Discovery Files

Native Americans Trained to Address Environmental Problems on Their Lands

NSF-funded program at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute teaches Native Americans about geospatial data

Native Americans are disproportionately vulnerable to the varied impacts of climate change on natural resources. Why? Because the livelihoods and cultures of Native Americans are, in many ways, inextricably linked to their natural resources.

Among the examples of how tribal lifestyles and economies are already being disrupted by climate-related impacts on natural resources are:

  • Melting permafrost in Alaska is forcing some Alaskan natives to move their homes and settlements.
  • Changes in precipitation and temperature patterns are causing droughts. Such droughts are, in turn, triggering wildfires and infestations of blights on tribal lands, such as infestations of bark beetles.
  • Some species of native plants and animals that are important to Native American diets are becoming rare or going extinct.

The capacity of tribes to cope with these and other climate-related impacts are complicated by high unemployment, high poverty rates and overall resource shortages on many reservations. The resulting vulnerability of Native Americans to the impacts of climate change has been documented in reports from the National Wildlife Federation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Empowering Native Americans with scientific tools

To help Native Americans address climate change, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI), which is a National Indian Community College, offers training on how to use geospatial information--an important tool in natural resources management. SIPI, which is located in New Mexico, draws students from more than 100 indigenous tribes.

SIPI provides its geospatial training through a program called the Geospatial Information Technologies Program (GIT). The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides funding to GIT in order to help expand the number of underrepresented groups participating in science and technology education and research.

Addressing real world issues

GIT teaches students how to collect and analyze geospatial information and how to use this information to improve the management of environmental issues that are impacting Native American lands, such as climate change, land use changes, droughts and habitat destruction. Also, GIT is designed to promote an understanding of long-term, large-scale ecological research among students and help them engage in scientific research.

GIT is open to all SIPI students as well as to non-SIPI tribal members who have already joined the professional workforce--but who need more knowledge about geospatial information to better advance natural resources management.

During the summer of 2012, 88 students from American Indian and Alaska Native tribes--ranging in age from 18 years old to 70 years old--completed GIT workshops or the entire GIT program.

"We are equipping GIT students with skill sets they can use to help their tribes," says Margaret Porter, a GIT instructor. "This training will become an invaluable tool for tribal communities--most of which will be on the frontlines in dealing with climate extremes."

Program coverage

GIT offers a total of 36 hours of classroom workshops that cover the following topics at various levels:

  • Mapping and photogrammetry. (Photogrammetry is the identification of the geometric properties of objects and features from photographs.)
  • The use of high-tech computer systems--known as Geographical Information Systems (GIS)--for recording, manipulating and analyzing various types of geographical data.
  • Remote sensing

GIT also offers a summer internship program that enables interns to apply GIT to natural resource issues on Native American lands. During the summer of 2012, GIT's student interns completed research projects that addressed the impacts of climate change on a range of environmental, social and/or economic tribal issues. These issues included bark-beetle infestations, permafrost melting, unseasonable flooding as well as various conservation issues, such as mass transit planning for regional governments and renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

On Nov. 6, 2012, the interns presented findings from their research projects at the 2012 National Tribal GIS conference in Albuquerque, N.M. In so doing, they gained experience in delivering professional presentations. In addition, they spread the fruits of their research to an audience of about 100 tribal geospatial professionals from across the United States. To give the interns' presentations even greater exposure, GIT posted them on the Internet.

During their internships, the interns also received one-on-one mentoring from scientists. "These internships are really eye-opening experiences for students," said Porter. "Our interns will have the knowledge they gained from these experiences for life."

Using real data

The curriculum for GIT's 2012 session incorporated data from two important NSF programs that are dedicated to long-term, large-scale, ecological research. These programs are:

  • The Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER), which supports a network of 26 ecologically diverse field sites in the United States that are being studied over extended temporal and spatial scales.
  • The National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), which will be a massive nationwide infrastructure used to simultaneously collect standardized ecological measurements of variables, such as pollution levels, land use and species diversity, at representative locations throughout the United States over multiple decades. NEON measurements will enable scientists to produce the first apples-to-apples comparisons of environmental change across time and space throughout the United States. NEON functions will be turned on incrementally until NEON becomes fully functional in 2017.

GIT exposed students to LTER and NEON data in various ways. For example, LTER data was incorporated into each intern's research project. And NEON and NEON-like data were covered in GIT workshops on GIS and Photogrammetry & Mapping. In addition, several LTER researchers delivered lectures and training to students on how to use LTER data.

Also, during the summer of 2012, GIT interns visited NEON's headquarters in Boulder, Colo. During this visit, the interns met NEON personnel, toured NEON labs, and learned about high-tech sensing equipment used to collect NEON's measurements.

By participating in these activities, GIT students received preparation on how to use NEON data when it becomes available. Also, they gained experience in linking cutting-edge data from two of the nation's foremost ecological research programs with real-world problems; they earned credentials that may ultimately help them qualify for internships or jobs at NEON or elsewhere; and they generated new professional connections.

"GIT helps raise awareness within tribal communities of the wealth of temporal information covering large geographic areas that will be available as well as how it can be applied to tribal assessment and long-term planning in order to help build resilient communities and prepare for future climate events," said Porter.

For more information please contact: Liz Blood, NSF program manager, at or 703-292-4349.