290,440 to move the village to a nearby hill.
Kari Duame is the Housing Manager for The Native Village of Unalakleet.
She said an old dyke that surrounds the silty spit on which the village sits spared it from the worst damage caused by ancient Typhoon Merbok in September. But she said it was clear the village needed to move away from the shore to survive the new climate reality.
“The ground itself can be unstable, for the style of construction and the era of construction – a lot of the houses are from, like, the 70s, 80s, or even earlier, like the 40s and 50s,” he said. she declared. “And most concerning is that the dyke is probably not enough in the long term.”
She said a shoreline retreat would also give the village room to grow.
“Plus, there’s very little land to build on — (it’s), like, pretty crowded,” Duame noted.
Duame said the plan is in its early stages. She said the tribe’s goal for this grant was to prepare a comprehensive plan for another grant proposal next year.
Unalakleet is not alone. Kivalina, in the Northwest Arctic Borough, received nearly $250,000 to plan its own managed retreat. Akiak, in the Bethel Census Area, got $150,000 to start moving away from the Kuskokwim River.
And in Nunapitchuk, a nearby river has eroded so much that the waters have risen to the door of the only public security building in the village. This is where the village’s public security officers live and work, and it’s also where the emergency supplies are kept. The village’s $2.2 million grant will help pay for a new building, since the current one is a total loss.
In Chefornak, flooding forces parts of the town to be relocated. The $2.9 million grant will build 19 homes and a new kindergarten away from the water.
Other tribes are just keeping an eye on things – like in Kipnuk and Tuntutuliak, where tribes received grants to conduct permafrost risk assessments.
The full list of BIA Climate Action Plan Resilience Grants is available on the agency’s website.
Raegan Miller is a member of the Report for America body for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps him keep writing stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.