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Native American Communities Affected by Climate Change Plan for the Future

July 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Native Americans from Maine to Washington state convened for a conference this week at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Their goal: To discuss the effects of climate change on tribal communities. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: There’s another big meeting taking place in Washington this week. Native populations from around the U.S. convened at a conference on the impacts of climate change.

Hari Sreenivasan has that story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Our series on Coping With Climate Change has included multiple examples of how Native American populations are feeling the impacts and adapting.

We took you to coastal Louisiana, where tribal people are experiencing relative sea level rise in a very personal way. Their islands are shrinking and their burial grounds will soon be underwater.

The Quileute Tribe in Washington State, whose reservation was down to its last square mile, until they recently won rights to move to higher ground in the nearby national park.

Last night, we showed you how the Swinomish Tribe is trying to plan ahead and adapt to faster glacial snowmelts, higher stream temperatures, and changes in fishing grounds.

Changes are being felt by Native peoples throughout the country, and it was the reason for the First Stewards conference at the Smithsonian Museum.

We sat down with a few representatives.

Joining me here at the National Museum of the American Indian to tell us how their communities are coping with climate change are Micah McCarty from the Makah Tribe in Washington, Kitty Simonds from Hawaii, Mike Williams from the Akiak Native Community in Alaska, and Jeff Mears from the Oneida Tribe in Wisconsin.

Thanks so much for joining us.

MIKE WILLIAMS, Akiak Native Community: Thank you.

JEFF MEARS, Oneida Nation: Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, in your lifetimes, what have you seen change, perhaps in the areas that you have grown up? What’s something that you can point to and say that this is what it used to be when I was a child and here’s what the situation is today?

KITTY SIMONDS, Western Pacific Regional Fishery Council: I guess for me, growing up in Hawaii, the changes were really with the fish population.

We used to have much larger fish, different species. They seem to have changed. And I’m not sure whether it’s climate change or the visitors feeding our fish food that they shouldn’t be feeding them. So, for me, it’s that, because we always ate fish at least three or four times a week.

So that has been a large change. And the fishermen have to go farther and farther out to catch fish, in fact outside the 200-mile zone. And we have fewer fish around the coral reefs. Those actually were the best eating fish for us. We would love to — they were small, and we would fry them up, and they were delicious. Well, there are very few of those left.

MICAH MCCARTY, Makah Nation: OK, I’m 41 years old. And I have probably been to at least 39 Makah Days. Makah Days is our celebration annually at the end of summer.

And it always rained on Sunday. And one year, in 2006, in my first term on council, we had a drought that lasted towards the end of October. And we had to declare a state of emergency. But what the real concern was, was the watershed that supports the salmon hatchery.

And we had some very serious concerns with our biologists that the eggs in the returning runs might not be viable by the time the rains came. And that was the first time I had ever heard of something like that happening.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mike Williams, you have been through more than, what, a dozen Iditarods, 14 Iditarods. You have literally seen Alaska in a way that probably most humans will never get a chance to see. What are the differences that you have seen in your lifetime?

MIKE WILLIAMS: In 50 years of my observation, I have seen a lot of changes, from cold winters that — and ice that was very safe into thinning of ice.

And we had to move in some cases further north. Our hunters are going out further. Like, in Shishmaref, they are having to go 90 miles out to find ice to get their walrus and their seals. And they’re having to risk more going out further into the sea. And when the weather hits and then that’s where the loss of life occurs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jeff Mears, you’re sort of representing all of those inland nations and inland communities that might not have these same sort of fishing or coastal problems, but what are some of the impacts on climate change in an inland tribe such as yours?

JEFF MEARS: So, since I have been here, the stories that we hear in Alaska, it’s immediate and heartbreaking, what they’re going through.

What we’re looking at is planning for the future. So the tribe, the Oneida Tribe in Wisconsin, like any other government, provides a lot of services. We have a police department, a school, a health center. We have a wastewater treatment plant.

Like most governments, we have to learn to plan to design our infrastructure to withstand the impacts of climate change. In our case, it’s going to be similar to the weather we have seen lately, with increased hot weather events, precipitation much heavier in shorter periods of time.

And we have seen what can happen in Duluth recently, where actually a seal was flushed right out of the zoo. There’s 10 to 12 animals that drowned at the zoo because of a 10-inch rain event that happened over two days. Short-term rain events can be as powerful as hurricanes. And that’s what we will be looking at, to design our infrastructure to withstand those things.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Micah, speaking of a little bit about that adaptation, how are coastal communities along — in Washington state or on the West Coast preparing and adapting? How are they trying to synchronize some of what they have already known for hundreds of years with modern-day science?

MICAH MCCARTY: Well, I think one of the biggest challenges is just realizing what’s happening, because our tribal communities and our natural resource divisions that do co-management with the state and the feds.

As Wisconsin is working to adapt, it’s like we have to come up for air and look around on how we’re going to start strategizing our adaptation. But my concern is, looking forward into the future, what can we do about ocean acidification? What can we do to really create a safe haven and integrate some of the technologies that are replicated around the world and become perhaps a model that other coastal communities worldwide can continue to depend on the ocean?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kitty Simonds, you probably know about ocean acidification and coral reef bleaching and perhaps even the introduction of foreign species and what sort of interplay that has.

KITTY SIMONDS: Yes, in terms of the coral reefs, you know, you can replant them. And that’s the — you know, because of the coral bleaching, they’re going to have to think of ways of replanting the coral someplace else around the island.

And they do thrive. So that is one of the solutions in terms of the coral reefs. They’re very important to the islanders because of — the fish that live around the coral reefs are the fish that the islanders eat. So, once that goes away, the fish goes away, they lose their culture.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mike Williams, so some of these tribes are able to move inland. But that’s not a cheap proposition to try and pick up your entire village or your way of life and move inland. What happens to these communities when there isn’t that money? Do these tribal people scatter?

MIKE WILLIAMS: The village of Newtok (ph) is beginning to move.

And it’s a slow process. And the communities are having mixed feelings about moving from where they were born. And where I was born, our old house was on the river, and it fell in. But we’re having to move further inland. And the infrastructure is very expensive.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jeff Mears, help put this in some economic perspective. For a tribe like yours, trying to plan for these changes to the climate, as it changes and the types of things that you have to plan for in your community, what does that cost you? And ultimately what does that cost the local state or federal governments?

JEFF MEARS: So, some of the stuff we have talked about is obviously the infrastructure.

There will be a certain cost that is going to make sure, for example, our wastewater treatment plant is designed — it’s already in place now — to make sure that we protect it from water that could wipe it out. There’s examples of infrastructure like wastewater treatment plants being inundated with water, cryptosporidium outbreaks on public health.

The costs just keep getting escalated if you don’t do anything. So the up-front costs I think are far less than what it will be if we don’t do anything.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Jeff Mears from Wisconsin, Mike Williams from Alaska, Kitty Simonds from Hawaii, and Micah McCarty from Washington state, thanks so much for joining us.

MICAH MCCARTY: Thank you.

MIKE WILLIAMS: Thank you.

JEFF MEARS: Thank you.

KITTY SIMONDS: Thank you, and aloha.

JEFFREY BROWN:And you can find all our climate reports on the Coping With Climate Change page on our website.