Tribal Science Council: From Indian Country to EPA Headquarters
EPA leaders ask Indian Tribes and Alaska Natives to identify their top environmental science priorities for inclusion in Agency science plans and projects.
The EPA-National Tribal Science Council has embarked on an effort to engage the nation’s 565 federally recognized tribes to identify human health and environmental science priorities. To help EPA and its tribal partners take strategic actions to address national and regional science needs important to Indian Country.
“The Internet has connected people like nothing else in history, so now even the most remote tribe can have access to cutting-edge science,” says Jeffrey M. Mears, Co-Chair of the Tribal Science Council and a member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.
Mears explains that each U.S. tribe has its own unique culture, history, and environmental issues, and the sovereign right to protect its water, land, and air. “I’d like to see the process lead to a specific set of science tools and science resources that tribes can use to address their individual priorities,” he adds.
Although tribes face some of the same environmental and related human health challenges as other communities many of their cultural traditions—fishing and hunting for food, harvesting wild plants and medicinal roots, and others—not only depend on sustainable environmental stewardship, but can increase the risk of exposure to environmental contaminants. Long-standing, nature-based practices central to tribal cultural identities have opened members to unique exposure pathways to environmental contaminants. (See Traditional Lifestyle Meets Modern Problem, Science Matters Vol 1, No. 2.)
The National EPA-Tribal Science Council was created to integrate Agency and tribal environmental science priorities. The Council is composed of a tribal representative from each of the EPA regions that contain federally recognized tribes and a Region 10 member to represent Alaska Native communities.
One of the primary responsibilities of the council is to work collaboratively to determine priority tribal science issues of national significance. The council also provides a forum for tribes and EPA to jointly design effective responses to these issues.
During the initial input period, Tribal Science Council members—which include Agency program office and regional representatives—are travelling and conducting a series of webinars to engage input and explain the framework process to the tribes. Council members traveled to the National Tribal Operating Committee meeting in Phoenix to present their work.
Coopwood says that it stakeholders in Indian Country are working together to examine issues and evaluate them according to a set of rigorous criteria. The stakeholder engagement addresses tribal priorities in a way that allows objectives to be set and progress to be made in addressing problems at the community level. “In this way, sound and relevant science can be pursued and applied in a tangible manner so that children, elders, and the broader community are protected from environmental hazards,” says Coopwood.