Learn About Tribal Nations Training Week from FEMA’s National Tribal Affairs Advocate Kelbie Kennedy

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FEMA's Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) is hosting the ninth-annual Tribal Nations Training Week March 9-16 at its Anniston, Alabama, campus. This event is designed to strengthen emergency preparedness capabilities and build relationships among Tribal Nations and their partners and is part of our agency’s efforts to help create a culture of preparedness for everyone we serve.

We asked FEMA National Tribal Affairs Advocate Kelbie Kennedy a few questions about Tribal Nations Training Week and how it helps Tribal Nations strengthen resilience and preparedness efforts.

What makes Tribal Nations Training Week special?

First, this week is special because the agenda is not driven by FEMA; it’s built by Tribal Nations for Tribal Nations. After each year we bring in a focus group of the previous year’s tribal students to help us set the theme and agenda for the next year. The work we’ve done to support what the Tribal Nations want to focus on helps everyone feel more invested in the classes and evening events. Every community wants to be heard, and those tribal students who come help us improve the training for all Tribal Nations and encourage their fellow Nations to attend.

This is the largest gathering of Tribal emergency management staff in the country. All personnel working in an emergency response capacity and affiliated with one or more Tribal Nations, the Indian Health Service (IHS) and those who work directly with Tribal Nations can attend.

There's nowhere else in the United States where we’ll have this many Tribal Emergency Managers all in one place at one time. We have about 45 tribal executives attending the week as well, and we're very excited about any tribal leadership coming to learn more and support their teams.

And we are going to make sure that we don't just talk at tribal students and that we include time for open discussions and sharing of tribal expertise. I sat in on several of the courses last year, and many of the teachers did a great job of including their student’s unique perspectives.

Why is this event important for tribal leaders and emergency managers?

We hold this training session for tribal leaders and any staff from a Tribal Nation. So, that could be your emergency manager, the head of your environmental department, or maybe the head of tribal communications. Tribal leaders, tribal emergency managers, and tribal staff really should be attending this training week to see the scope of issues they should have in mind to be prepared before, during and after disasters.

When a tribal leader comes into office like a new governor or a new president, it could be day one and suddenly they're dealing with a disaster declaration – and that has happened to tribal leaders. So, the importance of having them and their teams attend this training is to really help them get the knowledge they need to know what FEMA resources are available to support them and save lives.

How will this training help FEMA help Tribal Nations?

They should leave the training week with a better knowledge of:

  • The pre disaster resources they can use to build capacity and resilience. 
  • The tribal disaster declaration process and how to request a declaration from the President. 
  • What recovery processes looks like post disaster. 
  • What grant opportunities are available.
  • Who their Tribal Affairs points of contact in their FEMA Region is that can help them get additional resources.
  • Who they can connect with from our headquarters on the Tribal Affairs team.

What they should expect to take away from the week is a large amount of knowledge that will help them make the best decisions for their Tribal Nations and their tribal community members when they leave the training. They will also walk away with new relationships with fellow Tribal Nations that they can learn from and support. We want tribal leaders and emergency managers to feel that they can handle emergencies and have the knowledge to be successful when they are called to act.

What will be some of the highlights from the week?

Last year we hosted a government-to-government listening sessions with Tribal Nations to gather input on our Tribal Declarations Guidance since Tribal Nations have the ability to go to the President for their own disaster declarations – as opposed to just going through a state – to find out what in the current Guidance works, what didn’t work, and where we need to improve as we update the policy. We learned a lot in terms of what we need to change in the Guidance, but also learned where we need to focus on improving our recovery policies overall, what challenges Nations were running into at the regional level or programmatic challenges. We talked from 7 PM to 10:30 PM and only stopped because the bus drivers needed to get home!

It was helpful getting that direct and honest feedback from Tribal Nations on our policies and programs across the agency and learning how we can improve them. We will be presenting an update on last year’s tribal listening session at our listening session this year.  So, we can tell them, ‘Hey, we heard all of these things last year. Here's how we made progress or here's where there is work that still needs to be done.’ We want to ensure that we’re being accountable to tribal leaders so they continue to hold engage with us and hold us accountable to our treaty and trust responsibilities.

Could you discuss how FEMA has used this event to improve its support to Tribal Nations?

During our listening session last year Tribal Nations told us that, ‘We like the work that you're doing through tribal consultations to improve FEMA’s Tribal Declarations Guidance policy, but you also need to host consultations for the Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide (PAPPG).’ So, this year’s listening session will be on the PAPPG, which is the policy that focuses on public assistance recovery resources. The majority of Tribal Nations actually go through public assistance – as opposed to individual assistance – when they get a disaster declaration.

Another thing we have done on the FEMA front is creating a tribal set-aside in our Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program. We weren't required to make a tribal set aside for BRIC, and we got $55 million to Tribal Nations last year because we created one. We've also supported Tribal Nations when they have come back and told us they want to focus on nature-based solutions and traditional methods in their recovery efforts.

Tribal Nations are likely to feel the impacts of climate change and at a greater level. What can FEMA and Tribal Nations learn from each other?

Tribal Nations have been doing emergency management work well before the United States was the United States. They've been tackling climate change with their own methods, utilizing what's known as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). They've been doing things like controlled burns to stave off catastrophic wildfires and increase biological diversity, along with other traditional methods that vary from Nation to Nation but have been utilized for generations to build climate resilience.

We want to make sure that we're acknowledging Tribal Nation’s traditional practices, asking how we can be respectful and then asking the Nation proactively, how can we incorporate your knowledge into our work as FEMA, that's not appropriating your knowledge or taking advantage of it? Being supportive by funding tribal initiatives and giving money and resources to actually utilize their traditional ecological knowledge is the first step, like with Santa Clara Pueblo. To learn more read A Tribe’s Journey to Prepare, Mitigate, and Recover.

It's up to us as the federal government to recognize that traditional wisdom, support it – and learn from it.

When we started, you mentioned that this is a significant gathering for Tribal Nation leaders and emergency managers; it sounds like a great opportunity to build relationships.

Knowledge is power, so we want everyone to take advantage of the evening sessions after classes are done to spend some time with their fellow students. We’ve got a great Recovery Zone on the CDP campus where people come together to socialize and play games. There are places to go to dinner in town, but we want everyone to take time out of their day to learn and to have fun with their fellow students outside of class to build those relationships. Because at the end of the day when a disaster hits a Tribal Nation, they're not calling FEMA first. They're calling another Tribal Nation first. And so those relationships will be key for them to get information that they need when they need it most.

How can Tribal Nation emergency managers get this training if they cannot get to the CDP event?

There will be virtual tribal training week the following days after Tribal Nations Training Week ends. So, if there are tribal leaders or tribal staff that miss out on the in-person event, we will be hosting training virtually so they can get the certifications they need. They just need to register online to attend.

Kelbie Kennedy

National Tribal Affairs Advocate Kelbie Kennedy is the first tribal political appointee in FEMA’s history, and she works to ensure that our agency is implementing its treaty and trust responsibilities to Tribal Nations.  Kennedy is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and was born and raised on her Tribal Nation’s reservation in Southeast Oklahoma. She received her J.D. and certificate in American Indian Law from the University of Oklahoma, College of Law.

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