As an urgency around climate change continues to grow, so does the recognition of the importance of Indigenous knowledge as a central component of environmental justice.
On a federal level, further recognition was announced in the form of a large sum of funding.
On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced $177 million in funding to create 17 Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Centers across the country. In the Pacific Northwest, two centers will work together to serve communities and tribes in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
The funding was announced during the week leading up to Earth Day, April 22, a day dedicated to raising awareness and action for addressing environmental concerns since its inception in 1970.
New Funding for Environmental Justice Centers
The University of Washington was awarded a $12 million, five-year EPA cooperative agreement to create the new UW Center for Environmental Health Equity, housed in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Sciences in the School of Public Health.
“I think the EPA recognized that there really needed to be these centers to provide ongoing support for communities, not just academic research,” said Edmund Seto, associate professor and center director at the new Center for Environmental Health Equity.
Across the country, all 17 centers will be focused on environmental justice and specifically providing technical assistance to tribes, according to Seto. He hopes to focus on providing funding and resources for tribal and other BIPOC community partners to help identify environmental hazards and solutions.
“Environmental justice isn’t anything new,” Seto said. “To me, it goes beyond just the environment. It is social justice as well.”
Seto will work alongside Clarita Lefthand-Begay, Navajo, an assistant professor in the information school who will serve as deputy director and lead the center’s tribal initiatives.
In her research, Lefthand-Begay focuses on topics including climate change and Indigenous knowledge systems. At the University of Washington, she is the director of the Tribal Water Security Network — much of her recent research has been in partnership with the Akiak’s Indian Environmental General Assistance Program in Alaska, working to establish a water quality program.
At the new center, key issues will be identified in collaboration with tribal leaders, according to Lefthand-Begay.
“Our team will involve tribes from the very beginning and ensure that they guide the process,” Lefthand-Begay said. “By centering Indigenous knowledge systems, environmental justice work can help redress this historical injustice and ensure that Indigenous perspectives and practices are respected and included in decision-making.”
In Oregon, the Willamette Partnership, Portland State University’s Institute for Tribal Governance and Rural Community Assistance Corporation will work together to co-manage the Northwestern Environmental and Energy Justice Thriving Communities Technical Assistance Center, along with a number of tribal and other community partners. The EPA has awarded $10 million, over the course of five years, to fund the center.
Direlle Calica (Tux’um’shush), citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and a Yakama, Snoqualamie and Tulalip descendant, is the director of the Portland State University Institute for Tribal Governance and will help run the new center.
Lead image: Indigenous fire practitioners train with nonprofit Maqlaqs Gee'tkni. “We’re going to manage the land in a traditional way,” said Derek Kimbol, Klamath Modoc tribal member, founder of Maqlaqs Gee'tkni. (Photo courtesy of Derek Kimbol)