Elevating Indigenous environmental solutions for 30 years and counting

Three decades ago, Hopi tribal elders looking for ways to address the growing air pollution challenges in and near Hopi Tribal lands reached out to Northern Arizona University seeking advice. University leaders, recognizing the necessity of working with Tribes in addressing such topics as clean air, water and lands, created the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP).

This year, ITEP is celebrating 30 years of collaborations, research, outreach and Indigenous-centered environmental stewardship that has elevated Indigenous voices to a national scale and ensured the disproportionate effects of climate change on Tribal Nations are not overlooked in the national conversation.

“Our vision is for Tribal communities to be strong, self-sustaining, healthy environments,” said Ann Marie Chischilly (Diné), vice president of Native American Initiatives at NAU and past director of ITEP, which has worked with more than 95 percent of the 574 federally recognized Tribes in the United States. ITEP continues to listen to the needs and challenges Tribes face and develop programs and services to address those needs and build the capacity of Tribal environmental programs.

The institute attracts more than $3 million annually in grant funding and seeds a harvest of projects for elevating Tribal initiatives, including hosting national climate change conferences, webinars and online trainings; employing students; providing internships; mentoring environmental careers; and providing STEM environmental education to K–12 students.

“We strive to positively impact Tribal communities through learning from and teaching others,” Chischilly said. “Paramount to our work is service to Tribes, Tribal environmental professionals, students and educators, and we are especially committed to future generations.”

With support from NAU and federal partners such as the EPA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service and others, ITEP has developed programs and services to work directly with Tribes on such issues as ambient and indoor air quality management, water quality and watershed management, climate change adaptation, solid and hazardous waste management, environmental data management and sovereignty and more.

Besides working directly with Tribes to develop climate change adaptation strategies, ITEP is beginning to work with Indigenous communities internationally, and helping shape U.S. national climate policies. In 2019, ITEP presented an inaugural Status of Tribes and Climate Change (STACC) report to Congress that will now be issued biannually. The stories are authentic and told from the perspective of Tribal environmental practitioners, and the data in the report has been cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Co-led by ITEP’s Nikki Cooley (Diné), co-manager of the Tribes & Climate Change Program, in coordination with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Tribal Climate Resilience Program, the STACC report includes 34 narrative submissions from diverse Tribes that acknowledge the serious climate threats facing Indigenous people.

“The STACC report allows Tribal voices to share their concerns, priorities and the innovative, active, collaborative projects addressing them,” Cooley said. “It’s time to listen and respond accordingly.”

The public is invited to ITEP’s 30th anniversary events Sept. 14 on NAU’s Flagstaff campus. There will be a reception at 5:30 p.m. at the 1899 Bar & Grill patio to kick off the evening with live music from Hopi musician and artist Ed Kabotie. The keynote speaker, Diné water activist Nicole Horseherder, then will take the stage at nearby Prochnow Auditorium to speak about creating inspirational hope through action.

For information about NAU’s Institute of Tribal Environmental Professionals’ 30th anniversary, go to nau.edu/ITEP30th. For information about ITEP environmental services, go to nau.edu/ITEP.

NAU Communications