Climate Change Strikes Especially Hard Blow to Native Americans

BY Saskia de Melker and Rebecca Jacobson  July 19, 2012 at 3:42 PM EDT


On Thursday’s NewsHour, NewsHour correspondent Hari Sreenivasan moderated a panel discussion on how Native American tribes are coping with climate change.

The panel included four native leaders representing their communities at the First Stewards symposium:

When we began our NewsHour coverage on communities across the United States coping with climate change, we didn’t plan to focus on Native American tribes. But we soon realized that indigenous communities are on the frontlines of America’s climate-related dangers.

Native Americans make up about one percent of the United States population, but they manage more than 95 million acres of land. Their reservations lie in some of the most diverse ecosystems in the country, ranging from Alaska to the coasts of Florida. That diversity – both geographically and culturally – makes them a sort of demographic microcosm of the United States. That means the climate shifts that they are feeling now could give clues to what other Americans can expect might see in the near future.

Recent studies, including those from the National Wildlife Federation , the EPA, and the USDA, highlight the disproportionate vulnerability of tribes to climate-related hazards such as coastal erosion, rising temperatures and extreme weather. Tribes depend on the land and natural resources for their culture and livelihood. What’s more, reservations often have high rates of poverty, unemployment and a lack of resources that would allow them to adapt to long-term climate changes.

We’ve reported on how rising seas threaten tribal land along the Louisiana coast. We’ve looked at the impact of a depleted salmon population on Northwest tribes. And we recently visited Washington state’s Quileute tribe, which has fought to reclaim land threatened by floods and sea level rise.

Relocating to adapt to environmental threats or disasters declines is not always a viable option for tribes, both because of the connection to their origins but also because they may lack the resources needed to move, said Larry Wasserman, environmental policy manager for the Swinomish tribe in the Pacific Northwest.

“Rather than being a mobile society that can move away from climatic changes, they need to think about how do they stay on this piece of ground and continue to live the lifestyle that they’ve been able to live, and how can their great-great-great-grandchildren do that,” Wasserman said.

Tony Foster, chairman of the Quileute Nation said that native people are in tune with the climate of their homelands and know early on when the balance of the ecosystem has been disrupted. “The Quileute has been here for over 10,000 years,” he said. “We know the layout of the land, and we know the conditions of our environment.”

“Traditional values teach us to be good ancestors,” added Micah McCarty, chairman of the Makah Tribe in Neah Bay, Washington. “Future generations are going to look back at us and say, ‘What did you do about this?’”

That forward thinking is necessary for planning for climate change which is defined over at least a 30-year range and is often modeled on time scales looking more than hundreds of years into the future.

And Jeff Mears, member and environmental area manager for the Oneida tribe in Wisconsin, said it’s important that the tribes are defined by more than their past.

Because many tribes have a unique status as sovereign nations, they can also implement their own initiatives and models for managing their environment. The Swinomish tribe, for example, has developed its own climate adaptation plan.

Tribal governments also want more say at the federal level when it comes to addressing in climate change.

There needs to be more “recognition from western science of the value of traditional ecological knowledge,” McCarty said. “So we need to look at how we can better inform the government of what tribal leaders bring to the table in regard to responding to climate change.”

And that’s the aim of a gathering to be held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. this week. The First Stewards symposium will bring together hundreds of indigenous tribal elders, leaders, and scientists from across America to discuss how best to confront past, present, and future adaptation to climate change.

See all of our coverage of how Native American communities are coping with climate change:

Making Sense Native Lands Wash Away as Sea Levels Rise
Native Americans’ tribal lands along the Louisiana coast are washing away as sea levels rise and marshes sink. We report from Isle de Jean Charles, a community that is slowly disappearing into the sea.

Making Sense The Northwest’s Salmon People Face a Salmon-less Future
For Northwest tribes, fishing for salmon is more than a food source, it’s a way of life. Now the climate may push the fish towards extinction. Together with KCTS 9 and EarthFix, NewsHour recently visited the Swinomish Indian reservation to see how they are coping.

Making Sense Climate Change Threatens the ‘Twilight’ Tribe
Washington’s Quileute tribe, thrust into the spotlight by the “Twilight” series,’ has been caught in a struggle to reclaim land threatened by floods and sea level rise. Together with KCTS9 and EarthFix, NewsHour visited the tribe to hear their story.