Photo: Climate Science Alliance

Partnership trains Sea Grant staff on meaningful engagement with Indigenous communities

Boyce Upholt

Thousands of years before Europeans arrived, the Pacific Coast was home to a staggering array of cultures and languages. That history, too often overlooked, was highlighted in a November training for California Sea Grant staff, in a partnership with the Climate Science Alliance.

“Sea Grant realized we need to increase our staff’s awareness and help them learn how to best engage with Indigenous communities,” says Laura Engeman, the coastal resilience specialist at California Sea Grant and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who helped organize the training. “Indigenous people have long been stewards of the coast, and we need to learn from their knowledge and support their needs.”

Will Madrigal, Jr., an enrolled member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians and an ongoing partner of California Sea Grant, led the training with help from other staff members of the Climate Science Alliance. The nonprofit, which aims to safeguard natural and human communities in the face of climate change, has published an online reference guide for climate practitioners about how to build authentic collaborations with tribal communities. Madrigal works for the Alliance as the tribal capacities and partnerships program manager.

One of the topics discussed was Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), which Madrigal emphasized as more than just collected data and information. TEK, he noted, is ongoing guidance and wisdom that looks toward both the past and the future. Such knowledge is often ignored or undervalued, in part because the scientific training at many academic institutions focuses on Western scientific approaches and value systems.

“Tribes can actively and significantly contribute to projects due to their local ecological knowledge, so they should be invited as equals in terms of knowledge exchange,” says Meliza Le Alvarado, the binational fellow for California Sea Grant and the Climate Science Alliance. Le Alvarado works with both organizations to lead a program that helps communities on both sides of California’s southern border access resources that would improve their resilience. She particularly targets Indigenous communities.

Le Alvarado notes, though, that practitioners need to know when to approach and when to respect that certain practices — such as some ceremonies — are private and intimate. “We must understand the culture and history of the native people of California to be able to engage effectively,” she says. For that reason much of the training focused on recounting the fuller history of California, and how treaties and other legal structures have broken people’s connections with their ancestral lands.

One point was raised repeatedly: Meaningful engagement does not begin or end with a single project. It must be continuous. Laws and policies often now mandate the inclusion of tribal nations in projects,” Le Alvarado notes. But “it’s crucial to ensure that this integration is more than a box to tick off.”

About California Sea Grant

NOAA’s California Sea Grant College Program funds marine research, education and outreach throughout California. Headquartered at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, California Sea Grant is one of 34 Sea Grant programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce.