Shifting paradigms in Native land stewardship

Shifting paradigms in native land stewardship
Attendees of a Stewardship Pathways training event held in April of 2024 participate in restoration efforts at the Sweetwater Marsh area of the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, located on Kumeyaay Lands. Image credit: Althea Walker, Climate Science Alliance

By Mike Adamson

Conservationists and environment advocates have long spoken about the need to incorporate native land stewardship practices into sustainable conservation goals. Shaking up the centuries-old Western view of land as the sum of its natural resources, to be managed for consumption, has proven to be more involved than just the talk.

The Collaborative of Native Nations for Climate Transformation and Stewardship (CNNCTS, pronounced “connects”) promises to upend that old model. By centering climate action around Tribal leadership, the Collaborative seeks to provide a platform for Tribal voices to advocate for themselves and effect a paradigm shift in how climate adaptation actions are envisioned and implemented.

The Collaborative “is about reflecting on how we can change our relationships with the land,” says CNNCTS leader Megan Jennings. When describing the philosophy that guides this reflection, she paraphrases a traditional saying of the Kumeyaay people, among others: “We are the land and the land is us.”

A San Diego State University Research Ecologist with a background in land management and climate adaptation, Jennings sees her role in the project as supportive. Rather than bringing directives to Tribal communities based on research, she instead asks how western science can complement their activities and supports work already in progress with academic knowledge.

Shifting paradigms in native land stewardship
Megan Jennings of San Diego State University providing information about the Collaborative of Native Nations for Climate Transformation and Stewardship (CNNCTS) at SDSU’s Native and Indigenous Research and Arts Symposium. Jennings is the principal investigator of the project. Image credit: courtesy Megan Jennings

CNNCTS participants include four universities, four Tribal governments and six Tribal-serving nonprofits, plus the Tribal Working Group of the Climate Science Alliance, which consists of over 20 Tribal governments and organizations in Southern California. Funded by a $7.1 million state climate action grant, the project is part of a larger effort to address climate resiliency in the state. Over $80 million in California Climate Action Seed and Matching Grants were awarded by the University of California Office of the President last fall. A key goal of these grants is to have a real-world impact on the state’s communities most vulnerable to climate change. The project supports this goal while also leveraging indigenous knowledge to make the state as a whole more climate resilient.

The CNNCTS project was also one of ten Climate Action projects that received a $20,000 Community Engaged S/Hero Supplement to identify best practices for engaging communities around climate risks, and to provide leadership, resources, and counsel to all climate award teams on community engagement.

Jennings identifies two primary ways that the partnership supports Tribal land stewardship. The first leverages both financial resources and infrastructure of academia to scale up small Tribal projects into larger demonstrations. For example, an effort to treat insect infestations in trees with cultural fire could, with project funding, become a project showcasing a new technique for land management.

The second helps Tribes utilize university land in service of cultural practices. “[Universities] all have lands that are dedicated to research,” says Jennings. “CNNCTS is creating opportunities with tribal communities to try out pilot projects in a space where it is safe to fail.”

Other efforts to incorporate Tribal peoples into land stewardship tend to zero in on specific management goals (wildfire suppression) or prescriptive conservation objectives (such as preserving an endangered species). CNNCTS takes a wider lens to collaboration centered around providing pathways for Tribal land stewardship and keeping Tribal voices at the heart of the conversation, rather than on the outside looking in.

An opportunity for Tribes to lead

“It’s about more than just a seat at the table,” says Jennings. “All of that knowledge that was gained over all those years didn’t have a place to go. This is about providing that opportunity for Tribes to lead in a way they deem appropriate—not just asking for their perspective.”

Amber Pairis, founder of Climate Science Alliance, has seen how the “seat at the table” paradigm can go wrong. “Adaptation to date has been prescriptive,” she explains. Often, the adaptation solutions prescribed “don’t reflect the people that have to carry them out. If the action doesn’t reflect the needs and wants of the community, then it won’t last.”

The lesson Pairis took from those experiences was to establish a stable foundation of trust. The Alliance’s Tribal Working Group, nine years in the making, represents the fruits of that labor. “Tribal involvement has grown exponentially in the last nine years,” she says. A large portion of her team hails from the communities the group serves.

“We center our work around our relationships,” Pairis says. “When you trust the person across from you, you are more likely to take a risk on an ambitious decision.”

The Collaborative seeks to foster tangible, community-focused land stewardship knowledge. Efforts will include workforce training, and economic development to support communities as they adopt their own solutions to climate adaptation. These activities, it is hoped, will create economic and workforce opportunities for practitioners.

Shifting paradigms in native land stewardship
Stewardship Pathways trainees support restoration activities—pictured here removing Chrysanthemum coronarium so native plant seedlings have the space to grow—at the Sweetwater Marsh area of the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge, located on Kumeyaay Lands. Image credit: Kara Conner, Climate Science Alliance

To support Tribal communities developing and executing adaptation solutions, CNNCTS is also supporting individuals directly. The grant funding can be used to pay for bus tickets to attend a wildfire-fighting training workshop, for example, or to provide meals for native plant restoration workers spending all day in the field.

“When you invest in people directly, it can be incredibly powerful,” says Pairis. “Investment in an individual builds the capacity to carry on the work once we are gone.”

For Will Madrigal Jr., Tribal Capacities and Partnership Manager with Climate Science Alliance and a member of the Cahuilla and Payomkawichum nations, success will be building this capacity to become sustainable across generations.

“We are at a critical juncture where Tribes can increase their capacity to address the problems that they see,” he says. “Having a technical support partner to help develop what’s needed is key to the ongoing work.”

Madrigal is hopeful that ongoing Collaborative support of land stewardship career pathways will lead to more youth participation in climate adaptation, and blossoming youth leadership.

Including youth voices in any climate adaptation strategy is central to the project’s success. “CNNCTS allows for that inclusivity, focusing on who will be doing the work now and in the future,” Madrigal says. “We don’t want to leave them out of the loop, we need their energy!”

As the project grows and the vision evolves, participants hope it will serve as a model for similar partnerships, launching a new paradigm in climate adaptation alliances. If so, new partnerships will be built on these relationships, with trust as the keystone. “There has to be meaningful engagement and trust in order for us to move together,” says Madrigal. “That has to be the goal: Moving forward, together.”