Climate change threatens Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and economies, including agriculture, hunting and gathering, fishing, forestry, energy, recreation, and tourism enterprises. Successful adaptation in Indigenous contexts relies on use of Indigenous knowledge, resilient and robust social systems and protocols, a commitment to principles of self-determination, and proactive efforts on the part of federal, state, and local governments to alleviate institutional barriers.

Source: Chapter 15 of the Fourth National Climate Asessment



Indigenous peoples in the United States are diverse and distinct political and cultural groups and populations. Though they may be affected by climate change in ways that are similar to others in the United States, Indigenous peoples can also be affected uniquely and disproportionately. Many Indigenous peoples have lived in particular areas for hundreds if not thousands of years, and their cultures, spiritual practices, and economies have evolved to be adaptive to local seasonal and inter-annual environmental changes. Thus, Indigenous knowledge systems differ from those of non-Indigenous peoples who colonized and settled the United States, and they engender distinct knowledge about climate change impacts and strategies for adaptation. Indigenous knowledges, accumulated over generations through direct contact with the environment, broadly refer to Indigenous peoples’ systems of observing, monitoring, researching, recording, communicating, and learning and their social adaptive capacity to adjust to or prepare for changes. One of these knowledge systems that is often referred to in the context of climate change is traditional ecological knowledge, which primarily focuses on the relationships between humans, plants, animals, natural phenomena, and the landscape.

Census data show that American Indian and Alaska Native populations are concentrated around, but are not limited to, reservation lands like the Hopi and Navajo in Arizona and New Mexico, the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee in Oklahoma, and various Sioux tribes in the Dakotas and Montana{Source: United States Global Change Research Program, data provided by U.S. Census}.


Of the 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives registered in the U.S. Census, approximately 1.1 million live on or near reservations or native lands, located mostly in the Northwest, Southwest, Great Plains, and Alaska. Although indigenous communities can be found throughout the U.S., Climate change poses particular threats to indigenous culture, well-being, and ways of life in every region of the United States. Chronic stresses such as extreme poverty are being exacerbated by climate change impacts: these impacts include reduced access to traditional foods, decreased water quality, and increasing exposure to health and safety hazards. In Alaska, Maine, the Pacific Northwest, and other coastal locations, erosion and inundation related to climate change are so severe that some communities are already relocating from historical homelands to which their traditions and cultural identities are tied. Climate change also affects the integrity and stability of the ecosystems on which indigenous peoples depend by altering ecosystem processes and biodiversity. Ecosystems provide a rich array of benefits and services including habitat for fish and wildlife, drinking water storage and filtration, fertile soils for growing crops, buffering against a range of stressors, and aesthetic and cultural values (Source: U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit).

Tribal Nations data and maps found here will supplement other Climate Themes in assisting Tribes to build Climate Resilience.  Federally-recognized Tribes are also directed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Tribal Climate Resilience Program for direct climate data and analysis support, to Tribal Fact Sheets in the Tribal Resilience Resource Guide for site-specific data and federal-wide resources, and to the BIA Branch of Geospatial Services for free ESRI GIS software, training, and usage support.

Tribal Nations are disproportionately affected by climate change, yet many lead the nation in building awareness and addressing climate impacts to their traditional lifeways. Through renewable energy installations and energy efficiency projects, Tribal Nations also address the causes of climate change, while focusing on sustainable community development in a culturally appropriate context.   Tribal Tools and Examples demonstrate innovations in six integrated resilience strategies, which may support other U.S. and international communities.

Alaska Native communities comprise 229 of the 567 federally recognized tribes (about 40 percent). Their stories of adjusting to climate impacts associated with rising temperatures, melting sea ice and glaciers, and thawing permafrost can also be found in the Arctic topic in the Climate Resilience Toolkit. See also the Arctic Theme here for related data, tools, and featured content.

To partner effectively with tribes on climate data initiatives, the first step is carefully reviewing components included in the Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives.

Guiding Concepts
  1. Data sharing between Tribal Nations and non-tribal partners must ensure that there is free, prior, and informed consent of tribes and traditional knowledge holders participating in the collaboration, and tribally-led protections for traditional knowledges if they are involved in the data sharing agreement. Please see the Tribal Nations Tool Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives to understand the protections needed for projects involving data sharing.
  2. The “Indian Lands” (BIA Indian Lands) dataset is difficult to correctly interpret, so please visit the Bureau of Indian Affairs Frequently Asked Questions to aid in understanding. Tribal Nations sovereignty ensures that any decisions with regard to their property and citizens are made with their participation and consent.
  3. Federal Indian Reservation – an area of land reserved for a tribe or more than one tribe grouped together under treaty or other agreement with the United States
  4. Trust Lands – an area of land for which the federal government holds title on behalf of a tribe or tribes through a federal statute or administrative action as permanent tribal homelands.
  5. The “Ceded Lands” (Indian Land Areas Judicially Established 1978) dataset represent rough delineations of original areas occupied before these lands were ceded to the United States government by treaty tribes. Often, defined treaty reserved rights, such as hunting, fishing, gathering, and ceremonial rights may continue to be permitted in these areas.
  6. The federal Indian trust responsibility includes legally enforceable fiduciary obligations on the part of the United States to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources, as well as a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law with respect to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages.
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Updated on April 21, 2021