Source: Composite image from FEMA’s National Tribal Strategy (August 2022).

Respecting Tribal Emergency Management

Emergency management professionals tend to exhibit what they routinely advocate within their respective communities – resilience. As the field of emergency management continues to evolve, its leaders and their organizations must adjust and adapt to more than just response scenarios. They are expected to speak to the still lingering questions of who emergency managers are, what they do, and how they are defined. The daily bureaucratic obstacles they overcome can impress even the most seasoned policymaker. As that evolution continues and daily adaptations occur, nowhere is resilience more evident than in tribal emergency management. 

A Bright and Unique Light in Emergency Management 

Tribal emergency management, in the truest sense, fits into a classification all by itself. Most practitioners place emergency management into a category of either a domestic government function (e.g., federal, state, local) or a somewhat parallel component of government (e.g., health care and higher education). The former is tied to federally driven policy and doctrine that informs everything from response structures and the recovery process to grant eligibility and mitigation protocols. The latter, health care and higher education, touch the realm of the former. Still, these functions largely adhere to a federal policy outside the traditional emergency management scope that emanates from the Robert T. Stafford Act, as amended. Those lines may sometimes blur, but practitioners in both areas will often disclose that they are still characterized by bright lines within the Joint Commission Standards and The Jeanne Clery Act

Community resilience for a tribal emergency manager means more than just protecting lives and property. It also involves preserving cultures and heritage. 

Federally recognized tribes in the United States and outlying territories are now appropriately identified within the government function of emergency management, commonly referred to as state, tribal, territorial, and local (STTL). However, for Alaska Natives and American Indians that comprise those federally recognized tribes, their emergency management roles and responsibilities are decidedly more complicated, and their story has not yet been fully recognized or shared. 

A Foundation for Future Relations 

Currently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its leadership are guiding federal efforts to recognize the value, distinct cultures, and inherent sovereignty of the nation’s 574 tribal nations. FEMA has decisively led the federal effort toward establishing solid and long-lasting government-to-government relationships with tribes. The current administration, led by Administrator Deanne Criswell, has furthered that effort by establishing a 2022-2026 Strategic Plan that mirrors many of the shared values and commonalities observed between diverse tribal communities – values that tribal emergency management has been focusing on for years. In addition, FEMA released its first-ever Tribal National Strategy on August 18, 2022.  

With FEMA’s strategic focus on equity as a foundation of emergency management, climate resilience, and a prepared nation, tribal emergency management and its dedicated professionals inherently stake claim to a strong and experienced posture (a voice) that can positively contribute to achieving these goals. Collectively, there has been a consistent push in tribal emergency management for acknowledgment of its distinctiveness. Tribal emergency managers possess a foundational skillset that replicates the skills of their non-tribal colleagues in cities, counties, and states. However, they also must bridge the gap between the federal- and state-prescribed doctrine and the indigenous worldview that informs emergency management within their tribes. As a result, they have no choice but to work within two unique systems. This balance between systems drives what sets them apart. 

Tribal emergency managers frequently strive to adhere to the principles that define an evolving emergency management field, but they also must adhere to their distinct cultural traditions and protocols. These distinctions, at times, can create differences in approach between tribal and non-tribal emergency management. The Smithsonian’s  Heritage Emergency National Task Force (HENTF) and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) both emphasize, as an example, the high value placed on preserving “culture and heritage” during a response, as opposed to protecting “property” as a high priority in non-tribal community response. In addition, during a disaster’s response and recovery phases, the tribal emergency manager must navigate significantly more federal agencies than their non-tribal colleagues. 

During a disaster, when city or county emergency managers routinely work within the Stafford Act system, which centers on or near their state and FEMA, tribal emergency managers must perform within or parallel to that system. However, because of the complexities contained within 200-plus years of federal Indian law and post-colonization policies, they must frequently work with other federal agencies as well, including but not limited to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Indian Health Services (IHS), and Department of Housing and Urban Development – Office of Native American Programs (ONAP). At times, there can be an exhaustingly long list of agencies involved. Consequently, during disaster response and long into recovery, tribal emergency managers must straddle both worlds and interact more intensely with the federal government than their non-tribal colleagues. The NCAI testified to these challenges in 2019

Respect and Resilience 

In my capacity as lead faculty for the National Emergency Management Advanced Academy (NEMAA), I continue to facilitate conversations with tribal and non-tribal emergency managers  about how tribal emergency management has been historically treated as a single “project” from time to time, and not as an emergency management “program.”

– John Pennington

The current presidential administration and FEMA are addressing how tribes are treated in the federal grant process for emergency management. For too long, federally recognized tribes have sought equal footing with states in how emergency management grants are structured and awarded. The stories and testimonies from tribal emergency management leaders are numerous. Still, they consistently revolve around tribes communicating their belief that they are treated as second-class governments, subservient to states, and often at the mercy of how states choose to award (if at all) grants like the Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG). 

Often, it is the lone tribal emergency manager that has had to fight this specific grant battle, and often in concert with another tribal emergency manager or an emergency management association like the National Tribal Emergency Management Council (NTEMC). Finally, they may be on the cusp of achieving part of the equity referenced in the FEMA Strategic Plan. 

John Pennington

Professor John E. Pennington is the deputy director of the Center for Arctic Security & Resilience (CASR) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). He is a former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region X director and has over 28 years of emergency management and public policy experience. He works with the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope (ICAS) as they build their regional tribal emergency management system and nine emergency operation centers across the Arctic Slope of Alaska. He will be defending his Ph.D. in Indigenous Studies in spring 2023 (“Sovereign Disasters: How Alaska’s Tribes Participate in Government-to-Government Relations in a Post-Disaster Environment”).



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