Tribes around Alaska are trying to find ways to stop climate change from eroding their ways of life — like access to traditional foods, clean waterways, and infrastructure in small villages.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs recently announced more than $45 million in federal grant money for tribes around the country to address issues spurred by climate change.
More than a third of that is making its way to Alaska, which has the largest number of federally recognized tribes in the country.
Alaska is warming up faster than any other part of the U.S. The changing climate has left communities to reckon with problems ranging from eroding shorelines and riverbanks to bacteria-infested waterways.
The Biden administration’s climate action grants are partially funded by last year’s landmark Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. They’re intended to give tribes an infusion of cash to put toward projects that will help fend off the worst of the impacts.
In Southeast, there’s a lot of pressure on making sure vital waterways stay clean and subsistence foods remain available.
Ketchikan Indian Community was awarded $246,221 to keep working on the goals outlined in its climate action plan. Tribal officials say it’s the federally recognized tribe’s biggest federal climate grant yet.
Tony Gallegos, the tribe’s cultural resources director, said climate change threatens the Indigenous way of life.
“Well, it presents kind of urgent risks to our traditional resources, food that our citizens depend on,” he said.
And part of preserving the way of life is understanding the role of traditional foods. So the tribe plans to, among other things, interview local elders to learn about what traditional food sources are most important to them. Gallegos said that effort is already underway.
“We’ve already made some significant headway (in) gathering and documenting tribal citizen reliance on traditional food and priorities, with over 320 responses to our initial survey last year,” Gallegos explained.
Some of the grant money also will be used to collect bacteria samples from local waters. The tribe has been monitoring bacteria levels at local beaches since 2017, and evidence seems to point to spikes after big rainstorms.
“So sometimes they call (it the) ‘first flush’ after a rainfall event, especially when there hasn’t been a rain for a while, can often carry pollutants into, this case, the (Tongass) Narrows where we … have bacteria problems,” Gallegos said. “And we want to start to collect some water quality (samples), right during and right after those rainfall events.”
Gallegos said they hope to test at least 10 samples over the next two years.
Another $15,000 was awarded to the tribe to fund travel expenses for staff to attend conferences to learn about other ways to adapt to a changing climate.
Further north, The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe plans to use a grant of $113,830 to help deepen local knowledge about tribal lands using LiDAR mapping technology. That’ll allow the tribe to conduct detailed aerial surveys of its lands.
Andrew Gildersleeve is the tribe’s executive director.
“LiDAR is a very exciting way for us to map with precision the tribal lands as they are,” Gildersleeve said. “And this is creating a record for us and a baseline for us to use in the future, and we hope for future generations, to be able to establish and recognize trends.”
With LiDAR, Gildersleeve says the tribe can learn more about rising ocean levels, salmon habitat and tidal zones.
The tribe’s capacity development director, Amanda Bremner, said the project will be completed in three phases. And it might even help broaden ancestral knowledge.
“We have an Indigenous and traditional place names map that, for years, has just been, you know, a map on the wall drawn of boundaries and areas from a time, you know, decades ago that in this ever changing climate may not necessarily be accurate,” Bremner said. “So we’re looking forward to having these high resolution images.”
In the Upper Lynn Canal community of Klukwan, a grant of more than $589,000 is slated to fund riverbank stabilization as the community faces accelerating glacial runoff and melting permafrost. The tribe hopes the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center Bank Stabilization Project will preserve salmon runs.
The Sitka Tribe of Alaska received more than $298,000 for its tribe-operated research center Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research. That will support more research into the harmful algae blooms and paralytic shellfish toxins that thrive in warming waters.
And Southeast’s biggest tribe, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, is working toward food sovereignty with a regionwide community garden program. That project will be funded with a $2 million grant. Tlingit & Haida did not respond to repeated requests for comment from KRBD.
In Klawock — the only Prince of Wales Island community to receive a grant — the Klawock Cooperative Association will use $248,206 to put into motion its own climate action plan. It will be modeled after one adopted by Tlingit & Haida. The Klawock Cooperative Association did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Elsewhere in the state, a handful of villages received funding to seek higher ground as they face increasingly brutal storms and erosion.
That includes Unalakleet. With around 800 people, it’s the largest community to receive a grant dedicated to what’s called a “managed retreat” from the shore of Norton Sound. A 2019 Denali Commission study found that Unalakleet was the eighth-most at risk community in Alaska when it comes to damage from erosion and floods.
The local tribe received $290,440 to move the village to a nearby hillside.
Kari Duame is the housing director for The Native Village of Unalakleet.
She explained that an old seawall that surrounds the silty spit that the village sits on spared it from the worst of the damage from ex-Typhoon Merbok in September. But she said it’s clear the village has to move further from shore to survive the new climate reality.
“The ground itself can be unstable, for the style of building and the era of building — a lot of the houses are from, like the 70s, 80s, even earlier, like the 40s and 50s,” she said. “And more concerning is the seawall probably isn’t sufficient in the long run.”
She said a retreat from the shore would also give the village room to expand.
“Also, 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 is to get a completed plan ready for another grant proposal next year.
Unalakleet isn’t alone. Kivalina in the Northwest Arctic Borough received almost $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 severely that waters have risen up to the door of the only public safety building in the village. That’s where the village public safety officers live and work, and it’s also where emergency gear is 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 is forcing some parts of town to be moved. The $2.9 million grant will build 19 homes and a new preschool away from the water.
Other tribes are just keeping an eye on things — like in Kipnuk and Tuntutuliak, where tribes received grant money to conduct permafrost risk assessments.
The complete list of BIA climate action plan resiliency grants can be found at the agency’s website.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Amanda Bremner is the tribe’s capacity development director.
Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.