Acknowledging Survival: Political Recognition and Indigenous Climate Adaptation in the United States

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Indigenous peoples in the United States are already disproportionately experiencing the impacts of climate change. Closely related to tribal efforts to manage climate effects are historical endeavors to assert indigenous sovereignty and govern tribal lands, but deficiencies in the process used by the U.S. government to acknowledge tribal sovereignty have left hundreds of indigenous communities unrecognized and especially vulnerable to climate harm. My dissertation aims to determine whether a tribe’s recognition status affects its capacity for climate adaptation. To make this determination, I utilize a case study methodology wherein I analyze the circumstances of one non-federally recognized tribe, the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, in three critical areas related to adaptation and tribal recognition — access to key species and cultural resources, utilization of federal funding opportunities, and participation in climate decision-making. Tribal access to resources is often predicated by historical treaty rights, so I applied a theme identification technique to extrapolate important strategies on easing barriers to resource access and regulatory authority. I then used the themes to compare the likelihood of the Burt Lake Band and nearby federally recognized tribes to maintain connections to key species in the future. I next employed a comparative statutory analysis methodology to differentiate eligibility for non-federally recognized tribes accessing federal funding. I also assessed tribal climate adaptation plans and interviewed tribal climate plan managers on the barriers to successful implementation of adaptation actions. Finally, I developed criteria from a review of global literature on the inclusion of indigenous peoples in adaptation projects to assess participatory opportunities for the Burt Lake Band in state and regional climate governance. My findings show that the Band’s lack of federal recognition inhibits its adaptive capacity to access key cultural resources, federal funding, and climate governance opportunities. However, I also conclude that state and local perceptions of tribal identity could have a greater influence on the adaptation of non-federally recognized tribes, so I recommend that a more inclusive federal recognition system be implemented to avoid the unequal development of indigenous adaptive capacity based on disparate approaches to indigenous affairs by state and local jurisdictions.