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Spotlight on Gila River Indian Community

January 10, 2019

Tribal Climate Champions: Spotlight on Gila River Indian Community



“Resilience is in our bloodline. How do we choose to tap into it?”

-Celeste Jackson, GRIC Community Member



This word cloud was created based on GRIC workshop participants’ responses to the question, “Why is GRIC planning and preparing for climate change impacts?” The size of each word indicates the frequency the word was spoken; the larger the word, the more times it was said by participants as a response.


As part of the Climate Ready Tribes Project, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Indian Health Board (NIHB) is spotlighting three Tribes and their climate health efforts.


Today’s spotlight highlights Gila River Indian Community (known as “GRIC” or “the Community” throughout the rest of this article) and their Climate Change Adaptation & Resiliency Plan efforts. GRIC is located in south-central Arizona, bordering both Pinal and Maricopa counties. With close to 21,300 enrolled members, the Community is home to the Akimel O’Odham and Pee Posh. Tribal lands encompass 374,000 acres (640 square miles). In protecting its environmental resources, GRIC has taken the lead among many Tribal nations by having established rigorous environmental monitoring and regulatory programs designed to protect the Tribe’s natural and cultural resources. The Community is divided into seven districts which vary in size and land use. Each district faces different environmental challenges in addition to experiencing the overall impacts of climate change. The Community’s residential population of approximately 12,100 is spread across the districts, with some areas more populous than others. The Gila River traverses Tribal lands from the southeast to the northwest and is a 650-mile long tributary to the Colorado River that spans part of New Mexico and Arizona, draining an arid watershed of nearly 60,000 miles. Due to upstream diversions and flood control structures, the Gila River bed within the Community boundaries has both ephemeral (brief flows during and after storm events, rainfall, or upstream snowfall) and perennial (continuous flow in parts of the streambed all year during years of normal precipitation) flow patterns.


Recently, however, the Community has noticed ongoing changes to the climate the Tribe has always known. “It’s always been hot here, but now it’s a different kind of heat,” Billy Allen, GRIC Elder said. Similarly, Community member Aaron Sabori noted that “[…] plants don’t know how to act anymore.” Climate change is impacting the Community’s health, water, food sovereignty, and cultural resources.


Health: Community Members and key stakeholders have raised concerns about climate change impacts on air quality, diabetes, access to traditional medicines, and shifting disease ranges (such as more tropical diseases moving north). Climate change effects on increased heat stress and dust storms were also major concerns. Climate change can affect the Community in numerous ways. For example, greater wildfire frequency can lead to poorer air quality, which can contribute to an increase in asthma attacks. Increasing drought intensities can result in more pollen and molds in the air, worsening allergies. Poorer air quality and rising temperatures can lead to more time spent indoors and decreased physical activity contributing to problems with diabetes. Community members also identified a number of non-climatic factors that can be exacerbated by the above climatic factors, such as air and dust pollution from farming, building, and sand and gravel industries. The historical legacy of colonization and its associated traumas over generations contribute to poor socioeconomic and education opportunities, which can result in higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse and worsening health impacts.


Water: Rising air temperatures and longer, more intense droughts can lead to lower flows and groundwater tables and decreased water supply. Community members are also worried about potential heavier downpours and increased flooding, which can reduce water quality. These climatic factors have led to emerging health concerns about water-borne diseases as well as cultural concerns, such as poor water quality leading to the decline in the quality of basket weaving materials. The damming of the Gila River and water diversions were also noted as important non-climatic factors affecting the availability and quality of water in the Community.


Food sovereignty: Increasing frequency, length, and duration of droughts could result in issues providing sufficient water to crops, and rising air temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns could affect the timing of different plant life cycle events. With higher temperatures also comes a loss of freeze time, resulting in some plants no longer going into a dormant stage, which can have consequences for future production. These climatic factors could result in the loss of traditional foods. Non-climatic factors contributing to loss of food sovereignty include legacies from European influences that brought changes to Traditional diet and resulted in the loss of traditional planting and agricultural knowledge and the loss of home gardens.


Cultural resources: Community members noted that rising air temperatures can lead to shifts in bird migratory patterns, which can affect cultural practices and songs based on this timing. The increasing frequency and intensity of storms could affect culturally significant plants and wildlife. A combination of rising air temperatures, more extreme heat and more intense and longer droughts could result in the loss of medicinal plants and shifts in their geographic ranges leading to them no longer being available for ceremonies held during specific seasons. Climate-related landscape changes can affect the transfer of traditional and cultural knowledge. Additional impacts from non-climate influences interacting with the above include land use changes and deforestation leading to loss of traditional plants and wildlife, and the lack of availability and familiarity with resources for traditional practices.


While discussing air quality pollution and loss of vegetation, as well as observing overall human impacts on our Mother Earth, Cecelia Mix, a youth from District Four said frankly, “Who wants to live in that world?”


Many Tribes across the country are being proactive and are planning and preparing for climate change impacts. GRIC has chosen to do the same. Community members and key stakeholders from Tribal elders to youth have shared that it is important to plan for climate change for the sake of the Community’s children – including their safety, health, survival, identity, and mental stability. They felt that it was also important to plan for their livelihoods and economy and for the sake of the environment and the health and sustainability of the planet.


