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Study shows climate change is affecting some Native American tribes

A University of Oklahoma study examined changes of climate change and the risk they pose to tribal lands.
Posted at 6:06 PM, Apr 02, 2024

As climate, demographics and land usage continue to change, tribal communities in Oklahoma are increasingly at risk of severe weather, according to a recent study led by Yang Hong with the University of Oklahoma.

The study examines the changes in climate and the risks they pose to Native American Communities.

According to the study, heavy rainfall is projected to have a 501.1% increased risk for Native Americans by the end of the century. This means that it has a 68% higher risk than the general population in Oklahoma. The research also found that two-year floods are projected to have a 632.6% increased risk and flash floods are projected to have a 296.4% increased risk – 64.3% and 64% higher than the general population in Oklahoma.

The researchers believe the study can help evaluate the impacts of climate change and the increase of tribal populations, which are expected to more than double by the end of the century. They also believe this research can help Native American leaders develop disaster risk reduction plans. 

Many Native American communities struggle to mitigate damage from disasters like wildfires and flash flooding due to lack of funding and infrastructure. Now tribal leaders are working with scientists to show the need for more resources.

In Red Rock Oklahoma, about 80 miles north of Oklahoma City, is the home of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe. The area is primarily a farming community and it's found itself increasingly battling the effects of natural disasters.

"It's really evolved a lot to me, and it's become more barren and drier," said James LeClair, the emergency management coordinator for the Otoe-Missouria Tribe. 

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LeClair has been spending his time putting out wildfires and trying to protect their land from flash flooding. In 2019, their encampment was flooded, which is an area that is used for celebrations and rituals. He said there are areas where their people used to farm but can't due to yearly flooding.

"When the flood waters hit, it just washes everything away and the farmer just got tired of dealing with it," LeClair said.

A University of Oklahoma study examined these changes and the risk they pose to tribal lands. It suggests that Native American communities will feel the effects in stronger ways than other communities.

Study co-author Theresa Tsoodle is a University of Oklahoma environmental scientist who has studied Native Americans and their relationship to ecology.

"Some places don't have the infrastructure from the get-go," Tsoodle said. "If you start hitting it with climate change, then you get ugly numbers like, we're predicted and forecast because these things are going to be a reality. Our population grows and people are going to struggle when you're still trying to get yourself up to a baseline that, you know, has long been elusive to you." 

While many cities have large stormwater systems or retention ponds, Native American communities often don't. Like many tribal communities, the Otoe-Missouria needs more funding to battle these natural disasters.

"Well, it's significant because a lot of our areas are underdeveloped," Tsoodle said, "We're like developing nations."

"Everything that's been flowing through here is going into this creek and it's affected further downstream such as Tulsa going down all the way down to into Louisiana where the floodwaters are getting," LeClair said. "We need to figure out how to dam it a little better, slow it down, a little better to help the people further downstream. And as well as around here."

According to LeClair, the tribe has been working with OU since 2019. Together they've tried to assess and evaluate past, present, and future flood damage to their tribal lands.

Since working with OU, the tribe found several solutions that could mitigate flood damage including retention ponds and reinforcing the banks of Red Rock Creek.

The Otoe-Missouria tribe is currently seeking grant funding for these projects.