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Federal Indian Tribes and Disaster Response and Preparedness

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By Ariele Dashow, 3L law student at Stetson University College of law, and disaster law extern for Equal Justice Works’ Disaster Resilience Program.

Throughout adolescence, parents spend a great deal of time teaching their children who to call in case of an emergency. By age six, most children know how to call the police, the fire department, or even animal control. With age, our need for information may expand, depending on location: hurricane evacuation routes to take, where the closest protective shelter is located, and how to respond during any kind of disaster. This information may be common sense to the average individual living in high-risk areas, but for members of federally recognized tribes living on reservations, accessing aid for disasters isn’t so simple.

Under the United States Constitution, federally recognized tribes are considered “domestic dependent nations,” holding a type of “tribal sovereignty” within their own courts systems and governing bodies. These internal governments and councils dictate tribes’ relationships with local, state, and federal governments and their corresponding agencies and disaster response services. The most important agency recognized by the tribes is the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which has acted as the mediator, negotiator, and representative for the tribes within the government for the past 185 years.

This long-standing relationship with the government and the ability of tribes to create their own government has left disaster response surprisingly more complicated for tribes than for others. The title of “domestic dependent nation” has wedged tribes in a position with more sovereignty over their land and people than states have, but less than the federal government. Since tribes possess their own government, disaster response and preparedness starts from within the tribe, with aide coming from tribal police and resources. These resources are very limited in funding and manpower, which occasionally forces tribes to leave disasters unattended. Despite representation by the BIA, the tribes do not have as concrete of a relationship with other federal response agencies as States do.

This long-standing relationship with the government and the ability of tribes to create their own government has left disaster response surprisingly more complicated for tribes than for others.

Ariele Dashow /
Extern for Equal Justice Works' Disaster Resilience Program

When internal responses fail, the tribes do have access to and are encouraged to use response measures and preparedness resources put in place by federal agencies. Many of these resources, such as pre-disaster mitigation plans, emergency operation plans, and other training modules are readily available for the tribes to engage in. The Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP) under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently reported on trainings they provide to tribes and their members on disaster preparedness. A recent seminar provided basic medical training for mass casualty incidents. Ronald Spang, the Disaster and Emergency Service Coordinator for the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, attended this seminar and spoke about how the rurality of his tribe and many others impacts their ability to respond to emergencies:

“The majority of Native American communities are small and located in rural areas. We do not have access to this type of training, and I know all of the tribes here will benefit. I rarely see emergency simulations that reinforce the importance of practicing our plans or implementing new plans if they are needed.”

I rarely see emergency simulations that reinforce the importance of practicing our plans or implementing new plans if they are needed.

Ronald Spang /
Disaster and Emergency Service Coordinator for the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation

It is also important for Native American communities to have access to legal services in the aftermath of a disaster. All indigenous peoples and federally recognized tribes have access to the Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC); with offices in Montana and Washington, D.C., this non-profit organization centralizes all legal and non-legal resources and news for American Indians and indigenous groups. Through this organization, everyone is encouraged to learn and support their indigenous friends and neighbors, as well as take action in the legal battles and disasters tribes face. Additionally, the National Indian Law Library (NILL) offers direct links to sources, guides, and lawyer directories for tribes to use in times of disaster. NILL is a great academic resource for those looking to learn more about the history and current practice of Native American Law. For those interested in Native Indian Law or in need of legal aid, their website can be found here. The ILRC and NILL are regularly updated with new projects, resources, law news, and ways to show support to different tribes being affected by disaster. Attorneys who are interested in offering legal aid to native tribes should also brush up on the laws and contacts of local tribes. Visiting a tribe’s tribe website is another great way to get involved—these websites will guide individuals towards tribal leaders, employment opportunities, important historical facts, and laws.

As recognized citizens of the United States, tribes can seek aide from federal agencies and organizations, such as FEMA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the American Red Cross, as well as other state and local response teams. The CDP offers more than 40 free courses in disaster response and preparedness to tribal nation members, at no extended cost to their members and globally-accessible preparedness training via their YouTube Channel. FEMA seeks to bridge the gaps between tribal nations and federal agency aide to make response and preparedness more accessible for tribes and their members. Additionally, online trainings are meant to encourage communication and relationships between tribes and local resources that would be able to provide aide during disasters.

When in the face of a disaster, it is important to know who you can turn to in your time of need. The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is committed to ensuring that all disaster survivors have equal access to recovery, legal services, and information to help communities prepare for and withstand future disasters.

For more information about the Disaster Resilience Program, please visit here.

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