By Glenn C. Zaring
A tribal council member and dear friend recently asked for help developing a family disaster preparedness plan. It seems her tribe no longer supports this activity or even provides information on how to prepare for problems like natural disasters and man-made issues. True, her most likely challenges are heavy snow events and forest fires, but the result is the same. Disruption of their lives.
Having worked on this activity for years for tribes and others, it made me reconsider what is really needed when the problem comes up. When you narrow the issue down, it is one of communication.
With all of the war talk going on internationally and severe weather events, it is a good time to look at the challenge of communication within our tribal nations and how they can best take care of their people should hostilities break out or more natural disasters occur. One of the best at addressing this issue has been the National Tribal Emergency Management Council (NTEMC).
For years, this organization, headquartered in the Northwest, has taken a proactive-approach to raising concerns and addressing the needs of affiliate tribal nations as they work with federal, state and local agencies. With more than 80 percent of the tribal nations located in the west, the headquarters is better able to bring training, services and exercises to a larger majority of the tribes in a more efficient and cost-effective manner
Unfortunately, many tribal nations have not engaged in this issue for many reasons, such as lack of staff, lack of funding, and lack of understanding of the important realm of emergency management. Oftentimes, we hear, “we’ll work on it when the need arises.” However, one only needs to look to Texas, the southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean to see that without proper planning, waiting until the need arises could be too late.
While serving as the public affairs officer for NTEMC, we were constantly working with non-member tribes, trying to convince them to join us in the fight for effective communication, preparation and coordination for all indigenous peoples.
The NTEMC has made great strides in its efforts as have a few other tribal organizations. However, with no offense intended, we are a long way from being ready and able to respond effectively when needed. The same can be said for most cities and states in the United States, but that is not an excuse. We owe our people more and need to step up to the plate now, while we still can.
This leads to our current challenge. We can and should continue to pursue positive relationships with response agencies and groups. However, we need to look to ourselves, our tribes and our nations. What is difficult and uncomfortable to recognize is that if/when the ‘disaster’ strikes our land, we are pretty much going to be on our own for some time.
When we are hit by major floods or other life-threatening events, we as leaders need to be able to communicate and reach out to our people. This must be done quickly and efficiently. FEMA and other agencies do not know our lands, our people or our nations and they will apply cookie-cutter solutions that might work for some city somewhere, but which will be totally inappropriate for getting out to our sheep camps, fishing camps, hogans and pueblos.
As was told to my council friend, “You need to put a plan in place now. You need to understand the basic needs of your family. Think about how to have them come together at one place. How are you going to feed them? What will they drink? Where are they going to go to the bathroom? What basic medicines will you need? How will you house them and keep them warm? How will you stay in touch with the outside world so that you will know what is going on out there? How will you keep their spirits up? How will you protect them?”
Most importantly, “How will you do all of this for weeks and possibly months?”
Ask the questions now and honestly start working on the answers. Communicate, plan at least on the base level and realize that doing so means that you, your family and your tribe have a better chance of survival than most people around you.
Glenn C. Zaring (Cherokee) is the former public affairs director of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, based in Manistee, Michigan, and owner of Tribal Public Affairs Advisor (TPA2). He may be reached at email@example.com.