Climate change and land use change pose major challenges for the world in general, but they can be existential threats to Indigenous peoples whose identities are defined by deep connections to specific places. In eastern North Carolina, which occupies part of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, tribal communities have lived for centuries in close relationship with specific landscapes that include blackwater streams, riverine wetlands, and interstitial uplands. Here we review some of these relationships with special attention to the roles of water and wetlands in shaping the histories and cultures of present-day tribal nations in eastern North Carolina. These nations include, among others, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, which is the largest American Indian tribe in the eastern United States. We identify major threats from climate change and land use change to tribally significant waters and wetlands in present-day Lumbee territory and in the territories of their Indigenous neighbors. Our methods include deep relationship-building with tribal communities (individuals, governments, organizations), hydrological modeling using the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT), and collaborative fieldwork involving measurements of surface water quantity and quality.
Results from distributed hydrological modeling, stream gaging, and water quality samples highlight some of the threats to tribal communities in the Coastal Plain from land use change and climate change. Modeling results for the Lumbee River show that expected changes to flow regimes by mid-century will lead to shifts in the frequency of riparian wetland inundation, and that these changes will be driven primarily by expected land-use change rather than expected climate change. Climate change, however, is still expected to exacerbate negative impacts of land use change – which is largely driven by food and energy industries in the Coastal Plain. Interactions between climate change and land use change will further degrade water quality and the integrity of natural ecosystems in tribal territories, as evidenced by biological contamination observed in surface waters during recent, hurricane-driven flood events. We briefly discuss what impacts could mean for Lumbees and other Indigenous peoples - now and in the future.