Building Tribal Climate Resilience Across Generations

Virgil Dupuis, Extension Director for Salish Kootenai College in Montana, speaks to tribal high school students from the Flathead Reservation in the SKC garden at the Native Waters on Arid Lands Youth Day event, May 3, 2018.

On a sunny Thursday morning in early May, twelve students from local high schools from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation in western Montana gathered in the fitness center cafeteria at Salish Kootenai College (SKC) for an event called “Youth Day,” organized by researchers and educators from Native Waters on Arid Lands (NWAL). They were welcomed to the event by SKC president Dr. Sandra Boham.

“You really are going to be the next leaders in our communities,” Boham told them. “We need you. We need you here, and we need you in our future. I am always looking for who will be the next president of SKC, the next biology instructor, the next tribal attorney, the next principal for Poulson School District. Who will be the next people run the dam and monitor the fish. It’s going to be you.”

Also present were several members of the Native Waters on Arid Lands team – a group which includes educators, scientists, extension experts, tribal members and resource managers from Native American communities, universities and research institutions across the western U.S. The NWAL team works collaboratively under a five-year project funded by USDA/NIFA aimed at enhancing agricultural water resilience on tribal lands.

Meghan Collins, Education Lead for Native Waters on Arid Lands, and Mary Rose Morigeau from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes learn to plant native seeds with the Arlee Eagles Club at NWAL Youth Day at Salish Kootenai College in Montana, May 3, 2018.

Each fall, our project team gathers in Nevada for a Tribal Summit, in which members from tribes across the western U.S. are invited to participate in two days of talks, workshops and two-way dialogue about issues on reservations and tribal lands related to climate change, agriculture, ranching, water resources, economics, and other topics of interest. And after each year’s Tribal Summit, feedback from participants has included this: We cannot be talking about issues of climate without engaging our youth.

With this feedback in mind, we are working through the NWAL project to include younger voices in the conversation about the future their generation will be responsible for carrying forward. At SKC’s Youth Day event, our goal was in part to pass knowledge down – lessons from educators and scientists about climate change, dendrochronology, new agricultural techniques, native plant restoration and other topics – but also to learn from the students about the challenges they face and the future that they envision.

Members of the Native Waters on Arid Lands team (Meghan Collins, Derek Kauneckis, Anna Eichner, Scott Goode, Virgil Dupuis) and Mary Rose Morigeau from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes welcome participants to NWAL’s Youth Day event at Salish Kootenai College in Montana. May 3, 2018.

In the early afternoon, a group of five students from the Arlee EAGLES club – a student-run environmental advocacy club from Arlee High School located on the Flathead Reservation – stood before the group, teaching event attendees how to plant seeds of native Chokecherry and Twinberry in long, yellow, tube-shaped pots. A shallow hole for the seed, a sprinkle of peat moss on top, and a little water, the Arlee students explained, as youth from other nearby schools of the Flathead Reservation, other tribal members, and members of the NWAL team circled around to try for themselves.

The Arlee students presented an array of environmental projects that they had undertaken at their school, including a school-wide recycling program, a greenhouse, and an impressive effort to monitor emissions generated by their school’s coal-powered heating system. The students hope to use the emissions data to convince their local school board to change energy generation at their school to a cleaner and more sustainable system.

Youth Day at SKC was the second ‘Youth Day’ event hosted by the NWAL project; the first was held at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, NV in November 2017. Both events provided valuable opportunities for sharing knowledge and ideas across generations – and at each event, our team came away inspired by the ideas and energy of youth. Additional Youth Day events are planned with Native students from Paiute and Shoshone Tribes in Nevada and Navajo Nation and Hopi and other Pueblo communities in Arizona and New Mexico.


Dr. Maureen McCarthy is Program Director of Native Waters on Arid Lands, where she coordinates a multidisciplinary team of researchers and extension experts in efforts to collaboratively understand the impacts of climatic change on tribal communities in the American Southwest and evaluate adaption options for sustaining water resources and agriculture. Dr. McCarthy is the Tahoe & Great Basin Research Director and research faculty in the Physics Department at the University of Nevada, Reno and Senior Research Faculty at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, NV, where she manages large, multi-institutional, transdisciplinary research programs focused on climate resiliency, water sustainability, natural resource management, and multi-hazard early warning. She is also Director of the Great Basin Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit and Chair of the Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative Steering Committee.
Kelsey Fitzgerald is the communications specialist for the Native Waters on Arid Lands project and works to communicate the work of the NWAL project team through various outreach products including a blog and podcast. She is also a science writer for the Desert Research Institute in Reno, NV.