According to the U.S. Census, as of 2021, there were an estimated 7.2 million people in the United States who self-identified as American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) alone or in combination with one or more other racial or ethnic categories. This group of American Indians and Alaska Natives comprise 2.2 percent of the total U.S. population. The 10 states with the largest AI/AN populations include: Arizona, California, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, North Carolina, Alaska, Washington, South Dakota, and New York.1 There are 574 federally-recognized tribes in the U.S. as well as an additional 100 state recognized tribes. There are also tribes that are not federally- or state-recognized but that share a common history and cultural identity.
At present, AI/AN areas comprise approximately 764,000 square miles of the United States. Focusing on AI/AN populations and areas in terms of disaster preparedness and mitigation is crucial due to the sheer size of land that may otherwise remain vulnerable. Perhaps, even more importantly, there are many historical and contemporary social and economic factors that intersect and have rendered Indigenous populations especially at risk to disaster.
Recent research has shown that the dispossession and forced migration to marginal lands has placed Indigenous populations at higher risk to climate-fueled disasters and environmental hazards.2 High rates of poverty, geographic and social isolation, cultural marginalization, and language barriers have all been identified as structural challenges that heighten the risk of Indigenous populations to natural hazards as well as to illness and death in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. These disaster-related losses are worsened by a lack of pre-disaster planning and preparedness action. For example, a 2016 study by Carter found that only 20% of federally-recognized tribes have FEMA-approved disaster mitigation plans.3 Those without such plans in place are ineligible for post-disaster assistance, which is particularly devastating given that many tribal areas are at serious risk of a variety of natural hazards and have experienced repetitive disaster losses. Indeed, over the past four decades, 120 major disasters have affected tribal areas, according to FEMA disaster declaration records. The number of disasters has increased steadily over time, with twice as many disasters occurring between 2010-2019 as occurred between 2000-2009.