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Indigenous insight

Climate scientists and tribal leaders share perspectives
on a warming world

by Bob Henson

Nisqually leader Billy Frank Jr. delivered the
keynote address at the Planning for
Seven Generations meeting.
(Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

“Our world has really changed in my 77 years.” So says Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually leader and winner of the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism. He has chaired the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission since 1986, working to manage dwindling salmon populations on behalf of 19 western Washington tribes.

Frank and other Native American Indians and Alaska Natives discussed the changes they’ve observed in climate and ecosystems, and voiced their concerns about preserving their communities and their connections to Earth, at a unique conference in Boulder on 19–21 March. The meeting, dubbed Planning for Seven Generations—a nod to the Great Law of the Iroquois—approached climate change from the vantage points of both indigenous knowledge and western science.

At the conference, which was sponsored by UCAR/NCAR and the American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group, more than 100 participants hunted for common ground of understanding, adapting to, and mitigating climate change, with a focus on American Indian lands and expertise.

Daniel Wildcat
Daniel Wildcat.

One of the most visible leaders working with tribal communities on climate change awareness and education is Daniel Wildcat (Haskell Indian Nations University), author of the upcoming book Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge. He joined James Rattling Leaf (Sinte Gleska University) and UCAR’s Raj Pandya to organize Planning for Seven Generations.

“We’ve just started,” Wildcat told attendees near the end of the meeting. He called on scientists to consider “indigenous realism”—which is based on the interconnectedness and unity of the Earth system and its components—as they examine climate change. Wildcat noted the disinclination of American Indians to claim universal validity for their way of seeing, adding that each tribe has pieces to add to the climate puzzle—“truths that emerged out of their long histories and inter­actions with particular landscapes and seascapes on this planet.”

Daniel Wildcat
Elisabeth Holland.

NCAR’s Elisabeth Holland and Caspar Ammann discussed how scientists study the Earth system, along with recent findings on climate change. Calling herself an “elder” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Holland said she was “born a scientist, like every one of you. That’s how we taught ourselves to talk and walk. . . . We’re critical thinkers. We like to argue a lot. We’re not satisfied with one set of data.”

Ground truths

Whiteman and colleagues have spent years conducting field work in other natural depressions across North America and Europe, hoping that sheltered and simplified geography can shed light on basic aspects of the boundary layer. The problem is that most basins aren’t very symmetric. Valleys or gullies along their rims allow surface air to enter and disrupt the inversions.

Climate change stands to affect many native lands disproportionately. A number of tribes live in regions especially sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation, such as the deserts of the U.S. Southwest, the semiarid High Plains, and the boreal regimes in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Conference-goers cited the Arctic Council and its Arctic Climate Impact Assessment project as examples of a largely successful process that incorporates indigenous observations as well as scientific content.

Daniel Wildcat
Shannon McNeeley.

Shannon McNeeley, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and long-term NCAR visitor, described her extensive interdisciplinary field work in Alaska over the last five years. She cited a number of strengths in the merging of indigenous and scientific knowledge. “It can help challenge our assumptions or lead us to ask different questions . . . and it can help identify nuances masked by conventional data analysis,” said McNeeley. “Elders who’ve been living on the land for half a century or more have a really deep, sophisticated ­understanding and wisdom about their environment.”

In her own work, McNeeley finds that both food and energy security are both at risk for many Alaska Natives. Although the biggest temperature changes have appeared in winter and spring, her interviews with native residents showed that the smaller changes detected in early autumn have had major impacts on the critical yearly moose hunt. “The Koyukon [Athabascan] elders talk about how September weather is now what August conditions used to be, which is warmer and wetter.” McNeeley confirmed these trends in precipitation and temperature data from weather stations in the region. The shift in seasonal conditions, combined with other socioeconomic and biological variables, jeopardizes the seasonal river-based hunt as well as caring for the meat, McNeeley learned.

Adapting to changes like these—such as shifting the moose hunt later into autumn—isn’t as simple as it might seem for Alaska Natives who face a patchwork of legal jurisdictions and other constraints in space and time. Also, as pointed out by Merv Tano, a Denver lawyer and longtime advocate for tribal rights, subsistence-based lifestyles can become virtually unsustainable when population growth and climate change clash. “We just don’t have enough land. We’ve just got too many people,” said Tano, who serves as president of the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management.

However, several speakers emphasized that tribes can shift their ways of life in sync with climate as needed, as long they have the proper tools for doing so. “Elders tell me we’ve always undergone changes in the land and the Earth. We understand that. We’ve dealt with that as tribal people,” said Rattling Leaf, whose college is based on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. Today, the Sioux and their neighbors face a new challenge: severe depletion of the Ogallala aquifer beneath the High Plains after decades of commercial ranching and farming outside native lands. The loss of reliable access to water will make it harder for those tribes to adjust to an increased risk of drought in a warming world, said Rattling Leaf.

Next steps in community building

Daniel Wildcat
Raj Pandya.

UCAR’s Pandya hopes the community of UCAR members and affiliates can find new ways to involve tribal colleges. “We have 71 member institutions who all benefit from UCAR resources,” notes Pandya, “but surprisingly few of these are minority-serving institutions.” He’s overseeing the new UCAR Community Building Program, which aims to bring more institutions that serve underrepresented populations into the fold. Along with tribal colleges, these could include historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and the two-year colleges that serve many first-generation students.

One potential follow-up to Planning for Seven Generations would be a sequel held at a tribal college—“in your place, not our place,” as NCAR’s Elisabeth Holland put it. Pandya also envisions the possibility of co-developing curricula in indigenous environmental science, much like a program now in place at Northwest Indian College. There’s also the possibility of NCAR scientists visiting tribal colleges on an individual basis, where they would collaborate on basic research driven by tribal needs and tribal questions.

“Climate change is a hard problem,” Pandya says. “We need all the bright people and all the different perspectives we can get.”

As participants noted, researchers who want to draw on indigenous ­observations of climate and help tribes cope with climate change must work with ­sensitivity, given a centuries-long backdrop of exploitation by U.S. agencies and scientists. “I realized that I was being given a special privilege,” said McNeeley of her work with Alaska Natives. She has given back in ways that included hiring tribal students and donating materials to tribal archives.

Daniel Wildcat
Craig Fleener.

“There’s a tendency to keep [indigenous] knowledge close to our chests, mostly due to historical experience,” noted Craig Fleener, a wildlife biologist with the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments in Fort Yukon, Alaska. He added that much indigenous knowledge ends up getting patented by people they share it with, often without acknowledgment or reciprocity.

Changes on campus

Tribal colleges are a powerful nexus for the emerging relations between indigenous peoples and climate scientists. Based at Haskell and led by Wildcat, the American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group involves four other tribal schools—Sinte Gleska, Diné College, Northwest Indian College, and Salish Kootenai Tribal College—as well as the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas.

Wildcat and Rattling Leaf are also among the organizers of an annual Tribal College Forum held since 2001 and oriented around Earth science. Climate change was the theme in 2007 and will also be at the center of this year’s forum, to be held at Haskell on 12–14 August.

Global warming can face stiff competition for attention among students and tribal leaders who deal with multiple everyday stresses. Several speakers referred to “tribal college reality” in describing the struggles many students and faculty face, a theme other speakers echoed. “Some people may get frustrated that our tribal governments don’t seem to always be right up there on the frontlines of climate change,” said Wildcat. “But let’s be realistic. We’ve still got very human problems in many of our communities with our families, with our elders, with our children.”♦

On the Web

Planning for Seven Generations (includes conference webcasts)

UCAR Community Building Program

American Indian and Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group

Arctic Climate Impact Assessment



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