GRIC secured climate change funding from the US Bureau of Indian Affairs to undertake a Climate Change Adaptation and Resiliency Project, aimed at building resiliency that allows social and ecological systems to thrive under stress from the vagaries of natural and anthropogenic activities. The Tribe can draw on past experiences, such as traditional knowledge, to aid in adapting to a changing climate; adopt unique and innovative adaptation techniques; and ensure overall sustainability of the people, land, and community. “This is the first generation that is not just focused on survival,” a GRIC workshop participant shared. “They can be dreamers. The seventh generation is here.”



GRIC Community Members participate in a workshop to guide the GRIC climate change adaptation process.


The goals and objectives of the project include data collection and developing a Climate Change Adaptation & Resiliency Plan (“the Plan”) in close collaboration with an assembled body of Community stakeholders; coordinating and hosting educational workshops; and utilizing collected data and traditional knowledge to develop the Plan, which will eventually contain strategies and actions to create a more resilient Community which is able to cope with the detrimental effects of climate change.


The Plan is a comprehensive document that contains various climatic data, climate change impacts, vulnerabilities, strategies, and actions for how the Community will adapt to a changing climate and its impacts. This comprehensive plan is now in its final stages of review. The Tribe plans to circulated the Plan internally during the next few months before making the Plan available for public consumption later in 2019.


The Plan includes the following:


·     Determining the current and projected impacts of climate change on the Community, including impacts on the local environment, agriculture, water resources, air quality, water quality, human health, and cultural resources;

·     Determining the vulnerabilities of the Community to the current and projected effects of climate change, and prioritizing key areas for development of adaptation strategies;

·     Developing appropriate policies and goals for addressing the effects of climate change on the Community;

·     Developing potential programmatic and/or regulatory actions and changes consistent with said policies and goals as appropriate to address the effects of climate change.


Although addressing climate change is an ongoing project, the Community has already taken action to help jumpstart the process.


First, the GRIC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has hosted several climate change workshops in partnership with the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP), to build the foundation of the planning process. During the workshops, GRIC Community Members, elders, youth, and resource managers shared their knowledge, observations, and experiences related to a changing climate. The workshops included presentations where speakers discussed the evidence of climate change, its causes, and its impacts. The workshops also included activities and discussions in which the GRIC DEQ gathered Community input on climate-related experiences and concerns, ideas for adapting to climate change, and strategies to engage more Community Members in the adaptation process.


Additionally, a climate profile was developed through partnership – compiled by the University of Arizona’s Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions, Native Nations Climate Adaptation Program, and Climate Assessment for the Southwest with funding from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environmental and Social Justice. This climate profile was created for the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) in central Arizona using available current and historic weather data and computer model projections of future climate.


The climate profile provides:


·     information that summarizes what the climate at GRIC has been like since around 1900 and identifies recent trends in temperatures;

·     background information on climate change trends in the United States and Arizona;

·     projections of possible changes in Arizona’s climate (including GRIC);

·     a discussion about why the climate is changing and possible impacts; and

·     general information on climate adaptation planning.


Moving forward, there is always work to do. However, GRIC has already completed several key steps – creating a vulnerability assessment, working towards better documenting traditional knowledge and Tribal oral histories, conducting an engagement strategy, and working towards geographic information system (GIS) modeling and mapping. GRIC is dedicated to continuing and expanding work that will help protect the Community from the harmful effects of climate change.


This article was compiled with support from the Gila River Indian Community Department of Environmental Quality, including Althea Walker, former Environmental Education & Outreach Specialist; Dr. Russell Benford, Environmental Program Manager, Wildlife & Ecosystems Management Program; and Andra Gutierrez, former Americorps intern and current GRIC DEQ Fuels & Restoration Crewmember. Ms. Gutierrez also contributed significantly to the development, review, and implementation of GRIC’s comprehensive climate change adaptation plan.


In completing this important work, GRIC also wishes to acknowledge key staff from partner organizations, including the following:

·     Karen Cozzetto and Julie Maldonado at the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals;

·     Elaine H. Wilson Consulting, LLC, which helped gather information from Community members; documented their concerns, perspectives, and priorities; and helped develop the climate profile;

·     the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions, Native Nations Climate Adaptation Program, and Climate Assessment for the Southwest, which helped develop the climate profile; and

·     the Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research, which helped develop species distribution and ecological niche models, and to identify species of cultural and ecological interest that are most at risk of being negatively impacted by the predicted impacts of climate change.



Learn more about NIHB’s Climate Ready Tribes Initiative here.

Interested in Tribal climate health? Additional resources and opportunities are available!

·     NIHB will host an Environmental Health and Climate Change track at the 10th Annual National Tribal Public Health Conference and scholarships are available for Environmental Health and Climate Change track presenters. Learn more here.

·     NIHB hosts a Climate and Health Learning Community. To sign up for the learning community, click here and join the Climate List. Look for emails coming soon about learning community activities, including webinars and other events. Community members who participate in at least two events will receive a certificate.

·     Would you like your Tribe to be spotlighted in an article like this? Or maybe in a webinar? Email aaljanabi@nihb.org. NIHB loves spotlighting Tribal champions!

·     NIHB is funding three Tribes to conduct local climate and health work. This year’s cohort has been selected and the Tribal awardees will be announced soon!

·     View NIHB’s climate resources here.





National Indian Health Board | 202.507.4070


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Last modified: April 18, 2022